MOSCOW, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The recent visit by Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, to Tashkent may signal a warming in U.S.-Uzbek relations.
Such a warming would require a change in Uzbek foreign policy by Uzbek President Islam Karimov, fresh from his victory in what critics say were rigged elections in December.
Karimov met Fallon for talks on what the official UZA national news agency said were measures to enhance regional security and stabilize the situation in neighboring Afghanistan. It is clear from the list of officials the admiral met -- the Security Council secretary, defense and foreign ministers and the commander of the border troops -- that the Afghan problem was the focus of the talks.
Apart from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Fallon visited Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But experts have paid special attention to his visit to Tashkent. Some of them believe the United States is stepping up its dialogue with Uzbek leaders in order to regain influence in this strategically important Central Asian republic.
After the massacre in Andijan in May 2005, Uzbekistan became a target of severe Western criticism. In response, it demanded that the American military base at Karshi be shut down. Since then bilateral relations have been at a standstill. But on the eve of the presidential elections last month, Karimov suddenly started talking about the forces standing between the West and Uzbekistan. "It is easy to see that they would like to see conflicts from which they would gain a certain advantage. ... In its foreign policy, Uzbekistan has always stood for mutual respect and mutually advantageous cooperation with all close and remote countries, including the United States and European nations," Karimov said.
The Europeans heard the signal. On Jan. 17, just one day after Karimov's inauguration, EU Special Representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel announced that the EU considers Uzbekistan a reliable partner and wants to promote cooperation with it. Brussels has surpassed the United States in developing dialogue -- last year it partially alleviated the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after the Andijan events. In response, Uzbekistan pardoned several human-rights champions, abolished capital punishment starting from Jan. , and gave the courts the right to issue sanctions for arrest, thereby demonstrating its interest in normalizing relations with the EU.
Tashkent cannot accept the role of an international outcast. Last year the Europeans adopted a new strategy ranking the task of promoting democracy in Central Asia second behind EU energy interests. But nothing is simple with such a difficult partner as Tashkent. It has already defined its foreign policy priorities -- Germany in the West, and Japan in the East. These influential countries did not criticize Uzbekistan. The German officers and men at the Termez air base near the Afghan border have nothing to worry about.
An influential Uzbek analyst close to the Foreign Ministry told an expert that the deployment of the base was agreed with Moscow, and Berlin was well aware of this fact.
As for Japan, its relations with Tashkent (and presence in Central Asia generally) are extremely important for limiting the influence of Beijing, which is playing an important role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is good for Uzbekistan, which wants to have more partners in addition to Russia and other SCO members.
Obviously, the Americans will not return to Uzbekistan in triumph because the current situation in the region is very different from what it was in the late 1990s, when Uzbek-U.S. contacts were first forged. At that time, Uzbekistan was threatened by the Islamic extremist militants from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Tashkent received information via its own channels that Moscow was not going to help it in case of an attack. In 1999, Uzbekistan walked out of the Collective Security Treaty (interpreted as a break-off with Moscow) and started drawing closer to Washington in the hope of securing its support in the struggle against Islamic extremists. In 2001, the latter's main forces were routed as a result of an American operation in Afghanistan, and the Uzbek leaders breathed a sign of relief.
But the concept of regional security is now different. The Collective Security Treaty Organization and the SCO are playing the main role in this respect. Russia and China have major influence in both organizations, and today Uzbekistan relies on them in ensuring its security. Uzbek leaders have insisted that the headquarters of the SCO regional anti-terrorist center should be based in Tashkent (Bishkek was supposed to host it initially). Recently, the Uzbek Parliament ratified a number of documents to complete the procedure of accepting CSTO legal standards.
Needless to say, Uzbekistan's return was made possible after the Kremlin met it halfway. Anti-Uzbek organizations -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir (party of Islamic liberation) -- have been blacklisted not only by Russia but also by all CSTO and SCO countries, owing to the lobbying by Russian diplomats.
There is no point for Uzbekistan in revising this established system of allied relations and partnership. But this does not mean that resumption of contacts with the United States is taboo. The Afghan problem, which worries Tashkent, may become a new point of departure in bilateral relations. There is one fundamental difference in the Americans' status, however. At the turn of the century, the United States was the No. 1 partner for Uzbekistan. Now it can return into the region as just one player among many -- joining Russia, China and the EU.
(Sanobar Shermatova is a member of the Expert Council of RIA Novosti, but the opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)