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Central Asia: Strategist Wants U.S. To Make Fresh Start In Region

Bruce Jackson (RFE/RL) April 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Bruce Jackson is the president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, an American organization that aims to support reform in post-1989 democracies and to integrate these democracies into Euro-Atlantic structures. In an interview at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on April 26, Jackson called for greater contacts between the United States and Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Democracy in Central Asia appears stalled at first base. How do you assess prospects for improvement?

Bruce Jackson: Clearly we've stumbled in Central Asia in the last several years; perhaps [the United States] got off on the wrong foot, emphasizing military bases rather than basic standards of democracy and interaction. There have been [other] missteps, small bureaucratic slips, like [when the U.S. State Department] transferred Central Asia to the South Asia [desk], and away from Europe, while our intent should be the opposite. So I think we are in a period of regrouping, and hopefully we will see reengagement begin.

"...a sacrifice of human rights and political values as a basis for a policy is unsustainable and, to a certain extent, both the U.S. and Europe were perceived as cynical and perhaps unreliable."

RFE/RL: If democratization fails in Central Asia, could the region see an increase in Islamic extremism?

Jackson: I don't think Islamic extremism is the only danger. It's one danger, there is pressure on Central Asia from all sides; Russian economic interests are establishing monopolies and strangling supplies and markets, there's pressure from Chinese encroachment, and there is certainly a possibility of radicalization of people as a response to isolation of the region. There is not yet a path for these governments, and there is not yet a place for these governments in international institutions.

RFE/RL: What can the United States do to help? Does Washington need to develop a coherent strategy towards the Central Asian region?

Jackson: One of the problems of our [U.S.] Central Asian strategy is that we are still in the early phase of articulating an energy policy, which would require an engagement with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan; our policy on Russia is effectively on hold until after the Russian [presidential election next year], and not having those two components -- the Eurasian energy corridor and an effective and viable policy on Russia -- it makes it very difficult to have the foundation with which to develop a policy on Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Does the region deserve more attention from the United States than it is getting? Why?

Jackson: That's precisely what my organization has been advocating. We believe there is a link; one of the U.S. assistant secretaries [of state] referred to a corridor of potential liberalism stretching from the near shores of the Black Sea as far as China, on the same "silk" roads along which spices once ran, so that one could see democracy and markets, and essentially Western ideas flowing back and forth. So I think it's a hugely important thing. We were disappointed that initial outreach [failed] such as when Kazakhstan showed an interest in competing for the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; they were rebuffed and told they were not allowed to compete. I'm not sure they were qualified in terms of human rights, but they should have been allowed to compete. So I think these policies need to be reviewed.

RFE/RL: The European Union is now developing a comprehensive strategy toward Central Asia. Should a U.S. policy complement the EU's or are their interests different?

Jackson: This is not only a deficit in our policy to Central Asia but also to the entire Black Sea region and countries like Ukraine and Moldova. What was called the...cooperation between the EU and the United States in the Balkans over the past decade, has not yet been found in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This kind of [U.S.-EU] cooperation is absolutely essential. The EU has begun to work on a neighborhood policy, free trade, feasibility studies, all these are the beginning of a cooperative approach, but the dialogue seems to be in the early stages; our organization was delighted to see that these topics are beginning to be raised at venues like the upcoming summit between the EU troika [leadership] and the president of the United States.

RFE/RL: There are some fears among rights activists that the EU will downplay human rights violations in favor of engagement with Central Asian governments. How should Washington handle this balance?

Jackson: I don't think the criticism can be restricted only to the European Union. I think there were some elements of U.S. policy which seemed to suggest we would look the other way on human rights. This was a flawed beginning, [because] a sacrifice of human rights and political values as a basis for a policy is unsustainable and, to a certain extent, both the U.S. and Europe were perceived as cynical and perhaps unreliable, and that's not the reputation we want to have in Central Asia, so I would expect a renewed emphasis and clarity about our values as a precondition to the engagement.

Thinking Strategically

Thinking Strategically
EU officials discussing enlargement at a meeting in December 2006 (epa)

OVER THE NEXT HURDLE: Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, gave RFE/RL a wide-ranging presentation on issues related to European integration in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as strengthening relations between the West and Central Asia.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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