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2002 In Review: Central Asia Improves Relations With West, But To Whose Benefit?

The war on terrorism put Central Asia in the spotlight of international attention throughout much of the past year. Four regional governments are continuing their cooperation with U.S. and other Western powers in antiterrorism efforts, earning political and financial support from them in return. But despite earning points for the leaders of Central Asia, it remains unclear if the new partnership with the West is adding up to clear-cut benefits for the people of the region.

Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The year 2002 was a good one for Central Asian rulers, with one exception: Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, who late last month was the target of an alleged assassination attempt and whose isolation from the outside world continues to grow.

For the rest of the Central Asian states, the year saw strengthening ties with the United States as it continued its war on terrorism and operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan continued to host thousands of coalition forces. Tajikistan likewise hosted troops, and Kazakhstan supported U.S. efforts by offering use of its airspace and air bases.

In turn, Washington and its allies were grateful toward their new partners in the geographical hub of Asia. A number of high-ranking military, government, and parliamentary delegations have traveled over the past year to Tashkent and Bishkek to praise their governments' cooperation in the war on terrorism. The presidents of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have all received warm welcomes in the White House this year.

Some observers noted a troubling attendant trend: a softer stance on continued allegations of widespread human rights abuses throughout Central Asia. Criticism of the countries' human rights records was markedly muted, although some Washington officials mentioned the issue during trips to the region.

Among them was Lorne Craner, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. In his frequent visits to the region, Craner repeated that the United States would not sacrifice its long-term commitment to human rights in favor of short-term political expediency. He added that Washington is deeply concerned about human rights in Central Asian countries.

Despite such statements, Central Asian governments were generously rewarded for their close cooperation with the United States. U.S. financial aid to the region increased over the past year from $230 million to almost $600 million. Other Western financial institutions also raised their level of economic assistance to the region, for example, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which boosted assistance from $269 million in 2001 to almost $400 million in 2002.

But despite those extra millions, 2002 was not a good year for the majority of Central Asia's people, who are growing more discontented and frustrated with the region's stagnant economies and repressive regimes.

Despite reported growth and heightened Western assistance, living standards for the majority of the population fell dramatically in all five countries throughout the year. Dafne Ter-Sakarian, a Central Asian analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, explained this apparent contradiction. "Throughout the region, there is the growth in terms of export revenue -- I mean, it's based on export revenue. And the problem with that is that it tends to end up benefiting a small circle of people," Ter-Sakarian said.

Ter-Sakarian said the increase in Western aid did not have a beneficial impact on the lives of ordinary people because of distribution problems and misappropriation. Ter-Sakarian believes that all five Central Asian countries are backsliding on economic reforms. "Reform has slowed down. What little reforms there had been, now they are going back, in fact. Things are, from that point of view, getting worse, really," Ter-Sakarian said.

Independent observers say living standards are not the only development indicators to decline throughout the region in 2002. Civil liberties like press freedom also suffered, even in the countries in the region considered the most liberal.

Alex Lupis, a Central Asia analyst with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said that overall, the situation facing local media in the region looks worse now than it did at the beginning of the year. "I think the most disconcerting [development] is the trend in Kazakhstan, which throughout the 1990s was seen -- along with Kyrgyzstan -- as one of more liberal and progressive and hopeful states in Central Asia. Over the last 12 or 13 months, since November of the last year, the government has really become much more aggressive in cracking down on newspapers and independent television stations," Lupis said.

Lupis noted that some "cosmetic" improvements in press freedom have been seen in Tajikistan and in Washington's closest Central Asian ally, Uzbekistan. But he added that these changes are part of a general image overhaul initiated by the governments rather than the beginning of true reforms. "You know, the governments continue to see in independent media the threat to their authority and see it as basically incompatible with their style of rule. But because of closer relations with Western governments, they have become a little more sensitive to trying to appear to be a little more liberal and tolerant," Lupis said.

Although Uzbekistan has officially abolished state censorship -- a move publicly hailed by both Tashkent and Washington -- Lupis said censorship still remains in the country, albeit in a different guise.

The overall status of human rights likewise seems to be on the decline. U.S. officials have pledged to put human rights at the top of their Central Asia agendas. But if anything, closer relations with the West seem to have emboldened Central Asian leaders to continue a regionwide crackdown on human rights in the name of fighting terrorism and religious extremism.

Aaron Rhodes is executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. He said the past year saw human rights take a turn for the worse in Central Asia and that the change will ultimately bring negative consequences for the West. "Because the situation of the people in these countries is very grim, they aren't looking with very much hope when they envision their future, and they are frustrated by their isolation in relation to the democratic part of the world, in relation to the Euro-Atlantic political community. And [the] result is that there is a growing distrust and anti-Western feelings in Central Asia," Rhodes said.

Ordinary Central Asians appear to reflect this view. Karim, a teacher from the Uzbek city of Andijan, said people feel increasingly uneasy as they contemplate the future. "Society is moving toward a dead-end street. We've been in this crisis for a long time. There's nobody who can point us in the right direction. People have no idea where they are going; there is no one to explain the situation. The only concern of ordinary people these days is to drag themselves through the day, to physically survive it somehow. That's it," Karim said.

Rhodes said the war on terrorism has put an emphasis on what he says are the wrong priorities. The result, he said, is that the United States and other Western countries have lost much of the moral authority they once enjoyed in Central Asia and elsewhere. "You know, the war on terror has to be a war for human rights, because those repressive governments in Central Asia constitute a security threat for the Euro-Atlantic political community. The danger of the situation is that, in the framework of this so-called war on terror, there is a sense of accepting the policies of repressive governments. And that puts the U.S. and its allies really on the wrong side of things," Rhodes said.

All three Western experts interviewed by RFE/RL believe that current political, socioeconomic, and human rights trends in Central Asia leave little room for optimism about positive developments in the year to come. The growing frustration of the region's people, combined with the authorities' unwillingness to introduce reforms and to liberalize society, might prove a recipe for unrest rather than for true stability and prosperity.