Security in Afghanistan topped the agenda as Vladimir Putin, inaugurated as Russian president a month ago, visited Tashkent on June 4, holding late-night talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov.
According to a Kremlin transcript, Karimov used the visit to expound on Uzbekistan’s “serious concern” about the dangers of security threats from Afghanistan spilling over its borders after the drawdown of NATO troops, scheduled for completion by 2014. He warned against “complacency” that everything will go to plan.
Karimov, whose country shares a southern border with Afghanistan, said Russia “has never been indifferent to the problems of Central Asia,” and he was counting on “Russia’s interest in resolving the serious, quite acute problems that will arise in the Central Asian region” with the NATO withdrawal.
Putin characterized cooperation with Uzbekistan as “extremely important” in light of the drawdown, which he described as linked to “security inside the Russian Federation itself.”
Putin and Karimov met the same day NATO announced it had secured agreements with Uzbekistan and two Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – to use a key transport route to return equipment from Afghanistan to Europe. NATO already had a deal with Russia to use the Northern Distribution Network for reverse transit out of Afghanistan.
Putin and Karimov also talked trade, with the Russian leader making tantalizing mention of vague plans by oil giant LUKOIL to invest $5.5 billion in Uzbekistan over the next seven years. Moreover, the two leaders signed a memorandum of understanding that Uzbekistan will join the CIS free trade zone, and a document on strategic partnership.
Putin’s choice of Uzbekistan as his first Central Asian port of call since his inauguration surprised some observers who had expected Russia’s close ally Kazakhstan to be his first stop.
Rivalry between the two nations over regional leadership is notorious, so Putin’s priorities may have ruffled feathers in the administration of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It will be interesting to see if Putin gets a warm welcome when he drops into Astana on June 7, on his way home from visiting Beijing.