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What stands behind Uzbekistan's demand to withdraw U.S. base?


MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti.) The Big Game for control over Central Asia has been going on for centuries.

The U.S. replaced Britain after it lost its imperial ambitions, and countries that appeared on the world map only in the 20th century have become independent players in this game.

The recent events in the region - the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana, the regional tour by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Uzbekistan's demand to pull out the American base within six months - marked a new stage in the Big Game where every player has his own interests.

The U.S. wants to preserve its military-political presence in the region after "appeasing" Afghanistan. The first reason for this is that the regime of President Hamid Karzai will hardly be strengthened by the parliamentary election set for the coming fall, and the U.S. will want to have a transport infrastructure for delivering troops to Afghanistan. Another reason is a desire to reinforce its standing in the region, pushing back Russia, whose traditional sphere of influence includes Afghanistan, and China, which has interests in Central Asia.

Rumsfeld came to the region to prop up Washington's positions in Kyrgyzstan and, if possible, in Uzbekistan, shaken by the SCO's recommendation to the U.S. to set the deadline for its military bases in the region.

The Pentagon chief was assured that the U.S. would remain in Kyrgyzstan. But the attempt to keep the base in Uzbekistan was complicated by Washington's desire to force Islam Karimov to promote democracy in his country. As a result, Karimov demanded an unexpectedly quick pullout of the base.

The U.S. is now expected to shift its attention to the base in Kyrgyzstan, which entails a complication, as planes flying from it to Afghanistan will have to refuel in the air. The Americans may therefore try to create one more base in a former Soviet state, possibly in Azerbaijan, under the pretext of ensuring the security of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

Russia is playing its own part in the Big Game. It does not want to publicly quarrel with the U.S. by forcing its bases out of the region, as this may provoke accusations of torpedoing the counter-terrorist coalition. Russia's goal is to ensure that the US bases are pulled out after the Afghan operation.

This stand corresponds to the opinion expressed at the SCO summit in Astana. The prolongation of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, provided it is linked to the operation in Afghanistan, does not contradict Russia's long-term interests within the SCO strategy. In addition, Russia wants to preserve its military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The sensational decision by Uzbekistan to demand the withdrawal of the American base means that Tashkent is acting in its own interests but is also showing its pro-Russian sentiments increasingly openly. This suits Moscow, which is not responsible for the actions of Islam Karimov and, as far as can be judged, did not encourage him to take such a harsh decision.

Karimov wants to show Russia (and China) that he has burned the boats in relations with the U.S. It was his "geopolitical present" for the support given to his regime by the SCO countries after the Andijan crisis.

The Americans softened their criticism of Karimov before Rumsfeld's visit, but this did not change the stand of Tashkent. The Uzbek leader knows very well that the U.S. will continue pressing him to promote democracy in the country. In this situation, Americans' assistance in airlifting Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania became an additional irritant for Tashkent, who had made a decision of principle on the matter.

Now for the interests of other states. The new leadership of Kyrgyzstan is trying to develop balanced relations with Moscow and Washington. The U.S. plans to grant Kyrgyzstan an interest-free loan of $200 million, which amounts to 60% of the republican budgetary revenues, in return for the preservation of the base.

Tajikistan is mostly pro-Russian.

China has been trying to strengthen its influence in Kyrgyzstan, to no avail so far. "The issue of the deployment of a Chinese military base in Kyrgyzstan was discussed at a very high level, but Kyrgyzstan's position is clear-cut: we do not plan to turn the country into a military-political range," said acting vice-premier Adakhan Madumarov.

Besides, there are no visible differences in Moscow's and Beijing's attitudes to regional problems.

The Big Game in Central Asia is waged with mixed success and mostly under the carpet. The results of bargaining held behind closed doors seldom become public knowledge, but it appears that competition between the players will grow. China will hardly abandon the idea of gaining a military-political foothold there. And the U.S. will work hard to remain in Kyrgyzstan even after the "appeasement" of Afghanistan.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy general director of the Center of Political Technologies

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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