Washington, 22 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The United States wants to help resolve conflicts and broaden ties with the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia because of that region's immense economic and strategic importance.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called it "a strategically vital region" in a speech Monday on U.S. policy on Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
It was the first time he singled out these eight nations for the main theme of a policy address, reflecting its growing significance for the United States.
Talbott said the first aim of U.S. policy is to settle ethnic and other conflicts that hinder political progress and put economic development at risk. "Conflict resolution must be job one for U.S. policy in the region," he said.
Talbott said the success of political and economic reforms there could stabilize the region and open up a valuable trade and transport corridor along the old Silk Road between Europe and Asia.
But he warned that if reforms were to fail, the region could become a hotbed of terrorism, religious extremism, and outright war. "It would matter profoundly to the United States if that were to happen in an area that sits on as much as two hundred billion barrels (27.2 million tons) of oil," Talbott said with unusual directness.
Talbott said that since the Central Asian states gained independence, it has been fashionable to predict a renewal of the 19th century competition among the great powers for influence and access to the wealth of the region to the disadvantage of its people.
"Our goal is to avoid and actively discourage that atavistic outcome," Talbott said, adding that "in practicing the geopolitics of oil, let's make sure that we are thinking in terms appropriate to the 21st century and not the 19th" and that the U.S. wants to see "all responsible players in the Caucasus and Central Asia be winners."
He said that resolving conflicts is an essential step because internal divisions provide a pretext for foreign intervention.
He spoke about his own four-year involvement in efforts to resolve long-standing enmity between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave inside Azerbaijan, saying he has been particularly busy on this issue in recent months.
Talbott said a U.S.-Russian-French initiative is creating some flexibility among the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic Armenians, the Azeris and Armenians proper and that he is hopeful the end of the nine-year-old conflict is not too far off. He gave no details.
Turning to problems in Georgia and President Eduard Shevardnadze's proposal for United Nations peacekeepers to replace Russian troops manning the border of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region, Talbott said the U.S. will support the idea.
He said President Bill Clinton assured Shevardnadze in talks in Washington late Friday that the U.S. stands ready to intensify diplomatic efforts to achieve a U.N.-backed settlement in Georgia.
Talbott also mentioned a recent peace agreement ending five years of civil war in Tajikistan, saying it offers a real opportunity for reconciliation within Tajikistan and its neighbors. But he noted that the situation there remains, in his words "fragile and dangerous."
Talbott said all the big states that border the Caucasus and Central Asia would benefit from regional stability.
He praised Turkey's investments and trade and cultural involvement as "a source of solace and support to those who rightly worry about the projection of Iranian influence."
Talbott said the U.S. is aware that many Russians view Turkey's role differently with some apprehension and that in fact Russia itself is viewed with concern. He recalled that "Russia's leaders in the past seemed capable of feeling strong, secure and proud only if others felt weak and insecure and humiliated."
Talbott said there are questions about how Russia will handle relations with other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and whether it will develop into a real commonwealth of genuinely independent states.
He said that if it goes in another direction, becoming a cover for Russian infringement on the independence of its neighbors "then the CIS will deserve to join that other set of initials. USSR, on the ash heap of history."
Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) also spoke Monday about Central Asia at a separate gathering of Washington policy analysts, calling for "a restructuring of U.S. policy, towards this region to be less Russo-centric."
He said valuable time has been lost because of this approach and the U.S. should do more to help what he called "the Silk Road nations" to forge strong ties between themselves and with the West.
Brownback cited numerous examples of Russian interference, exploiting local quarrels and conflicts to strengthen its presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. To counteract the meddling, and also attempts by Iran to increase its influence, he said "the United States should do everything possible to promote their sovereignty and independence, as well as encourage solid diplomatic and economic cooperation between these nations."
Brownback, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, was to preside over a hearing today into U.S. policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia and wasexpected to closely question government and expert witnesses on what he perceives to be the imbalance in U.S. policy
Asked about Brownback's criticism, Talbott said there is no doubt that Russia has been part of the problem in Central Asia but he said Russia is now working with the international community to resolve problems there and will over time increasingly become part of the solution for peace and stability in that part of the world.
In spite of possibly partisan differences, Brownback and Talbott seemed to agree on the broad points of what the U.S. should be doing in the region.
They both called for resolving conflicts, expanding economic assistance and contacts with regional leaders and strengthening democratic reforms.
Talbott outlined broad U.S. goals for the area that seemed identical to U.S. goals in most parts of the world: to promote democracy and free market economies, as well as peaceful cooperation within and among the countries of the region and encourage their integration into the larger international community.
Assessing individual progress along these lines, Talbott gave a mixed review. He praised Georgia and Kyrgyzstan for holding free elections. But he pointed out that the Kyrgyz government treats its critics as criminals and that other central Asian governments commit serious human rights violations.
Talbott said Georgia and Armenia have moved ahead of other states in economic reform in spite of regional conflicts and relatively little natural wealth.
He sent a message to the countries of the region that he said will be reinforced by Clinton's wife Hillary when she travels to three Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) in the fall: "as long as they move in the direction of political and economic freedom, of national and international reconciliation, we (the U.S.) will be with them, " Talbott said.