On June 2, the Russian Duma unanimously backed an agreement, originally signed in October 2001, on joint air patrols and the exchange of information, paving the way for the future joint use of the air and air defense forces of Russia and Uzbekistan (Interfax, Moscow, June 2).
The traditionally strained relationship between Uzbekistan and Russia, clearly signaled by Tashkent’s decision to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty in 1999 and further complicated by the 2001 deployment of US and coalition military personnel in Uzbekistan in support of the war on terrorism, has made consistent progress in recent months. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Samarkand in September 2003 demonstrated that Karimov was open to pursuing closer relations, particularly in the economic sphere, in which he is desperate to demonstrate credibility. Indeed, Karimov recently reaffirmed his interest in the development of a single economic space within Central Asia (Uzbek Radio First Program, Tashkent, May 28).
This warming of bilateral relations with Russia took a leap forward as an unforeseen consequence of the terrorist bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara in late March and early April 2004, which appear to have taken the Uzbek regime by surprise. Contact between the two capitals has increased, and an appetite has emerged for real progress in security cooperation. Karimov’s visit to Moscow in April 2004, witnessed a further deepening and intensification of security relations.
Uzbekistan’s Defense Minister Kadyr Gulomov described the visit to Tashkent by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, as a significant event in bilateral military relations. The meeting itself confirmed an agreement on the intention to hold joint Uzbek-Russian military exercises in 2005, and saw an invitation from Russia for Uzbekistan to send observers to its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) antiterrorist exercises in summer 2004. They stopped short of agreeing on a Russian presence in the country for the time being, since it clashes with the Uzbekistan’s official defense concept. The finer detail of those discussions focused on cooperation between their secret services. Ivanov was reportedly accompanied by a large delegation of senior officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the GRU (military intelligence), and from other security structures. This may well signal Uzbekistan’s keenness to cooperate at a more sensitive and practical level with Russian intelligence on the task of countering terrorism (Vremya Novostei, April 13, p.2).
On May 13 Ivanov made yet another visit to Uzbekistan, this time exploring security matters with Karimov. Karimov, recognizing the attention from Moscow was of a different nature to the rising criticism of Uzbek human rights in Washington, seized the opportunity. He expressed solidarity and sympathy with Russia over the terrorist attack in Grozny on May 9 (Victory Day) that killed pro-Russian Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov and several others. But crucially, he went on to link the attacks in Uzbekistan with the Chechen attack: “I have no doubt,” Karimov affirmed, “that the organizers of this terrorist act are not in Chechnya or any other part of Russia, but outside it. I would like to draw a parallel between the events in Chechnya and the recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan.” (Interfax, Moscow, May 13)
Linking these events in this particular manner has a potentially great political dividend for Uzbekistan in its relations with Russia. Although the reality of Karimov’s statement may be open to question, it does serve to illustrate the continued drift back into the Russian fold. That return has been stimulated by attacks in Uzbekistan and failure of Uzbek authorities to internationalize the investigation. Remarkably, even before the official investigation is completed, Karimov has indicated his belief that the attacks were planned and organized outside Uzbekistan, in the southern Vaziristan area of the Pakistani-Afghan border (Interfax, Tashkent, April 29). In the face of criticism from its friends in Washington, ending the Soros Foundation’s work within Uzbekistan, Karimov has calculated that there is much to be gained at a geostrategic level in strengthening his relations with Moscow.
Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov’s meeting this week in Tashkent, with his counterpart Ruslan Mirzayev, further indicated the close relationship as both countries prepared for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit (Uzbek TV, Tashkent June 3). In this context, as Uzbekistan continues to search for longer-term regional security, the rapprochement between Tashkent and Moscow looks set to continue. Karimov will set a high price on strengthening the SCO, participating actively and supporting the Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS), which opened this year in Tashkent. Although he will not pursue this policy at the expense of Uzbekistan’s strategic partnership with the US, he will be strengthened in his dealings with the West, through a new strategic partnership with Russia, which could be agreed at the SCO summit in Tashkent on June 11.