Karimov Gives First Visit to Kremlin

In a positive sign for Moscow's continued influence in Central Asia, Uzbek President Islam Karimov will meet President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in his first official visit abroad since being re-elected in December.

The meeting in the Kremlin, which is expected to see the presidents give their blessing to a number of bilateral deals, comes at a time when the United States and Europe are intensifying their efforts to re-establish ties with the Central Asian country.

Included among the expected deals is one to integrate a Soviet-era Uzbek aircraft maker into Russia's budding national aviation champion, as well as a joint presidential declaration on bilateral relations, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity. The countries will also sign an intergovernmental agreement for an economic cooperation program running through 2012, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Energy negotiations will also be high on Wednesday's agenda, with the development of gas transport infrastructure in Central Asia occupying a significant place in talks, the Kremlin said.

The visit comes at the same time the West has been attempting to rekindle ties with Tashkent that turned sour after the Uzbek government fired on protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005.

Analysts say Russia has used the strain in relations to its advantage to negotiate unprecedented agreements for cooperation with Uzbekistan. Putin was one of the few leaders to praise the way Karimov's government handled the uprising.

The West, analysts say, has decided it can no longer afford to try to punish Tashkent for the crackdown on basic freedoms.

"The pragmatic West has learned its lesson and is trying to find its own course," said Azhdar Kurtov, an analyst with the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies.

In the lead up to his trip to Moscow, Karimov and senior government officials met with Admiral William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Central Command. Fallon visited Uzbekistan on Jan. 24 to "renew dialogue with an important regional player" and to speak about regional security, democratic reforms and human rights, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said.

"We should expect Uzbekistan to promote a multivector policy," said Alexei Malashenko, senior expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Essentially, the West has forgiven Uzbekistan for Andijan."

Days before the meeting with Fallon, the European Union's Representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, praised Uzbekistan as a "reliable partner" during a meeting with Karimov on Jan. 17th. Morel said the EU supported the "strengthening and expansion of further cooperation" with Uzbekistan," according to Karimov's presidential administration web site.

Karimov, who has been in power for almost two decades, was given another seven-year term in December.

Last week, Putin told Karimov by phone that he valued the "open, trust-based dialog" that helped reinforce the "strategic partnership and alliance between our countries." Putin congratulated Karimov on his 70th birthday, adding that the upcoming talks would boost the bilateral relations.

Among the agreements likely to be signed Wednesday is an intergovernmental deal that would fold the Uzbek aircraft producer V.P. Chkalov Tashkent Aircraft Production Corporation 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 maker of Il-114 regional passenger craft and Il-76 transport aircraft, a corporation spokesman said on condition of anonymity. He said the UAC planned to issue additional shares in conjunction with the deal, adding that the firm would also have to invest in the ailing Soviet-era plane maker.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov has approved the deal in principal, according to a statement on the government's web site Tuesday.

Analysts expressed doubt that the tie-up, which has been in the works for years, would be economically advantageous to Russia.

"I simply don't understand who needs it more: Uzbekistan or Russia," Malashenko said, adding that the deal looked like an attempt to win Uzbekistan's political support through economic deals.

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

Putin and his Turkmen and Kazakh counterparts said they would also expand the capacity of an existing pipeline that currently pumps Turkmen gas to Russia through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to 90 billion cubic meters.

The importance of this visit may not just lie in Karimov's recent victory, some analysts say, but also in the possibility of a looming changing of the guard in Tashkent. The Carnegie Moscow Center's Malashenko said there had been reports that Karimov, 70, is in poor health and that the Kremlin would like to ensure continuity in the bilateral ties although it is unclear who would succeed the Uzbek leader.

The candidate tapped to succeed Putin in presidential election on March 2, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, is likely to participate in the talks, a Kremlin spokesman said Tuesday, although Medvedev's spokeswoman, Zhanna Odintsova, could not immediately confirm this.