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Uzbekistan 'Rebuffs' Shanghai Pact

Tashkent appears to be in the process of switching strategic partners.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Uzbekistan's absence from an emergency meeting of the Shanghai Organization for Cooperation, SOC, in Bishkek late last week has prompted members of the association to question its commitment to the association.


Some members of the organisation believe it is preparing to ditch the SOC in favour of a closer strategic partnership with Washington.


The emergency talks on October 10 and 11, held to discuss the US-led air strikes on Afghanistan, were summoned by Kyrgyzstan, which feels particularly insecure owing to the weakness of its armed forces.


Uzbekistan joined the SOC - which includes Russia, China and the Central Asian states which border it - last June. Although it has no frontier with China, Tashkent has been knocking on the door of the Shanghai bloc insistently in search of allies to help it deal with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which operates out of Afghanistan.


Over the past three years, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have both invested heavily in defence because of repeated IMU incursions into their borderland areas. Prior to this Tashkent was sufficiently confident in its military forces that it declined to join the Russian centred CIS Collective Defence Treaty or Customs Union.


So it came as something of a surprise when Uzbekistan expressed a strong desire to join the Shanghai pact at the beginning of the year. As a strategic regional power, both Russia and China welcomed Tashkent into the organisation.


Tashkent seemed happy with its newly acquired SOC defence shield, which is why its conspicuous absence from the organisation's first collective event following its accession looked all the more inexplicable.


The official explanation that Tashkent was bogged down by new tensions on its Afghan border was not convincing, as Tajikistan, a SOC member with a much longer and more exposed border with Afghanistan than Uzbekistan, attended the Bishkek session.


Some observers believe the real explanation for the empty chair was that Tashkent has re-orientated its political priorities since US planes landed in Uzbek airbases.


The Kyrgyz parliamentarian deputy Ishenbai Kadyrbekov said if that was the case, Uzbekistan's decision is understandable. "A look back in history proves that once Americans enter a country, they stay," he said. "The immediate and strategic goals of the US and Uzbekistan are currently the same. The Uzbeks clearly appreciate this sudden windfall.


"Anyone knows the patronage of the US or NATO promises not only a reliable defence shield, but also prosperity, good roads and modern technology. I believe that Americans will stay in Uzbekistan once their anti-terrorist mission in the region is accomplished."


However, Kadyrbekov raised the prospect of a darker scenario emerging if Washington decides to stay permanently in Uzbekistan. "Tashkent may attempt to manipulate US power to hammer its neighbours, specifically, Kyrgyzstan, into obedience," he said. "In this case, we will have to seek protection from someone else, like Russia. Russia and China will not tolerate the presence of their strategic rival next to them."


Russian and Kazak officials expressed different views on the desirability of a permanent US military presence in Uzbekistan and the implications of such a presence for Central Asia.


The deputy director of Russia's national security service, Victor Kolmogorov, was hostile. "If we are talking about letting the US use Uzbek airspace and airbases for humanitarian operations, that's fine with us," he said. "As for permanent US military presence in Uzbekistan, Russia will oppose it. We have an understanding with Uzbekistan that no extra-regional power will maintain long-term military presence in either of our countries."


By contrast, the Kazak interior minister, Bulat Iskhakov, said the SOC's role as a guarantor of regional stability would be enhanced if the US decided to stay. "It will take more than a day and more than one nation to fight international terrorism effectively, no matter how strong and powerful that nation is," he said. "The international community's anti-terrorist drive may take decades. Nations and governments have no choice but to interact and help each other."


One side-effect of the American presence in Uzbekistan may be increased military cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. The Russian parliamentary speaker Gennady Seleznyov recently visited Bishkek with this in mind. Officials have leaked reports that parliamentarians from both countries brought up the issue of a Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan during his visit.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek


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