So, the Americans have decided to step up both diplomatic and political contacts with the government of Islam Karimov, he says, adding that Uzbekistan is in the centre of all strategic and energy games which are played in Central Asia by the USA, the European Union, Russia and China. Sigov suggests that there have been certain tensions between Moscow and Tashkent of late. This in turn prompts, the USA and the European Union to take actions to restore lost positions in the country, he says. The following is Yuriy Sigov’s article "Will America return to Uzbekistan?", published by the Kazakh newspaper Delovaya Nedelya on 1 February; subheadings as published:
The United States are planning to sharply step up its relations with Tashkent to prevent the strengthening of Russia and China’s positions in the country.
Adm William Fallon, the commander of US Central Command, recently visited Central Asian countries; Washington carried out talks on delivery of Kazakh and Turkmen energy resources to world markets bypassing Russia.
Against this political and energy background, the US interest in Uzbekistan - the largest country in the region it terms of its population, and one of the most influential countries of the region - has been forgotten to some extent. Although relations between Washington and Tashkent in the past several years can be hardly described as cloudless, nevertheless they might considerably improve for the better in the nearest future.
Memory of Andijon cannot last for ever
As is known, the May 2005 events in [the Uzbek eastern town of] Andijon, when hundreds of peaceful residents were killed [in the disturbances], has left an extremely negative mark on relations with Uzbekistan on the part of the USA.
Apparently only in the middle of last year did Washington understand that Uzbekistan will hardly want to change anything in its "non-American way" of life in the foreseeable future, (the recent presidential election in the country in December 2007 is an unambiguous confirmation of this idea). That is why the more they [the USA] will ignore Tashkent and its "way of life", the more the Uzbeks will cooperate with neighbours close and faraway ones.
As a result, a pragmatic and constrained approach to Uzbekistan has taken an upper hand in Washington. This is because it has become obvious that without close contacts with this most important country in the region it would be very difficult for the United States to successfully operate in Central Asia. So a decision has been taken to step up both diplomatic and political contacts with the government of Islam Karimov, and at the same time to make Uzbekistan understand that the USA is not going to forgive it for Andijon at all. But since there are many other fields in which cooperation is possible and useful, then it is better to concentrate efforts on them and not on existing differences.
Tashkent perceived the offer to normalize relations, in principle, with happiness, but at the same time made Washington understand that Russia, Europe and China have long been working in the country and that the USA has to exert great effort to catch up with them.
That is why it is no wonder that with the start of 2008, the US diplomacy has decided to remind Tashkent about the importance of bilateral partnership and to do everything possible to ensure that the United States, especially its business circles, restored their lost positions in Uzbekistan as soon as possible.
Military cooperation is possible, but later
It is not accidental that the commander of the US Central Command, William Fallon, included Uzbekistan in his trip to Central Asia. This is the first contact at such a level in 2008 between Tashkent and Washington. The general background of a possible restoration of cooperation between the countries depends on how these kinds of talks will develop further.
The USA understands very well that as the most densely-populated state in the region, Uzbekistan is virtually in the centre of all strategic and energy games which are played out in Central Asia by the USA, the European Union, Russia and China. Although a comparatively small amount of natural resources are located on the territory of Uzbekistan (mainly natural gas), the most important export routes and pipelines from Central Asia to Russian regions and China go via its territory.
Though, on the whole, the relations of Washington and Brussels with Tashkent are still unstable and controversial, the leadership of Uzbekistan is more than happy with the resumption of a dialogue with the Western powers, which in Tashkent’s words, are "of too much principle" and which had tried to teach Karimov’s government "Western manners" of treating its [Uzbekistan’s] population for almost two years in vain.
There is another issue in the USA’s intensification of its efforts to normalize relations with Uzbekistan. The point is that though Tashkent has signed an agreement on strategic partnership with Russia and joined the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] as well as the military and political structures of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), there has been some misunderstanding and even certain tension between Moscow and Tashkent. This in turn prompts the USA and the European Union to take actions.
Incidentally, during his trip to the countries of so-called Greater Central Asia, US Adm William Fallon visited Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to official representatives of the Pentagon, the admiral during his visit to Uzbekistan did not "yet" discuss the possibility of the resumption of the US military base activities [in Uzbekistan]. However, experts that commented on the preparations of the US admiral’s visit to the region said that nobody ruled out this kind of scenario in the future. At the same time, it is understandable that Admiral Fallon’s visit to the region makes it clear that not only the US military but also politicians in the White House are extremely interested in the soonest restoration of normal relations between the USA and Uzbekistan.
Transit is a delicate issue
Undoubtedly, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will remain the most priority countries in Central Asia for the USA. Apart from this, the USA has a good partner on the other side of the Caspian Azerbaijan, with which Washington is managing to resolve all arising issues promptly and on the basis of mutual benefits.
As for Uzbekistan, the USA understands well the importance of this country in laying pipelines from Central Asia to Europe via Azerbaijan. Apart from this, Uzbekistan today is already one of the main suppliers of natural gas to its closest neighbours in the region (South Kazakhstan [Region], Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). If Tashkent only slightly turns off the pipe for some reasons, then disruptions in the heat supply will immediately start in neighbouring countries.
Uzbekistan is also important for the United States regarding the wish of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to speed up the construction of new gas pipelines [that would carry gas to] in China. Given the circumstances, Uzbekistan, as a transit country, can bargain out very good terms for itself and even put certain political pressure on its "gas-rich neighbours".
It is clear that the governments of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and not Washington, will resolve transit problems with Uzbekistan. But for the USA it is important that energy supplies in the region are stable (and if possible they should go under the bed of the Caspian in the direction of Europe). The more predictable the contacts between Tashkent and its main gas clients, the faster the implementation of such projects as Nabucco and some other "energy ideas" of the USA and the European Union.
Be that as it may, but Uzbekistan once again will be in centre of the attention of US politicians and diplomats this year. Most importantly, this kind of activity on the part of Washington was met by the Uzbek leadership’s mutual interest. Another question is as to what extent Tashkent can benefit from the Washington "card" in the conditions when major and small neighbours of Tashkent, including Russia and China, will probably adequately react to this kind of cooperation between Tashkent and Washington.
BBC Monitoring Central Asia