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Admiral William J. Fallon, Commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Uzbekistan,
Admiral William J. Fallon, Commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Uzbekistan, which is again headed by Islam Karimov after the December elections.

This visit may signal changes in Uzbek foreign policy. The admiral was received by the Uzbek President. The UZA national news agency reports that they exchanged opinions on measures to enhance regional security and stabilize the situation in neighboring Afghanistan. The Afghan problem was in the focus of the talks. It is clear from the list of officials met by the admiral - the Security Council secretary, defense and foreign ministers and the commander of the border troops.

Apart from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Fallon visited Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But experts have paid special attention to his visit to Tashkent. Some of them believe that the United States is stepping up its dialogue with the Uzbek leaders in order to regain influence in this strategically important Central Asian republic.

After the tragic events in Andijan in May 2005, Uzbekistan became a target of severe Western criticism. In response, it demanded that the American military base at Karshi be shut down. Since then bilateral relations have been at a standstill. But on the eve of the presidential elections, Karimov suddenly started talking about the forces standing between the West and Uzbekistan. "It is easy to see that they would like to see conflicts from which they would gain a certain advantage... In its foreign policy, Uzbekistan has always stood for mutual respect and mutually advantageous cooperation with all close and remote countries, including the United States and European nations," Karimov said.

The Europeans heard the signal. On January 17, the following day after Karimov's inauguration, EU Special Representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel announced that the European Union considers Uzbekistan a reliable partner and wants to promote cooperation with it. Brussels has surpassed the United States in developing dialogue - last year it partially alleviated the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after the Andijan events. In response, Uzbekistan pardoned several human rights champions, abolished capital punishment starting from January 1, 2008, and gave the courts the right to issue sanctions for arrest, thereby demonstrating its interest in normalizing relations with the EU.

Taskhent cannot accept the role of an international outcast. Last year, the Europeans adopted a new strategy under which the task of promoting democracy in Central Asia is second to the EU energy interests. But nothing is simple with such a difficult partner as Tashkent. It has already defined its foreign policy priorities - Germany in the West, and Japan in the East. These influential countries did not criticize Uzbekistan. The German officers and men at the Termez air force base near the Afghan border have nothing to worry about. An influential Uzbek analyst, close to the foreign ministry, told an expert that the deployment of the base was agreed with Moscow, and Berlin was well aware of this fact.

As for Japan, relations with Tashkent (and generally presence in Central Asia) are extremely important for limiting the influence of Beijing, which is playing an important role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is good for Uzbekistan, which wants to have more partners in addition to Russia and other SCO members.

Obviously, the Americans will not return to Uzbekistan with triumph because the current situation in the region is very different from what it was in the late 1990s, when Uzbek-U.S. contacts were in the making. At that time, Uzbekistan was threatened by the Islamic extremist militants from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Tashkent received information via its own channels that Moscow was not going to help it in case of an attack. In 1999, Uzbekistan walked out of the Collective Security Treaty (interpreted as a break-off with Moscow) and started drawing closer to Washington in the hope of securing its support in the struggle against Islamic extremists. In 2001, the latter's main forces were routed as a result of an American operation in Afghanistan, and the Uzbek leaders breathed a sign of relief.

But the concept of regional security is now different. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are playing the main role in this respect. Russia and China have major influence in both organizations. Today, Uzbekistan relies on them in ensuring its security. The Uzbek leaders have insisted that the headquarters of the SCO regional anti-terrorist center should be based in Tashkent (Bishkek was supposed to host it initially). Recently, Uzbek parliament ratified a number of documents to complete the procedure of accepting the CSTO legal standards.

Needless to say, Uzbekistan's return was made possible after the Kremlin met it halfway. Anti-Uzbek organizations - the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir (party of Islamic liberation) - have been blacklisted not only by Russia but also by all CSTO and SCO countries, owing to the lobbying by Russian diplomats.

There is no point for Uzbekistan in revising the established system of allied relations and partnership. But this does not mean that resumption of contacts with the United States is taboo. The Afghan problem, which worries Tashkent, may become a new point of departure in bilateral relations. There is one fundamental difference in the Americans' status, however. At the turn of the century, the United States was number one partner for Uzbekistan. Now it can return into the region as one of the players and join Russia, China and the EU.

Sanobar Shermatova is a member of the RIA Novosti Expert Council.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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