Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 101

Visiting Uzbekistan on May 18-19, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an offer that the Central Asians in general and Uzbekistan in particular are still in a position to refuse. Putin sketched the contours of regional security arrangements under overall Russian leadership, at the same time casting Uzbekistan as the preeminent country and privileged partner of Russia in Central Asia. Russia’s defense minister, Marshal Igor Sergeev, participated along with Putin in the discussions on military issues with Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

As Putin made clear at the concluding joint briefing, Russia is prepared to supply weapons for the Uzbek armed forces, train Uzbek officers and plan joint Russian-Uzbek military operations. Putin’s remarks implied, moreover, that he had offered to deploy some Russian military units in Uzbekistan as a shield against alleged threats of aggression from the south. Karimov–judging by his remarks at the joint briefing–welcomed the first part while apparently cold-shouldering the second part of Putin’s proposals.

The Russian president publicly raised the possibility of joint Russian-Uzbek “preventive antiterrorist actions” to forestall possible attacks on Uzbekistan or other Central Asian countries from Afghanistan. In so doing, Putin apparently took sides in an ongoing debate among Russian military and civilian officials. While some of them have recently warned that they are prepared to undertake preventive strikes against Afghanistan, other Russian officials have argued that such strikes are unnecessary, that the Taliban authorities do not pose a military threat to Central Asian countries and that Afghanistan needs to be contained, rather than attacked (see Fortnight in Review, April 28; the Monitor, April 25, May 4, 10). Putin’s remarks in Tashkent seemed to support the more adventurist tendency among Russian officialdom.

Karimov and Putin vied with one another in raising the specter of a “terrorist” and “religious-extremist” conspiracy, coordinated from a single center–unnamed by Putin, and vaguely identified as “located to the south” by Karimov–which both presidents denounced as responsible for the ongoing conflicts “on the southern periphery of the former Soviet Union” from the Caucasus to Tajikistan. The two presidents concluded that the situation as described requires a common response by Russia and Uzbekistan.

Karimov, who is already on record for a highly alarmist view of Islamic and Afghan threats, openly appealed on this occasion for Russian protection: “When we feel this danger, naturally any state and any president in my place would seek what ? Protection. A country like Uzbekistan is not in a position to protect itself. This protection we seek from Russia.” Karimov, moreover, described the personal relationship that has developed between himself and Putin as a guarantee of Russian willingness to embark on a security and economic partnership with Uzbekistan. As both presidents recalled, their personal relationship dates back to Putin’s December 1999 visit to Uzbekistan as prime minister of Russia. On that occasion, Putin signaled his intention to bring Central Asia into the focus of Russian policy, to recognize Uzbekistan’s relative preeminence in the region and to personalize Russian-Uzbek relations in a manner designed to strengthen Karimov’s internal political position (see the Fortnight in Review, December 17, 1999; the Monitor, December 16, 1999, January 6).

Catering to Karimov’s sense of insecurity, Putin held out a promise “actively to help Uzbekistan to become a country that no one can ever and under any circumstance encroach upon from any side. We are ready to cooperate on the full range of issues, from military-technical to the purely military. If Uzbekistan expresses such an interest, we are prepared to embark on this course with full resolve.”

The Uzbek president had to admit that the desired protection comes at a price. First, “Uzbekistan recognizes the interests that Russia has had, has and will have in Central Asia…. After the USSR disintegrated and we became independent, our views, assessments and positions were often at variance [with Russia’s]. However, a turnabout is occurring today before your eyes, as those differences are virtually being removed.” Karimov’s remarks help explain Uzbekistan’s recent decision to distance itself from the GUUAM group of countries (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova).which is perceived as unfriendly by Moscow. Karimov even seems prepared to sacrifice the relationship with Turkey, one of his country’s most reliable partners. During his joint appearance with Putin, the Uzbek president lashed out at Ankara for allegedly seeking to replace Moscow as “elder brother” of Uzbekistan. He would never allow that to happen, Karimov reassured Putin. (Tashkent Radio, Uzbek Television, RIA, Itar-Tass, May 19-20)