US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Kyrgyzstan on July 25. The main aim of his mission is stopping the erosion of United States' strategic position in Central Asia.
Rumsfeld is scheduled to meet with Kyrgyz President-elect Kurmanbek Bakiyev and top defense officials during his two-day stay in Bishkek. The secretary of defense also plans to visit neighboring Tajikistan. A stop in Uzbekistan which, before the Andijan events in May, was considered Washington's key strategic partner in the region -- is conspicuously absent from Rumsfeld's itinerary.
Political leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, two countries where Washington maintains military bases that support ongoing operations in Afghanistan, have sent signals in recent weeks that American military personnel are wearing out their welcome. The Kyrgyz and Uzbek grumblings followed a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, during which member states urged Washington to establish a withdrawal time-table. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While raising the possibility of closing the American air base at Manas, outside Bishkek, Kyrgyz leaders have indicated that they want to remain on good terms with the United States. In a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei, Feliks Kulov, who is set to become the country's prime minister following Bakiyev's inauguration, downplayed the base issue. He emphasized that Kyrgyzstan was not seeking a "revision of relations" with Washington. "No one is demanding that the question of the bases be resolved in the immediate future," he added.
Some observers believe that Kyrgyz officials may be trying to extract an increased aid commitment from the Bush administration. Vremya Novostei published a report July 25 that alleged that Rumsfeld would offer up to $200 million in US assistance to Kyrgyz leaders in return for continued US access to the Manas air base. The report could not be independently verified.
The future of the American base in Uzbekistan, known as Karshi-Khanabad (K2), appears to be in far greater doubt. US-Uzbek relations have soured with stunning speed following the Andijan events in May. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In the weeks following the tragedy, the US government advocated the establishment of an independent, international investigation to determine the highly disputed sequence of events. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Tashkent has rejected calls for an outside probe, insisting that Islamic radicals were responsible for the violence. US diplomats have tended to support the findings of human rights groups and eyewitnesses, who assert that Uzbek security forces opened fire without warning on unarmed civilian demonstrators, killing hundreds.[For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent weeks, Uzbek government-controlled newspapers have published a steady stream of articles assailing the United States, portraying Washington as hypocritical and an unreliable strategic ally. Washington's advocacy of an independent probe into the Andijan events seems to have particularly aroused Tashkent's ire. The United States, in the Uzbek government view, is applying double standards.
"If we speak about an independent investigation (concerning Andijan), why not ... investigate ... the [American] bombings of peaceful villages in Afghanistan when guests at a wedding were bombed as terrorists," a June 21 editorial published by the chief government daily Narodnoye Slovo said. "Why not find out how many innocent people died in al-Faluja in Iraq when the US armed forces threw their tanks and warplanes against the terrorists."
The underlying motivation for the attacks appears to be a sense of betrayal felt in Tashkent. Uzbek leaders seem to believe that they have done all the United States has asked of them in the ongoing international campaign against terrorism. At the same time, they feel Washington has abandoned them in a time of need.
"As the United States and Western countries stated, Uzbekistan plays an active role in the international war on terror," said a commentary published June 23 in Khalq Sozi, another pro-government daily. "However, when Uzbekistan faced terrorist aggression, the countries did not provide any help, even moral support. On the contrary, they distort the [Andijan] events and libel our country."
"Behind these people who can sell their fathers and mothers for money are strong forces that want to rule Uzbekistan," the commentary continued.
Variations of the theme of the United States as a colonial power, intent on exploiting Central Asia's abundant natural resources, have appeared in other Uzbek publications. "America is ... portrayed as a free just and enlightened state, a role model," said one commentary published in Khurriyat on June 15, "but people often forget its history." Those who colonized North America in the 17th century did not seek to "liberate the