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Obama Victory Sparks Hopes For Change In U.S. Policy In Central Asia

Can Barack Obama make America synonymous with freedom again?

Following the historic election of Barack Obama as U.S. president on November 4, we asked some of our broadcasters and other contributors to offer the next president their advice in a series of articles on how to proceed in some of the key regions of the world for U.S. policy.

On the day it was officially announced that Barack Obama had been elected the next president of the United States, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland met with journalists in Astana. He said that Washington's relations with Kazakhstan will not change under the new president.

That remark was commented on extensively by Kazakh bloggers, most of whom did not hide their disappointment. Let's look at the reasons for their frustration:

For many decades during the Soviet era, the United States and freedom were synonymous for many in the Soviet Union and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. That feeling increased even more after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Central Asians welcomed their independence as mainly the result of the successful standoff between the Free World led by the United States, and the Totalitarian World led by the Soviet Union.

In other words, the United States was like a religion, an icon, a hope -- and, in fact, that hope started coming true in the early 1990s for many in Central Asia.

A decade later, when the initial euphoria of independence had dissipated, the situation started changing. Oil and gas, geopolitics, and the war against terrorism became the United States' first priorities with regard to Central Asia. These three factors modified the U.S. attitude to Central Asia and affected its politics in the region. And this changed the way many Central Asians perceived the United States.

Such issues as human rights, civil liberties, and democracy figured increasingly rarely in U.S. rhetoric about Central Asia, and this had a big impact on Central Asian intellectuals, human rights activists, opposition politicians, and young people.

Central Asia's energy riches are important for the United States, which tailors its politics in the region accordingly. Russia's and China's proximity to the region and their attempts to extend their influence also affect U.S. policy there. NATO's counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan require cooperation with neighboring Central Asian dictators, who skillfully use all the above factors to bargain successfully on economic and political issues.

Hoping For Change

In blogs and online discussions, Kazakh Internet users have expressed the hope that the new U.S. leadership will give priority to human rights, democracy, press freedom, freedom of expression, and other civil rights in crafting its policies toward Central Asia.

Meanwhile in Uzbekistan, human rights activists who gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent on November 4 to express their support for Obama said they anticipate that he will focus on human rights and democracy in Uzbekistan, rather than on geopolitics.

And Temir Sariev, the leader of the Kyrgyz opposition party Ak-Sumkar, tells RFE/RL he hopes that Obama's election will change world politics to the extent that "Kyrgyz policies, meaning domestic and foreign policies, will have to change for sure. Not immediately, but gradually, such issues as democratic values, human rights, and transparency will become more important in Kyrgyzstan's everyday political life."

Such sentiments are understandable. After all, it was the United States that helped the republics of Central Asia to gain independence from the Soviet empire, and the region still looks with hope for help in establishing democratic societies. Geopolitics, the war against terrorism, and energy issues are of course important factors to take into account when dealing with Central Asian dictators. But the most important thing is freedom.

Over the last several years, the policy of the Bush administration could best be described as pragmatic. No doubt, pragmatism is a very important thing, especially in big politics. However, we should not forget the origin of the word, which derives from the classical Greek "pragma," meaning a marriage of convenience.

Many in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan feel that the United States' true love for them, which they felt for many years during the Soviet era and after, has now withered. And today, when all Central Asian states enjoy independence but have not been able rid themselves of the totalitarian legacy, something like a "marriage of convenience" has replaced the United States' love for them.

Barack Obama's key slogan during his presidential campaign was "Change We Can Believe In." Central Asians are waiting for that change, Mr. President.

Merhat Sharipzhan is the former director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL