MOSCOW - Amid talk of creating a Muslim
force to help with security in Iraq, former Soviet
Muslim states are potential candidates, which would be
an obvious boost for the United States, but a setback
for Moscow's efforts to maintain its clout in the
Central Asian region.
Saudi Crown Prince
Abdullah called this week for the establishment of a
Muslim army during the visit of US Secretary of State
Colin Powell, who said that the idea was "interesting".
The prince's call was later echoed by Iraqi Prime
Minister Iyad Allawi.
The most populous Central
Asian state, Uzbekistan, would be a prime candidate for
supplying troops as it is a US ally. Coincidence or not,
in late July, the head of US Central Command, General
John Abizaid, visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan before
traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Officially,
Abizaid discussed US-Uzbek cooperation at meetings in
Tashkent with Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyq Safayev and
Defense Minister Kadir Ghulyamov.
officials reportedly reassured Abizaid that Uzbekistan
was determined to continue cooperation with the US.
Abizaid told a news conference after the meetings that
the US would further develop its military cooperation
The US has about 1,000 of its
troops deployed at a military base in Uzbekistan, the
remnant of a much larger force that played a key role in
the military campaign that ousted the Taliban in
neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
Officially, there was no talk about Uzbek
troops going to Iraq. But Russia's Nyezavisimaya Gazeta
daily speculated that should Uzbekistan send troops to
Iraq, it would mean the prompt renewal and extension of US
aid programs. This month the US State Department
said it would cut up to US$18 million in aid to the
country over concerns of human-rights abuses in the
In response, the Uzbek
Foreign Ministry said that US human-rights standards
"may be too high for Uzbekistan, which has just started
to move toward democracy".
On Thursday, the Russian
ambassador to Tajikistan, Maxim Peshkov, voiced concerns
over the United States' increasingly proactive approach
in the region, and Moscow clearly views troop deployment
in Iraq by its former Soviet brethren as an affront to
its opposition to the Iraq war. Meanwhile, Russian
President Vladimir Putin has met with his Uzbek counterpart,
Islam Karimov, and agreed to hold joint special-forces war
games in the Uzbek mountains next year.
has repeatedly declined to supply peacekeeping troops to
the US-led coalition in Iraq. Speaking at a press
conference after talks in late July in Moscow with his
Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia's reluctance to
send troops to Iraq.
In mid-July, Moscow
strongly dismissed media allegations that the Kremlin
was even considering sending Russian troops to Iraq
after the US-based private consultancy Stratfor claimed
that Moscow and Washington were negotiating a request by
the administration of President George W Bush to send
Russian troops to Iraq or Afghanistan this fall.
Stratfor alleged that the Russian deployment could be as
high as 40,000 troops.
After the US decision
to trim aid to Uzbekistan, Moscow moved to come up with
economic carrots, and Russian government-connected
companies have announced a series of projects in
Uzbekistan. Notably, Moscow-based Mobile TeleSystems
(MTS) agreed to pay $121 million for 74% of Uzbek
provider Uzdunrobita, and signed an option to buy the
remaining 26% for $38 million in the next three years.
MTS is controlled by Sistema, a holding company with
close ties with the Moscow Municipal Administration.
MTS will be paying a hefty premium for
the Uzbek firm, which is controlled by Karimov's
daughter, Gulnara Karimova, known as the "Uzbek Princess", as the
price is about 33 times what the company valued itself
at just two years ago. Last November, the Russian Foreign
Ministry accredited the "Princess" as a counselor at the
Uzbek Embassy in Moscow in a move that was seen as a
sign of Uzbekistan's drift toward Moscow.
Russia and Uzbekistan have moved
to boost bilateral ties, and a summit meeting in
Samarkand last August was described by the Uzbek leader as
"important". During that meeting, Putin and Karimov
focused on the prospects for expanding bilateral
economic cooperation, especially the export of Uzbek
cotton and natural gas, and the participation of Russian
companies in exploring oil and gas deposits in
Uzbekistan. Karimov has described Russia as a "priority
Russia is interested in
enlisting Uzbekistan into its hydrocarbon game in Central
Asia. Russian natural-gas giant Gazprom has indicated interest
in acquiring a 44% stake in the Uzbek pipeline monopoly
Uzbektransgas. The deal was supposed to facilitate
supplies of Turkmen gas to Russia via Uzbek pipelines.
However, Gazprom's acquisition of the Uzbektransgas
stake is yet to materialize.
In June, Putin
and Karimov met in Tashkent to sign a partnership
agreement, as well as a $1 billion 35-year
production-sharing agreement (PSA) to develop Uzbek natural-gas deposits.
Under the PSA, top Russian oil producer LUKoil is to
develop the Kandym, Khauzak and Shady gas fields in the
south of the country, which have 280 billion cubic
meters of proven reserves. LUKoil will have a 90% share
in the project, with Uzbekistan's Uzbekneftegaz holding
the remaining 10%.
Gazprom is also to invest $1
billion in Uzbekistan, Putin recently announced.
Gazprom's investment will eventually raise Russian
involvement in Uzbekistan to $2.5 billion.
Russian analysts are now suggesting that Moscow
use all its clout - including these economic carrots -
to completely pry Uzbekistan away from any US influence
once and for all.
Sergei Blagov covers
Russia and post-Soviet states, with special attention to
Asia-related issues. He has contributed to Asia Times
Online since 1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he was based
in Southeast Asia. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science
Publishers, NY, published two of his books on Vietnamese
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