ROAR: “Russia will remain strategic ally for Uzbekistan”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Uzbekistan may improve relations between the two countries at a time when Tashkent is becoming a vital part of the supply network for Afghanistan.

Lavrov is visiting Uzbekistan to discuss bilateral relations with the country’s leadership. After the talks, the program of cooperation between the two countries for 2010 is expected to be signed. Uzbekistan has the fourth-largest turnover of CIS countries with Russia after Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

However, political relations have cooled recently, analysts say. Uzbekistan is strengthening its ties with the West while keeping a low profile in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The media stress that Karimov missed an informal CIS presidential summit in Almaty on December 19-20.

Vremya Novostey noted that new issues have appeared in the bilateral relations after a monument to the Soviet Soldier and busts of heroes of the Great Patriotic War were dismantled in Tashkent in November. The authorities have promised to return the busts after the restoration, but the monument “has been actually destroyed,” the paper said, citing its sources.

At the same time, Uzbekistan seeks Russia’s support in its arguments with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over water resources. Tashkent wants the same financial assistance as these countries receive from Russia, analysts say.

Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Institute of the CIS countries, believes that connections with Uzbekistan are “necessary” for Russia because “a lot of problems have amassed in the bilateral relations and the relations between Tashkent and countries of Central Asia.”

Moscow and Tashkent should discuss the trend towards “worsening relations” between Uzbekistan and its “cutting of strategic relations with Russia,” the analyst told Actualcomment.ru website.

The change of Tashkent’s policy came after it had recently joined the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), then left it, and refused to sign an agreement on the rapid reaction force in the framework of the CSTO, Zharikhin said.

The analyst noted that Uzbekistan is trying “to keep off integration associations and is attempting to make friends with the West to the prejudice of relations with Russia and other partner countries.”

“Uzbekistan is working for the diversification of its foreign policy and demonstrating its independence from Moscow,” said Aleksandr Shatilov, deputy director of the Center for Political Conjuncture. First of all, Tashkent “is demonstrating its independence to Washington, sending a signal that it is ready to the resumption of cooperation,” he told the same website.

“In this situation, Tashkent is once again seeking if not a full change of its foreign policy priorities, then a game on two fronts, with two partners, trying to get dividends from [the complicated relations between] Central Asia, Russia and the US,” he said.

Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov received a group of the US political scientists on December 2. The group was headed by S. Frederick Starr, director of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. The US considers Uzbekistan a key state in strengthening regional security, including efforts in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan is becoming an important part of the Northern Supply Network for Afghanistan, commentator Arkady Dubnov wrote in Vremya Novostey daily. Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov discussed recently “the perspectives of Tashkent’s participation in the new Afghan strategy announced by US President Barack Obama,” the analyst said.

“The key role of Uzbekistan in the Northern Supply Network naturally reflects the position of the country in the region,” Dubnov said. “In this connection it is enough to recall that Uzbekistan was the main rear base of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s,” he said. Neither Tajikistan not Turkmenistan “may compete with Uzbekistan in securing reliable transit,” he added.

Tashkent expects that after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a significant part of the military and civil infrastructure may be deployed in Uzbekistan, Vremya Novostey’s source said. “Thus, the US will be able to partly control the happenings in Afghanistan and interfere if needed,” Dubnov believes.

“The US withdrawal will differ from that of the Soviet Union, when the regime in Kabul was left to the mercy of fate and managed to keep power only for three years,” the commentator added.

Washington intends “to attract neighboring countries to the economic reconstruction in Afghanistan” and then create a zone of states where security is guaranteed, “on the basis of their natural economic cooperation,” Regnum news agency said. Afghanistan should become the core of these states, the agency added.

Russia is also strengthening its “Uzbekistan direction,” the media say. President Dmitry Medvedev on December 11 appointed a new ambassador to Tashkent Vladimir Tyurdenev. “Uzbekistan is our close partner in Central Asia,” the president said. Russian policies’ success in Central Asia depends “on how good and full-fledged will be our relations with the leadership of that country and our economic relations,” Medvedev said.

The new Russian ambassador arrived in Tashkent “after a year’s pause,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said. One of the reasons why Moscow recalled Tashkent is the new gas pipeline Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-China, “which may change the situation in the region,” the paper noted. Some analysts believe that Russia “is giving its positions in Central Asia to the West and China,” the daily added.

“Moscow has paid little attention to the Eastern direction [of its foreign policy], and this direction has been used rather for tactical aims of balancing with the West in building short-term and long-term schemes of relations with Europe and the US,” Central Asia and China analyst Vladimir Paramonov told the paper.

Russia should understand that this direction is necessary for its development and survival, otherwise the country will not have “a reliable rear” and “firm allies” in the region, the analyst said. They will be pursuing “the same policy of balancing as Russia” while China is already “using the situation, promoting exclusively its own interests,” he added.

Observers say that the effectiveness of a particular state in the region mainly depends on Tashkent’s position, the paper stressed. At the same time, despite good perspectives “on the Western direction” Tashkent itself is interested in Russia, it added.

Uzbekistan does not want to leave the CSTO, Central Asia analyst Sanobar Shermatova told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Tashkent had tried for 15 years to draw Russia into the mutual fight against radical groups in the region, and has now succeeded at last, she added.

Russia will remain “a strategic ally” for Uzbekistan in the absence of any alternative, believes Paramonov. It is important to remember that Uzbekistan is a “historical heir to the ideas of integration and security in Central Asia,” he said.

Despite different trends, so far Russia’s position and role “are more important than the position and role of other leading political players, but the situation may change in the future,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta added.

Sergey Borisov, RT