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Medvedev Visits As Uzbekistan Looks West...Again

Looking over his shoulder? Uzbek President Islam Karimov (right) and Medvedev at a recent regional gathering
Looking over his shoulder? Uzbek President Islam Karimov (right) and Medvedev at a recent regional gathering
Dmitry Medvedev is expected to stress bilateral cooperation as he makes his first state visit to Uzbekistan since becoming Russia's president in May.

But while Russian investment projects in the gas-rich Central Asian country are expected to be high on the agenda, many experts see cracks in the relationship that could place the focus on political maneuvering.

Following a storm of Western criticism that erupted after hundreds of antigovernment protesters were gunned down in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in mid-2005, Uzbekistan spurned the West and turned noticeably toward Russia for international partnership.

An air base at Karshi-Khanabad, in southeastern Uzbekistan, that had been leased to the U.S. military as part of the "war on terror" was abruptly closed. And in quick order Tashkent began entering Russian-led regional groups that they had previous shunned, including the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian companies were also offered lucrative investment projects in the gas-rich country.

But as Medvedev prepared to head to Tashkent for a two-day visit, there were indications that the two countries' cozy relationship could be experiencing some difficulties.

The development comes as the West has dropped some of the restrictions it had imposed after Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration refused to allow an independent inquiry into what has been called by some the "Andijon massacre." Europeans and Americans alike have also aggressively sought energy cooperation in Central Asia.

Zigs And Zags

In one example taken as a sign that Uzbekistan might be keen on closer cooperation with Brussels and Washington, Uzbekistan suspended its EurAsEC membership not long after the European Union decided in October to lift the limited sanctions it had imposed on Tashkent.

Russian Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin, speaking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service this week, described Karimov as an "unpredictable" leader who tries to toy with Moscow by seeking to improve his country's relationship with the West at the expense of its relationship with Russia.

Criticizing what he called Tashkent's "zigzag-style" foreign policy, Zatulin said Moscow wants to know exactly to what extent it can rely on Uzbekistan as a strategic partner.

"We would only welcome normalization of the Western European and Uzbek relationships," Zatulin said. "But it is not acceptable for us that, in regard to Russia, strategic partnership depends on the state of its affairs with a third party."

Zatulin predicted that during his trip to Tashkent, President Medvedev will want to hear first-hand Tashkent's reasons for leaving EurAsEC.

James Nixey, manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, added that Medvedev might also be interested in gauging Tashkent's commitment to other regional treaties and organizations, especially the CSTO.

Bargaining Power

Uzbek officials frequently point out that Uzbekistan is a self-reliant country that, unlike neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is not so dependent on other states for its survival. With over 27 million inhabitants, Uzbekistan is the most populous country in the region, and its wealth of natural gas gives it ample room for bargaining in international dealings.

But Uzbekistan is also a landlocked country that must depend on its neighbors for water supplies and for transit routes to export its energy resources.

Russia's network of gas pipelines linked to outside markets has helped foster a strong business relationship with Tashkent of late, as has the dependence of many of Uzbekistan's 6 million migrant workers on seasonal jobs in Russia.

So while Tashkent has shown signs that it is ready to expand its cooperation with the West, Medvedev will enter the discussions from a position of strength.

As for Washington and its current efforts to assess relations with countries that can provide assistance to the Afghanistan-centered "war on terror," Nixey warned that Uzbekistan's constant change of position should be noted.

"I think, after having been forced to evacuate from Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan, it is highly unlikely that the Americans will just go back -- I think they'll try somewhere different," Nixey said. "It seems to me that the Americans will be looking for places as launch pads, and Uzbekistan will not be one of them. It's just too unreliable. Although it may have its uses in terms of its proximity to Afghanistan and its border connection, I think they are looking elsewhere now."

Stakes Are High

Experts in Moscow and Tashkent say that the content of this week's talks between Medvedev and Karimov are unlikely to be made public.

But it is clear that Uzbekistan's natural gas will be one topic of discussion, especially in the wake of the recent Russia-Ukraine gas row and the fact that the Russian energy giants Gazprom and LUKoil are among Uzbekistan's main foreign investors.

"Uzbekistan is a strategically important region for LUKoil," LUKoil spokesman Vladimir Simakov told RFE/RL recently when asked about the extent of his company's dealings in Uzbekistan. "LUKoil has several big projects in the country worth billions of dollars, and the total amount of our investment is around $3 billion."

Simakov confirmed that bilateral cooperation on natural gas projects will be on Medvedev's agenda, while noting that LUKoil recently signed a long-term gas-exploration agreement with Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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