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U.S.: Two Years Into War On Terror, Balkans Appear Better Off, But Central Asia Unchanged

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The impact of the 11 September 2001 attacks has been different in various regions of the world. Balkan countries and the Central Asian republics became part of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition soon after 11 September. But their alliance with the U.S. -- while generally beneficial -- has not always had a positive effect on their economies, political development, or human rights situation.

Prague, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two years after the 11 September attacks, southeast European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, as well as the Central Asian republics, have established themselves as reliable allies of the United States in the war on terrorism.

Militarily, they have contributed troops and equipment to the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, or have offered the use of bases on their territory for U.S. forces. Romania has some 500 combat troops in Afghanistan, while Bulgaria has around 100.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan host hundreds of coalition troops at two air bases. The other three Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, have granted U.S. military planes the right to use their air space.

Politically, Romania and Bulgaria, along with other Central and Eastern European countries, have also placed themselves firmly on the side of the U.S. in the trans-Atlantic dispute over Iraq.

But, has the full support for the U.S. in the war on terrorism -- and, in some cases, the war in Iraq -- had a positive impact on these countries?

Prior to 11 September, Romania and Bulgaria were lagging well behind other Eastern European neighbors in terms of preparedness for both EU and NATO membership due to dragging political and economic reforms. But that changed after the terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Military and political reforms were jumpstarted due to the new interest these countries presented to the U.S. in the war on terrorism, and they last year gained an invitation to join NATO together with other five Central and East European former communist countries.

Analyst Geffrey Gedmin, who leads the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute -- a U.S. think- tank -- tells RFE/RL that the two countries' NATO bid was greatly helped by their staunch pro-U.S. position after 11 September.

"For some countries -- Romania and Bulgaria -- it was a net positive. And those [countries] who quibbled or were hesitant were either distracted by the issues related to 11September, or those who supported it anyway were emboldened by the fact that these countries can have at times things that the U.S. wants, needs, or can use," Gedmin says.

Romania and Bulgaria were not the only Balkan countries which stood to gain from the renewed U.S. interest in the region.

Balkan expert Laza Kekic, of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, says the 11 September attacks reshaped the entire U.S. strategy in the Balkans: "From then on, the Balkans were no longer perceived [by the U.S.] as some sort of costly and [irrelevant] peacekeeping mission, but more in geopolitical terms as a route to the Middle East and to events that were going on there. So I think, definitely, [11 September] reshaped the U.S. thinking in that region and delayed or reversed plans that may have existed at that time for the U.S. to pull out of or greatly reduce its presence in places like Bosnia or Kosovo. I think that in many ways, that's the most concrete thing that happened."

The renewed U.S. interest in the region has had a stabilizing effect both on the economies and democracies of southeastern Europe. Despite lingering problems with corruption and economic reforms, Romania and Bulgaria are now well on track to gain EU membership, probably in 2007. And Croatia is hot on their heels.

Analyst Kekic says the whole region, from the Baltic countries to the Balkans, is now perceived as more secure for foreign investment: "Central [and Eastern] Europe certainly is less exposed to the sort of security risks that affect many other areas of the world which are to a certain extent linked with the risk of terrorism, but also other associated risks, [especially] if we look at the Middle East, and also large parts of Asia, which are basically competitor regions to Eastern Europe. So I wouldn't make too much of that effect, but logically speaking, it does exist to a certain extent, because risks loom much less large in Central and Eastern Europe than in most other emerging areas of the world."

But commitment to the war on terrorism doesn't come cheap. For many East Europeans, participation in the anti-terrorist alliance or the operation in Iraq, as well as their current or upcoming NATO membership, means stretching their defense budgets or sending troops to remote areas of the world.

"Some countries will find themselves challenged. Think about Poland. It is now quite certainly playing a more significant role in Iraq, of all places. That means the application of monies, communications, troops, etc. Any time you are exercising your intelligence services beyond what you might call normal capacity, any time you're exercising your military beyond what you might call normal peacetime activity, it's going to challenge your budget, stretch your infrastructure. But again, that's a Central and Eastern European challenge, I suspect -- I have no doubt," Gedmin says.

Experts and rights watchdogs have argued that the war on terrorism has put human rights and civil liberties under pressure in many countries, including the U.S. and Western Europe. Gedmin says that the human rights issue is particularly sensitive in former communist Central and Eastern European countries, owing to the region's recent history of totalitarianism.

"It's going to create a natural tension and we have to make sure that we deal with the problem without the pendulum swinging too far. I know that's an especially interesting and sensitive topic because of [the region's] recent history, as everyone emphasized. It's a very important topic in the U.S. [too], and if we get it right and how we get it right remains to be seen. But it's being debated and it should be debated," Gedmin says.

Further east, the Central Asian states' support for the U.S.-led war on terror has brought something completely new for the region -- international attention, as analyst Alex Vatanka of the Jane's Sentinel group tells RFE/RL.

"[11 September] brought about a whole new era as far as Central Asian presence in the international community was concerned. It was suddenly noticed, you read about Uzbekistan in 'The New York Times,' something that you very rarely did before. People were discussing who the Central Asian people are, and so on. So it had a massive public relations impact as far as the five relatively unknown states were concerned," he says.

But the states of Central Asia have authoritarian political regimes, and reports of violations of human rights have been widespread. Vatanka says the U.S. administration has had to deal with such regimes, despite their poor democratic and human rights record. But two years on, he says the human rights situation is the same, and the U.S. presence in the region has spurred no democratic changes.

"Domestically, I would say, it has had very little impact at all. In reality, the outside world noticing the shortcomings of, say, Uzbekistan's human rights record hasn't produced anything tangible on the ground, and it comes down to this point: the Americans, who are the ones who really have narrowed the gap with the Central Asian states, have needed them to such extent that they have been willing to look away and say 'We will have to try and work with them and produce results and reform within the framework of the existing regime.' They haven't gone for anything radical," Vatanka says.

The Central Asian republics, with the notable exception of oil-rich Kazakhstan, are among the poorest countries in the world. Therefore, even the relatively modest economic benefits from their political and military cooperation with the U.S. were extremely important. Kyrgyzstan has seen some financial gains from the presence of the U.S. troops stationed at its Manas airport, near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, has received an International Monetary Fund financial package of some $100 million for its cooperation.

But analyst Vatanka says increased economic and democratic change in Central Asia will depend both on how long -- and how significant -- a presence the U.S. intends to maintain there.