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Pullout from CIS Pact Undercuts Moscow's Clout
By Sergei Blagov, IPS, 16 February 1999
MOSCOW, Feb 16 (IPS) - Uzbekistan's decision this month to pull out of the collective security treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) further undermines Russia's already fragile influence over the former Soviet republics.
The CIS had been Moscow's tool for revitalising its influence among the old Soviet republics, control over which it lost after they broke away in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But Moscow's efforts to consolidate the commonwealth have been undermined by domestic economic woes. Now, analysts here warn that Uzbekistan's abandonment of the CIS defense pact could further erode the already weakening drive for post-Soviet integration.
"Uzbekistan is going to leave the Treaty on CIS Collective Security," Bakkhodyr Umarov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, said in a Feb 2 announcement.
Though Umarov said the decision had nothing to do with bilateral ties with Russia, Tashkent has also made it clear the move was caused by its disagreement with Russia's policy on deepening integration of former Soviet states.
Moscow's response was somewhat muted. Russian Foreign Minister Ygor Ivanov just said that six nations -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan -- confirmed their allegiance to the treaty.
Ironically, the Treaty on CIS Collective Security was christened "Tashkent treaty" because it was signed by nine of 12 CIS member states -- except Moldova, Ukraine and Turkmenistan -- in May 1992 in the Uzbek capital.
The treaty became effective upon approval in all nine parliaments in April 1994, and expires in April 1999.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has often said he opposes what he has described as efforts to achieve closer integration within the CIS, which threatens the sovereignty of member states.
His decision also comes as Uzbekistan feels the effects of the downturn in the Russian economy, which remains its main trading partner.
Uzbekistan, whose secretive government has been slow to admit growing pressures on its economy, has cut its 1999 growth forecasts to factor in the Russian turmoil. Uzbekistan lowered its forecast of 1999 GDP growth to 4.5 percent from 6.0 percent due to the Russian crisis.
"After the crisis in Russia, I saw it necessary to recalculate everything," Karimov has told his parliament recently.
Indeed, "Russia's economic crisis creates new foreign policy problems for the country, including in its relations with CIS states," said Yevgeny Kozhukhin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies.
That Tashkent is able to reject a key CIS pact demonstrates that the Kremlin's efforts to boost ties with Central Asia have been inadequate, despite shared interests such as alarm over Islamists.
In May 1998, the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan formed a "troika" with Russia to fight fundamentalism and Wahabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam that they believe threatens Central Asia and Russia's North Caucasus.
Uzbekistan has carried out a tough campaign against alleged Wahabis since four policemen were murdered in its Namangan region a year ago. In fact, Karimov told Parliament last year that "Islamist guerrillas" should be shot. "If necessary I'll shoot them myself, if you lack resolve," he told the deputies.
The leaders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have accused Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran of hosting underground centres that train radical members who then disturb peace in their states.
Russia keeps a 20,000-person strong peacekeeping force in Tajikistan, helping to patrol the volatile republic's border with Afghanistan, now largely controlled by the Taliban.
Uzbekistan's ties with Tajikistan have also hit a rough patch, although previously warm relations had led to Uzbekistan's agreement in February 1998 to reschedule Tajikistan's debts of more than 150 million U.S. dollars until the year 2000.
In May, Uzbekistan called on Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmonov for the detention and extradition of Uzbeks accused of training Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan's Fergana, Namangan and Andizhan regions.
Relation soured further and in September, Rakhmonov accused the Uzbek leadership of helping plot an armed uprising by warlord Makhmud Khudoberdiyev, an ethnic Uzbek, which ended with some 100 Tajik government soldiers and rebel troops dead.
To many, it came as no big surprise when Uzbekistan withdrew a battalion of its forces last November from Tajikistan, where they had been participating in a CIS peacekeeping force since 1992.
Tashkent however says the decision to withdraw the battalion had been announced before Tajikistan accused it of sheltering Tajik rebels -- which had caused bilateral ties to deteriorate.
And while Uzbekistan intends to leave the CIS defense treaty, Tajikistan reiterated that it views the treaty on collective security as a cornerstone of the Commonwealth, and considers Russia its strategic ally, says Tajik presidential spokesman Zafar Saidov.
"We regret Uzbekistan's decision to quit CIS defence treaty," Zafarov added.
"The impact of Uzbekistan's move could be pretty dire because this decision undermines the whole concept of post-Soviet integration," Oleg Ostroukhov, Asia analyst at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, said in an interview.
"The move also highlights Russia's economic weakness and inability to keep its existing alliances intact," he said.
In this light, Uzbekistan's decision to abandon CIS defense pact is seen as a desire to limit or replace Russian regional influence. The Russians, however, are more determined than ever to press ahead with their Central Asian and CIS policies in the aftermath of last year's financial meltdown.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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