FT on Decertification (Updated)

by Nathan Hamm on 7/16/2004 · 2 comments

The consideration of decertification from the Financial Times is so good, you have to read it. But, because these things disappear rather quickly, I’ll heavily excerpt it.

Dealing with dictators is not easy. The west has good reasons for remaining engaged in central Asia – Caspian oil and gas, restraining Russia in its backyard and fighting terrorism. In the wake of September 11, the US understandably put human rights concerns to one side as it rushed to make friends in the region.

But it is right to rethink the agenda. First, Uzbekistan is not a big player in the regional energy scene in comparison with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Next, while Russia has developed close ties with Kazakhstan, it is careful about getting too close to the unpredictable Mr Karimov. Ethnic relations between Russians and Uzbeks are in any case often tense. Also, whatever happens to its bilateral aid, America will continue to project some influence in Uzbekistan through its airbase in the south of the country established during the Afghan crisis and still very active.

Above all, while realpolitik may dictate that democracies must do short-term deals with some very unsavoury characters, long-term support should, where possible, be limited to leaders with a minimum of respect for human rights. This is not an argument for disengagement, but for the selective use of the instruments at the west’s disposal – limiting aid to the non-government sector, as the US has now done with Tashkent.

Building democracy in central Asia is not a lost cause. There is life among non-government organisations. The young respect their own cultures but look to the west for new ideas. Given a free choice, many would choose to study in the US. The west must not turn its back on these people. It should offer more scholarships.

It will almost certainly take a long time before the authoritarian rulers who dominate the region leave the political stage. But the west must keep working for democratic change. This is not a question just of morality but of effective policy. Democracies make good partners, sharing common values even in the worst political arguments. Non-democratic allies make for painfully difficult partnerships, as the US has discovered in the Middle East.

OK, so that’s most of it. I can’t disagree with any of this really except to say that I don’t feel as hopeful that the ability of NGOs to operate freely in Uzbekistan is a sure thing without strong US influence.

UPDATE: Laurence provoked a little further thinking on my part about this whole thing. I too often forget that one shouldn’t have too much faith in NGOs and so little faith in the Karimov government. I’m not entirely convinced that Karimov is solely interested in maintaining an iron grip on power. I am entirely convinced that most Westerners (pundits and NGOs especially) don’t get the Uzbek government. I have no sources on hand unfortunately, but have often read in passing and gleaned from statements of Uzbek officials that there are some fairly deep divisions within the Uzbek government [I’ve even been told clan-related]. There are pro-development and pro-repression forces and conflicts are held behind closed doors. If you want to see a similar situation, look at Azerbaijan, where the conflicts are starting to reveal themselves.

To say that rethinking the strategy and shifting away from working so much with the government (which isn’t even truly what is happening) is a bit simple and puts a lot of faith in an often highly-corrupt and ineffectual NGO sector. Further, much of what the NGOs do, while valuable, will not seriously further the democratization agenda. There are exceptions, and these are the ones I tend to favor. Here, I’m talking about OSI and other organizations that further democratization in an indirect way (changing attitudes, promoting the independent development of social organizations, contact with and education in the West, etc.).

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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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praktike July 16, 2004 at 11:56 am

I like a good inside-outside game myself. The NGOs can serve a useful role in laying the groundwork for change, and the US gov’t can maintain ties and leverage on the inside. Assuming the embassy has good relationships with the NGOs, they may even be able to use them to pressure Karimov when needed, or back off when the situation is delicate or when Karimov deserves some kind of reward.

Nathan July 16, 2004 at 3:16 pm

That’s exaclty the game we try to play as I see it. And, because that approach plays to each sector’s strengths (I doubt, for example, the efficacy or wisdom of having embassies too heavily involved in executing programs that are designed to transform the political cultural) I worry that decertification would weaken the hand of the State Department and in turn the NGO sector.

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