Washington, 7 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Members of the U.S. Congress have been told that Central Asia is of increasing importance to the United States and that dramatically more development aid should be poured into the five newly-indepenent states there.
A subcommittee of the House of Representatives on Wednesday held what participants said was the first Congressional hearing on U.S. foreign policy toward Central Asia. Subcommittee chairman Doug Bereuter (R-Nebraska) called Central Asia "an extremely critical area."
Howard Berman, senior Democrat on the subcommittee, argued for increased funding not only for Central Asia, but for spending on foreign affairs in general. He said "our aid dollar is stretched way too thinly" already. And any further cuts to U.S. foreign aid, he said, would be "a tacit admission that the United States is not up to being a world power any more."
The discussion of U.S. policy towards Central Asia comes against a backdrop of a debate on U.S. spending on foreign policy in general. It has been dropping sharply for several years, but now the Clinton administration proposes a seven-percent increase for the next fiscal year. This would still leave current spending far below the levels of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The White House has asked Congress for $19.4 billion to spend on foreign affairs. Proposed economic assistance to the former Soviet Union totals $900 million, up by a third from current spending. Of that, nearly $150 million would go to the five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This figure represents a 55 percent increase in spending for these five countries.
Thomas Dine, a top official of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) testified before the subcommittee that Central Asia is of "great and increasing significance to the United States."
It is an important source of energy, rich in both petroleum and natural gas, and also of gold. The interests of U.S. business in the region are "substantial and will be greater." He estimated that Central Asia will in the near future attract as much as $50 billion to $100 billion in investment, primarily in the energy sector.
He said the Central Asian countries are also a "strategic crossing point" because they border Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, China and India and therefore are linked to developments from the Middle East to East Asia.
Dine said American aid to Central Asia is aimed at promoting economic restructuring, genuine democracy, social stability and regional co-operation. The last he said is particularly important if a solution is to be found to major environmental disasters like the disappearing Aral Sea.
Dine said that the countries of Central Asia have embarked on a far-reaching economic and political transistion, but that it is taking longer than anyone expected.
He singled out Turkmenistan as a country where democracy has yet to take hold. Nancy Lubin, a independent consultant with 20 years' experience in Central Asia, testified at the same hearing that the region suffers from what she called "relatively corrupt and authoritarian governments."
Another USAID official, Charles Weden, added that the region has "tremendous economic potential." He said that "there is momentum towards a market economy, but they are not yet assured of sustained growth."
A member of the subcommittee, Alcee Hastings, (D-Florida), complained that much of the U.S. money that is being channeled through USAID to the region actually benefits large American corporations doing business there, such as PepsiCo and Xerox. He asked why his poor constituents should support foreign aid when they feel the money could be better used at home.
USAID argues that U.S. aid money, by helping develop the economies of foreign countries, creates future markets for U.S. exports and creates jobs in the United States.
Dine also told Hastings that little of U.S. aid money is handed out in large chunks or to large corporations. For example, he said USAID has had what he called "amazing success" in Kyrgyzstan with what is known as micro lending. This has meant giving loans of between $60 and $5,000 to thousands of people -- many of them women -- to set up their own small businesses and thereby create jobs for their neighbors.
A new element in U.S. foreign aid is a proposed program for the former Soviet Republics called Partnership for Freedom. It will channel $528 million to the former Soviet Union.
Lubin, the independent consultant, praised the increase in funding for Central Asia and the concept of partnership in the new program.
"Increased funding and Americans and Central Asians working together -- these are the two critical elements for success," she said.