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Central Asia a Focal Point of East-West Tensions

In Central Asia, the Bush administration faces the perhaps incompatible goals of democratization and the war on terrorism. VOA's Jim Bertel reports many analysts say the situation is complicated by big power rivalry for influence in this strategic region.

Following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, the United States turned to the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for airbases to support military operations in Afghanistan. Over the past four years, those airfields have become critical to Washington's efforts to combat terrorism.

But turbulent events in Central Asia have put the future of those bases in jeopardy. After Uzbekistan's harsh suppression of a May uprising in Andijan that human rights groups claim killed hundreds, the Bush administration joined the United Nations in calling for an international inquiry into the bloody crackdown. That strained relations with the Uzbekistan government, based in the city of Tashkent.

Many analysts believe it has created an opening for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian regional alliance led by China and Russia that includes Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to call for the United States to set a date for withdrawing its forces from member states.

The Bush administration has rejected the organization's request, citing bilateral agreements with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Moscow and Beijing of "trying to bully' smaller central Asian nations into removing the U.S. presence.

"Security and stability in Central Asia is an important concept, and those that can bring security and stability ought to be welcomed in Central Asia."

Eugene Rumor, a Central Asia Scholar at the National Defense University in Washington, warns the instability of the 1990s could return to the region if U.S. troops pullout.

"With the rise of the Taleban by 2001, Central Asia was less stable and less secure. And it was as a result of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and U.S. presence with boots on the ground in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that security and stability returned to central Asia."

Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington believes a move toward greater democracy is also vital for stability in the region.

"Democratization is a necessary step for the Central Asian regimes, if they themselves are not to become the targets of terror groups, if they aren't to become battlegrounds in the war on terror, where their own populations embrace terrorism as a way to get change, embrace radical groups as a way to get change."

With European nations even less satisfied with the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, she believes President Bush faces a stark choice between promoting democracy and fighting the war on terror.

US Troops at Karshi-Khanabad air base, Uzbekistan
"So, for Washington to decide at this point, for the administration to decide at this point that no, the base in Uzbekistan is so important that we will try to close our eyes to the human rights record of this regime is to put Washington on a potential collision course with other allies in Europe as well," said Ms. Olcott.

Eugene Rumor sees it differently, saying that while Uzbekistan isn't likely to embrace western democracy in the near term, it is too important an ally in the region to walk away from. "But we have no choice in my view -- it's my personal view -- to continue to deal with the Uzbekistan we have and not the Uzbekistan that we want to have. That is the reality."

Analysts say the reality is that Russia doesn't want democratization on its doorstep. And China wants to tap into Central Asia's energy resources to feed its booming economy. Given the region's central role in the war on terrorism and its large oil and gas reserves, few believe the U.S. will remove its troops any time soon.