CEIP report on Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 8/29/2003

CEIP report on Central Asia
Found via Blood and Milk
This Congressional testimony is a pretty good summary of the Stans.

I particularly like this quote:

Nonetheless, despite these areas of high performance
[Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan making structural reforms that have kept
them nearly on par with Russia], Western observers have not been
willing to hold any of the Central Asian nations to the same high
standards that were applied in Central Europe in the area of political
reforms, allowing them to hide behind the curtain of their ‘Asianness’
and to emphasize the role of the amorphous factor of ‘history of prior

This is a fairly well-deserved rebuke, and it only emboldens despotic, anti-liberal behaviors:

the invocation of Asianness is a slippery concept, and is
generally used by the Central Asian leadership to justify a model of
economic development partnered with strong one man or oligarchic rule,
and sees little value in political liberalization, at least until such
time as economic growth rates are judged sufficient.

I was told by my students all the time that Uzbekistan most definitely
is a democracy, it’s just an Asian democracy. You can play
knifey-spooney all day long, but you still end up with a spoon in your

Uzbekistan, much like Azerbaijan and Georgia, seemed
better prepared for the transition to a market economy than countries
like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, because in Uzbekistan (and these other
states) there was capital accumulation in the Soviet period, through
the functioning of the gray economy.
One could almost say that the Uzbeks were natural entrepreneurs, as
tens of thousands of Uzbeks found ways to bend the rules in the Soviet
period to accumulate capital even during the Soviet period, selling
goods that they themselves produced, or those they managed to steal
from the state. In fact, the Uzbeks built a virtual parallel economy
that existed alongside the formally sanctioned Soviet one, where
surcharges for goods and services levied on top of the official Soviet
price structure effectively reflected what the market would bear.
Ironically, many fared far worse during independence, because Soviet
era constraints were not removed so much as they were modified. Quite
possibly this was because the Uzbek regime led by Uzbek president
feared that the entrepreneurial class would be too successful in their
adaptation to market conditions, and that as their economic power
increased they would demand a commensurate share of political power. As
a Soviet-era economist, Karimov may not have fully understood the
workings of the global market, but he was well versed in political

She nails it here. Uzbeks have a very strong reputation among Central
Asians as being natural merchants – it is in their blood. Everything I
know about bargaining I learned in the trading domes of Bukhara and in
the bazaars throughout the country. The issue isn’t cultural (which
Olcott talks about a lot before this passage) so much as it is
structural. Bad governance is the reason for poor growth in Uzbekistan
and Turkmenistan, and no one should even think about giving them a pass
because of their cultural history. Go to Tashkent, then go to Bishkek
and you’ll see a huge difference. Bishkek has restaurants managed and
owned by Americans and Europeans and amazing supermarkets where you can
exchange money legally. Tashkent has a nationalized Sheraton and a
Turkish Mirburger. Uzbekistan had a lot more going for it out of the
gates, so they created this situation for themselves.
Olcott finishes with:

At the current rate of US expenditures on foreign
assistance in Central Asia there are really very few effective levers
that US policy-makers have to try and influence near-term outcomes in
Central Asia. This does not mean that we should not use the diplomatic
and assistance-based tools at our disposal to try and nudge these
societies to move in the direction of greater political participation
and economic reform. But we are not spending anywhere near the kind of
money in the region that would allow us to apply strong sticks
alongside the carrots. Pressure from the US does lead to better
outcomes for certain political prisoners or human rights activists, and
the US policy-makers should be proud of US-sponsored programs which
broaden the range of participation for even limited numbers of people.
But those of us engaged with Central Asia, legislators, policy-makers,
and analysts, should not delude ourselves into believing that through
“soft needling” we will get the ruling elites in these countries to
modify the core practices at the heart of their regimes.

To which I say, “amen.”

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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