Amid growing international isolation, Tashkent views an alliance with Moscow as its main — if not last — geopolitical hope. The regime ruling Uzbekistan appears so keen to forge closer ties with Russia that President Islam Karimov has seemingly offered Russian companies unprecedented access to Central Asia’s major market.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Karimov on May 12 at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, officially to discuss bilateral cooperation and Central Asian issues. At the meeting, Putin described Central Asian region as our “common home” and urged deeper bilateral cooperation.
In response, President Karimov offered unreserved praise for Russian policies. Uzbekistan supports Putin’s May 10 state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly, notably its international part, said Karimov. “The international situation demands strengthening the armed forces, and we support this goal.”
According to Karimov, Putin used his state of the nation address to define Russia’s global position, and he indicated Uzbekistan’s support of this position. Russia defended and will defend its interests, regardless of anyone or anything, and it boosts our confidence, he said. He also described Russia as “an example for us” (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, May 12).
The Russian media outlets took notice of Karimov’s verbal overtures and their geopolitical repercussions. “The Uzbek president drowned his Russian counterpart in Oriental flattery,” Kommersant daily commented on May 13. Karimov had indicated a preference for a friendly acquisition by Russia instead of a hostile take-over by the United States, the daily wrote (Kommersant, May 13).
During the Sochi summit, the Uzbek strongman made little secret of his anti-Western agenda and argued that integration and economic cooperation in Central Asia was needed because of “attempts by non-regional forces to sustain their presence aiming at different goals” (Interfax, May 12).
Therefore, Moscow and Tashkent are seen as united in their uneasiness towards the West. After Russia and Uzbekistan saw their relations with the West deteriorate, Moscow became prepared to help the ailing regime in Tashkent, Kommersant noted. On the eve of the G-8 summit, Russia’s remains Karimov’s last hope. But in exchange for security guarantees, the daily wrote, Russia seeks significant economic and geopolitical concessions from Tashkent (Kommersant, May 12).
In a yet another sign of Tashkent’s drift towards Moscow, the Uzbek president offered Russia significant economic incentives. At the Sochi meeting, Karimov invited Russian companies to privatize strategic facilities in Uzbekistan. Russian companies have an opportunity not just to be present in Uzbekistan, but also to acquire strategic facilities, he said (Interfax, May 12).
Putin and Karimov reportedly praised bilateral trade turnover between Russia and Uzbekistan, which was up 26% year-on-year at $402 million in the first quarter of 2006. They also discussed issues of Uzbekistan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). Uzbekistan formally joined the Russia-led EEC last January at a summit meeting in St. Petersburg. Tashkent is expected to join 20 EEC treaties by June 2006, and the remaining 54 by the end of this year.
Karimov also hailed the prospects for cooperation not only with energy giants Gazprom and Lukoil, but with other Russian companies as well (Kommersant, May 13). Gazprom is understood to be watching the Urga, Kuanysh and Akchalak gas fields, while Uzbek gold and uranium deposits are also of interest for Russia. The Kremlin encourages Russian companies, notably gas giant Gazprom and the metal holding firm Interros, to expand in Uzbekistan.
Tashkent’s drift towards Moscow came as a noteworthy development not only for media and analysts. Until recently, Karimov was the most anti-Russian leader in Central Asia, Muhammad Salih, the exiled head of the Uzbek opposition Erk party, told Kommersant. Then, suddenly, Karimov became Russia’s best friend, Salih said (Kommersant, May 12).
However, the Sochi summit produced no concrete agreements. An anonymous diplomatic source told Interfax that Putin and Karimov had discussed security issues, military cooperation, as well as the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Shanghai on June 15 (Interfax, May 12). Yet both sides refrained from publicly mentioning a major security issue, Uzbekistan’s possible membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
CSTO head Nikolai Bordyuzha traveled to Tashkent in February, but failed to convince Karimov. Bordyuzha conceded that Uzbekistan had no plans to join the CSTO. During his trip to Tashkent, Bordyuzha reportedly told Karimov about a draft agreement on a new body, the “Unified Command of the Central Asian Region of the CSTO.” The draft, which reportedly involved a symbolic Russian military presence in Uzbekistan, was expected to be signed on the eve of the CSTO summit on June 23, 2006. However, Uzbekistan is yet to approve the draft or indicate any willingness to join the CSTO.
As a sign of bilateral rapprochement, Russia’s top officials have repeatedly visited Tashkent in recent months. On May 6, Russia’s first deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Uzbekistan. In April, Russia’s Federation Council head Sergei Mironov, and in February the State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, visited Uzbekistan. Leaders of the Russian parliament have supported the Uzbek leadership, including its actions in putting down the May 2005 riots in Andijan.
Moscow has as much to gain from a bilateral alliance as does Tashkent. Uzbekistan is strategically important for Russia, as control over Tashkent would allow Moscow to boost its clout in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Kommersant wrote. By banding together with Tashkent, as well as Bishkek and Dushanbe, Moscow would also increase its influence in the SCO in order to confront Beijing, a stronger potential adversary (Kommersant, May 12).