- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a strategic partnership deal with Uzbekistan yesterday, seeking to restore Russian influence in the nation that had become a key U.S. military ally since the September 11 attacks.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has charted an independent course since the 1991 Soviet collapse and in 1992 became a strategic partner of the United States. The bond was solidified after the Uzbeks offered use of a key air base to hundreds of U.S. troops to oust the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Putin-Karimov deal calls for cooperation across a range of economic sectors and closer diplomatic and academic ties. The move seeks to restore Moscow as a major player in Central Asia, which was considered part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence since czarist times.

“We’ve signed a document that opens a new page in the history of our relations,” Mr. Putin said, as reported by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency. “The treaty has no time restrictions and lays down a solid foundation for the Russian-Uzbek strategic partnership.”

Mr. Karimov called the talks “significant” and said they would “open new prospects for our long-term relations.”

Without the lure of foreign aid, Russia has turned its mighty state-affiliated energy companies to the task of making deals across Central Asia to maintain ties.

Yesterday, Russia’s Lukoil and Uzbekistan’s Uzbekneftegaz signed a 35-year cooperation agreement that foresees about $1 billion of Russian investment to exploit natural gas fields in central Uzbekistan.

Mr. Putin also said the gas giant Gazprom was working on a deal to invest more than $1 billion in Uzbekistan’s energy sector. He said he hoped other Russian investors would follow Gazprom’s example.

Mr. Karimov said the energy deals would bring the total Russian investment in Uzbekistan’s energy sector to $2.5 billion, Itar-Tass said.

In apparent response to the American military presence, Russia last year opened a base — its first abroad since the Soviet collapse — in the neighboring Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.

Foreign investors have shunned Uzbekistan, the region’s most populous country, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said this year it would limit investment here because of a lack of progress on democracy and economic liberalization.

Mr. Karimov said yesterday he hoped Russia would bring needed investment and help create jobs in his impoverished country.

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