Alliance with Moscow: Tashkent makes its geopolitical choice


MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti.)

The treaty of allied relations between Russia and Uzbekistan signed by Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov has not become a sensation. For the past few months the two countries have been slowly inching towards the alliance. At the same time, conflicts have flared up between Uzbekistan and the West: the Andijan events were only their high point. The West is bitterly criticizing Tashkent for human rights violations. What is more important for Russia, however, is a pragmatic partnership with a country that was only recently part of the U.S.S.R.

Now Uzbekistan has become not just Russia's CIS partner (like Ukraine or Georgia), but its ally. This development reinforces Russian positions in Central Asia. It may be recalled that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are already members of the pro-Russian Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The only exception is Turkmenistan, which is deliberately pursuing an autarchic policy. According to Karimov, "Russia's presence can never be challenged by anyone here." During his Moscow visit, the Uzbek president stressed that his country was also eager and willing to cooperate with the CSTO. It is not ruled out that the allied relations between Moscow and Tashkent may be further institutionalized.

Two more points are worth mentioning. First, the treaty allows its signatories to use each other's military facilities "for purposes of security, peace and stability" through separate treaties as well. This phrase has led some to speculate that the treaty provides for a Russian base on Uzbek territory. The reality, however, is slightly different: the question is not of a base, but of its theoretical possibility. A high-ranking Russian source said that "a Russian military base in Uzbekistan is not on the agenda." So Russia has no plans to irritate the U.S., which is pulling out of Khanabad: the Americans would bitterly resent the early appearance of a Russian military facility in Uzbekistan. On the other hand, Russia is reserving the right to do so in the future.

Secondly, before leaving Moscow, Karimov drew attention to the fact that the treaty provides for mutual assistance in case of aggression against one of the parties. According to Karimov, all interference attempts against Uzbekistan in any interpretation will be viewed in the same context as similar actions against Russia. "It follows from this that certain parties will have to draw their conclusions from a new set of realities. Whenever they threaten us, they will be doing so against Russia. And I reckon our people understand the significance of this," said the Uzbek president.

Actually, such provisions are a regular feature of any inter-state document on a military alliance - otherwise it would be a non-binding declaration of intent. Mutual resistance will be put up against any authenticated external act of aggression. Suppression of domestic disturbances is the prerogative of each country separately. Therefore, it does not follow from the text of the treaty that Russia may get drawn into a conflict like in Afghanistan. Of course, this does not preclude the exchange of information about drug traffickers and Islamic radicals threatening both states.

Such an "advanced" treaty obviously has a special role to fulfill: it was adopted at a time when Tashkent has faced strong pressure from the West, which is increasingly stigmatizing the Karimov regime as another rogue state. A group of American Congressmen has demanded sanctions against Uzbekistan and for Islam Karimov to be brought to trial at the International Criminal Court. EU governments have prohibited arms supplies to Uzbekistan and clamped a one-year ban on visas to 12 members of the Uzbek authorities.

So the best option for Tashkent is to look for friendship with Moscow, which is vital for Karimov. Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can veto any resolution imposing sanctions against Uzbekistan. As for the West's negative reaction, Russia does not consider it a big problem. First, the time when the country depended on Western credits is gone never to return. Second, more substantial reasons exist for "a showdown" (for example, a presidential ballot in Belarus next year). Finally (and most importantly), the Western philosophy is nothing if not pragmatic, and gas cooperation means to many European politicians more than events in Central Asia so far removed from Berlin or Paris.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies

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