August 30, 2002

August 30, 2002 | WebMemo on Russia

U.S. Policy in Central Asia and the War on Terrorism

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States moved to establish embassies and to engage the strategically placed states of Central Asia. Their weaknesses were evident from the beginning, but we believed it important to shore up their independence and provided modest assistance to help them to develop into stable modernizing countries. Key elements in this strategy included multiple pipelines to help the countries of the region benefit from their energy wealth, humanitarian efforts to stave off the collapse of some of the countries' social structure, civil society programs to develop modern political structures, cooperative efforts to obstruct the export of weapons of mass destruction, and some development aid to help economic modernization. As security tensions nurtured by terrorist groups formed in Afghanistan late in the decade, the United States also provided a modicum of security assistance.

The attacks of September 11 made it clear that our policies in the region had not gone far enough. We needed the assistance of the states of the region (through bases, overflight rights, supplies, etc.) to prosecute Operation Enduring Freedom; even more critically, the attacks brought home the danger that fragile countries like Afghanistan and potentially some of the states of Central Asia could become the breeding ground for International terrorist groups aimed at the United States. It was critical to the national interests of the United States that we greatly enhance our relations with the five Central Asian countries and help them find ways to take the political and economic reform measures necessary for long-term prosperity and stability.

The Presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were invited to the United States, numerous Congressional delegations and cabinet secretaries have visited the region, and government ministers from these countries now regularly visit Washington. Our assistance budgets for most of the countries have increased significantly. The states of Central Asia have been excellent partners in the war against terrorism and they have welcomed our contribution to their security.

Experience proves that individual liberty, free markets, good governance, and international peace are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. The challenge before us is how should we engage with these regimes to move them in the right direction toward greater personal freedom, rule of law, and economic openness.

We have a vision for this region -- that it become stable, peaceful, and prosperous -- and that this is achieved through political and economic reform. These reforms are the only way to bring these states into competitive global economy. Without it, they cannot survive as modern states. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many hoped that the new countries that emerged would quickly embrace pluralistic democracy and a market economy. We now know that those expectations of the pace and scale of democratic and economic change in the early 1990s were unrealistic. Not because democracy isn't right for Central Asia. Not because the citizens of these countries wouldn't prefer to exercise the everyday political freedoms democracy affords. Indeed, it would be folly to assume that the universal human desire for freedom and dignity that has swept the whole world somehow comes to an abrupt stop at the borders of the Central Asian region, skirts them briefly, and rushes on elsewhere. It is not their "Central Asianness" that has held back the growth of democracy in that region, but the leadership and socio-economic structures of these countries which have so far kept them frozen in a Soviet past. We understand that major transitions in the basic nature of these regimes may require generational change and we are invested in political and economic reform in this region for the long term.

Authoritarian governments and largely unreformed economies, we believe, create the conditions of repression and poverty that could well become the breeding grounds for further terrorism. And this is what we tell the Central Asian leaders. Al-Qa'ida and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have only been disrupted, not destroyed. And the radical Hezb ut-Tahrir is increasingly active in Central Asia, especially in the Fergana Valley shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Thus, not only do we believe it is strongly in our national interest to engage fully with these governments to urge the political and economic reforms that we judge are essential to alleviate the conditions that breed terrorism, but we also firmly believe it is in these countries' own national interests. When citizens, and especially youth, feel that they have a voice in how they are governed, when they believe that they have an economic stake in the future, then they are less likely to be attracted to a radicalized path cloaked in Islam that offers a utopian solution to their discontent.

It is extremely difficult to convince Central Asian leaders that long-term economic and democratic reforms are necessary to eliminate the roots of terrorism if we are not willing to help them counter terrorism in the short term and prove that we will be engaged for the long term. Our assistance in the areas of military infrastructure, training, military exchanges, and development of interoperability with U.S. and international forces help to establish their short-term capability to cooperate in the global war on terrorism, instill confidence in our partnership, and give them reason to believe that political and economic reforms will lead to greater cooperation, sustained assistance, and concrete enhancements to their security and sovereignty.

Our enhanced engagement has been in place for only a short time. It is too early to tell if our calculated risk will lead to success - politically and economically reformed governments that will be responsible and prosperous members of the world community. We are, however, confident that this path has led to success in many regions of the world and our ambassadors and their staffs strive daily to nudge these governments in the direction we know can work. So far, this early in the game, the results are promising but mixed.

Press freedoms are suffering in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the two most politically advanced states in Central Asia. Across the region, leaders prosecute political opponents for corruption as a way to sideline them from competing for power. While we strongly oppose corruption, we object to the selectivity of some of these prosecutions, and we tell the leaders so. Free and fair elections have not yet occurred, let alone peaceful transfers of power, and some of the leaders have extended their tenures through decrees and referenda.

While we recognize that serious problems continue in Central Asia, we believe that our policy of enhanced and long-term engagement has already begun to show some results.

Uzbekistan is the most intriguing test case of our policy of enhanced engagement. As a result of our intense economic dialogue and a renewed calculation of Uzbekistan's interests, the country has reestablished its relations with the International Financial Institutions and is moving slowly toward economic reform that it had previously rejected.

Uzbekistan has also taken steps to improve its human rights record. In March, for the first time ever, Uzbekistan registered an indigenous human rights organization; the government also has stated its willingness to register more of them. Also, for the first time the government successfully prosecuted and convicted four police officers charged with beating to death a man suspected of Islamic extremist activities, and another such trial of three National Security Service officers yielded convictions and sentences of five to 15 years. The government has released about 860 political prisoners, and local human rights activists report that new arrests have dropped to the single digits in most cities. Furthermore, after Assistant Secretary Craner's last visit, the Uzbek government has extended an invitation for the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to come to Uzbekistan. Independent international organizations are working with the Interior Ministry on prison reforms and have visited prisons, including pretrial detention centers. The parliament is moving on a number of fronts to develop a more humane criminal code, to address abuse of power at the local level, to make prosecutors more accountable, and to create a more independent judiciary. The long-banned political opposition part, Birlik, is openly holding congresses around the country and moving toward re-registration.

Taken together, these individual achievements are adding up to an impressive beginning on reform, but they have not been broadly reported in the United States. As our engagement with the Uzbek authorities on human rights and religious freedom issues intensifies, the government of Uzbekistan has taken several notable steps. There is a long way to go, but we are encouraged. Kyrgyzstan, which has retreated from its early promise, reached a crisis point this year. Some argued that the government may have believed it had carte blanche to restrict human rights because it was permitting the coalition [use of its] military base at Manas Airport. We have not, of course, backed off. In fact, we increased our engagement on human rights. Kyrgyzstan's well-developed civil society mounted largely peaceful public protests against the government's selective prosecution of popular opposition politicians and limitations on freedom of the press. During these protest, police killed five demonstrators. In an attempt to defuse the ensuing crisis, the government resigned, and President Akayev has appointed several reformist ministers to key positions. He also rescinded a government decree, which had earlier resulted in printing presses refusing access to independent newspapers. The give and take between the government, the opposition, and other elements of Kyrgyz society is a dynamic one, confirming again the strong roots of civil society.

Kazakhstan is currently undergoing worrisome developments. There has been a spate of unsolved attacks and government restrictions against the independent media, and the government continues selective corruption prosecutions against opposition politicians when they appear to be gaining political influence. Furthermore, the Kazakh lower house of Parliament recently passed a law on political party registration requiring that each party have no less than 50,000 members, greatly hindering the formation of opposition parties. However, there have also been success stories. The Constitutional Court struck down restrictive amendments to the Religion Law, and President Nazarbayev upheld this decision. Also, the government has registered an opposition political party, although it is prosecuting two of the leaders of one of the parties. The trend in Kazakhstan in recent months has been generally disappointing. We will continue to press for improvement.

In Tajikistan, an Islamic opposition party plays a responsible role in government, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has for the first time attained access to prisons. Even in isolationist Turkmenistan, non-governmental organizations - the foundation of civil society - are beginning to take hold, and the government appears to recognize that the stranglehold of the Committee for National Security (the KGB's successor) needs to be relaxed, and the abolishment of exit visas has eased the flow of citizens in and out of the country.

I have gone to some length about each of these countries to demonstrate the complexity of the human rights issues in the countries of Central Asia. While there continue to be real problems, there have also been successes since September 11. Our enhanced engagement is helping to break the habit of repression and stagnation.

The challenges facing the Central Asian countries are indeed daunting. But if the countries of the region are now willing to undertake political and economic reforms that will lead to greater freedom and opportunity for their citizens, then we are prepared to support those efforts. We have increased our assistance to the region, and are working closely with the governments, private sector, and NGO's. If the actions of the governments fail to match their words on reform, then we will reassess the assistance we provide. Central Asia's stability also is threatened by fundamental problems of poverty, unemployment, political oppression, and isolation from the rest of the world. These problems can make the region potential breeding grounds for religious extremism and ethnic conflict.

While addressing these problems requires a long-term vision and commitment of resources, we already have increased our effort in several key areas, such as improvements in local infrastructure and social services, job creation through provision of microcredits and small business training and assistance to support accession to WTO and to promote trade, investment, and economic development through fiscal and accounting reform. We have also expanded exchanges to show Central Asians, particularly young people, how our society has worked to promote religious and ethnic tolerance, educational reform, and strengthening of NGO's, the independent media, and human rights monitors to urge greater government transparency. We continue to support the independent media, and are helping improve primary health care, with a particular focus on fighting tuberculosis. We also are working with the five Central Asian countries to improve regional water resource management, and have supported NGO's in each country to help build and strengthen civil society.

The steps we have taken to greatly enhance our ties with the countries of Central Asia have been taken because they are in the U.S. national interest. We need to work closely with these countries to prosecute the war against terrorism, but we also need to do what we can to ensure that this becomes a stable, prosperous region, not a threat to international society. To this end, we are seeking to use our influence to promote the political and economic reform necessary for them to prosper. What we want is for these governments to exercise power wisely, responsibly, and humanely so that these nations can attain stability, security, and prosperity. This is our vision for Central Asia. We believe we are on the right track.

Lynn Pascoe is U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia

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