Last week brought especially pleasant tidings for Moscow. Uzbekistan officially withdrew from GUUAM, an ‘anti-Russian’ union with Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, established in 1997 as a counterbalance to Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet era. Russia’s Defence Minister also agreed with his counterparts from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on enhancing Russia’s military presence in the region, where US troops recently set up base.
The decision of the Uzbek authorities to quit GUUAM was announced by Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov on Friday. Uzbek authorities see no point in the continued participation in the political and economic union, considering it to be unviable and making no progress.
''At this stage the economic dimension of the international organization is the most important for us,'' Kamilov said. ''Practice has shown that before launching such regional projects, a number of domestic and interstate issues have to be settled,'' he added. ''However, we confirm that we have a high standard of bilateral relations with each member country and will further develop them,'' Kamilov went on. He said Uzbekistan could resume its membership in the organization and Tashkent is not giving up the policy of integration.
Back in the late 1990s, it took Uzbekistan longer than other post Soviet republics to decide whether to join the Collective Security Treaty, where Russia played the prevailing role, or GUAM, which enjoyed NATO’s patronage.
At first President Islam Karimov put his signature to the Collective Security Treaty, but in 1999 Tashkent withdrew and joined GUAM, the union of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, thus adding one more letter to the name of the organization. GUAM was formed in 1997, when the original four members united around the project of building a Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor involving sea, river, railway and automobile routes for passenger and freight traffic.
In the years that followed, however, the antagonism between the two camps became much less acute, since Russia’s relationship with two of the five GUUAM members – Ukraine and Azerbaijan – have been steadily improving. After Russian leader Vladimir Putin proclaimed the beginning of a new era in Russia-NATO relations and signed the Rome Declaration, the existence of GUUAM has lost most of its political sense, which, together with the vague economic prospects of the union, prompted the Uzbek authorities to quit.
Hardly concealing his joy, the Russian Foreign Ministry immediately hinted that Tashkent could re-join the Collective Security Treaty. Commenting on Uzbekistan’s decision, Interfax sources at the Russian Foreign Ministry said, ''The step indicates that Tashkent has seen no prospects for cooperation in the framework of the organization. Membership in it is a personal affair and sovereign right of member countries. However, life shows that there are more promising forms of cooperation in the framework of the CIS.''
Before announcing the decision to quit GUUAM, the Uzbek authorities consulted with the US. On Thursday, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs in the U.S. Department of State visited Tashkent to meet with Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov. By taking a step towards Russia, Uzbekistan, nonetheless, has no intention of severing ties with the US; on the contrary, Tashkent lays special emphasis on further cooperation with the US. ''We are expanding our cooperation in all spheres and at all levels,'' Pascoe said in Tashkent, before departing for the US air base in Khanabada.
The Uzbek authorities’ decision to quit GUUAM coincided with another important event; Friday saw the council of the defence ministers of the CIS member-states meet for their regular session in the Kyrgyz town of Cholpon-Ata.
Sergei Ivanov arrived from Bishkek, where he had held successful talks with President Askar Akayev and with the Defence Minister of Kyrgyzstan Esengul Topoyev. Kyrgyz officials assured the Russian defence minister that the US presence in Kyrgyzstan would in no way impede further development of military ties between Moscow and Bishkek.
During their meeting President Akayev and Ivanov discussed a wide range of issues concerning joint security and the strengthening of military-technical cooperation. In particular, they discussed issues concerning the extension of the term of Russian servicemen's presence in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the training of Kyrgyz nationals at Russian military training institutions. Ivanov and Topoyev extended the agreement for the lease of Kyrgyz territory occupied by two Russian military bases: the Ozero range situated on the lakeside of Issyk-Kul and a signal centre near Bishkek.
After the meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Ivanov emerged before the press and said that Russia did not fear the US presence in Kyrgyzstan.
At the meeting in Cholpan-Ata the minister gave one more reason as to why such fears were groundless. He informed his counterparts that at a recent summit in St. Petersburg Akayev and Vladimir Putin agreed on the establishment of a center for combating terrorism under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to be based in Bishkek. In the near future, the defence ministers of the member-states of the SCO plan to oversee military exercises in Kyrgyzstan.
The ministers also discussed the problem of Russia’s 201st motor-rifle division based in Tajikistan. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov has long since insisted that the Russian division needs to be granted the status of a military base, so that Russia will allocate funds for its maintenance.
In December last year Moscow gave in and agreed to transform the division into a base in 2002. Speculation had arisen that the base in Tajikistan might be closed altogether due to its impracticability, just like Russia’s Lurdes radar station in Cuba. But, the arrival of US troops in the region made Russia change its mind. ''Russia would like to develop and enhance the status of the 201st motor-rifle division,'' the Russian defence minister told the press after the meeting with his counterparts.