The Uzbekistan population is receptive to the idea of returning Russia to Uzbekistan as an investor and strategic partner. A recent poll conducted in the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent clearly indicated that people from diverse socio-economic groups and different ethnic backgrounds view the meeting between Presidents Islam Karimov and Vladimir Putin and the Treaty on Strategic Partnership as the “long anticipated step towards rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Russia.” The Internet website Fergana.ru, which posted parts of this poll on its website, intended to present different points of view of the population of the republic. However, there was not a single response, which would signal that some parts of Uzbek society negatively assess the document signed by the Russian and Uzbek presidents.
Here are several typical answers to the question: “Do you approve of the integration processes between Uzbekistan and Russia?” Answers included, “Finally our president decided to make this important step!” and “I am for it. To live with Russia is better than to live without her.” Also, “The Uzbek people never destroyed relations with Russia – the fact that our countries have been distancing themselves from each other for over a decade is actually the fault of the politicians.” Another comment was “We are the brotherly peoples. We won the Great Patriotic War together…” Also cited, “In the past 10 years, Uzbekistan became like an island. Enough is enough!” Another comment was, “If Russia returns, this will mean new jobs. And the presence of culture of Russia will be felt here more” (Fergana.ru, June 18, 2004)
A source close to the inner circle of President Islam Karimov said that those who are close to the president are also enthusiastic about improved relations with Russia. The signing of the Treaty on Strategic Partnership between Russia and Uzbekistan elevates the bilateral relations of these countries to the level that has never been reached before. The same source stated that going forward, questions related to political, economic and military cooperation with Russia will become prioritized in the foreign policy of Uzbekistan, thereby replacing the priorities that until recently were assigned to the relations with the U.S. It is noteworthy that Uzbekistan has never signed a similar strategic partnership treaty with any country. In regards to relations with the U.S., there is a bilateral memorandum that outlines the government’s views on certain political issues and it does not have to be approved by the parliament. The initiator of the treaty was the president of Uzbekistan and, as Russian President Putin noted during the press conference in Tashkent, Karimov took a direct part in working out the main premises of this document.
The position of the Uzbek president is understandable. He had long been seeking a strategic partner and in doing so he would periodically switch bets from Russia to the U.S. and vice versa. The attempt to establish partnership relations with Russia in the 1990s failed. At the time Karimov did not have good relations with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was visibly indifferent towards Uzbekistan and its leader. A high-ranking Uzbek diplomat, who then worked at the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Moscow, cited a specific example in the interview with this Jamestown reporter. Immediately after the first assault by the militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in August 1999, when they attempted to establish control over the Ferghana Valley to create a bridgehead of the new state – the Islamic Caliphate, Karimov called Yeltsin in Moscow, asking him to expedite military assistance to Uzbekistan. Although Yeltsin promised to help, the Russian military delayed the issuance of appropriate documents for supplying weapons and ammunition to Tashkent. It was only at the end of that year that the bureaucratic paper pushing finished. But subsequently and under different pretexts, the Russian military refused to fulfill the promise given by their president. An Uzbek cargo plane arrived in Moscow twice and twice it returned to Tashkent empty. Yeltsin was aware of this, but he failed to take appropriate action to remedy the situation. Only by mid-January did the long-awaited cargo finally arrive in Tashkent.
For a long time Tashkent was equally unsuccessful in reaching a strategic partnership agreement with the U.S. Washington was not eager to establish contacts with the head of the state, where human rights are blatantly violated. The events of September 11 changed everything. Uzbekistan wholeheartedly supported the U.S. anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan by allowing the use of its military airport, and then permitting the establishment of a military base on its soil. By doing this, Uzbekistan demonstrated its willingness to become a loyal American ally. As for the most important issue, U.S. investments never reached this country. According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2003 only about US$83 million was transferred to Uzbekistan.
Realizing that Putin’s Russia drastically differs from Yeltsin’s Russia, the Uzbek leader again looked towards Moscow. Meetings in Samarqand (August 2003) and Moscow (April 2004) between Karimov and Putin, in practice, were pivotal in relations between these countries. The majority of Uzbeks might not have noticed that for the first time in eight years the inter-governmental Uzbek-Russian commission, created by the initiatives of the two leaders, became functional, and the three largest Russian companies – Gazprom, LUKOIL and Soyuzneftgaz – opened their representations in Tashkent. Uzbek media stopped its criticism of Russia, a fact that could not go unnoticed. Everyone in Uzbekistan knows that this can happen if the media receives orders from above.
This year’s pompous celebrations of the Russian state holiday – Day of Russia – in Tashkent became a surprise for many. All of these circumstances combined produced an expectation of substantial changes in the Russian-Uzbek relations. The signing of the Treaty on Strategic Partnership between Russia and Uzbekistan and the agreement according to which LUKOIL will invest US$1 billion to complete the Andym-Khauzak-Shady gas project put everything in perspective. Analysts instantly focused on one of the articles of the “strategic” treaty, which implies that the “sides, based on the separate agreements, will offer to each other the right to use the military facilities that are located on their territories.” While commenting on this, Russian newspaper Vremya Novostey noted that because it is almost inconceivable to think of a situation in which Uzbekistan would need to use Russian military facilities, what we are left with is that Tashkent is obliged to offer its military facilities to Russia in case they are needed. (Vremya Novostei, June 17, 2004)
A source in the Uzbek military establishment stated that the question of establishing a Russian military base in Uzbekistan has not yet been raised. However, in principle, Uzbekistan could have offered to open such a base in the Ferghana Valley or in Uchkuduk (Bukhara region). However, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov in an interview with news agencies in Astana (Kazakhstan) stated that major military exercises by Russia and Uzbekistan, including the use of combat aircraft, helicopters and special operations units are planned to be held at the mountainous range close to Samarqand in 2005. (RIA-NOVOSTI, June 19)