Why Uzbekistan and the U.S. fell out

by Vladimir Simonov

The root cause is the attitude of the current U.S. administration, which regards its allies across the world as temporary props for pursuing American policy.

UZBEKISTAN, THE strategic kingpin of Central Asia that feels insulted by the West, has decided to order foreign troops out of its territory.

The other day, Uzbekistan prohibited NATO allies from using its land and airspace for operations in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Uzbek authorities insist the allied forces, above all German and Spanish, should leave the country by January 1, 2006.

This year, Uzbekistan also told the United States, which is involved in a separate anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, to leave the Khanabad military base. Washington pulled out.

NATO and U.S. spokesmen describe this as Tashkent’s overdramatic reaction to their criticism of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. They claim this would not affect the logistics of the operation in Afghanistan. But independent military observers disagree.

It is interesting that Washington and the EU think criticism of a country’s state of democracy may force it to cool relations with them. This when many states at the bottom of the U.S. State Department’s list of “free” countries maintain friendly relations with Washington.

In the early 1990s, Uzbekistan regained its independence and became a confident player on the Central Asian market. Its natural resources, above all cotton, uranium, and gold, encouraged many Western companies to invest. And, NATO military experts were attracted by the favourable geo-strategic location of Uzbekistan that could be used to monitor of the vast territories of Russia and China.

Before 9/11, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov offered the U.S. military and security forces the possibilities they could not hope to get in any other Central Asian country. The Pentagon and the CIA started hunting for Osama bin Laden from the territory of Uzbekistan before invading Afghanistan. Penetration teams were sent and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles took off from Uzbekistan. Tashkent embraced the U.S. after the 9/11 tragedy, allowing it to use the Khanabad air force base and the Kokaity auxiliary airfield. At the same time, the German air force settled at the base in Termez.

Tashkent’s foreign policy was based on the seesaw principle. From 1999 to 2002, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty signed with Russia and several other post-Soviet states, and joined the GUUAM group (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova). President-for-life Karimov is acting on the British principle: the country cannot have permanent friends, only permanent interests. In that period Uzbekistan’s interests obviously moved toward the U.S.

Differing assessments

But the affair did not come to fruition. The formal reason for the fallout were the events in Andijan where people died during the suppression of public unrest. The Uzbek rulers and the West differed in their assessment of the number of casualties and the nature of the unrest. The U.S. and the EU saw the Andijan events as ruthless suppression of a social outcry by Tashkent dictators. Islam Karimov put the blame on the Akromiya radical Islamic organisation and Western instigators.

As it often happens, the truth is somewhere in between. It is true that the revolt was preceded by the trial of some local businessmen who, as Akromiya members, were funded by the Islamic underground. But the social and economic situation in Uzbekistan, which has the biggest population in Central Asia, is far from stable. Over 80 per cent of Uzbeks and other nationalities live below the poverty line, of whom some 40 per cent earn no more than $1 a month. The virus of radicalism could not find a better breeding ground.

However, it was not the issue of human rights that ruined the once friendly Tashkent-Washington relations. The root cause is the attitude of the current U.S. administration, which regards its allies across the world as temporary props for pursuing American policy. After getting the bases, Washington made no secret that it wanted Mr. Karimov replaced with a more controllable leader.

This is why Washington has taken a series of actions such as refusal to pay a respectable fee for the lease of the Uzbek bases. It also introduced economic and political sanctions against the Tashkent authorities, eventually threatening to institute proceedings against Mr. Karimov in the International Court. But Uzbekistan has so far proved to be a hard nut to crack. — RIA Novosti

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