Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Moscow 'Builds Bridges' with Tashkent

Russian move against Muslim radicals seen as overture towards Uzbekistan.
By Sanobar Shermatova

Russia is planning to crack down on two Uzbek extremist groups as part of an apparent attempt to build bridges with President Islam Karimov.


The announcement by the Russian Security Service, FSB, on February 6 that Moscow was considering the addition of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, and Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party) to its list of terrorist organisations was seen as a very public overture towards Tashkent.


Neither group is known to operate inside Russia, but Karimov considers them both a serious threat to Uzbek security and would plainly welcome any action against them.


The announcement follows a surprise visit by the head of the Russian Presidential Administration, Alexander Voloshin, to see Karimov in Tashkent on January 30.


Officially, Voloshin went to Tashkent to pass on a congratulatory message from Russian president Vladimir Putin to Karimov on his 65th birthday. But the Kremlin does not usually congratulate people in this manner - the established tradition for presidents of CIS countries is to simply call each other by telephone.


The sending of a personal envoy is a sign of respect that was appreciated among Central Asian leaders and referred to as "oriental diplomacy".


The Russian president's choice of Voloshin, who served under Boris Yeltsin, was also important. Despite his lack of a high- ranking government job, Voloshin is very influential in the informal hierarchy of Russian politics.


According to some sources, the real reason for his visit was to discuss increasing security cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan.


After the failed coup in Ashgabat late last year, the security councils of Russia and Turkmenistan signed a security agreement that will form the basis for a wider intergovernmental pact.


Some sources say the Russian government feels a similar agreement with Tashkent, greatly extending the area of assistance and cooperation of special forces, would be of interest to both countries.


"It is in the interest of Russia to improve relations with Uzbekistan," said Russian deputy Viacheslav Igrunov.


Karimov has previously sought Russian assistance in fighting the IMU, which seeks to overthrow his regime and proclaim an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan signed the anti-Wahhabi union with Moscow and Dushanbe aimed at curbing Islamic groups, despite its disquiet at what it saw as Russia' desire to dominate in its relations with Central Asian countries.


Then in 1999, when the IMU allegedly bombed the centre of Tashkent and launched incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan again turned to Moscow for help. But no military assistance materialised and Karimov felt that Moscow had let him down.


When the United States sought Uzbek assistance in its fight against the Taleban following the September 11 attacks, Tashkent decided to allow Washington use of an air base. US aid to Uzbekistan has increased accordingly.


Russia is now keen to break Washington's strategic partnership with Uzbekistan and to re-establish its influence in the region, which has weakened in the past year following the cooling of relations with Tajikistan.


The latter occurred as a result of Moscow being unable to back up its ties with Dushanbe with substantial financial assistance.


There is no reliable information on how the discussion between Karimov and Voloshin progressed, but the announcement a week later from the FSB indicated it achieved some success.


Analysts believe Putin may also have sent Voloshin to Tashkent to check out rumours about Karimov's failing health and to deny Russian involvement in an Internet campaign against the Uzbek president that seems to have been sparked by the uncertainty.


Concern about Karimov's condition was mentioned in a series of Internet articles, which started to appear end of last year. The articles, grey propaganda which mixed fact and fiction and described subordinates openly blackmailing the president to secure positions and privilege, were blamed by some commentators on the Russian security services.


Rumours about Karimov's health first started to circulate in Uzbekistan last year. They were sufficiently strong last August for one journalist to defy convention and ask the president directly whether he was ill.


Karimov dismissed the question and said that anyone who questions his health should come for a round of tennis.


A diplomatic source in Tashkent confirmed that the president travelled to Germany in January for medical reasons, but it was not clear whether he had a check-up or treatment.


While it is clear the Internet articles - which have since stopped - were written by someone with good access to the Uzbek government, Moscow must have been keen to ensure that Karimov did not see a Russian hand behind them.


Sanobar Shermatova is a journalist with Moscow News


More IWPR's Global Voices