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Proposed U.S. Budget Trims Assistance To Caucasus, Central Asia

While staunch ally Georgia and its President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) can boast the most aid in the region, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will struggle to maintian aid levels for other countries.
While staunch ally Georgia and its President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) can boast the most aid in the region, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will struggle to maintian aid levels for other countries.
U.S. President Barack Obama sent Congress his $3.7 trillion budget proposal for 2012 on February 14, promising that it would reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion over the next decade.

The budget has stirred debate domestically but also abroad, where the funding proposals for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are being examined to see how financial pressures in Washington might affect foreign assistance levels.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described her department's budget proposal as "scrubbed for every dollar of savings." In an effort to cut corners -- and to free up funds for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- the administration has suggested a $115 million reduction in assistance funds for Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia. The extent of the reductions, on a country-by-country basis, shed some light on the White House's current thinking toward the region.

For the eight countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, the general aid budget would decrease in 2012 to about $233 million, a 4 percent reduction compared to the enacted 2010 total.

Georgia On Top

Despite the regional reduction, staunch U.S. ally Georgia would receive nearly $67 million in civilian aid next year -- the most any county in the Caucasus or Central Asia is set to receive in 2012 in the proposed budget.

According to a State Department budget-justification document that highlighted the planned contribution to Georgia, the requested funds "will continue to institutionalize democratic and economic development gains following the August 2008 conflict with Russia."

Some in Washington have criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to support Georgia while making improved relations with Moscow a priority.

Lincoln Mitchell, an expert on the Caucasus at Columbia University, says that regional economics also plays a role.

"Georgia doesn't have the revenue sources. They don't have the oil that Azerbaijan has to make money on their own. Their economy is suffering, and they obviously don't have the relationship with Russia that Armenia has," Mitchell says.

"So they need to get that money from somewhere, and if you're sitting in Washington, for what in some respects is not a lot of money, you can bring a lot more stability to Georgia and thus, the region."

The State Department's 2012 military financing to the Caucasus and Central Asia would also be cut by some 8 percent, but Georgia would receive more than half of the suggested $34 million.

Maintaining Influence

As for Azerbaijan, Mitchell says that a nearly 25 percent drop in planned assistance in 2012, down from $22 million in 2010, won't elicit much anger from Baku.

"If what is happening in the Middle East spreads to other parts of the world, Azerbaijan is a prime place to which it might spread, with their statue of [deposed Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and various similarities between the regimes," Mitchell says.

"I suspect that if I'm sitting in Baku right now, what I want is support for the regime [from the United States] and I'm less concerned about money -- because I have the money."

Under the proposed budget, U.S. assistance to Central Asia would be reduced for every country except Kazakhstan, which would receive a 35 percent increase over the $10.4 million it received in 2010. Accompanying State Department documents did not explain the decision.

As they did in 2010, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would receive the largest amount of assistance money for Central Asia in 2012, although funding for both would be reduced.

According to the State Department, $40.8 million would be provided to Kyrgyzstan to boost the country's civil society, security provisions, and private sector in the wake of the April overthrow of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Eric McGlinchey, an expert on Central Asia at George Mason University, says that in light of recent events, an 11 percent reduction in aid to Bishkek is the wrong choice.

"The needs in Kyrgyzstan are much greater than they were a year ago, with what happened in the Ferghana Valley -- the riots in June -- [and] efforts to create some semblance of a democratic government," McGlinchey says. "That for me is a big disappointment."

McGlinchey adds, however, that he is encouraged overall that the State Department's suggested Central Asian decrease isn't more profound, perhaps due to the region's strategic importance to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

Uzbek Glass Half-Full?

Uzbekistan has provided significant logistical support to those efforts as a supply-line country. In the proposed budget, it would receive $100,000 from the State Department in military financing aid, which can be used to purchase weapons and equipment.

The proposed allotment could raise some eyebrows in the U.S. Congress, since, if approved, it would be the first time since 2004 that such funding was provided to Tashkent. The aid had been halted by the U.S. government amid concern over Uzbekistan's troubling human rights record -- concern that deepened after the May 2005 massacre in Andijon of peaceful protesters by President Islam Karimov's regime.

"There's a back story, as far as I understand, to this, and that is that Uzbekistan wants a lot more than what we're providing, and the $100,000 increase that they're getting really pales in comparison to what they've asked for. They want U.S. helicopters and the United States just isn't going to provide those," McGlinchey says.

"So one way to look at it is 'Oh my gosh, there's an increase in spending,' and another way to look at it is that Uzbekistan is making available critical territory for the Northern Distribution Network [to Afghanistan] and all they're getting in return in $100,000 -- a pittance to what they actually want."

Cuts May Still Grow

Experts in Washington say that with no letup in the near future to the enormous monetary drain of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on State Department coffers, pressure will remain on foreign-assistance budgets.

"That will lead some in Central Asia to question American staying power and commitment -- in the central landmass of Eurasia generally," says Evan Feigenbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank.

"That's something that the administration is going to have to find ways to address, and if the headline assistance numbers are not the vehicle for addressing that, they're going to have to find another way to address that -- for instance, by reinvigorating public cooperation with the private sector," he adds.

There is also a distinct possibility that cuts proposed in the 2012 budget could become more severe as lawmakers look for more ways to save.

In fact, Republicans are currently pushing legislation that calls for reductions in the State Department's budget for fiscal year 2011.

see full country-by-country breakdown here

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