NATO and Uzbekistan, Speaking From Different Scripts
So, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov has finished his trip to Brussels, where the New York Times reported that he got the "red-carpet treatment." So what was discussed? We may never know what actually happened behind closed doors, but there are some interesting discrepancies between the official statements of the two sides, Tashkent and Brussels (in particular, NATO).
The NATO statement focuses on Uzbekistan's help in Afghanistan by being a key hub on the Northern Distribution Network:
“The transit through Uzbekistan in support of our ISAF operation is valuable,” the Secretary General stated. “We are grateful for the support of Uzbekistan and of all our other Central Asian Partners to our mission in Afghanistan.”
The second focus is on democratization:
Along with all the other NATO Partners, Uzbekistan has signed up to the principles that underpin Partnership for Peace with NATO. Within this framework, the Secretary General also discussed with President Karimov how NATO can assist Uzbekistan with important democratic reforms.
Rasmussen highlighted that “Uzbekistan has been a NATO Partner for 17 years” and that he “spoke with President Karimov about our common commitment to democratic principles and NATO's ongoing efforts to assist partners towards democratic reforms through various Partnership tools.”
Contrast that to the report in Tashkent's official newspaper, Narodnoye Slovo (via BBC Monitoring). It's not surprising that democratization gets no mention. Somewhat more noteworthy is that the NDN isn't mentioned, either. The only mention of Afghanistan is to give a plug for Uzbekistan's 6+3 talks proposal, its pet project which seems to be Tashkent's attempt to play a constructive regional role, though which is a non-starter with the U.S., at least. But no mention of cooperation with NATO or the U.S. on Afghanistan. The Narodnoye Slovo report:
President Islom Karimov's meeting with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen showed that both sides were interested in the further development of a constructive partnership between Uzbekistan and the alliance. The following were singled out as priorities of the partnership: cooperation within an individual partnership programme and in the process of planning and analyzing adopted decisions, in fighting against the threats of proliferation of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction, in stepping up collaboration in fighting terrorism and the illicit drug trade.
It was underlined that given the extraordinarily complicated situation that has been emerging in Afghanistan, a search for alternative ways of achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan was becoming important. Uzbekistan believes that the creation of the contact group 6+3 under the aegis of the UN, which includes representatives of Afghanistan's neighbours, plus the USA, NATO and Russia, could play an important role.
The Uzbek side gave the necessary and quite complete explanations on its position on some cooperation issues [during the meeting].
The NATO secretary-general noted that Uzbekistan had been making a weighty contribution to the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan and spoke in favour of continuing the cooperation in stabilizing the situation in that country.
President Islom Karimov's visit to Brussels, which ended, demonstrated that the EU and NATO were both interested in expanding cooperation with Uzbekistan in various fields based on equal rights and mutually-beneficial partnership. It was underlined many times during the visit that the sides had a significant potential realizing which met their mutual interest.
It's striking that the NDN isn't mentioned, when that's obviously the key component of Uzbekistan-NATO cooperation. Why is Karimov keeping it under wraps? I thought perhaps there was some reason that Karimov might be downplaying it, perhaps for public opinion reasons. But I checked with an Uzbek source, who told me that, as much as it's thought about, cooperation with NATO is not unpopular among Uzbeks, and used a striking phrase: "There is no public opinion in Uzbekistan." It reminded me of being in Iraq in the days after Saddam Hussein fell, and asking people in Mosul and Kirkuk who they wanted to run the country, and it was something they seemed to honestly have not given any thought to, they were so far removed from having any say in anything that went on.
But that leaves the question unanswered: why are they downplaying their cooperation with the U.S. and NATO?
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.