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Qishloq Ovozi

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atamabev in Bishke on October 31.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be touring all five of the Central Asian states starting on October 31 and ending on November 2.

It is Kerry's first trip to the region in more than 2 1/2 years as secretary of state, and it comes as the United States and Central Asia enter a new relationship: the post-Afghanistan relationship.

Though the United States will be keeping some troops in Afghanistan at least through the end of 2016, gone are the days when the United States, of need, had to court Central Asia's governments. The U.S. base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan is closed, as is the NATO base outside Dushanbe in Tajikistan. And the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that once ferried goods by rail and road from Europe through Russia and Central Asia into Afghanistan was shut down last year.

So Kerry goes to Central Asia with perhaps the strongest hand a U.S. secretary of state has had in some 15 years. This time, the United States really does not need anything from Central Asia.

However, the view from here at the Qishloq is that Central Asia could really use help from the United States.

Central Asia's foreign policy is a balancing act. There are many outside players in this crossroad of Eurasia, but three main parties are Russia, China, and the United States. So without the United States as a friend and partner, Central Asia is left with Russia and China. Not an enviable situation, particularly since both are neighbors.

If either Russia or China, or both, decides to put pressure on Central Asia, there is not much the Central Asian states could do to resist without another great power supporting them.

Another point worth remembering is no matter how one views the results of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the Central Asians certainly have benefited in terms of security from having U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan since late 2001. In fact, the United States even paid the Central Asian states for allowing U.S. forces to use Central Asian airports (in every Central Asian country) and transiting goods through their territories.

So now Kerry visits, hopefully to discuss the new relationship between the United States and Central Asia. There is no longer any need to mute criticism or avoid uncomfortable topics during this trip.

Remember the WikiLeaks cable about Uzbek President Islam Karimov in March 2009 warning U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland that Uzbekistan might suspend the transit of goods via the NDN as retaliation for the United States giving an award to Uzbek rights activist Mutabar Tajikbaeva?

That won't work anymore. And neither will many other games Central Asian leaders knew they could play because the United States needed them.

So now would be a good time to go back to some of the policies of the 1990s, when the United States put more emphasis on friendship and alliances with partners in Central Asia that shared, or at least were trying to share, U.S. values and ideals.

And no more: "We're moving toward democracy, taking into consideration our traditions and history." Mongolia got it right and they did not have any more experience with democracy than the countries in Central Asia.

The Qishloq does not wish to give advice to Kerry about what quid pro quo there should be for good ties with the United States.

But I do support these suggestions and encourage anyone reading this to also look at these statements. And I hope Kerry will raise these issues when he meets with Central Asian leaders:

Kerry Should Speak Up for Human Rights in Central Asia

United States: Feature Rights in Central Asia Talks

CPJ Urges Kerry To Call For Release Of imprisoned Journalists In Central Asia

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent tour of Central Asia was historic, symbolic, and surprising. But will it change how Japan approaches the region?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just finished a tour of Central Asia. Abe's trip was historic, since he was the first Japanese prime minister to visit all five Central Asian states; it was symbolic, since Japan has long been involved in Central Asia and Abe's visits reminded the region's people of Japan's support during these nearly 25 years; and it was surprising, because Abe was talking with Central Asian officials about signing contracts worth billions of dollars.

In the wake of Abe's trip there are questions about whether this signifies a more active Japanese role in Central Asia. Is Japan about to enter a "competition" for Central Asian resources and contracts? What are Japan's motives and how do the Central Asian countries stand to benefit or lose if Japan does indeed intend to focus more on the region?

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss these and other questions related to Abe's tour of Central Asia.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating from Moscow was Jack Farchy, a correspondent who covers, among other countries, Russia and the Central Asian states for the Financial Times. Also joining from Tokyo was Timur Dadabaev, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba, author of numerous works on Japan's relations with Central Asia, including the soon-to-be-released book Japan In Central Asia. And I was in the studio here in Prague.

Dadabaev started the discussion by saying Abe had four main objectives for going to Central Asia: "to strengthen the Japanese business community's standing in Central Asia," "to secure the orders of Central Asian countries for Japanese corporations," "to build the soft power of Japan in the region," and "to extend the humanitarian assistance that Japan has been extending over a period of 24 years...."

Farchy just co-authored a report on Abe's official visit to Central Asia. He said part of the motivation for such an unprecedented tour by a Japanese prime minister was China. "China's new Silk Road policy that was first announced a couple of years ago but has really been gathering steam this year [and] Japanese companies are beginning to miss out on deals to Chinese companies," in Central Asia and other countries.

Farchy said China's wave of investments in Central Asia at least partially explained why Abe was talking about some $18 billion in contracts in Turkmenistan and some $8.5 billion in Uzbekistan. "China is prepared to spend a lot of money here that would also open the door to Chinese companies and contractors to win all of the contracts, which typically Japan has seen as its specialty, these kind of infrastructure, technology services contracts, so now we're seeing a political push to try to reverse that."

The panel agreed that Japan's interests in Central Asia are economic not political. Dadabaev pointed out, "If you look at the focus of the initiatives and at the list of the documents signed during the visit it is quite obvious that economy dominates the agenda for the Japanese foreign policy engagement in Central Asia."

Farchy also said he did not see any evidence Japan's interest in Central Asia extended beyond economics. "I don't think that Japan wants to become a new political force in Central Asia like say Russia is, I'm not sure China really wants that role, either. I think it's much more about business and about economics," he said.

That said, Japan's current economic interest in Central Asia does not mean that will remain Tokyo's sole purpose there. Japan is well placed to advance politically into Central Asia. Dadabaev noted, "Central Asia is one these rare regions in Asia where there is no sort of history of Japanese imperialism and that makes Central Asia more accessible for Japan."

Japan was a master of soft power in Central Asia before the term "soft power" was coined. The Japanese government has supported clean water and agricultural projects, helped finance construction of schools, provided funds to improve health-care systems, roads, power supply systems, and many other aspects of Central Asia's infrastructure. During his visit to Tajikistan, for example, Abe offered help in combating locusts, which in recent years have devastated Tajikistan's farmland.

Dadabaev said that was paying off and explained why, according to a recent Japanese study, Central Asia seems to like Japan. "In a recent poll which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted...before the visit happened, they polled all five Central Asian countries in terms of the attitude of the population toward different countries and Japan ranked fairly high in terms of the favorable image and that adds up to the trust with which Japan can operate" in the region.

The subject of whether a more visible Japanese presence complicated the balance of influence among the outside countries also involved in Central Asia came up. Farchy said invigorated Japanese activity in the region was a plus for Central Asia. "I think from the Central Asian perspective, Central Asian countries and leaders, and elites, love as much competition for their attention as they can drum up because the more competition the more likely they are to get better terms for whatever deals there are on the table."

Having another financier for projects would be welcome for the Central Asian governments, which find themselves increasingly in debt to China.

Ahead of Abe's visit, Human Rights Watch called on the Japanese prime minister to use his visit to raise rights concerns with Central Asian leaders. Abe did not do so. But Dadabaev said this might be partially due to Japan's different perception of how respect for human rights and adherence to democratic values are achieved. "Prime Minister Abe didn't emphasize this point [rights and democratic values] during this visit because for him economy and the developmental projects are also part of this human security and that connects to human rights and democracy," Dadabaev said.

The panel dealt with these issues in greater detail and discussed other matter pertaining to Abe's recent visit and the role of Japan in Central Asia.

Listen to the full discussion here:

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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