Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov made an official visit to Moscow on February 6, responding to an earlier invitation from President Vladimir Putin. This was Karimov’s first trip abroad since his re-election in December 2007. The cordial atmosphere was well publicized and consistent with the continuing trend in Tashkent’s rapprochement with Moscow, underscored by Karimov’s meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. These talks concentrated on improving the depth of “practical cooperation” between the two countries, discussing issues ranging from joint economic projects to security in Central Asia. It comes at a time when the NATO Alliance is struggling with its mission in Afghanistan and exploring ways to develop a more regional approach to the issue (Itar-Tass, February 6).
Karimov has already benefited from Russia’s military assistance, which has helped Uzbekistan’s armed forces since the country was subjected to Western sanctions after the Andijan crackdown in 2005. Since then, Uzbekistan’s armed forces have continued improving operational capabilities and pursuing reforms already well underway from the period of the U.S.-Uzbek strategic partnership. Putin understands that Uzbekistan’s armed forces remain the most efficient and combat ready in the region, and on that basis Moscow deals with Tashkent in order to counterbalance Western-led military assistance provided to neighboring Kazakhstan. “Military and technical cooperation is developing efficiently. We highly value the assistance Russia is providing in training military specialists and in modernizing military hardware,” Karimov told Putin.
Uzbekistan’s cooperation with Russia is a critical factor in Tashkent’s security policy, knowing that it can access training, equipment, and specialist advice to meet its military and security requirements. In fact, Karimov views the “trust-based” dialogue with Moscow as being rooted in the legal framework of various treaties, not least within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Bilateral cooperation is also built on this legal basis, which provides a degree of confidence to the relationship. “At one-to-one talks, we confirmed [our] readiness to continue multifaceted cooperation, which aims to implement the treaty on strategic cooperation in practice and also to counter threats and challenges to our countries’ security as well as strengthen stability in the Central Asian region,” the Uzbek president said. Karimov’s visit to Moscow, following closely after the recent talks he held in Tashkent with U.S. CENTCOM Commander Admiral William Fallon, may suggest that he wants Putin’s blessing in opening a dialogue with Western countries on how Uzbekistan can provide practical support to forces fighting in Afghanistan. In this sense, Uzbekistan could be on the verge of reasserting its position as the military and security leader of Central Asia (Itar-Tass, February 6).
During bilateral talks in the Kremlin, Putin and Karimov explored cooperation in engineering projects, particularly the reconstruction and creation of new facilities for transporting natural gas. Putin praised the depth of “strategic cooperation” with Uzbekistan, noting “relations between Uzbekistan and Russia are at the very highest level, and they really correspond to the quality of allied relations. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to meet the president, to talk about the whole spectrum of our cooperation and the very fact that representatives of the most diverse ministries and departments, [and] representatives of large Russian companies are here today at the negotiating table on our part proves that our relations are diversified and are developing upwards” (Channel One TV, February 6).
At the end of the talks, Putin and Karimov signed documents on economic cooperation through 2012. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Uzbek First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov signed an agreement on integrating the Tashkent Chkalov Aviation Production Association and Russia’s United Aircraft-Building Corporation (UABC). The Foreign Ministries also agreed on a cooperation program for 2008. “The signing of the document on the integration of the Tashkent-based plant, which is already part of the UABC, is an unprecedented case,” Karimov confirmed. This agreement is being hailed as a model for future joint economic cooperation, which will see leading Uzbek companies working alongside Russian counterparts. Later, Karimov met Lukoil head Vagit Alekperov; the two “discussed developing relations in the oil and gas sphere” (Interfax, Uzbek TV First Channel, February 6).
Uzbek television broadcast a program on February 5 promoting a more cooperative approach toward combating international terrorism. Far from advocating a “crackdown,” it highlighted the cases of individuals who had trained as terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only to later renounce their terrorist affiliation and benefit from Karimov’s 2000 initiative allowing those who joined terrorist groups by “mistake” to be pardoned. The program, “Tracing the Evil,” featured interviews with Uzbek nationals once recruited by international terrorists and taken abroad, particularly to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The program called on the Uzbek people to jointly counter the aims of terrorist groups and to protect the homeland. Uzbekistan faces real terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, which trouble the Uzbek power ministries. Karimov appears to be signaling interest in pursuing a more cooperative counter-terrorist strategy linked to Afghanistan. Western policymakers should avoid misreading the signals (Uzbek TV First Channel, February 5).
The common theme in Uzbekistan’s economic cooperation with Russia and its military requirements relates to technology; Tashkent wants to attract investments in both sectors. In military terms, this marks a crucial time for Uzbekistan, as it may well be one of the leading beneficiaries of what the Kremlin refers to as a new arms race, which it claims it wanted to avoid. As Russia develops a new military strategy to cope with the mounting pressure to upgrade and introduce new technologies into its armed forces, there may be indirect benefits for its Central Asian partners. Uzbekistan is likely to benefit more from this, as neighboring Kazakhstan has only been trying to match Uzbekistan’s military strength in recent years, but Astana has a much more diverse approach to procuring foreign military assistance. Karimov, on the other hand, wants high-tech military assets from Russia to enhance Uzbekistan’s independent military capabilities to respond to modern security challenges. He is also looking beyond Putin to his likely successor, Medvedev, to cement bilateral ties.