On May 12, acting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov took part in negotiations with Uzbek Minister of Defense Kadyr Gulomov regarding the military-technical cooperation taking place between their two countries. The defense ministers also discussed regional security issues on which Uzbekistan and Russia cooperate on a bilateral basis, as well as within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As Ivanov noted in his remarks to the press, “The annual military-technical cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan is estimated in several tens of millions of dollars.” He continued: “Uzbekistan is [Russia’s] most solvent partner in Central Asia.” Ivanov also stated that joint Russian-Uzbek military exercises are planned for 2005 (Russian news agencies, May 12).
Ivanov’s visit is yet more proof of the growing rapprochement between Moscow and Tashkent in the aftermath of the visit by President Islam Karimov to Moscow on April 15-16 (see EDM, May 12). It is evident, moreover, that it was the recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan that prompted Tashkent to consider this course of action. According to the Russian daily Izvestia, the recent terrorist bombing in Chechnya that claimed the life of Russia’s protégé, Akhmed Kadyrov, was one of the main topics of discussion during the Russian defense chief’s visit to Uzbekistan. The director of the Center for Current Politics in Russia (at http://www.ancentr.ru), Konstantin Simonov, offered this commentary to Izvestia: “We can hope that the surge in terrorist activities will prompt Russia and Uzbekistan to revive military-technical cooperation with the purpose of fighting terrorism” (Izvestia, May 12, 2004).
It is plausible to suggest that the current rapprochement between Tashkent and Moscow stems from a cooling of relations between Uzbekistan and both the United States and Europe following repeated expressions of concern from the West over human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s growing closeness to Moscow may also reflect an attempt to pressure the West to “open its eyes” to Uzbekistan’s internal problems.
At the same time, in the wake of Dushanbe’s recent decision to withdrawal Russian border guards from Tajikistan – which implies a failure of Kremlin policy in Tajikistan – Moscow feels the need to try to strengthen its position in other Central Asian states to compensate for this setback. And, judging by recent events, the Kremlin is trying more broadly to strengthen its shaky influence across the CIS.
It is for all these reasons that Moscow welcomes Tashkent’s change in geopolitical preferences, particularly as Uzbekistan traditionally plays the role of regional superpower in Central Asia. In this regard, a recent interview given by Russian First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov to Nezavisimaya gazeta (which was also posted on the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) is particularly noteworthy. In the interview, Trubnikov made the following observation: “I think that the presence of extra-regional powers regardless of who they are – the United States, China or someone else – is not in our interests. This [Central Asia] still represents the sphere of our vital interests. This is our priority and, of course, the presence of extra-regional powers does not make us happy.” Trubnikov added that a lot would depend on how Russia constructs its relations with the CIS countries (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 12).