Uzbeks See No Justification for Russian Airbase

Uzbeks See No Justification for Russian Airbase

Thursday, 12 November, 2009
The Uzbek government has made plain its hostility to plans for a new Russian military base on its doorstep, and is hoping Moscow will take the message as seriously as it intends, NBCentralAsia analysts say.

A memorandum signed by the Russian and Kyrgyz leaders on August 1 confirmed plans to build a new military facility in southern Kyrgyzstan for joint troop units of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, CSTO.

The function is for counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts in the Fergana valley.

The base is not a short-term project – the contract is envisaged as lasting nine years initially, and could then be extended.

Russia already operates an airbase at Kant in northern Kyrgyzstan, again under the auspices of the CSTO.

Tashkent does not believe foreign troops are needed in Central Asia, and is especially concerned at the prospect of a long-term presence so close to its border.

The precise location is still unclear, but it would probably be either in Osh region, which borders on Uzbekistan, or in Batken, a strip of land sandwiched between Tajik and Uzbek territory.

A statement from the Uzbek foreign ministry on August 3 said it was neither necessary nor sensible to base Russian forces in southern Kyrgyzstan.

“Putting projects of kind into action in what is a fairly complex and unpredictable area, where the borders of three Central Asian state meet could create a trend towards militarisation, nationalist confrontations of various kinds and actions by radical extremist forces which could prompt serious destabilisation in the wider region,” said the statement.

Much of the comment from analysts outside Uzbekistan has focused on Tashkent’s reluctance – it too is a CSTO member, after all – to work with regional partners. But commentators interviewed by NBCentralAsia say the Uzbeks have legitimate concerns about a development that would shift the balance of power in this part of Central Asia.

Supposing, for instance, there was some kind of insurgent threat directed against Uzbekistan. The Russian troops at the CSTO base would logically step in, in line with their mandate. But Tashkent would rather deal with any threat of this kind without external assistance, and would not want to see Russia assuming a role as regional strongman.

“Even if it does not says so out loud, Uzbekistan is seriously concerned about current Russian policy, especially events [August 2008 conflict] in Georgia and South Ossetia,” said Orozbek Moldaliev, director of the Politics, Religion and Security think-tank in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

In addition, the bilateral relationship between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is complicated enough as things stand, with differences over border controls, water and energy. Adding the Russians to the mix could make things even more difficult.

“Issues would be blown up out of proportion, and there would be [greater] scope for disputes,” said Moldaliev. “When an agreement is signed [on the base], the positions of all countries with an interest in it therefore need to be weighed up.”

Other analysts say the terrorist threat in Central Asia is not high enough to justify the CSTO base, which makes it look more like an attempt by Moscow to project itself as the main regional power.

“Why do we need a second base when we already have one in Kant?” asked a commentator in the Uzbek city of Fergana. “Wouldn’t that one cope if it came to the crunch and it had to deploy the forces for which it was established?”

The Kant airbase has Russian fighter and ground-attack planes supported by around 4,000 personnel.

To date, Central Asian governments have dealt with insurgent threats without outside help, such as raids carried out by guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory in 1999 and 2000

“The scale of the terrorist threat is not so great as to merit the deployment of divisions or battalions,” said Farhod Tolipov, an academic in Tashkent.

Tolipov said there was still time for Moscow and Bishkek to rethink their plans before a final agreement on the CSTO base was signed. If the document is signed, it is expected to happen before November.

“The Kremlin and the CSTO may well come to realise that the decision to place a Russian base in the south [of Kyrgyzstan] is less than convincing, and change their minds,” he said.

Moldaliev believes it is now inevitable that Tashkent will drift away from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the post-Soviet bloc of which the CSTO is the security arm. He points to Tashkent’s increasing diplomatic engagement with the West, demonstrated by recent visits by senior United States and European envoys.

(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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