The Uzbek government hopes to parlay its close working relationship with the United States during the "war on terrorism" into closer economic ties, garnering much-needed direct investment for its underdeveloped petrochemical sector and increased bilateral trade, according to Sadyq Safayev, former Uzbek ambassador to the U.S. and first deputy foreign minister since May.
"I would dare to hope that we are on the next stage of relationships," Safayev said in an interview. "Uzbekistan has many advantages to be one of the most important ally for the United States. We are committed to bring relations to a new quality level."
Safayev served as Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United States from 1996 until earlier this year, when he was appointed to his first deputy foreign minister post. He is one of the leading advocates of a close, strong alliance between the United States and Uzbekistan in trade, education, culture and legal reforms beyond the current, more visible military cooperation. Safayev said he foresees a long and prosperous relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States, two nations which he said share common ideologies that bind them close together in a fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
He acknowledged Uzbekistan's growing importance in Central Asia and as a U.S. friend, but insisted that it is not Uzbekistan's overt goal to become the dominant power in the region.
"It is not our foreign policy decision to be a leader," Safayev said. "It is a burden, it takes resources. Countries cannot proclaim themselves to be a leader."
Instead, he said that "a leader emerges from the natural process of the situation" -- and he admitted that Uzbekistan has many advantages to thrust it into the role of the preeminent Central Asian nation.
The United States was one of the early advocates and supporters of Uzbekistan's independence from the Soviet Union and has quietly nurtured military exchanges and a slow increase of bilateral contacts. In response, Uzbekistan has been one of the United States' most loyal international partners, voting the same as the United States an average of 80 percent of the time in the United Nations -- third closest among all nations.
Those ties were made even tighter on September 11, when at least two Uzbek citizens perished in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. One was a student studying in the United States who was working in the caf on the 96th floor of the Trade Center, the second worked for a computer company located in the building.
Within days Uzbekistan was quietly pledging its support to the United States for its campaign against terrorism. In early October, the two nations formally signed an agreement to permit U.S. troops to be stationed on Uzbekistan military bases -- the first time U.S. forces have been placed in a nation that was once part of the Soviet Union.
In return, the United States has promised Uzbekistan unspecified amounts of aid and longer-term security guarantees.
"We are committed to provide all necessary support," Safayev said. "We must have a common effort to attack the threats to our stability -- terrorism, drug trafficking, ideological activities. In these areas, our approaches are closer to each other and we will stay as important partners. These problems will not disappear and we should stay close."
Uzbekistan plays a pivotal role in Central Asia. It is the region's most militarily capable and populous country, and large Uzbek minorities live in neighboring nations. As it celebrates the tenth anniversary of its independence, however, the country's apparent failure to embrace substantial political and economic reforms threaten to crack its veneer of stability and tranquility.
The rapidly developing friendship between the United States and Uzbekistan is a growing concern to Uzbekistan's neighbors as well as human rights activists. For example, Amnesty International released a report on Central Asia on Oct. 11 concluding that the region's leaders may use the fight against terrorism as a pretext for imposing more restrictions on rights and liberties. Other groups criticize Uzbekistan's widespread use of land mines on its borders and on disputed territory of its neighbors, resulting in civilian deaths.
But Safayev argued that Uzbekistan's geographic location and population base make it an ideal place for U.S. influences to make a positive difference. He touted the fact that Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian nation that shares borders with all the other countries in the region. Its population of about 25 million is almost half of the entire 55 million people in Central Asia and its homogeneous society of almost 90 percent ethic Uzbek creates a relatively stable ethnic environment.
He also threw open the door to other U.S. interests -- beyond the military and government -- to come to Uzbekistan and become players, especially U.S. companies eager to exploit the country's untapped natural resources.
Safayev also said the United States could become the beneficiary of Uzbekistan's eagerness to unleash its economic potential through mining, gas and oil development and agriculture -- the 21st century equivalents of the historic bounties of the Silk Road. Among other things, Uzbekistan is the fifth-largest producer or cotton and eighth-largest miner of gold -- despite the fact that its gross national product continues to decline each year.
"There are 48 gold mines and only 12 under exploration," Safayev said. "Many are waiting for investors. It's time to bring the market to all."
Safayev said an influx of U.S. investors and companies to Uzbekistan would help strengthen the country's development as a democracy. "More people -o-people, or heart-to-heart diplomacy, is what will help," he said.
Safayev also said the time is ripe for the United States government and business interests to establish themselves as friends in the minds of Uzbek's population, especially the younger generation. About 70 percent of the Uzbek population is under 30, with 50 percent younger that 18. Most of those do not remember the former Soviet leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev. Most don't even recall what communism was like in the former Soviet Union, Safayev said.
"The people in the south (of the former Soviet Union) did not envision the United States as the enemy," Safayev said. "People already felt that they were something different here. That explains why there is no uncertainty about the United States and why people are friendly to new ideas and the Web culture."
"We can create a new generation of students," he said.
Some are skeptical that pro-democracy advocates like Safayev will be able to transform the country, even with a large U.S. military and economic presence. There are regional fears that Tashkent will exploit American backing to get its way regionally, especially over territorial disputes. Some neighboring countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, are fearful that Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov would even resort to force, although Washington has said that it would not support such aggression.
Hopes expressed by some observers that U.S. support for Uzbekistan would promote democratic processes and improve its economic prospects have been dismissed by Karimov opponents.
"There is only one thing which can attract investors -- the liberalization of the economy. But that is what Karimov wants to prevent at all costs because this could lead to political liberalization, which is fatal for his regime," Muhammad Salikh, a leader of the Uzbek opposition movement in exile, said in a statement to the press.
"I think that U.S. cooperation with Uzbekistan will just prolong existence of Karimov's leadership," Salikh said. "Look at Saudi Arabia, which is a long-term American ally. Has it become more democratic?"
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