Taking Up the Slack in Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 1/16/2007 · 3 comments

A few years back, European relations with Central Asian states were fairly quiet. And, at least as far as appearances went, the US, due to its close relationship with Uzbekistan, seemed to be less principled or more pragmatic (depending on your point of view) compared to Europe. RFE/RL today carries a story that shows just how pragmatic Europe (or at least the German-speaking parts of it) is getting about Central Asia. In fact, the focus of the story, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, is sounding quite a bit like defenders of US policy toward Uzbekistan from a few years ago.

“I think it’s not a matter of securing the energy resources only — it’s really a matter of engaging with these [Central Asian] countries,” Ferrero-Waldner told Reuters. “If we don’t engage with these countries, these countries will turn eastwards and turn to Russia and China. And I think it’s highly important that [Central Asians] also look very strongly towards Europe.”

That sounds quite a bit like arguments that I made about US policy toward Uzbekistan a couple years back, and I think it is fairly safe to assume that though Ferrero-Waldner has engagement with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan mostly in mind, arguments that EU engagement will produce marginal improvements over the status quo must most vigorously be applied toward convincing European states and publics to agree to reaching out to Turkmenistan and especially Uzbekistan.

Ever since Andijon, Western policy in the region has been a disjointed mess. The US has shifted its focus toward Kazakhstan, sought to maintain access to Manas airfield in Kyrgyzstan, and that is about it. Europe, with the exception of Germany, has also more or less been in a holding pattern since mid-2005. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has been taking daily steps to overtake Turkmenistan as the universally-recognized most repressive state in the region. Is it time for someone in the West to pursue a comprehensive regional policy and reengage with Uzbekistan?

The RAND Corporation’s findings on US security assistance to Uzbekistan indicate that repackaged engagement and assistance to Uzbekistan can bear some fruit. Isolation has not accomplished anything, and any policy aimed at the entire region cannot exclude the country where nearly half the region’s population lives. If John Negroponte’s characterization of Central Asian governments as unreliable is any indication, the US is not terribly interested in either renewing ties with Uzbekistan or breathing new life into its regional policy, leaving Europe to take up the slack for the West.

Germany is at the fore in encouraging European engagement with Central Asian governments, and it is facing an uphill battle.

Germany argues engagement is the way to promote rights, but activists were concerned when it argued successfully against toughening sanctions on Uzbekistan last year and lobbied — inconclusively — for Kazakhstan to take the helm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.

Analysts say Germany will not find it easy to persuade all its 26 EU partners to follow an “interest-driven” policy.

Reuters packages activists’ concerns as being about German interest-driven rather than idealism-driven foreign policy. The Western experience with Uzbekistan over the past five years provides a good deal of empirical evidence about the merits and demerits of interest-driven versus idealism-driven foreign policy. Interest-driven policy accomplished little. But idealism, even though it has not been executed as I imagine most idealists would prefer, has not accomplished anything. Germany apparently feels that a little is better than nothing, especially when Europe’s interests in Central Asia are so strong.

Germany could, I suppose, go it alone if it wished. But one of the biggest problems with Western policy in Central Asia (and between agencies in US policy) has been not just that the region has rarely been treated as one region so much as a collection of neighboring states but also that Western states have not been on the same page. Though having the West as a whole on the same page would be preferable, a comprehensive EU policy would be a great achievement, and working together stands a far better chance of achieving (probably still marginal) results. Russian gas games prove to Europe that it needs Central Asia. And Central Asian governments know they do better with multiple partnerships. Developments in much of Central Asia over the last year-and-a-half have made the future look dim, and at least part of that is due to the West’s absence. Perhaps it is time for a second round of close relations. The failures of round one are a powerful argument for being cautious in the second, but perhaps some lessons have been learned that will make round two a bit more fruitful.

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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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brian January 16, 2007 at 9:42 pm

While I understand the financial and energy aspects of engagement, I don’t really see how it benefits Uzbeks or Turkmens if their country turns towards Europe rather than Russia or China. Will human rights, economic liberalization, and political reform flourish once Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan cozy up to a Europe or America that’s willing to turn the other way when basic international standards are violated?

Did American engagement help the Uzbek people post 9/11? Sure, it felt more comfortable knowing that Uzbekistan was trying to curry favor with us instead of Russia or China, but in the end I don’t think it gave any appreciable benefits to the average Uzbek… their government is just too unwilling/unable to change. Distancing itself from Russia may have caused harm to the Uzbek populace because for instance, the number of students taught Russian dwindled as the number of migrant workers to Russia only went up.

My point is, other than some mutually beneficial economic and security deals that Europe/US can come up with, they will clearly not be in a strong position to influence the conduct of some pretty awful governments.

Now do we want some secure oil/gas routes? Do we want to isolate Iran? Do we want some military bases in strategic locations? Do we want to annoy Russia and China? Ok fine, but then let’s not pretend we’re doing it because we give one bit about the people of the region.

Nathan January 16, 2007 at 10:44 pm

It’s hard to say that previous engagement, where successful, did terribly much good for the Uzbek people. But in an intermediate sense, some of the improvements (which don’t impact most Uzbeks at all), and delayed impacts through ties built with mid-level bureaucrats stand to bear fruit in the future.

I think that the argument in not just Uzbekistan but all of the region ultimately has to be about small gains that stand to bear, at best, mid- to long-term fruit. Nothing comes fast, and if we can achieve idealistic interests without doing harm, I’m all for it. In Europe’s case, if it can secure its strategic interests without doing harm, I think it certain should. (And incidentally, I think that decreasing Russian power in Central Asia will have long-term positive benefits for Central Asian populations.)

In the case of the US though, I think we certainly should take our time. Reengagement with Uzbekistan, not to mention a comprehensive Central Asia policy, needs to have much better consideration behind it than those in Washington in apparently willing to give it. Our strategic interests in the region are not so terribly great that we need be the tip of the spear for Western diplomacy. And when it comes to security interests, if Russia and China, both of whom claim to share our interests, are so keen to engage the region, then they can take on a smidgeon of responsibility for the world beyond their borders and take care of things.

Brian January 17, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Ok, I’ll cede to you that the engagement may have helped Uzbekistan plant the seeds of future development in certain areas. And I think the same could happen again their or in Turkmenistan or in any other central asian nation. What I’m most afraid of is the West, specifically America, looking like hypocrites or opportunists, or for that matter _being_ hypocrites or opportunists. Support of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the 1953 installation of the Shah in Iran, unqualified support for Israel, the mess in Iraq, etc… the Muslim world already has a lot of reasons to distrust America. True or not, a lot of people (including Central Asians) think that we want to cozy up to central asian governments purely for self-serving economic or political reasons. (side effects of this may include Borat’s “IMF wants to rule the world” diatribes)

So I guess we’re not too far apart when you say that America should tread lightly. We should be careful to hold on to the moral high ground, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of the people of the region.

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