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Central Asia: Official Outlines U.S. Policy

Washington, 18 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A top U.S. State Department official says the cornerstone of American policy in Central Asia is securing the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the states in the region.

Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, a special advisor to U.S. Secretary of State on the New Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union, Wednesday told members of Congress that to advance this objective American diplomacy focuses on four key issues.

First, Sestanovich said is the formation of democratic political institutions, saying they are the long-term guarantor of stability and prosperity.

The second objective, the ambassador said, is promotion of market economic reform.

Third, he said, is cooperation and greater integration of these countries into the Euro-Atlantic and international communities.

The fourth objective, he said, is advancing responsible security policies, including on weapons nonproliferation, anti-terrorism and drug trafficking.

Sestanovich made the comments in testimony before a House of Representatives (lower chamber) International Relations subcommittee. He said perhaps the toughest challenge is developing democracy in the region.

The ambassador noted that this year and next there will be nine rounds of presidential and parliamentary elections in Central Asia.

The first of these elections was Kazakhstan's in January which was criticized by the U.S. and Western Europe as falling short of international standards.

He said: "We've been specific with the government on the need to repair the damage to our relations and Kazakhstahn's reputation through a program of reforms that improve the climate for elections and advance democracy generally."

Sestanovich said "frankly, it won't be much easier in the other Central Asian states." He said all the governments in the region have pledged adherence to democratic norms in holding elections. And, he said, the United States will be persistent with regional leaders in pushing for adherence of such standards in the upcoming elections.

The ambassador said the second challenge is economic.

Sestanovich said: "The global and Russian financial crises, coupled with sharply declining commodity prices, have undermined reform and set back economic revival. Too many leaders in Central Asia have concluded that reform caused Russia's problems and responded by strengthening state controls with the inevitable bureaucratic result: less transparency for business and a worsening investment climate."

The U.S. official warned that these are wrong policies. He said market policies are key to becoming competitive in the world economy which will unleash the economic potential of the Central Asian nations and help sustain prosperity, democracy and independence.

Sestanovich said he also sees some bright spots in the region. For example, he said, Kyrgyzstan made a breakthrough in becoming the first state in the region to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) last December.

But the ambassador said peace and stability cannot be taken for granted in the region.

He said: "Throughout Central Asia, leaders are on edge about instability in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. They fear an expansion of Iranian influence and the rise of violent extremism in their countries. They are wary of reliance on Russia." Sestanovich said "much work remains before we can safely leave the legacy of the Soviet Union behind us in Central Asia."

Also testifying before the congressional panel was Nancy Lubin, president of JNA Associates, a private consulting firm, who is an authority on the Central Asian republics.

Lubin said she believes the thrust of U.S. policy is on target in the region. She said that since these countries gained independence in late 1991, the U.S. has provided more than $1.5 billion in assistance to the five Central Asian states in order to help them establish stable, democratic societies based on the rule of law and market economies.

But, she said, problems remain.

Lubin said on the commercial side, investment has proved to be more complicated than envisioned because of corruption and lack of infrastructure coupled with low oil prices.

The U.S. has been promoting a trans-Caspian oil and natural gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Turkey.

Sestanovich said he believes development of the pipelines remains on course.