Uzbekistan Opens Airbase to NATO Freight

Uzbekistan Opens Airbase to NATO Freight

Saturday, 16 May, 2009
Four years after closing down a United States military airbase, Uzbekistan has given NATO access to transit facilities at Navoi airport. Although it has done so indirectly, through a deal with South Korea, NBCentralAsia analysts say the Uzbek leadership is deliberately .

News of the deal came when South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak held talks in Tashkent on May 11 and pledged 200 million US dollars to modernise Navoi airport, in the west of the country.

The South Koreans are to lease the airport for an unspecified term, and they will use it to provide transit services for NATO planes carrying non-military freight to Afghanistan.

The arrangement gives western forces engaged in Afghanistan a vital supply route in from the north as road access from Pakistan is dangerous. The US base at Karshi was closed in 2005 after relations with Uzbekistan suffered a sudden downturn because of the latter’s refusal to allow an independent investigation into the violence in Andijan in May that year.

The US-led coalition still had the use of another airbase outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, but they have now been given notice to leave, in a move that some analysts see as a result of Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan.

Some analysts believe Navoi offers a neat replacement for the Kyrgyz airbase.

A revamp carried out in 2004-07 means the landing strip can take the heaviest freight transporters, and a second runway is due for completion later this year. Navoi offers the added advantage of good road and rail connections to the Afghan border.

NBCentral Asia analysts say the South Korean modernisation programme is driven by geopolitical considerations, as a way of allowing the Uzbeks to work with NATO.

“Seoul seems to have taken this step on the recommendations of the US and other western countries,” said Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek political analyst based abroad. “They [Koreans] hae undertaken to provide flight management and technical maintenance of NATO planes in transit carrying non-military freight to Afghanistan”.

After years in which relations with the West were cool, the Navoi deal is a turnaround. The nature of the arrangement, mediated through the South Koreans, is novel, although the general principles were already clear, since President Islam Karimov made it known in February that NATO could used his country’s territory and airspace to deliver non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan.

It was nevertheless a surprise when Karimov used a press conference after his talks with Lee to reveal that the Navoi airport had already been used by planes carrying NATO freight to Afghanistan.

The beauty of working through the South Koreans is that Uzbekistan can remain at arm’s length from its western partners and thus duck awkward questions from Moscow. Karimov effected a rapprochement with the Russians after falling out with the US in 2005, and they will be suspicious of any signs that the West is regaining influence in Central Asia.

“Since the cargo centre at Navoi airport will be managed by Korean Air, Moscow won’t be able to reproach Uzbekistan for having a military alliance with the US when NATO freight transits [by this route],” said an NBCentral Asia observer in Tashkent.

The deal should help Tashkent rebuild relationships with the West, bringing economic investment as well as political benefits, say commentators.

“President Karimov is slowly but surely moving towards his goal of reviving ties with the West and the US,” said an Uzbek official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some believe the next step will be a project to expand facilities at Termez airport, on the Afghan border. Even though the Americans were thrown out from the Karshi airbase, German NATO forces have retained a base at Termez.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)
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