Karimov Stresses Partnership on Visit

APKarimov meeting Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov on Wednesday.
In his first official visit abroad since being re-elected in December, Uzbek President Islam Karimov was joined Wednesday by President Vladimir Putin in pledging to intensify and improve economic ties between their countries.

Both presidents called the choice of destination a positive sign for the bilateral relations.

"We are grateful for this decision, which confirms a mutual aspiration to further deepen our strategic partnership," Putin told Karimov after more than two hours of talks.

Karimov returned the sentiment, saying he had "a feeling of utmost respect" for Putin and called Russia "not only a strategic partner, but also an ally."

The visit comes as the United States and Europe have been upping efforts to re-establish ties with Tashkent. The West has been seeking a rapprochement following a souring of relations after the Uzbek government fired on protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005.

The West is keen on garnering Uzbek energy supplies to fill a pipeline proposed to connect the Caspian Sea area to Europe while bypassing Russia, but Moscow enjoys a monopoly on energy exports from the resource-rich Central Asian region.

"Both sides have confirmed their interest in timely implementation of agreements on the development of a gas-pipeline network in the Central Asian region," Putin said after the talks. "We are aiming for active cooperation with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan."

Last May, during Putin's trip through the region, Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan agreed to build a gas pipeline along the Caspian Sea coast. The agreement, which was seen as a blow to Western interests in Central Asia, included the upgrading of existing Soviet-era infrastructure in Uzbekistan.

Putin and Karimov oversaw the signing of a cooperation agreement between the two countries' foreign ministries as well as an intergovernmental agreement on an economic cooperation program running through 2012, although officials provided no specifics on its nature.

Zurab Todua, an analyst with the Institute of Religion and Politics, said meager economic cooperation between the two countries was a sore point and that success in breathing life into the agreement through joint investment projects would guarantee strategic relations in the long term.

"The potential for cooperation is huge," he said.

The two sides also signed an intergovernmental deal that would fold a Soviet-era Uzbek aircraft producer into Russia's United Aircraft Corporation. The framework agreement will call for UAC to gain a stake of 50 percent plus one share in the V.P. Chkalov Tashkent Aircraft Production Corporation, maker of Il-114 regional passenger craft and Il-76 transport planes, a UAC spokesman said earlier this week. Karimov hailed the deal as a "landmark event," saying he wanted to see more alliances between Russian and Uzbek companies.

Karimov, 70, who has been in power for almost two decades, also said after the meeting that he thought Putin should have stayed for a third term as president.

"This could have happened and nobody would have regretted it," he said.