Russia and Uzbekistan have concluded a mutual defense pact that leaves open the possibility of the establishment of a Russian military base in the Central Asian nation.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin signed the agreement November 14 in Moscow. The signing ceremony came on the same day that an Uzbek court in Tashkent sentenced 15 individuals to up to 20-year jail terms for their supposed roles in provoking the May violence in Andijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some foreign observers compared the Tashkent terror proceedings to Soviet show trials of the 1920s and 30s. US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said November 14 the convictions are "based on evidence that isn't credible and a trial that isn't fair."
Under the mutual defense treaty, Tashkent and Moscow pledge to "build and develop allied relations on a long-term basis." The pact's central provision calls for both sides to have access to each other's military installations and facilities. It also states that "an act of aggression against one side will be considered as aggression against both sides."
The signing of the treaty marks the completion of a process that was about a year in the making, in which Tashkent's strategic orientation turned away from Washington and focused on Moscow. The impetus for the shift was Tashkent's perception that Washington engineered the so-called "color revolution" phenomenon, which produced regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The turning point in US-Uzbek relations came in late July, when Tashkent ordered the eviction of US forces stationed at the Karshi-Khanabad air base in southwestern Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent months, Uzbekistan and Russia have steadily tightened strategic and economic ties. Russia has emerged as a primary supporter of Uzbekistan on the global political stage, echoing the Karimov's administration's contention that Islamic radicals were responsible for stoking the May violence in Andijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. International human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, say Uzbek troops opened fire without warning on mostly unarmed demonstrators. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The European Union and the United States have called for an independent inquiry into the Andijan events a proposal repeatedly rejected by Tashkent. In response to Uzbekistan's adamant refusal to sanction an independent Andijan probe, the EU announced November 14 that 12 top Uzbek officials -- including Interior Minister Zakirjan Almatov, State Security Police chief Rustam Inoyatov and Defense Minister Kadir Gulamov are prohibited from visiting EU member states. In addition, the EU imposed an arms sales ban on Uzbekistan.
The defense pact opens the way for Russia to establish a military presence in Uzbekistan. But according to Russian political analyst Alexei Makarin, writing in a commentary published by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, Moscow does not intend to immediately take advantage of such an opportunity. "Russia has no plans to irritate the United States, which is pulling out of Khanabad; the Americans would bitterly resent the early appearance of a Russian military facility in Uzbekistan," Makarin wrote. "On the other hand, Russia is reserving the right to do so in the future."
Russian state-run media, such as the RTR television channel, trumpeted the defense pact as "unprecedented." Other Russian media outlets were more subdued in their evaluation. An editorial published by the Kommersant daily characterized the treaty as a "marriage of convenience." The newspaper also pointed out that Moscow was taking a geopolitical risk by allying itself so closely with Karimov, leaving Russia open to becoming directly embroiled in Uzbek civil strife down the road.
In formally announcing the treaty's signing, Karimov described Russia as Uzbekistan's most trusted ally. "Russia will not regret the signing of the document," Karimov said.
Putin, meanwhile, hailed the treaty as a "serious step ... that creates a solid legislative basis for the development of our cooperation in all spheres." In addition to the security pact, Russian and Uzbek officials also signed a document providing for joint efforts to combat drug trafficking and terrorism. "There is a need to do everything possible to combat the narcotic and terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan, and we will of course continue to help our neighbors in developing their economic and social infrastructure," Putin said.
Indeed, Russia has moved aggressively since mid 2004 to develop stronger economic ties with Uzbekistan. In June 2004, for example, the Russian conglomerate LUKoil signed a $1 billion, 35-year production-sharing agreement (PSA) to develop Uzbek natural gas deposits. Under the PSA, LUKoil pledged to develop the Kandym, Khauzak and Shady fields in southern Uzbekistan. LUKoil obtained a 90 percent share in the venture, with Uzbekneftegaz an Uzbek state entity -- holding the remaining 10 percent. In April 2004, Gazprom, another Russian energy giant, singed a deal providing for $200 million in initial investment to develop Uzbekistan's natural gas deposits. At the time, Gazprom indicated interest in acquiring a 44 percent stake in the Uzbekistani pipeline monopoly Uzbektransgas. However, that deal has yet to materialize.
Editor’s Note: Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.