July 18, 2001

July 18, 2001 | Testimony on Russia

U.S. Foreign Policy Interests and Human Rights in Central Asia

U.S. Interests in Central Asia

Central Asia, geopolitically and economically, is an important region of the Eastern Hemisphere, occupying areas adjacent to several nuclear powers, such as Russia, China, India and Pakistan. It is located in proximity to a potential nuclear power, Iran, and is a major repository of oil, natural gas, gold, uranium and other minerals.

While historically predominantly Turkic and Moslem, Central Asia was influenced by Russia, which conquered it during the second half of the nineteenth century and continued its rule during the Soviet period.  However, currently, Russian influence is increasingly being supplanted by that of China and Islamic movements and forces, some of them militant, with bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. To the lesser extent, Turkey and the West - the United States and the European Union - have influence as well. In the future, the competition for influence in Central Asia is likely to increase.

On July 16, the presidents of Russia and China signed a Treaty for Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation in Moscow. This treaty is the first such agreement between these two Eurasian powers since Mao Zedong signed a treaty with Joseph Stalin of the USSR in 1950, four months before the outbreak of the Korean War.  The 1950 pact  was clearly driven by anti-Western sentiments.

The motivations behind this new treaty are much more complex, and involve serious geopolitical, military, and economic considerations. In a sense, it is a logical product of the improvement in Sino-Russian relations that began under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It also should be taken as a signal to the Western world that a major geopolitical shift make be occurring in the Eurasian balance of power, with serous implications for the United States and its allies.

The treaty comes on the heels of another significant security arrangement: On June 14, Russia, China, and four Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) announced the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a friendship ostensibly aimed at confronting Islamic radical fundamentalism and promoting economic development. Taken together, the formation of the SCO, coupled with the July treaty signing, portend an important geopolitical transformation for Central Asia, Russia and China.  These two regional giants are positioning themselves to define the rules under which the United States, the European Union, Iran, and Turkey will be allowed to participate in the strategically important Central Asian region.

The U.S. has several important state interests in Central Asia. It should strive to:

  • Deny one country or a group of countries, such as Russia and China, the ability to dominate the region to the exclusion of American presence; and deny China the ability to establish a new sphere of influence in the region

  • Prevent the transformation of Central Asia into a base for radical Islamic forces, such as the Taliban or Usama Bin Ladin's organization, including stopping these entities from establishing training camps and bases of operations in the region and frustrating any attempts to subvert or take over Central Asian governments;

  • Prevent the region from becoming a major corridor for drug trade into Europe and the Commonwealth of New Independent States

  • Ensure access for U.S. companies to energy and other natural resources and markets in the region

  • Encourage and support  the development of civil society, the rule of law and transparent market economy

Thus far, achieving these goals has been difficult, especially in the areas of the observance of human rights and support of legitimate political dissent.

Geopolitical Context of U.S. Policy in Central Asia

Opposition to the United States as the sole superpower is akey component of the developing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. In addition, both Russia and China are concerned about Moslem radical movements in their territories and around their borders. Since the 1970s, the Turkic Moslem Uighurs in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang, 7 million strong, have been conducting a violent struggle for independence. They have killed police and soldiers, planted bombs and robbed banks. In 1997, Uighur militants exploded a bomb in Beijing, wounding 30 people. They have also developed connections to radical Islamic movements and are training in religious schools (medrese) and camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Uighurs also reside in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, across the border with China.

The stability of Xinjiang is important to China. It is seen as a test case of central control, relevant to Beijing's grip over Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Xinjiang is also viewed as a traditional buffer against Turkic Moslem invasions from the North-West. The province also contains three major oil basins: the Turpan, Jungar and Tarim, with up to 150 billion barrels of reserves, according to some optimistic estimates. Last but not least, the People's Liberation Army maintains numerous bases and nuclear weapons testing grounds in the region, which could be threatened if the Uighurs gain control.

Russia is in a similar position as it enters its seventh year of conflict in Chechnya. Radical Moslem penetration of other North Caucasus autonomous republics, such as Daghestan, is increasing, as evidenced by non-Chechen participation in terrorist activities in Russia. The Russian leaders fear a chain reaction among the country's 20 million Moslems.

In the long term, the threat of Moslem insurrection in Central Asia could well become more serious. The ruling regimes, allied with Russia, suffer from a lack of legitimacy and are bereft of democratic process. With economic reforms in the Central Asian countries sputtering or stalling, corruption is running rampant, GDPs are flat, and living standards are abysmally low.  These conditions provide fertile ground for Islamic radicals, who are busily recruiting and training the next generation of Jihad warriors. The radical, drug-pushing Taliban regime across the Amu Darya river is particularly menacing.

The flood of drugs and weapons across the Tajik-Afghan border is a challenge to the Russian expeditionary force (the reinforced 201st Infantry Division), while indigenous support for the Taliban, as well as the pervasive corruption and political maneuvering that characterize both Moscow and Dushanbe, prevent Russia and the Tajiks from effectively countering the Islamic rebels.

The secular, authoritarian, and corrupt regimes of Central Asia rely upon their traditional ties to Moscow as a form of life insurance. And Russia believes it must either fight the Islamists in the deserts of Central Asia or face them in Northern Kazakhstan, where many ethnic Russians reside.

Russia finds its options limited.  It can either face the instability in Central Asia on its own or to bring in China as a partner. Beijing views Central Asia, with its weak governments and rich natural resources-especially oil and gas-as a future natural sphere of influence. The recent institutionalization of the SCO demonstrates that Moscow and Beijing hope to be the decisionmakers in Central Asia, possibly to the exclusion of Turkey, Iran, and the United States. What remains to be seen is how effective the two counties will be against the Taliban, the Islamic Front of Uzbekistan, and the Bin Laden organization.

Sources of dissent: the failure of post-communist reforms in Central Asia

Since the collapse of the USSR, all five Central Asian states have been ruled by the Soviet-era nomenklatura, the communist elite which attempted to transform itself into nationalist leadership. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are still ruled by the men who were in charge in the mid-1980s, while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are governed by leaders who have been in power since the early 1990s. However, instead of following models of democracy and market reforms, all these leaders have either largely ignored the reform process, as is the case in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, or made some attempt to initiate economic reforms, but then backtracked and are now mired in unprecedented corruption, lack of transparency and criminality. It is little wonder these regimes are quickly run out of legitimacy and popular support, and have to revert to brazen manipulation of their political system, or outright authoritarian methods, to remain in power and fight off political challenges.

Economically, Central Asia's resource rich countries, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with their huge oil and natural gas deposits, suffer from glaring inequities in the distribution of wealth. In both countries, only the ruler, his family, and a few political allies and cronies benefit from the energy riches, while the majority of the population suffers from low incomes, social underdevelopment, diseases and environmental pollution.

In poor countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the situation is desperate. When hit by drought or other natural disasters, rural dwellers are often on the verge of starvation. The populations of the two countries turning en masse to drug trafficking and other illicit activities.  High unemployment levels among young males are a sure-fire prescription to fuel militant Islamic movements, as numerous examples from Algeria to Indonesia demonstrate.

While the people are dissatisfied, and often desperate, the rulers are most of all interested in their own power and political survival, as well as personal enrichment. They are doing everything possible to deny the development of legitimate channels of protest, such as political parties and the free media. Instead, the aggrieved population is turning to radical Islam's promises to deliver "the true path" of Allah, even at the price of great personal sacrifice and suffering.

Silencing the Voices of Dissent

According to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the national commission on human rights, opposition media, and activists both in the respective countries and in exile, as well as the eyewitness accounts of Western experts, the Central Asian governments generally attempt to paint all opposition with one brush - that of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

The existence of the Islamic threat in Central Asia is undeniable. However, it is important to distinguish between militant Islamic radicals, moderate Islamic activists, clerics and politicians, and secular, Westernized human rights activists. By persecuting the two latter categories, the ruling regimes tend to isolate themselves and increase the possibilities of social upheavals which could result in the  deposition of these regimes in the future.

It is also important to emphasize that without developed political channels for redressing grievances, ensuring freedom of worship, facilitating political change and the rule of law, striving for manageable levels of corruption, and protecting freedom of the media and freedom of association, thousands of Central Asians: Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kazakhs and others, will swell the ranks of radical organizations, such as the Islamic Front of Uzbekistan, the Moslem Brotherhood, and others.

Banning genuine political parties, such as Erk and Birlik in Uzbekistan, the National Republican Party led by the former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin in Kazakhstan, or Ar-Namys, led by the former Vice President Felix Kulov in Kyrgyzstan, is a sure way to incur criticism abroad and fan the flames of dissent at home.

The degree to which dissent is repressed is uneven throughout the region. Turkmenbashi (Chief-of-Turkmens) Saparmurad Niyazov's Turkmenistan is the most oppressive, with all the trappings of a totalitarian dictatorship. Niyazov was proclaimed president-for-life by his tame parliament. He built a 40-foot golden statue of himself, which rotates to follow the sun. He regularly purges Turkmenistan's libraries and schools of books he dislikes.Opponents to Niyazov are kept in extremely harsh imprisonment for lengthy periods; after being forced to publicly confess their guilt on national TV. The lives of many of the regime's opponents are threatened. Religious minorities, including Christians, are constantly harassed.

There is no independent media, and heavy censorship of the Internet and news from abroad, as well as restrictions on travel, are in place.

President Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan developed an ideology which is based on worship of the past, including the cult of Amir Timur (Tamerlane), in whose honor a shrine was erected in the center of the capital city Tashkent. Tamerlane's empire covered most of today's Central Asia, but reached as far as Russia in the West, and China and India in the East. This is an outright cult of military power and territorial aggrandizement.

Uzbekistan is holding between 15,000 to 30,000 political opponents and religious activists in its jails. Many reports claim that some people are arrested for as little as wearing a beard or traditional Moslem garb. According to local and Western human rights organizations, torture is widespread, despite Uzbekistan being a signatory of the international convention banning torture.

At one point, between 70 and 80 percent of all mosques were shut down under the pretext of lack of registration. There are very few, if any, attempts to find a modus vivendi with moderate Moslems. The Uzbek government hopes that Russia and China will support its authoritarian policies, if Uzbekistan initiates rapprochement with Moscow and Beijing, and distances itself from the West. However, the slow pace of economic reforms, and threats from radical Moslem organizations on its borders may ultimately provoke destabilizing hostilities, and it is not clear whether China and Russia will be capable of protecting the Karimov regime.

The leadership of Kazakhstan also demonstrates a heavy hand in dealing with political opposition. As in other Central Asian countries, libel is a criminal offense, and insulting the president often is a cause for criminal prosecution, as Madel Islmailov, the leader of Workers' Movement found out in  1999.  Other opponents of the regime, such as Mikhail Vasilenko, Petr Svoik, and Mels Yeleusizov, a leader of the environmental movement, have been placed in administrative detention.

Freedom of the press suffered a heavy blow when the Franklin Press, a printing house supplied to Kazakhstan with American taxpayer's funds, was forcibly sold to a company controlled by Dariga, President Nazarbaev's daughter. Boris Giller, the founder of the leading privately-held free media company, Caravan, was forced to sell his asset and has emigrated from the country in 1998. Dariga Nazarbaeva, the owner of Caravan,also controls most of Kazakhstan's electronic media.

Freedom of the media is extremely important, as Mr. Nazarbaev is reportedly under a at least one grand jury indictment in this country, according to a report by Seymour Hersh in this month's issue of the New Yorker. No official Kazakhstani newspaper is permitted to print this news, as by law all personal information about the president and his family is a state secret.  In addition, according to a new law, the Parliament granted President Nazarbaev immunity from prosecution for any and all crimes committed while in office, with the exception of high treason. 

It was hardly surprising that President Nazarbaev lashed out at the last Shanghai Six summit against the United States, accusing Washington of being too didactic and aggressive in promoting democracy. Today in Kazakhstan, opposition newspapers are often harassed and even physically attacked, and Internet access is kept artificially expensive.  Internet sites are controlled by the security services, and opposition sites are often censored.

In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, some improvements in the mid-1990s was followed by a deterioration in handling political dissent, observing the rule of law and respecting freedom of the press.


The failure of local elites to embrace participatory frameworks of governance and transpartent market reform, oppose corruption, and recognize basic individual rights, has led to the current rise in political instability. The threats of Islamic insurrections and internal political opposition are forcing the governing regimes to appeal to regional powers for support. The United States should fully recognize the threat of Islamic extremism in the region and elsewhere, as this extremism is aimed against American interests and American citizens, as the World Trade Center, Khobar Towers and the Cole attacks have demonstrated. However, unfortunately, regime insecurity is also a cause for brutality, a motivation to silence the voices of political opposition and criticism. While this may work in the short term, it can make things worse in the long run, including in Central Asia.

Thus far, the U.S. Administration, EU governments, and international organizations, have failed to convince Central Asian leaders to follow democratic models, to make their economies attractive to foreign investment, or to respect the pluralism of political opinions. This is a political, as well as a civilizational choice the Central Asian leaders have actively made, while at the same time seeking succor in Moscow and Beijing. 

Today, with Russia and China attempting to play the leading role in the region, the chances of Central Asia embracing democracy remain slim. However, the United States should continue to uphold the ideas of freedom of speech, free media, freedom of religion, and the rule of law. These ideals are not contradictory to American political goals in the region - on the contrary, if implemented, they would make the political systems of Central Asian countries more sustainable and legitimate, and thus would increase regional security and stability, enhance economic development, and boost foreign investment.

Dr. Ariel Cohen, is Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy