MOSCOW — “Uzbekistan is to Russia what Mexico is to the United States,” Elizaveta Isaev, professor of Russian politics, said to me as we walked along Old Arbot Street.
“Just as the United States cannot control its southern border with Mexico, so a radical Islamic victory in Uzbekistan, coupled with our Chechnya problem, would create a perhaps uncontrollable Islamic threat to Russia,” she continued. “How would Americans feel if Che Guevara were reincarnated on the U.S.-Mexican border?”
On May 13, the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov repulsed an attempted revolt in the northern city of Andijan. Human rights groups claimed that about 1,000 people were killed by Uzbek security police — they called it “a massacre” — but the government in Tashkent rejects these figures.
Prodded by human rights groups, NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and initially the United States called for an independent international probe into the Andijan events. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov opposed such an investigation, and subsequently a U.S.-Russian agreement blocked any call for a human rights inquiry. Absorbed by events in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration is seeking to avoid overreach in Uzbekistan.
But the explosiveness of the situation in Uzbekistan was underscored by the fact that on June 3, amid intelligence reports of an imminent assault on the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Tashkent, both evacuated nearly all their staff.
Angered by the possibility of any U.S. involvement in its internal affairs, the Karimov government retaliated by curtailing American use of Uzbekistan’s air base at Karshi-Khanabad, a logistics hub used to funnel supplies for military operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Rather than risk a deepening of great power disputes over Uzbekistan, the United States shifted its flight patterns from Karshi-Khanabad to airports in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Muslims comprise 88 percent of Uzbekistan’s population of 26 million, and the country is considered a breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorist groups. The United States has identified four insurgent groups operating in Uzbekistan: al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad, and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement. A fifth must be added to these, and this group is Hizb-Ut-Tahrir — the Party of Liberation, which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Tashkent.
“America is separated from the Muslim world by oceans, but Russia sits on top of a volcano,” Mrs. Asaev observed. “Because Russia lies north of the majority of the Islamic world, we have 300 million Muslims on our southern flank.”
Four major players are competing against each other in Central Asia: The United States, Uzbekistan, Russia and China. Central Asia is now a battlefield of great power diplomacy, and has re-entered the spotlight of history. It is a regional replay of the Cold War.
Washington’s diplomacy in Uzbekistan is conflicted.
On the one hand, after September 11, the Uzbek government allowed the United States to establish a military base on its soil. Not only does this base play an important role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it also positions U.S. power on the borders of Russia and China. The base in Uzbekistan is a vital link in the encirclement of both Russia and China, the Americans have another base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and it is against U.S. interests to do anything to undermine its continued use of these assets.
On the other hand, Mr. Karimov is a Soviet-style authoritarian, and a barrier to President Bush’s ambition to democratize the world. But the United States cannot move aggressively to topple this KGB clone, because his departure could bring a fundamentalist Islamic government to power. Since 88 percent of Uzbeks are Muslims, and since at least five radical Islamic groups are active in Uzbekistan, a U.S. attempt to democratize that country could bring about the installation of an anti-American radical Islamic government just north of Afghanistan.
Above all, Washington needs to avoid re-creating the Sino-Soviet alliance of the Cold War. It must not do anything in Uzbekistan that might revive the Sino-Soviet entente.
The choices facing Mr. Karimov were narrowed by recent upheavals in Georgia, the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Popular insurrections in these ex-Soviet republics overthrew authoritarian governments, and Mr. Karimov fears that a movement to the left, a retreat from his hegemonic control, would ultimately also lead to his departure from office.
Consequently, he has moved to the right, to a closer partnership with Russia. A common fear, the specter of radical Islam, unites Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Karimov. Whereas Mr. Putin feels threatened by Islam across the whole of his Central Asian frontier and Chechnya, Mr. Karimov faces the possibility of an al Qaeda coup in Tashkent.
Russia’s policies toward the unrest in Uzbekistan are not only dictated by its fear of Islamic expansion, but also by its panic regarding its encirclement by the United States. American military facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan expose the heartland of Russia to U.S. air assaults.
It is the Russian version of the Cuban missile crisis, played out in Central Asia.
The U.S.-Uzbek arrangement raises Russian anxiety over the eastward expansion of NATO. Not only did Russia lose an empire in Eastern Europe, but NATO leapfrogged eastward by including the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in its alliance.
In addition, Ukraine, under President Viktor Yushchenko, has shown interest in joining both the European Union and NATO. If this came about, NATO troops on the Ukrainian-Russian border would stand about 500 miles from Moscow.
As for China, NATO is not a worry but the U.S. military facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are a concern. In Central Asia, American warplanes are only 1,500 miles from Beijing — about a three-hour flight.
China has a radical Islamic problem of its own. Uighur people inhabit Xinjiang, the most westerly province of China, which shares a common border with Kyrgyzstan.
The Uighurs speak a Turkic language, are ethnically Turkish, and are Islamic by religion. Beijing also has a Che Guevara complex, for it must prevent its Uighur citizens seceding from Confucian China and uniting themselves with Islamic Kyrgyzstan.
Islamic separatism and American penetration into Central Asia are resurrecting the Sino-Soviet alliance of the Cold War. The Soviet Union is defunct, and Central Asia is fragmented, so the dead Cold War unity of the Soviet Union and China is reborn as the post September 11 China-Russian entente.
The shared goal of preventing Islamic secessionist movements propelled China and Russia into the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a body that includes four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations — Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The leading powers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are China and Russia, and the aim of the alliance is to develop closer cooperation in order to strengthen their own security and limit U.S. influence in the region.
American television was an accomplice in concealing the China-Russian alliance from the American people. Bowing to image makers in the administration, the May celebrations in Russia of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II presented Mr. Bush as a crusader for democracy. Though the Russians protested, Mr. Bush appeared on the television from Latvia and Georgia, saying that these countries must remain free from further conquest — meaning Russian hegemony.
But as soon as Mr. Bush left Moscow, the CNN world went blank.
“What the American people did not see was a public relations stunt prearranged by Putin,” said Mrs. Isaev.
“As soon as Bush stepped aboard Air Force One, President Putin met with President Hu Jintao of China.”
“Today politics is theater,” she went on. “When Putin and President Hu shook hands for television audiences in Beijing and Moscow, it sent the clear message that the China-Russian friendship was the real outcome of the 60th anniversary celebration.”
Islamic fundamentalism unites Russian and Chinese national interests over Uzbekistan.
After the Andijan massacre of May 13, Mr. Karimov flew to Beijing to gather allies. During his visit, he was told by the Chinese foreign minister that Beijing “firmly supports the efforts of the authorities in Uzbekistan to strike down the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism.”