A scheduled meeting of the Coordinating committee for anti-aircraft defense issues of the Council of ministers of the CIS member-nations was held in Moscow on March 5. The Staff for coordinating military cooperation between the CIS member-nations said that the meeting concerned further development of the CIS anti-aircraft system and the essence and main phases of an impending exercise on the Ashuluk firing range (the Astrakhan region, Russia). In addition, delegates discussed a range of financial issues and passed a plan of joint exercises and meetings for 2004.
Representatives of practically all CIS republics, except for Turkmenistan, attended the meeting. In addition, representatives of the Uzbek Defense Ministry failed to turn up at the meeting: only colonel Damir Safiulin, an officer of the Staff for coordinating military cooperation, attended the meeting as a formal representative of Kazakhstan. This situation looks rather strange.
The Uzbek Army has a very weak anti-aircraft system. General Dustum’s warplanes (Afghanistan) landed on the Kagaity airdrome without permission in 1993. A jetliner skyjacked by terrorists landed in the airport of Tashkent in spring 2000. It is easy to imagine what would have happened if the terrorists had decided to crash the jetliner into a government building in the Uzbek capital. The Uzbek defense minister was dismissed after that incident; an officer who was on duty at the command post of the anti-aircraft system was jailed for eight years (he was amnestied a bit later). After that Uzbekistan signed a range of agreements with Russia: an agreement on the use of Russian firing ranges by Uzbek anti-aircraft units, an agreement on cooperation in providing flight security over Russia and Uzbekistan, and more. In addition, Russia and Uzbekistan passed an instruction on cooperation between Russian and Uzbek anti-aircraft units on duty.
In the meantime however, Uzbekistan has not yet ratified these agreements, nor conducted an exercise on a Russian firing range. Some experts say that the efficiency of the Uzbek anti-aircraft system leaves much to be desired. However, the Uzbek military is not alarmed by this situation. As a matter of fact, military contacts within the framework of the CIS have been wound up. Representatives of the Uzbek Defense Ministry have not been attending meetings organized by the Staff for coordinating military cooperation for a long time. In addition, Uzbekistan ignored the activities of the military-technical cooperation committee.
Russian military experts say that Uzbekistan directs its efforts to strengthening cooperation with the US. For instance, the US has already allocated a few million dollars to Uzbekistan; $5 million has been spent on the upgrade of the Khanabad airbase. In this regard, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that he relies on the international community’s support in the development of Uzbekistan’s infrastructure. Khanabad is a very important base station for the US. The US military has renovated the runway and erected additional buildings on the territory of the base. The US rented the base for 20 years.
Washington’s attention to the Uzbek base is connected with another very important aspect. The Pentagon became interested in cooperation with Tashkent after the majority of Arab nations and Turkey refused to let the US use their bases in an operation against Iraq. Khanabad might become a very convenient base for delivering air strikes on Iraq. Tashkent has not yet permitted the US to use the base for this purpose. Meanwhile, sources in Uzbekistan say that a battle between different clans has aggravated in the republic owing to Islam Karimov’s illness. As far as the foreign-political orientation is concerned, the Uzbek elite have split into supporters of strong relations with Russia (headed by Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov) and so-called “pro-Western forces” (headed by Defense Minister Kadyr Gulyamov).
Namely Gulyamov initiated the cancellation of military and military-technical cooperation with the Russian federation. Military sources report that he proposes the president of Uzbekistan to support a military operation against Iraq and let the US use the Khanabad base. In exchange, the US promises to rearm the Uzbek Army according to NATO’s standards. Experts say that this will cost around $1 billion. No one knows what decision Karimov will make. However, observers say that his illness may aggravate the situation in the republic and the region.
The world has focused attention on the president of Uzbekistan. There are rumors that Karimov will soon die. However, his visit to Spain in late January and a meeting with the Indian defense minister testify that he can work for a while. Meanwhile, it is not ruled out that he is ill because he holds all meetings in his residence near Tashkent. In other words, Uzbekistan is moving away from Russia. Moscow does not react to this yet. However, if Tashkent supports a war on Iraq the situation will aggravate.