BOSTON — Few Americans are likely to consider the implications of Uzbekistan foreign policy in a normal day. But this California-sized country isolated from the world by the vast, shifting sands of Central Asia wants to make sure the American government doesn't do the same.
More than any other country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan has shown its eagerness to strike a symbiotic relationship with the US - and this eagerness has surfaced in some odd ways.
Consider the Nov. 12 United Nations resolution calling for condemnation of the US economic embargo of Cuba. The resolution was supported 138 to 3. Uzbekistan - a landlocked country 10 time zones away from Havana - voted against the measure. The others in opposition: the US and Israel.
"[Uzbekistan] sees this as a kind of vote where they know [the US] is going to be isolated, and it's a way to demonstrate they want to cooperate with us," a Washington source says.
Stability in a region of rocky relations
Aside from certain economic interests, Uzbekistan and its authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, can offer the US something more: stability. In a region caught between the volatile politics of Russia, Iran, and civil-war-ridden Tajikistan, stability is valuable. "Strong leaders appeal to the US in potentially disorderly countries," says Martha Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. "[President Karimov] has really pitched the line about Russia that the US wants to hear - that Russia is potentially aggressive toward Uzbekistan and [that] the US has to have a more independent policy toward the successor states."
In return, this cooperation has helped Uzbekistan get a seat at the international table despite a human rights record that makes observers cringe (see accompanying story).
While Uzbekistan has taken some small steps to improve human rights, these moves have been just one part of a greater posturing aimed at putting Uzbekistan on the geopolitical map.
"Karimov is aggressive. He has a notion of what Uzbekistan foreign policy should be and that it should be a leader in the region," Ms. Olcott says.
US seen as key for stability in Central Asia
Safik Safaev, the Uzbek ambassador to the US, stresses that cooperation among the former Soviet Central Asian states is the best way to maintain stability. But he also says the US is a key player. "The presence of the US in Central Asia is an important factor in the stability of the region," he says.
Safaev points to Uzbekistan's voting record in the UN as an indicator of the coincidence of US and Uzbek interests. He says Uzbekistan has voted with the US on every vote for the past two years: "This was not done after consultation; it is the consequence of a common approach to world affairs."
Still, others see this as a way for Uzbekistan to also forward its international agenda.
"The Uzbeks aspire to leadership in Central Asia," says Paul Goble, who tracks Uzbekistan for the US government's Radio Liberty. "Voting with the US when it's in a distinct minority gets remembered."