Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia: USAID Official Says Region Is Challenged By History, Geography (Part 1)

Following the 11 September terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Central Asia has assumed a new strategic importance. But the region's new status has yet to rescue it from the economic and social hardship that is its historic and geographic legacy. RFE/RL spoke to Kent Hill, the assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In this first of a two-part series, Hill talks about the challenges still facing Central Asia.

Prague, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia has not only lived through decades of communism. It has also endured centuries of authoritarian rule.

That, says Kent Hill of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), partly explains why democracy has been much slower to take root there than in Eastern Europe and other post-Soviet regions.

"Turkmenistan has been totally resistant to the move away from an authoritarian past. Uzbekistan has been very slow and [there has been] some more progress in Kyrgyzstan. But in all cases the reforms, the human rights situation, the [development of] civil society [have] moved more slowly than we would have liked," Hill said.

"We need international assistance [in] educational training and upgrading of qualifications. And we need to establish a good system in order to have more highly qualified engineers."
Hill says the still-repressive policies of the Central Asian governments is often counterproductive, creating resentment of political authorities and feeding Islamic extremism.

Hill says that anything that interferes with media or political-party development interferes with the emergence of a full democracy -- which in turn impedes economic progress.

As a result, economic reforms have moved slowly, and development standards have in many cases regressed.

"The percentages of young people in school are a lot lower than in the Soviet period. That bodes very poorly for the future. That indicates that there will be fewer people trained to move into a modern economy," Hill said.

Even in resource-rich Kazakhstan, where economic growth continues steadily each year, education remains a great concern. Zharkin Kakimzhanova works for the German Technical Cooperation Agency in the former capital of Almaty.

"We need international assistance [in] educational training and upgrading of qualifications. And we need to establish a good system in order to have more highly qualified engineers, middle-level workers and technical workers. That's a very big problem in our country," Kakimzhanova said.

Hill says it is time for the Kazakh economy to expand beyond the energy sector, and to begin taking measures to fight corruption.

By contrast, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where per capita income dips lower than anywhere else in Eurasia, do not have the natural-resource base that Kazakhstan does.

Hill says this is one more reason for Bishkek and Dushanbe to streamline their economic reforms. Although both countries have seen some progress -- in terms of domestic pricing, foreign trade, and exchange regimes, and small-scale privatization -- more needs to be done.

The USAID officials suggest specific ways to stimulate the economy -- easing tax burdens and providing loans.

Economic change, says Hill, has been especially slow in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

"Uzbekistan is, in many respects, particularly resistant to opening up [its] borders and encouraging trade. So there's not the free flow of trade that would help all of the countries in the region," Hill said.

Hill says that Central Asia has few strong incentives for reform. This makes it different from Eastern Europe, whose transition period has been largely driven by the desire for NATO and EU membership.

"In Eastern Europe, all of these countries long to be a part of the European Union. There's a whole list of things they must do to comply with the international standards that are used by the European Union. So it's a tremendous stimulus to these countries to make the reforms that help them along. There isn't anything quite like that in Central Asia," Hill said.