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Analysis: U.S. Aid To Uzbekistan: Carrots And Sticks

  • Daniel Kimmage --> Did President Karimov expect Washington's move? On the evening of 13 July, the U.S. State Department announced in a press release that Uzbekistan has failed to meet its reform and human-rights commitments under the two countries' 2002 Strategic Partnership Framework. The decision, which effectively freezes up to $18 million in fiscal year 2004 military and economic aid, garnered approving comments from the human-rights community and set off considerable speculation among observers about the future of U.S.-Uzbek relations. But it also touches on the larger question of the clashing priorities that pervade Western engagement with the "tough cases" of Central Asia.

The State Department's press release strikes a markedly conciliatory tone for what is, after all, a decision to deny aid. The bitter pill -- "we are...disappointed by a lack of progress on democratic reform" -- is sweetened with the assurance that "this decision does not mean that either our interests in the region or our desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed." Moreover, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Elizabeth Jones was on hand in Tashkent the next day, 14 July, to hold a cordial meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and convey personally the dual message of disappointment and commitment to "continued cooperation."

Jones's activities in Tashkent reinforced the message, underscoring both a heightened commitment to human-rights issues and a desire to remain engaged with the Uzbek leadership. In addition to talking with President Karimov, Jones found time to meet with a number of Uzbek human-rights groups. As the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan reported on 14 July, a meeting at Tashkent's Intercontinental Hotel with local activists was attended by Jones, U.S. Ambassador Jon Purnell, and the executive director of Freedom House in Uzbekistan. But, in an interview with Uzbek television that aired on 18 July, Jones stressed prospects for reform in the country.

Jones struck a more critical tone, however, in remarks on 16 July in Kazakhstan. As cited by Kyrgyzinfo on 19 July, when she said, "We see no progress in the registration of political parties or the development of a free press. Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that the [Uzbek] economy is clearly stagnating." She concluded on a hopeful note, "I am convinced that the Uzbek government will realize, and I hope that this will happen soon, that real stability can only be achieved through economic development and a diversity of political views."

Uzbek officialdom reacted calmly to the State Department decision. A Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed regret at the move on 14 July, but added that "it is completely up to the donor to decide on the reduction or increase of U.S. aid to Uzbekistan," Interfax reported. The spokesman went on to say, "The last part of [State Department spokesman Richard] Boucher's state about Uzbekistan's remaining an important strategic partner for the U.S., and that our relations will continue to develop, was very important for us." State-controlled television stressed the positive in its coverage of Jones's meetings with Uzbekistan's president and foreign minister; the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor reported on 19 July that "Uzbek television made no mention of the cut in aid."

The human-rights community, which has consistently drawn attention to instances of torture and unlawful imprisonment in Uzbekistan, reacted with predictable enthusiasm to news of the aid freeze. A 14 July press release from Human Rights Watch (HRW) termed the State Department decision "a welcome show of principled leadership." It went on to quote Rachel Denber, acting executive director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, as saying, "It shows that the United States takes human rights records seriously and means what it says. Now the United States needs to continue its engagement with the Uzbek government and press for human rights improvements." Human-rights activists within Uzbekistan agreed. Surat Ikramov, who heads the above-mentioned Initiative Group, told the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks on 14 July that he applauded the move.

At least two leading English-language newspapers also chimed in with plaudits. In a 16 July editorial titled "Message to Tashkent," "The Washington Post" saw a policy shift in the decision. The editors wrote, "the cutoff should send a message to Uzbekistan's authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, as well as several of his neighbors in a region where oil, gas, and military bases have recently become important: The old formula for partnership with Washington may no longer work." An editorial the same day in England's "Financial Times" called the suspension of aid "most welcome and long overdue." It concluded, "while realpolitik may dictate that democracies must do short-term deals with some very unsavory characters, long-term support should, where possible, be limited to leaders with a minimum of respect for human rights. This is not an argument for disengagement, but for the selective use of the instruments at the West's disposal -- limiting aid to the non-government sector, as the U.S. has now done with Tashkent."

Analytical observers generally couched their reactions in terms of great-power politics. Alex Vatanka, a senior editor at the London-based Jane's analytical group, said, "Eighteen million dollars in the Uzbek economy is an insignificant amount from a practical point of view. The implications for the Uzbek economy and government are not important. What is important is the symbolic aspect of it," RFE/RL reported. Uzbek political analyst Alisher Taksanov translated symbolism into something more concrete, telling AP on 14 July that Uzbekistan might simply choose to edge away from the United States and move closer to Russia and China. "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a club of human rights abusers where Uzbekistan is welcome," Taksanov commented.

Arkadii Dubnov, who writes frequently about Central Asia for Moscow-based "Vremya novostei," noted in a 15 July article, "Tashkent will be greatly discomfited by this American demarche, which can be seen as a very public slap in the face for the Uzbek regime." Dubnov also saw an accelerated Russian-Uzbek rapprochement in the cards. He concluded, "Karimov can be sure that Moscow, unlike Washington, will not make its aid conditional on democratic transformations." Others saw the rapprochement as a fait accompli. In a 14 July comment in the Soros-funded, Timur Abdullaev dismissed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones's visit to Tashkent, saying, "It may well be that Jones's visit will not produce any results, since Karimov has decided once and for all on a pro-Russian policy."

Spotting the next rose revolution has become something of a parlor game for some Russian policy analysts, and M. Chernov ably shouldered the task in a 15 July comment on RBC. Chernov wasn't coy about his thesis, stating at the outset, "The American administration is beginning a campaign to topple the regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan." Chernov elaborated, "By all appearances, Washington has decided to get rid of Karimov, relying on the successful experience of revolution in Georgia and using elements of the 'Kosovo scenario,' establishing control over the territory by creating 'managed conflicts' in the Uzbek provinces [primarily in the Ferghana Valley] and bringing in peacekeeping forces."

Chernov is not the only proponent of the "managed conflict" theory, incidentally. Also on 15 July, political scientist Yevgenii Myachin published an article titled "Managed Conflicts" in "Izvestiya," arguing that "the wave of terrorism that has engulfed the planet is one of the aspects of a state policy of 'managed conflicts' pursued not only by the United States, but also by several European countries." According to Myachin, "managed conflicts" are the brainchild of American intelligence services and corporations, who seek to weaken potential foes -- such as Russia and China -- and maximize profits. While Myachin did not apply his theory specifically to Uzbekistan, Aleksandr Sobyanin, director of the strategic planning service in the Association of Border Cooperation and an avid analyst of "managed conflicts," took up the slack. As cited by Chernov, Sobyanin argued, "Also directed against Karimov is the 'Islamist international' in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is based in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and works in close cooperation with Western intelligence services."

Leaving aside the unverifiable possibility of a vast conspiracy to foment another "rose revolution," one finds that the bulk of the preceding comments and observations touch on the central issue of engagement and leverage. Put more starkly, how can members of the international community induce undemocratic regimes to reform themselves?

Stephen Blank addressed this very question in "World Affairs" (Winter 2004, vol. 166) in an article titled "Democratic Prospects in Central Asia." Blank offered up the reasonable argument that only a combination of external and internal factors can spark change: "Arguably, one also plausibly could contend that whatever impetus for democratization, or at least for liberalization that ultimately concludes with some recognizable form of democratization, must inevitably come from outside the region, as internal forces are too weak to make the necessary transition without foreign assistance. But whatever external impetus might develop, it cannot offer genuine democracy on its own. It can only stimulate, support, or at best galvanize existing, even latent, domestic impulses for reform in politics and economics.

More concretely, Blank suggested that U.S. aid "should now become part of what the United States professes to be its larger program of commitment to democratic reform in post-Soviet states. We should advocate that both the U.S. bilateral programs and the Partnership for Peace there be broadened to obtain a more pronounced democratic component with regard to Central Asia." At first glance, it would appear that the recent State Department decision to cut off some Uzbek aid -- support for democratization and health care remain intact -- in response to a perceived lack of democratic reform fits in with this approach, although it remains unclear precisely what latent forces for democratization such a decision will galvanize.

The issue of engagement and leverage is not limited to relations between states. International lending institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have confronted it as well, advancing various demands and adjusting the extent of their involvement to reflect the level of compliance. The EBRD, for example, announced on 6 April that it is scaling back its involvement in Uzbekistan because of "very limited progress" on the political and economic improvements the bank had urged upon the Uzbek government. The World Bank's 2003 Annual Review of Development Effectiveness provided some support for this position. The review painted a grim picture of the bank's effectiveness in "tough cases" where policy and governance are deficient. For example, the "Financial Times" reported in a 15 July summary of the review that 60 percent of the outcomes in transition countries from the former Soviet Union were "unsatisfactory," as compared with 30 percent for all bank projects. The review itself unequivocally stated: "In countries with poor policy environments, the Bank should limit or postpone lending before there are clear signals that reform is under way."

Janine R. Wedel's extensive research on assistance programs to Russia and Poland in the 1990s has suggested similar conclusions, although she places much of the onus on the dubious relationships that develop between intermediaries in the aid process, whom she terms "transactors." (Some of the participants in those assistance programs have objected strenuously to Wedel's methods and findings; her critics' responses can be found in the Summer 2000 issue of "The National Interest.") In an article in "Independent Review" (Winter 2000, vol. 4), Wedel argued, "Foreign aid-financed consultants and technical assistance in Central and Eastern Europe have frequently produced unimpressive results, not only because the agenda is often driven by Western governments and because the funds are used for political purposes, but also because the aid appears to have become an end in itself and has in many cases been used for self-enrichment..."

However flawed the aid process may be, many are equally wary of disengagement. As "The Economist" argued in a 10 August 2002 article on aid to Malawi, "Turning off the tap may not be the answer. Many diplomats believe that carrots work much better than sticks: 'It is impossible to make governments meet conditions other than by rewarding good behavior,' suggests one aid specialist." In a 17 May 2002 article in "Commonweal," Carlos Lozada extended the argument: "Ultimately, politicians and development bureaucrats in rich nations must face the challenge of delivering effective aid to countries with 'bad' policies and worse politicians. This may force donors to bypass governments altogether and work directly with the private sector, nonprofit organizations, or religious groups in developing nations."

In many Central Asian countries, however, government and the private sector are deeply intertwined, and the extent of the real private sector is extremely difficult to gauge. Moreover, the specter of religious extremism has prompted the state to keep a watchful eye on religious groups. For donors who wish to "bypass governments," this would appear to leave nonprofit organizations, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as the proper recipients of aid in countries with "'bad' policies and worse politicians."

But NGOs are not without their critics. Writing in the "Harvard International Review" (Summer 2002, vol. 24), Robert Hayden argued in "Dictatorships of Virtue: NGOs and the Imposition of Democratic Values" that the common assumptions underlying the usefulness and democratizing influence of NGOs are flawed. The author examined the role of NGOs in the Balkans in the 1990s, where he found that they served to muddy basic issues of democracy, sovereignty, and political accountability, co-opting and usurping local initiatives in the interest of an outside agenda deemed preferable by selective representatives of the international community. Hayden concluded that, "first, far from weakening under globalization, major states are growing stronger. Second, NGOs tend to support strong states rather than 'civil society' and also help officials avoid accountability for their actions."

David Rieff derided the very concept of "civil society" in "The Nation" (22 February 1999, vol. 268), in an article titled "The false dawn of civil society." He began by pointing to a curious feature of the term itself: "Civil society has come, simultaneously, to be thought of as encompassing everything that is not the state and as exemplifying a set of inherently democratic values. That is why those who tout it as the silver bullet both to 'open' repressive societies and to guarantee or deepen democratic liberties and curb state power move with feline grace between using civil society as a descriptive term and as a prescriptive one." Rieff saw the whole business of constructing civil society as a giant step backward for mankind: "It is, indeed, the new medievalism, with the leaders of the NGOs as feudal lords. This, of course, is hardly what most advocates of civil society have in mind. And yet as things stand, it is this unaccountable, undemocratic congeries of single-interest groups that is being proposed as the only viable alternative to the nation-state. It seems to me that were they to achieve the kind of prominence and centrality that is being predicted for them, we would all be far worse off than we are today."

The preceding is not intended to suggest that the consequences of the U.S. decision to limit aid to Uzbekistan hinge on inscrutable vagaries of great-power politics, that aid from governments and international lending institutions is pointless in the absence of a clearly demonstrated will to reform, that NGOs are too deeply mired in contradictory and self-defeating impulses to represent a viable alternative to engagement with the state, or that the very idea of building up civil society is a chimera. Rather, the aim has been to show that aid to "tough cases," whether it comes in the context of U.S.-Uzbek relations or in the framework of international lending institutions, defies simple choices between engagement and disengagement; NGOs, for all their undeniable accomplishments in challenging environments, are not as pure a force for good as conventional wisdom often assumes; and that even the laudable goal of constructing civil society is more than a question of mechanics and mechanisms.

No sure-fire formulas exist for effecting, from without, productive change within a sovereign state. Even where an impressive international consensus obtains that change is necessary, as is the case with Uzbekistan, clear-cut conclusions prove elusive. In order to arrive at a clearer picture of how change might occur in Uzbekistan, and what role the international community might play, we need to move beyond the general issues of engagement and leverage to a closer examination of the nation's internal dynamics. For although we confront a paucity of reliable information in our analysis of this crucial factor, it will almost certainly prove decisive in any changes that are to come.