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Rice Travels to Central Asia but Avoids Uzbekistan

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Central Asia and Afghanistan this week to boost economic and democratic reform initiatives in the region. One country Ms. Rice will not visit is Uzbekistan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to avoid Uzbekistan is an indication of how badly U.S.-Uzbek relations have soured. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has demanded the U.S. to leave the K-2 airbase in Uzbekistan by January. In retaliation, last week the U.S. Senate voted to block payment of $23 million for past use of the air base, which for nearly four years has been used by U.S. combat and humanitarian missions to neighboring Afghanistan.

The demand by President Karimov for U.S. forces to leave Uzbekistan is seen as retaliation for U.S. calls for an independent investigation into the May uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijan. The Uzbek government said 187 died in the uprising, but human rights groups say the death toll is much higher -- closer to 700.

Uzbek authorities claim the protests were led by Muslim militants intent on overthrowing the government to set up an Islamic state. But human rights organizations say the protests were about poverty and human rights abuses.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, who recently visited Uzbekistan, said Secretary Rice made the right decision not to meet with President Karimov's government.

"We were very troubled by Andijan, not simply the events themselves, but the reaction, but not simply Andijan and the reaction, but and a whole series of steps which frankly are troubling. Pressure on NGOs [non-governmental organizations], curtailment of exchange programs, a general climate of fear in the country, which I did not find in any other country I went to. These are very troubling."

After the uprising, Russia did not join the U.S. calling for an investigation into the cause of the protests. Uzbek President Karimov has thanked Russia for its support and has suggested that ties between Russia and Uzbekistan should be elevated to those of allies.

Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC says the U.S. believed it had a strong alliance with the Central Asian nation. But Professor Gvosdev says there are no permanent alliances in central Asia.

"There was this sense that Karimov was going to, in partnership with Washington, was going to redraw the strategic map of Central Asia, and this was going to be a major shift in the balance of power in the region. And now the reverse is happening, where Karimov has now, at least for the time being, definitely thrown his cards in, certainly with Russia and to a lesser extent with China, in this approach of sort of keeping the United States out of Central Asia, out of fear that the ultimate U.S. goal is really to replace all of the regimes of Central Asia.

But Assistant Secretary Fried says the U.S. is not in competition with Russia in the region. "We do not look at Central Asia as an object in a great game, we don't look at this as a zero sum contest between us, the Russians and the Chinese. We have our own interests. Our own interests do overlap significantly with what I believe are Russian interests, that is, we both opposing Islamist extremism and terrorism. We both oppose and are cooperating to help staunch the flow of narcotics across Central Asia through Russia into Western Europe. "

Although Secretary Rice's tour of the region will not include Uzbekistan, the nation may come up during discussions in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The focus of her trip is security, political and economic reform, and each nation's relationship with the United States.