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Central Asia: Expert Sees 'More Of The Same' In U.S. Policy

President George W. Bush George W. Bush has won four more years in the White House, with Iraq and terrorism likely to remain his foreign policy priorities. But what changes, if any, can we expect in U.S. policy toward Central Asia? To get some ideas, RFE/RL spoke to regional expert Steven Sabol, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina in the United States.

Prague, 4 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- During Bush's first term, Central Asia emerged as a priority region for U.S. policymakers.

That was thanks to the 11 September 2001 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Since then, the U.S. has developed closer ties with several Central Asian countries, as they opened their airspace or hosted U.S. troops. But the expanded cooperation has also prompted some concern. Critics said the U.S. administration was compromising its standards on human rights in order to build a stronger security relationship with its new allies.

RFE/RL: President George W. Bush has won the U.S. election. What foreign policy is Mr. Bush going to pursue in Central Asia? Will he maintain his current policy line or will he try to accomplish more things in the next four years that he didn't manage during his first term in office?

Steven Sabol: Much of it depends on, obviously, what plays out in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. The signs for Afghanistan are I think positive, although very fragile in terms of the election process, the possibility for the growth and expansion of democracy. I don't think we'll see any major shift in U.S. policy towards Central Asia as long as [the situation in] Afghanistan stays moderately stable. I believe Iran and the situation there, however, is going to be a very complex and serious issue during the next Bush administration. It will be interesting to see if the administration is able to convince Russia in particular to put greater pressure on Iran with regard to their nuclear power program. I think then, again depending on what transpires in those three states, we may see the [Bush] administration begin to exert greater pressure on the Central Asian republics to loosen their grip on political power to allow for freer and fairer elections, particularly in Kazakhstan, but also in Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is problematic, of course, and a lot will depend on [President Saparmurat] Niyazov's health, how long he decides to stay as president. If, for whatever reason, he needs to leave office, or he's forced out of office in the next four years, that will dictate to some extent the U.S. administration policy in its relations with Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL: What does it mean to the Central Asian governments that Bush won the election?

Sabol: [If Bush's Democratic challenger John Kerry had won the election, he] might have pursued a more "human rights" agenda, [the] strengthening of human rights in these republics. [He] might have incorporated that into the foreign policy a bit more than the Bush administration. But I don't think a Kerry administration would have altered U.S. foreign policy toward Central Asia that much. Again, human rights might have received a higher priority than [they] appear to in the Bush administration, but a Kerry administration would have been constrained and constricted by the same issues of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. And I don't know that a Kerry administration would have pursued that different of a relationship with Russia, which continues to exert tremendous pressure on Central Asia. So I don't know that [U.S. policy] would have altered that dramatically [toward] Central Asia with a Kerry administration.

RFE/RL: Among the first reactions from the Central Asian region to Bush's victory of President Bush, some policymakers expressed the hope that relations with the Bush administration would improve. What are the chances of that happening?

Sabol: We already have, certainly in the case of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, fairly good relations, but a great deal depends on steps that these governments will take toward improving living standards, liberalization in economics and politics. As long as there seem to be tangible steps in that direction, it's going to be, I think, a good relationship. I think the U.S. will continue to support these regimes while at the same time insisting on the human rights issues [and] the political transparency that will be needed to strengthen the democratic processes in all of these countries. The unknowable of course is the succession issue in any one of the states. [This] could of course lead to improved relations or worse relations. If, for example, Niyazov is no longer in office, his successor has an opportunity to liberalize and open up politics and the economy of Turkmenistan and that will improve relations considerably with the U.S., as well as with western Europe and probably Russia, too.