As human rights concerns place US aid for Uzbekistan at risk, Russia is making moves to strengthen its own ties to President Islam Karimov's government. Last week's June 17 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent gave Moscow the opportunity to finalize economic and military agreements that will enhance its standing not only in Uzbekistan, but throughout Central Asia.
A strategic partnership agreement signed with Uzbekistan promises to serve as the foundation stone for this expanded role.
Under the terms of the agreement, the two countries will build a regional security system based on cooperation between the two countries' respective ministries of defense, foreign affairs, interior affairs, and security councils. The agreement was signed during the June 17 summit of the SCO, the regional security collective made up of Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China.
Tackling terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the narcotics trade and organized crime are among the stated objectives of the partnership. At the same time, the two countries have agreed to the joint use of Russian and Uzbek air defenses "to fight off enemy air attacks in the Central Asian strategic direction," Interfax quoted the Russian Federation Council's defense and security committee chairman Viktor Ozerov as saying. Meanwhile, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the SCO's defense pact, has announced plans for its rapid reaction forces to hold war games in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in late July or early August.
The announcements came on the heels of Russia's June 4 agreement with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov for the reportedly fee-free land lease of a military base near the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The lease, according to Interfax, has no defined end date and comes coupled with an agreement to allow the Russian military to continue using testing areas in Tajikistan. On May 12, Russia announced that it would withdraw its border troops from Tajik territory by 2005.
But as Russia considers its next steps in Central Asia, Moscow will find it hard to offer military cooperation alone. In its ongoing diplomatic dance with the US for influence in the region, economic incentives have also played a role.
Uzbekistan has received more than $1 billion in economic aid from the US since 1992. Indirect economic support has also come in the form of the US military base at Karshi Khanabad, established in 2001 to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.
Now, a congressional requirement that Secretary of State Colin Powell certify Uzbekistan's progress on human rights, and democratic and economic reforms could place some $20 million in direct foreign aid at risk. While Secretary Powell has given no indication of whether Uzbekistan will meet the aid requirements, due for certification next month, extension of the funds is far from a foregone conclusion. The 2003 State Department human rights report for Uzbekistan criticized the Karimov government for persecution of religious Uzbeks and political opponents in its crackdown against Islamic extremism and labeled the country's human rights record as "very poor." Congressional hearings into Uzbekistan's human rights record and protests by US-based human rights groups have heightened the pressure on the State Department to reconsider Uzbekistan's status.
In December 2003, President George W. Bush cited national security to waive an earlier State Department withdrawal of aid to Uzbekistan based on human rights concerns. Such a waiver would not apply in this case.
Meanwhile, remarks made by President Karimov at the SCO summit indicate that Uzbekistan's aggressive pursuit of perceived Islamic radicals is far from ending. The country's strategic partnership with Russia means both countries will be charged with eradicating the "numerous radical and extremist centers that create the ideology of hatred," the Uzbek leader said.
If direct US assistance to Uzbekistan is canceled, the attractions of other offers will increase. Russia stands ready to make energy investments that could dwarf all US economic assistance to Uzbekistan since 1992. Russian energy giant LUKoil has signed a $1 billion gas field development deal with Uzbekneftegaz, and President Vladimir Putin announced at the SCO summit that Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, plans to invest similar sums in the Uzbek economy.
At the same time, Russia has taken steps to formalize this cooperation. Aside from the enhanced economic coordination called for in its strategic partnership agreement with Uzbekistan, on May 28, Russia also became the first European member of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), an economic collective made up of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The organization plans to create a Central Asian common market and free trade zone by 2009.
At a CACO summit in Astana, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov described Russia's membership in the group as a response to the "challenges of globalization."
But Russia has helped forge other economic alliances involving Central Asia, and, so far, to little effect. The Common Economic Space, formed by Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan in 2003, was meant to revive the economic union that collapsed with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. An agreement creating a common tariff code and a customs union was ratified earlier this year, but discussions have deadlocked around a Russian bid to establish the ruble as the bloc's common currency.
A third economic venture between Russia and other former Soviet republics has faired still worse. The Eurasian Economic Commonwealth (EEC), made up of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, was meant to promote trade between the former Soviet republics, but, Alexander Lukashenko, president of Russia's closest ally, Belarus, told the organization's general secretary, Grigory Rapota, on June 2 that "[t]he member states have gotten practically nothing from the EEC."
But if Russian attempts at economic partnership fall flat, one other regional player stands ready to assist Central Asian economies. At the SCO summit, China's President Hu Jintao announced plans to extend $900 million in loans and trade credits to SCO member states. No details on the plans have yet been provided.
The offer promises to reinforce the long-term implications of a critical deal with China in Central Asia's strategic energy sector. On May 18, Kazakhstan signed an agreement worth up to $850 million for construction of a pipeline to export 70 million barrels of Caspian Sea oil per year to its energy-thirsty neighbor.
For now, Moscow has taken no steps to push back at this latest competitor for Central Asian influence. But its displeasure is plain. In a May 12 interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov targeted both the US and China as interlopers in Central Asia. "It's an area of our vital interests after all," Trubnikov said. "It's our priority, and, of course, the presence of non-regional states cannot please us."
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.