Has Karimov switched sides?

On July 29, 2005 the Uzbek government hand delivered an eviction note to the US Embassy. The document stipulated that the US must close its military base and cease operation in Karshi-Khanabad base (known as K2) within 180 days. Earlier Rumsfeld dismissed the idea that the base was important to US military operations in the region. He said, “We’re always thinking ahead…”We’ll be fine.” However, in May, Pentagon official Bryan Whitman described the Uzbek base as “undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations.” It was also reported on August 08, 2005 by Nezavisimaya Gazeta Daily that Russian commandos have been deployed in Uzbekistan to take charge of the K2 airbase when US troops leave. So the questions arises has Karimov switch sides and moved into Russia’s sphere of influence. Also how big a blow is this to America’s plan to control the rich energy reserves of the region.

Tensions between Karimov and the US first emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Andijan massacre. America was slow to offer support and only gave a muted public response to the incident. Instead, on May 20, 2005, the acting U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson spurred Kofi Annan to call for a UN probe into the massacre. The probe coincided with EU demands for an international inquiry into the killings in Andijan. This annoyed Karimov as he expected greater support from the Americans for brutally suppressing the uprising in Andijan. Sensing a rift between Karimov and the US, Russia sought to bring Karimov under its sphere of influence and moved to block any calls for an international inquiry into the massacre. On May 25, 2005 speaking at a meeting of NATO countries and partner states in Sweden, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Vladimir Chizhov was quoted by Reuters as saying that “putting forward a demand for an international investigation as an ultimatum is neither appropriate nor fair.”

However the North Atlantic Council ignored Russia’s concerns and issued a statement condemning Karimov’s regime. The statement read, “We support the United Nation’s call for an independent international inquiry into these events and urge the Uzbek authorities to allow such an investigation.” As a result Uzbekistan declined to send its defense minister to a NATO ministerial meeting on June 09, 2005, and a NATO official said the alliance was reviewing its ties with the country following killings there in May, Reuters reported. Russia once again took the opportunity to back Karimov and rejected calls for an international probe. “Russia will not support NATO’s call for an international investigation of the recent Uzbekistan unrest”, said Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

But the EU and America continued to ignore Russian attempts to impede calls for international inquiry and started to press Karimov to conduct one under the auspices of international observers. On 15/6/05 the US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that the Bush administration has in the recent past blocked some U.S. aid to Uzbekistan because of its poor human rights record, and that policy toward that country is under review as the United States presses its call for a credible, independent investigation of the Andijan events. Karimov reacted angrily to US threats to cut aid and proceeded to ban US flights at the K2 airbase. Describing the ban Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, “The Uzbek authorities are no longer allowing night flights in and out of the Khanabad air base, which the U.S. army is using for providing support to the allied forces in Afghanistan and for the flow of humanitarian aid into this country.” This was followed by demands by the Uzbek government that the US should pay for using the base. While making such demands the Karimov’s regime also took a swipe at the US and reminded her that the stay at Khanabad airbase was temporary. The reminder reflected the concerns expressed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which consists of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. These countries met on July 05, 2005 and demanded that the U.S. provide a timetable for pulling its military out of Afghanistan and Central Asia.

However, it was the use of the K2 base by the UN to airlift more than 440 Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan to Romania that prompted Karimov to sever his relationship with the US. Commenting on the airlift, Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu said that the Uzbeks would travel on to other countries, including the U.S., where they will undoubtedly be debriefed and some recruited by U.S. intelligence agencies. The very next day on August 01, 2005 the Uzbek government delivered an ultimatum to the US and told her that America had six months to pull its troop from K2 and leave Uzbekistan. Washington immediately cancelled Nicholas Burn’s visit and announced that America would meet Karimov’s deadline. Thereafter, Washington intensified its criticism of Karimov’s regime and was joined by the EU who immediately cut off aid to Karimov.

Russia’s response was the exact opposite. On August 01, 2005, speaker of Russia’s upper house said that Uzbekistan made the right decision in telling the United States to withdraw its military base within six months. Russia as well as China took advantage of the tense relationship between Karimov and the US over the past few months to cement economic agreements with Uzbekistan. Karimov journeyed to China to sign new "friendship" and energy agreements with Beijing, and he reaffirmed Uzbekistan’s contracts with Russia for natural gas exports.

The loss of the K2 base will not affect American operations in Afghanistan. From the outset, the K2 base was more of a toehold for America to project its power in the Caspian Sea region and beyond. But at the moment this strategy is looking increasingly shaky as both Russia and China are exploiting America’s failings in Afghanistan and Iraq to counter US presence in the Central Asian states. The rivalry between these powers is just the beginning of a long struggle to control the rich oil resources of the region.