Fraying U.S.-Russian relations seen in former Soviet states

Expulsion at Uzbek base may be latest indicator of Moscow's skepticism

August 02, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The immediate cause of Uzbekistan's decision last week to expel the United States from an air base supporting military operations in Afghanistan was a quarrel over Uzbekistan's bloody suppression of a prison riot and protests in May.

But the roots of the dispute run much deeper, diplomats and experts say, to a long-term deterioration of Russian-U.S. relations, and reflect the increasing tensions between Moscow and Washington over their influence in the nations of the former Soviet Union.

"There is a concerted and coordinated effort [by the Kremlin] to foster the impression that the United States is trying to undermine the regimes in the region," Alexander Vershbow, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in an interview in July.

Russian officials, he alleged, nurtured Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov's fears of being toppled in order "to hold Karimov close to Moscow" after the clashes in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan.

"Some Russians will acknowledge that Russia's long-term interests do lie in promoting reform and stability in the region through elections that lead to regimes that enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of their own people," Vershbow said. "But their short-term tactics seem to be more in the vein of basing their politics based on the regimes' loyalty to Moscow."

After the Sept. 11 attacks four years ago, there was talk of building a new strategic alliance between the Kremlin and the White House. Today, Western diplomats and analysts say, relations between the two nations are at their lowest point in more than a decade.

"We hear more and more that we're being portrayed as the glavny protivnik," or main adversary, said Vershbow, referring to the phrase used in the Soviet era to describe the United States.

As late as September 2003, President Bush praised President Vladimir V. Putin's "vision for Russia: a country at peace within its borders, with its neighbors, and with the world, a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive."

In retrospect, it may have been the high-water mark of recent U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the past two years, irritant has piled on irritant. Washington has become critical of Russia's record on democracy and human rights. Moscow has accused Washington of instigating the overthrow of regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, in order to undermine Russian influence.

In Uzbekistan, the White House suddenly faced a significant problem. Karimov responded to a prison riot and anti-government protests in Andijan with force, killing at least 187 people. The U.S. pressured the regime to permit an international investigation.

On Friday, the United States helped Uzbek survivors of the Andijan clashes leave Kyrgyzstan for Eastern Europe. Karimov's Uzbek government, in turn, gave the United States 180 days to close its Karshi-Khanabad air base, called K-2.

`Increasing suspicion'

The Kremlin has so far had little to say publicly about the Uzbek decision. But the chill winds blowing from the Kremlin, some Western experts say, may reflect more than just annoyance over specific events or policies. Russia's leaders may be having second thoughts about political and economic integration with the West.

"There is increasing suspicion of what Western values would do to Russia, increasing frustration with the West's unwillingness to fully embrace Russia," said Vershbow. "This is leading to a new nationalism, and a new anti-Americanism, which is not being very subtly promoted."

The rift, experts and analysts from both countries say, probably began with Western criticism of the war in Chechnya. Moscow claims it is part of the global war on terror. Europe and the United States insist that it is mostly a war against separatists, and have been critical of human rights abuses committed by pro-Russian forces there.

The Kremlin's frustration grew during the diplomatic maneuvering preceding the invasion of Iraq, which was overwhelmingly unpopular here. The tension was exacerbated by Western criticism of the arrest and trial of the oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky as politically motivated.

Frustrations seemed to boil over in September of last year, after 331 children, teachers and others died in the fiery school siege in Beslan, in the Caucasus.

After the carnage, President Putin went on television to warn that an unnamed hostile power - by clear implication the United States - was fomenting unrest in the Caucasus in an effort to weaken Russia.

"Some would like to tear from us a `juicy piece of pie,'" he said. "Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world's major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them. And so they reason that this threat should be removed. Terrorism, of course, is just an instrument to achieve these aims."

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