Ariel Cohen on Rice’s Central Asia Trip

by Nathan Hamm on 10/18/2005 · 3 comments

Ariel Cohen has an article on Secretary Rice’s Central Asia trip at TCS titled “‘The Great Game’ Returns” that is worth a couple minutes reading as it is a fairly good macro-level summary of the trip in spite of its unfortunate title. (Which is unfortunate because the Great Game usage invites supposition of too much similarity to the original Great Game, and because even if one uses it, to say it has returned implies it either has just begun after the 100-odd year break or that the “new” Great Game went away and just came back. If the region becomes more important to the West, then we may see something more like the old Great Game, but we’re not quite there yet.)

Cohen rightly argues that Central Asia is where high-flying democratization rhetoric crashes on the rocks of authoritarianism. And though he does not explicitly make the connection, this collision is due to strategic considerations that reveal at the very least that rhetoric notwithstanding, the Bush administration is more interested in immanentizing democracy when it comes to antagonistic states or ones in which the US has no clear economic or strategic interests to protect. Democratization is important, but not above all else. (Actually, I’m sure that’s fairly obvious stuff, and an entire side discussion on the propriety of universalist democracy rhetoric could probably ensue. And I’m sure I’ve discussed it in posts past.)

We are both on the same page regarding Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan may be a key to U.S. interests in the region. As Nazarbaev announced in his September speech to the parliament, in ten years his country may surpass Kuwait and Nigeria as an oil exporter, pumping over 2.5 million barrels a day. Under Nazarbaev the country may possibly double its living standard improve rule of law, and develop civil society. It will all take time — and money, he says — in a society which was predominantly nomadic 80 years ago, but now is developing a middle class.

With prosperity growing, Nazarbaev promised to implement democratic reforms, starting with contested presidential elections in December. He is introducing elections of regional governors, jury trials and e-government.

I divine something of a confidence on Dr. Cohen’s part regarding Nazarbaev’s commitment to democratic reform. I am fairly agnostic, but unlike in Uzbekistan’s case, I do not think the stakes are nearly as high. And I certainly don’t think and most definitely hope that it does not become US policy to make quick reform a cornerstone of future partnership with Kazakhstan. It should be part of the conversation, should be encouraged, and should be rewarded. But Kazakh political authoritarianism is not as strangling and destabilizing as Uzbek political and economic authoritarianism is.

I do, however, take issue with Cohen on this,

Anchoring U.S. interests in Central Asia can come only as a two-way street, in which America gives, not only takes, and listens, not only lectures.

I take issue because this presupposes that has not been the case. And I only mention it because I have seen it said in various forms in certain quarters lately about what I must assume is the US-Uzbek relationship. In that partnership, it seems abundantly clear that the US was more than willing to give–money, political support, and military training–listen to reasons why reforms were slow, and forgive.


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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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{ 3 comments }

Narcogen October 18, 2005 at 11:31 pm

I think Cohen can safely remove the word “may” from his analysis of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the key US interest in the region now, and only the most pessimistic of prognosticators would not expect KZ’s oil production to top Kuwait and Nigeria eventually.

However, Cohen is not strong enough when it comes to questioning the commitment to true democratization. There is none. The tragedy right now is that there does not exist, in any Central Asian republic to date, a method for the peaceful transfer of power (democratic or otherwise) that is more than theoretical. In some cases this is because administrations brook absolutely no dissent and are extremely authoritarian (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan).

In some cases it is because administrations were permissive with dissenters, but did little or nothing to acknowledge the dissent (Kyrgyzstan).

In some cases it is because of a more complicated set of circumstances, such as in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, some dissent is allowed– but not too much. In Kazakhstan, some changes are made– but not that many, not fundamental ones, and not that quickly.

There is still very little confidence that even the most high profile opposition candidate can win the presidency– in part because there is little or no reason to believe this year’s election will be free and fair (the last two mazhilis elections have not been– the latest, by many reports, worse than the one in 1999). This is undermined by the fact that few believe any other candidate can win even if this is the case. It appears as if the elections are rigged not for the right result, but to maintain appearances. It might be marginally acceptable for a candidate to win a 51/49 victory in countries like the USA, but this would undermine the President’s ability to keep various factions in check to an unacceptable degree here in Kazakhstan– nothing less than a landslide victory counts.

With the president’s daughter now speaker of the lower house of parliament, there is every indication that whatever “democratic” apparatus exists in Kazakhstan is really to provide a rubber stamp for the current ruling family’s activities.

Whether in politics or business, though, such systems become unworkable after the passage of time if they are not rigidly codified. As the family expands, the pieces of the pie split between them will shrink more and more, and the possibility of infighting will increase. The longer that the democratic process is merely a front for a hereditary transfer of power, the greater the chance of the tension between the two causing unrest. At the moment, that chance is quite low. In a mere generation or two, it won’t be.

Curzon October 24, 2005 at 9:32 am

Well, Kazakhstan might produce some amounts of oil (highly, highly unlikely it would ever reach Nigeria or Kuwait), and it’s all going to China.

Nathan October 24, 2005 at 9:35 am

You want to put money on that?

Kazakhstan is working hard to make sure its oil goes all over the place. They don’t want any one country to get too dominant and they don’t want to be seen as playing favorites.

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