A delegation from Uzbekistan visited Washington this week as the two countries try to figure out how the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to affect their relationship. The content of the discussions, part of the annual high-level talks that the U.S. has with every Central Asian country, were kept very quiet, but no doubt focused heavily on security issues.
"No new deals, agreements, just heart-to-heart discussions between U.S. and Uzbekistan -- I hear Russia's pressure on Central Asia was a big topic," said Washington-based Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Navbahor Imamova on twitter (edited slightly to detwitterize).
The talks included Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as well as officials from the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. The State Department statement on the talks, naturally, didn't mention Russia. "The participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade. The United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Uzbekistan on the basis of these candid and constructive conversations."
But Uzbekistan has been increasingly concerned about Russia's influence in the region, and has looked to the U.S. to help counterbalance Russian pressure. "Uzbeks are very concerned with Russia's new military deals with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan," Imamova tweeted. Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov apparently believes that to be a threat to Uzbekistan, which pulled out of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization last year and has since become the target of a lot of bad press -- and presumably behind-the-scenes pressure -- from Russia. A Wikileaked diplomatic cable from 2009, recounting a meeting between Karimov and U.S. diplomats, described Karimov's take on Russia's aims in the region then:
Karimov strongly denounced Russian goals in the former USSR. He accused Russia of creating the Collective Security Treaty Organization to serve as the "anti-NATO," and said the proposed CSTO rapid reaction force had only three goals: to enable Russia to dominate the former Soviet space, to provide multi-national cover for Russian forces to attack problem countries like Georgia or Ukraine, and to station Russian forces permanently in Central Asia.
Time has only proven Karimov right on those points, so one would expect his message to Washington now would be even stronger. However, that cable also described how Karimov saw U.S. statements on the woeful human rights situation in Uzbekistan to be meddling in his country's internal affairs. And he said he hoped to "restart U.S.-Uzbek relations 'from a clean slate,' as was currently unfolding, and said he did not wish to recall that period when 'due to bad decisions we stopped understanding one another,'" an apparent reference to U.S. calls for an international investigation into the 2005 shooting of hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijan.
It's not clear to what extent these recent discussions in Washington focused on human rights, but it's telling that a planned roundtable discussion at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington with American human rights groups was abruptly canceled. Still, the embassy -- which traditionally has kept a very low public profile -- apparently made an unprecedented outreach effort ahead of the delegation's visit, with receptions and small events that would be unremarkable for other embassies in Washington but which looked like "glasnost" coming from the Uzbeks, one Washington source told The Bug Pit.
But there would be plenty to discuss on the security side of the relationship. A request by Uzbekistan for American helicopters (likely utility helicopters like Hueys or Blackhawks) seems to have been abandoned after the U.S. government threw up too many roadblocks, The Bug Pit heard from several sources. But a deal to provide small surveillance drones is still on, Imamova said: "Sources say UAVs (8 systems of 24 Ravens) promised by U.S. to Uzbekistan earlier this year haven't been delivered yet, still in the works." The Bug Pit also was told that Uzbekistan is seeking to get some of the MRAP vehicles that the U.S. is planning to get rid of as it leaves Afghanistan. The State Department didn't respond to queries seeking clarification on these issues.