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Central Asia: Verdict Still Out On U.S. Engagement Policy

  • Jeffrey Donovan

It has been just over a year since the United States launched its military campaign in Afghanistan with the help of several Central Asian nations. But has U.S. engagement in the region helped or hindered the embattled causes of human rights and democracy-building.

Washington, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A little more than a year after American troops touched down in Central Asia, U.S. officials say the verdict is still out on whether Washington's "enhanced engagement" with the region's authoritarian leaders is bearing fruit.

A year ago last month, with the acquiescence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. troops were deployed to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to assist the war on terror in neighboring Afghanistan. Washington also won fly-over rights or other forms of cooperation from the remaining Central Asian nations.

While viewed as a strategic turning point in a region long regarded as Russia's backyard -- and a buttress against the spread of Islamic terrorism -- Washington's alliance with authoritarian regimes has drawn criticism from human rights groups around the world. They say American support has bolstered autocrats such as President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, enabling them to crack down more harshly than in the past on dissidents in the name of America's war on terror.

Pauline Luong-Jones, a Central Asia expert, is a politics professor at Yale University in the northeast United States. Luong-Jones said: "The main problem to me seems to be the U.S. government is symbolically -- if not in toto -- saying that security, military security in particular, is the most important thing, that the only way to combat terrorism is through force. And these governments are taking that as a symbol that they can continue to treat their own real or suspected Islamists with force."

In just the latest example, England's Keston News Service, which monitors religious rights in the postcommunist world, reported this week that Uzbekistan has punished some 150 prisoners for trying to observe the month-long Ramadan fast, which began on 6 November. The agency also reported that prisoners detained on political or religious charges are being forced to sign statements vowing that they will not observe religious rituals at home following their release. Otherwise, they could be moved to a prison known for its violent treatment of inmates. Uzbek authorities say they know nothing of the reports.

By cooperating with the U.S. in its war on terror, Central Asian governments have reaped significant benefits, analysts say. U.S. aid to the five Central Asian states has more than doubled and now amounts to nearly $600 million. And leaders once considered controversial in Washington have been given warm receptions in this U.S. capital this year, including Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

U.S. officials hope the new ties help stabilize a region where they seek to reduce Russian influence, capitalize on energy resources, and suppress Islamist militancy while gradually making the climate better for human rights and democracy.

In an interview with RFE/RL this week, U.S. President George W. Bush made an impassioned defense of the policy. "We value every life -- everybody counts. And in my judgment, the more people relate to the United States, and work with the United States, the more likely it is they will work to improve the human condition."

But critics such as Luong-Jones say the reality on the ground in Central Asia is quite different. She said that as their lives grow worse, people are beginning to blame it on both their governments and the United States. "They're seeing deterioration in their livelihood. They're seeing an increase in repression. And they're attributing it to this new U.S. strategic relationship with Central Asian governments."

Some leading human rights groups want Washington to take a much stronger stand with Central Asian governments. Some organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, advocate making all U.S. aid conditional on specific reforms in each country.

But the Western human rights community is not of one voice. Some believe the Bush administration, caught in a political and strategic dilemma, is conducting itself fairly well in Central Asia.

Catherine Fitzpatrick is program director for the former Soviet countries for the New York-based International League for Human Rights. She said U.S. engagement over the past year has started to achieve some minor successes in Central Asia which would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Among them, Fitzpatrick cited Uzbekistan's decision to allow the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture to visit this week to inspect Tashkent's notorious prisons. She also notes its recent registration of a nongovernmental organization -- a first in post-Soviet Uzbek history. Other observers have cited with approval Tajikistan's decision to allow the International Red Cross to inspect prisons and signs that Turkmenistan is beginning to tolerate nongovernmental organizations and recognize the need to ease the flow of people and goods across its borders.

Fitzpatrick said all these steps may be merely symbolic, but they are important in a region she believes would be unlikely to change its ways even if threatened with isolation. "I work backwards from the premise that if you cut it [aid] off, you will not improve human rights. It's not like South Africa; there you cut off, you get their attention, they change. But you don't get that with the Uzbeks. They're not going to change."

Fitzpatrick had praise for the U.S. diplomat in charge of Central Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner. She said, however, that Craner could use a bigger staff and a stronger presence in the region. After meeting with Uzbek officials in Tashkent earlier this month, Craner said further expansion of bilateral ties is contingent on improvements on human rights. He also criticized official reaction to three recent deaths in custody and noted complaints from Christians of persecution. Craner said religious education should be opened up, not repressed.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group consultancy in New York. Bremmer also supports U.S. engagement in Central Asia, but said the Bush administration could help its cause by speaking more clearly about what constitutes legitimate counterterrorism activity. He said Central Asian leaders are not alone in using the U.S. war on terrorism as a blanket to cover their questionable treatment of opponents. He cited Russia and the Chechens, Israel and the Palestinians, and China and the Uighurs as other examples.

But like Fitzgerald, Bremmer said there have been some small improvements in Central Asia as a result of U.S. engagement. He cited moves to liberalize Uzbekistan's cotton industry, more transparency in its trade legislation, and support for small and medium-sized businesses. "These are economic reforms and these reforms will certainly make it more possible for Uzbekistan to feed their people and develop economically and grow economically over time. I think we would be hard-pressed to say Uzbekistan has become more democratic."

Luong-Jones also acknowledged that building democracy from the ground up is a tall order in Central Asia, and a long-term project. In fact, she agreed that the best way to achieve democracy is by working to build up vested interests for reform through poverty-alleviation and economic programs.

To be sure, many reports of persecution, torture and media repression still flow from Central Asia. The cause of Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was detained last month on what observers call politically motivated charges of raping a girl, made headlines again this week when three leading U.S. human rights groups urged Bush to take up the issue with Kazakh officials.

The U.S. State Department has weighed in on the case, saying Duvanov's arrest follows a recent pattern of media harassment in Kazakhstan that began after reports of high-level Kazakh corruption first surfaced earlier this year. But U.S. officials are counseling patience in Central Asia, saying any meaningful change will take time to achieve. "Our enhanced engagement has been in place for only a short time," Lynn Pascoe, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, wrote recently. "It is too early to tell if our calculated risk will lead to success."

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