Central Asia, Democratization, and the U.S.

by Nathan Hamm on 1/31/2005 · 5 comments

Via praktike comes Justin Logan calling Bush’s inaugural “morally hazardous.” I suppose that’s all well and good and makes a load of sense if you don’t like Bush and don’t pay all that much attention to current events Central Asia and the Caucasus let alone Bush’s track record on these issues in the CIS.

One of the points one of my bosses made in light of the inaugural address was the massive moral hazard problem it created.

Bush’s speech was essentially the same thing as his father’s call to Shiite Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, which, as we’ve heard so often, he did not back up, and which led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi oppositionists.

Bunk. Say it with me now: “correlation is not causation.” Justin pretty plainly asserts that increasing protests in Central Asia are a result of Bush’s speech. It’s pretty clear to me though that successful opposition-led protests have been the big inspiration. This from Kazakhstan, this from Uzbekistan, and even the recent protests in Kyrgyzstan upon which so much of Justin’s case relies all predate the inauguration speech. The narrative’s not too hard to get here. Georgia and Ukraine are inspiring Kazakh and Kyrgyz opposition parties to take to the streets to pressure their governments. The Tajik, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz governments are freaking out about opposition groups and NGOs because of Georgia and Ukraine. It happened quietly at the end of 2003 and got loud at the end of 2004 into the beginning of this year. That we had an election which led to an inauguration at which there was a speech rousingly describing what has been our policy for the last few years isn’t the cause.

And Justin’s parting “So what are we going to do?” seems to be the perfect mate for the “Oh how the world ignores the problem!” sentiment in the RFE article he linked. If you want to know what we’ll do, read the speech. Sure a lot of it is idealistic, but there’s a big clue in the “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you,” line, which I read as the realist temper to the soaring idealism of the speech. If you want illustrative examples, look at Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Georgia.

In Azerbaijan, the opposition protests following the fixed 2003 election were pretty weak. Should the U.S. have made a better defense of the protesters? Probably. Should we have shut ourselves out of Azerbaijan, losing any influence and effectively cutting opposition groups from any future help our government and NGOs could offer, simply to make a moralistic stand? It was a losing situation, we had little opportunity to change that, recognized that, and meekly said a few words in defense of the opposition.

In Georgia and Ukraine though, the situation was very different. The protests were huge and putting a lot of pressure on the local administrations. We recognized that, saw that our odds were much better, and abandoned two reliable, friendly autocrats. In Georgia especially, US diplomatic efforts played a huge role in getting Russia to quietly accept the inevitable and in avoiding bloodshed.

So, what are we going to do in Central Asia? Well, a lot of that depends on what Central Asian opposition groups themselves are prepared to do. I personally think that some of these groups are getting ahead of themselves, but if they can pull it off, more power to them. Given our past performance, I fully expect that we’ll be by their side, but that it will be more difficult down the road as leaders in the CIS have gotten wise to the game. I also fully expect that if Kyrgyz opposition groups can only muster a small number of protesters and the Bush administration doesn’t come out willing to burn the bridge that he’ll be accused of not being serious about democracy. I suppose that comes with the territory of actually having to make difficult decisions and striking a balance in making and executing a foreign policy though.


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– 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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{ 2 comments }

susan January 31, 2005 at 3:20 pm

Argh, I had a long response and lost it all.

My point was that Azerbaijan was not a great example of strategic advancement of democracy, and in fact, I consider it a deeply disappointing wasted opportunity. Lest this be chalked up to Bush-bashing, I equally blame the OSCE’s wishy-washy response.

Certainly, the internal momentum for revolution was not in the cards. But was it really necessary for Armitage to call 2 days after the elections, while opposition protesters were still being rounded up and arrested en masse, before official results were announced, to congratulate Aliyev on his “strong showing” and express our enthusiasm for working closely with him in the future? State Dept. ultimately backtracked under pressure and more harshly condemned the elections, but the damage was done.

I understand the vital importance of remaining engaged, but we also must not lose all leverage in the meantime. That wasn’t neutrality, or a manuever in a broader policy aimed to cajole and nudge towards democracy: that was proactive support of a sham election and a despot, and it seriously undercut the work of democracy promoters there. It sent a message of U.S. satisfaction with the status quo.

For Georgia’s less significant parliamentary elections, we issued high-level diplomatic pressure (James Baker, McCain, etc.) and put an unprecedented spotlight on the elections. No similar effort was employed in Azerbaijan’s presidential elections (sending a few senators over would not mortally damage our sway with them), and the message thus sent to the two neighbors was not insignificant.

Nathan January 31, 2005 at 3:50 pm

I actually totally agree with you. And, I think that despite Azerbaijan’s protests having little chance of success, we botched it. We certainly could have done much more than we did. I don’t think the administration really had much of a thought-out policy. With Georgia too though, there was some fumbling in the initial stages. I think there’s much more of a policy now and it is, more or less, that if it’s pretty clear that the people demand a change, we’ll be there.

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