On September 27-28, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried headed an interagency delegation to Tashkent on the first leg of a Central Asian tour. A hoped-for Uzbek consent to continued American use of the irreplaceable Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) air base did not materialize during this visit. Uzbekistan had asked the United States in late July to vacate the base within 180 days. Fried’s was the highest-level U.S. mission to Uzbekistan after six months of crisis in bilateral relations. It apparently intended to restore the political dialogue that had broken down over the Kyrgyz putative “revolution” in March-April and the bloodshed in Andijan in May.
On the eve of the delegation’s departure from Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated that Fried’s discussions with Uzbek President Islam Karimov would include the question of continued American use of K-2 and related issues. A State Department official also stated on a not-for-attribution basis that, if the base is lost, Washington would regard overflight arrangements with Uzbekistan as “helpful.”
In Tashkent, Fried announced that the United States has agreed to pay $23 million to Uzbekistan for some of the services rendered to the K-2 base during almost four years of operations. Tashkent had long complained that Washington was in arrears on such payments, and it ultimately made those complaints public along with the eviction notice. Whether the $23 million pledge closes those accounts remains unclear. This amount is almost identical with the $22 million tranche of U.S. aid to Uzbekistan that Washington threatened to withhold in late July-early August in response to Tashkent’s demands for the extradition of Andijan fugitives by Kyrgyzstan.
At the news briefing following his meeting with Karimov, Fried stated that he had not raised the issue of continued American use of K-2 because it was not part of the delegation’s agenda, and Washington is not asking Tashkent to revise its decision to end the American military presence. He concluded, “The United States intends to vacate the base as requested by the government of Uzbekistan.”
Acknowledging the need to “overcome a complicated period in the relationship,” Fried called for continuing cooperation based on the 2003 Declaration on U.S.-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership, the dimensions of which he listed in the following order: democracy and human rights, political dialogue, regional security, and economic development. The order of priorities had looked differently in late 2001, when the United States gained use of K-2 and in 2003 when the Declaration was signed. At that time, strategic considerations clearly took pride of place in Washington.
Following the armed rebellion and ensuing crackdown in Andijan, much of political Washington has posited an artificial dilemma between U.S. strategic interests and democracy-promotion in Uzbekistan, implying that democratic values ought to prevail over mere strategic interests in this equation. Such reasoning has served to rationalize the looming loss of the invaluable K-2 base and even a tendency to write off Karimov and Uzbekistan as strategic partners. Fried’s visit seemed designed to restore some balance to that equation; as McCormack’s briefing suggested, “Our strategic interests and our interest in promoting democracy intersect there, and we are not going to sacrifice one for the other.”
At the moment, however, the relationship seems to be mired in that trade-off mode. The way in which Washington formulates its demand for an independent international investigation into the Andijan violence is one of the unnecessary irritants. It emphasizes the bloodshed committed by the forces of order while de-emphasizing the organized armed rebellion that triggered the authorities’ overreaction. Demands for an international investigation tend to suggest a prosecutorial intent toward the authorities, instead of conveying a fact-finding intent such as would serve U.S. and Uzbek anti-terrorism efforts. The Uzbek authorities clearly lack the capability to establish the full facts behind the Andijan rebellion. This limitation was also noted when earlier terrorist attacks hit Uzbekistan (1999-2004).
An American offer to conduct a professional fact-finding investigation on the ground would clearly be more effective than the proposed international investigation. The United States can also improve the Uzbek authorities’ crowd-control methods and, especially, prevention capabilities, so as to avoid another possible overreaction to surprise terror attacks. Such assistance could help begin restoring the strategic partnership in all of its dimensions.
The American delegation’s visit occurred against a backdrop of rapid expansion in Russia’s relations with Uzbekistan. On September 21-23, for the first time since 1991, Uzbekistan hosted a joint exercise with Russian troops on its territory, as part of understandings reached between Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin. On September 26, Gazprom chairman Alexei Miller wrapped up a set of agreements in Tashkent whereby Russia tightens its hold on Uzbekistan’s gas exports and the export pipeline for years to come.
Moscow is encouraging Tashkent to demand the departure of the U.S. military from K-2. The base is, however, neither expendable nor interchangeable with some other base in Central Asia, where alternative basing option for the United States have significantly narrowed. Washington and Tashkent can still reconsider this issue during the remaining four months of operation of K-2.
(Interfax, AP, AFP, September 26-28; see EDM, August 2, 4, 5, September 27, 28)