Washington and Moscow may be trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place as they attempt to respond to the violence and growing instability in Uzbekistan, a keystone of the global antiterrorist alliance.
In official statements, both Russia and the US have deplored the unconfirmed death toll of up to 700 people that resulted when Uzbek security forces opened fire on a crowd of protesters in the Fergana Valley city of Andijon last Friday.
But in contrast to previous revolts in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the two big powers - both of which maintain a military presence in the region - have shied away from taking sides over the Uzbeki unrest and appear to agree that destabilization of the dictatorial but secular regime of President Islam Karimov would not be a good thing.
"Everyone in Russia and the West is afraid that radical Islamists are the ones who'll benefit if Karimov is pushed out," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The events in Uzbekistan are not going in the direction of a pro-democracy struggle. It is possible not only to end up with something much worse than Karimov in Uzbekistan, but also with the catastrophic destabilization of the whole Central Asian region. That's a prospect no one wants to contemplate," she says.
Tuesday as Tashkent remained under tight security, dozens of protesters gathered at the US Embassy to ask for help in ousting Karimov, Reuters reported. "War is just about to break out in Uzbekistan. We want them [United States] to realize this and help us," one protester said.
In the toughest American statement so far, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday, "We are deeply disturbed by reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators. We certainly condemn the use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life."
The US has been holding joint military maneuvers with the Uzbek armed forces since 1997, a collaboration that intensified markedly after Uzbekistan allowed US bases on its soil in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The relationship has survived despite serious concerns over the Karimov regime's human rights record, which led to a partial reduction of US military aid last year. Russia also maintains close security links with Uzbekistan, and has military bases in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Experts say that Mr. Karimov, who was Uzbekistan's Soviet Communist Party chief, has never permitted a free or fair election, and has regularly engineered the extension of his term of office through rigged referendums.
Human rights experts describe Uzbekistan as one of the most repressive states in the former Soviet Union. It has banned all civil opposition and regularly jails even moderate Islamic activists on charges of "religious extremism." Just such a trial of 23 local businessmen triggered last weekend's uprising in Andijon, and its subsequent brutal suppression.
"There is no doubt Karimov has effectively closed off all channels for legitimate expression of dissent in Uzbekistan," says Sergei Kolmakov, an expert with the Institute for the Development of Parliamentarism, which is linked to the Russian State Duma. "That leaves only religion as a forum for people to express themselves, but Karimov uses the label of 'religious extremism' to crack down on any opposition from that direction."
Some experts charge that President Bush bears some responsibility for raising the expectations of people in places like Uzbekistan. In a speech given to crowds in Georgia just three days before the Andijon uprising, Mr. Bush called for the expansion of freedom throughout the region. "Now, across the Caucasus, in Central Asia, and in the broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people. They are demanding their freedom - and they will have it," Bush said.
"This kind of appeal is very unwise," says Mr. Kolmakov. "Central Asia is a tinder keg, and the Fergana Valley in particular is a festering trouble spot of long standing. No one will want to embrace the kind of upheavals that happen there, and yet the events in Andijon must be seen as partially incited by President Bush's rhetoric."
But John Schoeberlein, director of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard University, says, "It would be nice if US moral leadership had such impact." He says that Bush's speech, however, "may have been more on the mind of the Uzbek government" worried that a Ukrainian or Georgian style revolution was brewing there.
Experts say the options facing Russia and the US are few and unpleasant.
"Basically, it's a choice between two evils," says Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department of the official Commonwealth of Independent States Institute in Moscow. "Given the scale of what happened [in Andijon], it just isn't ethical to support Karimov's position. But Russia's overriding concern here must be stability, because if chaos sets in the problems will rapidly move through porous borders to Russia," he says. "It would be very good, in this situation, for the US and Russia to work out a common position on preserving stability in Uzbekistan."