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With Kerry Meeting, Washington Seeks New Path In Central Asia

  • Bruce Pannier

Central Asia leaders have traditionally looked to Russia, but China has emerged as the economic driver of the region.

Central Asia leaders have traditionally looked to Russia, but China has emerged as the economic driver of the region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the foreign ministers from the five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- to Washington. Their meeting, dubbed the C5+1, follows up on the inaugural session of the group, which was held last year in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

With its involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the United States is attempting to restructure the relationship it has had with Central Asia for the last 15 years -- where for Washington, security had been the priority.

Washington is hoping to open new trade ties with Central Asia, a difficult task at a time when Central Asia's neighbor China has come to dominate the region economically during the last decade.

The United States is also seeking to reemphasize the need for the Central Asian governments to show greater respect for basic human rights and take more credible and visible steps toward establishing and developing democratic institutions. Washington was active in prodding Central Asian governments towards democratic reforms in the 1990s, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks its focus shifted to counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some critics have said that the U.S. change in policy was unpopular with the governments and many people in Central Asia and changed the region's view of the United States.

While Kerry is likely to encourage the five foreign ministers to move toward greater regional integration and cooperation, the reality on the ground in Central Asia is the opposite. The five countries have been drifting further apart since they became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

That might mean Washington will choose to focus on its relationships with the individual countries.

Talking Democracy

For Western governments, including the United States, Kyrgyzstan still remains the great hope for democracy taking root in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is holding a presidential election next year and the incumbent, Almazbek Atambaev, has repeatedly said he will abide by the constitutional one-term limit and step down. Peaceful transitions of power and strict observance of constitutional term limits are something Washington would like all the Central Asian governments to embrace, so U.S. officials will likely hold lengthy discussions with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev.

On the agenda might also be the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek rights activist and journalist jailed in the wake of interethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The United States has criticized the jailing and the U.S. State Department gave Askarov its Human Rights Award in July 2015. That recognition immediately soured ties between the two countries, with Kyrgyzstan renouncing a 1993 cooperation agreement with the United States.

Separate meetings with Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov will likely focus on economic ties. The largest U.S. investment in Central Asia is Chevron's participation in Kazakhstan's massive Tengiz oil field. The TengizChevroil project in western Kazakhstan has provided a basis for U.S.-Kazakh ties for more than two decades.

However, Kazakhstan has regressed in recent years in its attempts to implement democratic reforms. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has amended legislation to allow himself to remain president until he dies. Snap parliamentary elections earlier this year excluded any genuine opposition parties and reestablished a subservient parliament bound to do the bidding of the president. Nazarbaev just turned 76 at the start of July and has no apparent successor. Kazakhstan doesn't have a system designed to produce a second president genuinely chosen by the masses.

Individual meetings with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are likely to cover the same ground. All three states have entrenched presidents, repressive political systems, and all three are vulnerable to security threats emanating from their neighbor to the south, Afghanistan.

Afghan Insecurity

With Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, security will likely remain the focus, with their foreign ministers undoubtedly seeking guarantees that the United States will not withdraw from Afghanistan -- and leave the problem of Afghanistan's worsening security situation on their doorsteps.

For a while, Washington has been engaged in ongoing consultations with all three countries about the situation in Afghanistan and has provided military aid and infrastructure support, particularly to Uzbekistan, which in early 2015 received more than 300 mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles to help guard its frontier with Afghanistan.

Most likely, Washington will be seeking some indications that the three governments are open to moving forward on long-stalled political reforms. That might be a futile hope at this point, as all three countries are led by presidents who show no sign of ever leaving office and are resistant to altering their political systems to allow the inclusion of opposition voices.

Washington officials will likely discuss with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov the Uzbek-U.S. car-making joint venture GM Uzbekistan, which has been mired in scandal after it emerged that the Uzbek management at the plant had allegedly embezzled millions of dollars. Those officials are in custody and facing trial in Uzbekistan but the incident will damper any enthusiasm from other U.S. companies to invest in Uzbekistan.

There is also the question of what to do with the approximately $800 million of Uzbek assets frozen by U.S. authorities, which Tashkent is attempting to get back. The frozen millions are connected to Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Karimova is under house arrest in Uzbekistan after a series of bribery and money-laundering scandals became public in several European countries.

With Russia still the major guarantor of security in Central Asia and China the dominant economic power, the United States is attempting to craft a role that includes security and trade, but crucially offers something those two great powers can't.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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