Influencing Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 4/2/2007 · 4 comments

Martha Brill Olcott has a great post on Western policy towards Central Asia at Central Asian Voices. With a couple political transitions having already taken place in the region and more that seem not too far distant on the horizon, she says that whether or not these changes lead to more participatory societies depends in part on those both in the region and outside of it with an interest in political liberalization taking a good long look at what has gone wrong and why and appreciating the differences between countries in the region. Olcott says that despite Central Asian governments’ complaints that the West meddles in their affairs, Western governments have not pushed political and economic reform strongly enough. What support there has been has usually been verbal, and when it has involved money, much of the cash has gone to foreign salaries and overhead. Olcott makes recommendations for the US and Europe as they mull a more active role in Central Asia.

Her suggestions are well worth reading, and though some are sure to be controversial, they are a very well considered attempt to deal with a part of the world that forces policymakers to long-term liberalization goals against immediate human rights and strategic interests (which themselves are usually opposed). In short, she says that the West’s Central Asia policy needs more realism. When well informed experts cannot even come close to predicting, for example, succession in Uzbekistan, it is risky to implement destabilizing sanctions. Sanctions are ineffective anyway because they lack international backing, and are undermined by China and Russia. Olcott also says that Western governments are making a mistake when they avoid engaging the existing Central Asian governments and that we should be more flexible in dealing with them. Congressionally required certification processes do more harm than good.

Though it might not make much sense given all the grief I have given Germany for its insistence on making Uzbekistan a prominent EU partner, I think that Olcott is correct. Sanctions and isolation do no good, and may in fact be harmful. One could make a reasonable case that had relations between Uzbekistan and the West not soured, the human rights situation would not be as bad today. The United States and Europe should have some sort of relationship with each state in Central Asia. Even though these governments, especially Uzbekistan’s, engage in behaviors we find unsavory, Western engagement with these states increases their long-term prospects. (Again, the German approach is probably better than it seems.)

The trick though is figuring out what kind of relationships we should have. Dr. Olcott gives us no guidance here. My concern about the German approach to European Union policy in Central Asia is that it invests too much diplomatic capital in Uzbekistan. As much as Europe might want and need the natural gas under Uzbekistan’s soil, the Uzbek government’s track record should not inspire trust, even for morally disinterested partners. If Russia is having trouble, why should we expect the West to do any better? What level of engagement should Western policymakers shoot for? I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I think that at the very least, we should offer technical assistance that increases the ability of Central Asia’s governments to govern effectively,* taking into consideration assessments of our previous track record and the need to refrain from competing with other outside actors (see Olcott’s last point).

Of course, the real trick is in following through. In the United States there are hurdles to realizing a more pragmatic and effective Central Asia policy. The region is currently seen as low priority by both Congress and the administration. The media too has decided the region is not terribly important. If pressed, surely all three institutions would admit that Afghanistan does not exist in a vacuum, and that all three fail to see that the areas beyond its borders also deserve attention are testament to how they are letting down the US public. Even if Congress and the administration could be convinced to throw more cash and attention Central Asia’s way, legally required certification procedures will continue to make the State Department’s job more difficult. I could go on, but one gets the picture — don’t expect a better Central Asia policy any time, and do expect this to come back to haunt us later.

Also see: Bonnie Boyd has some brief comments on the same post.


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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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{ 4 comments }

Laurence April 2, 2007 at 1:25 pm

Nathan, Thank you for this interesting post…

Joshua Foust April 2, 2007 at 5:13 pm

Seriously, I was puzzling about this at work today, trying to come up with something intelligent to say about it. But I can’t add much, except to emphasize the danger of sanctions: they have served only to strengthen horrible regimes, while open engagement has always weakened them. Compare China and North Korea in the 60’s, when they were treated the same (i.e. aggressively isolated internationally), and in the 90’s, when China had nearly two decades of western engagement while North Korea still had basically none. One was incredibly successful and liberalizing (though still deeply imperfect), while one was isolated, unstable, dangerous, and horrifying.

There are additional studies out there about the entrenching effect of economic sanctions, versus the liberalizing effect of honest western involvement—honest being the key word. Though I wouldn’t recommend the book due to serious methodological flaws, “The J-Curve” by Ian Bremmer at least offers the kind of trade offs we face in this kind of policy: usually stability versus freedom. It’s not an easy choice to make, and miscalculating it—see Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan—can have horrifying consequences.

Lyndon April 3, 2007 at 8:26 am

I also wanted to thank Nathan for finding & sharing this. Won’t even pretend to have anything else to add.

Well, maybe just one thing:

Of course, the real trick is in following through. In the United States there are hurdles to realizing a more pragmatic and effective Central Asia policy. The region is currently seen as low priority by both Congress and the administration. The media too has decided the region is not terribly important.

Looking at the brief history of US involvement in the post-Soviet world, it seems like inattention has been a common problem, with the exception of Russia (and even then, we could have stroked their ego more if we’d had the time or patience) and those post-Soviet countries who have been lucky enough to have vocal diasporas in the US. So, issues like the unresolved conflicts in Georgia & Moldova (leaving NK out of the discussion because it’s a bit different) have received minimal attention until the past year or so. I don’t mean to suggest that they are as important strategically as Central Asia, but they are a good example of how letting problems fester only makes them harder to solve in the long run.

rQQt May 7, 2007 at 6:03 pm

“One could make a reasonable case that had relations between Uzbekistan and the West not soured, the human rights situation would not be as bad today.”
— Yeah right….
One only has to look at history and see the results when the US/(EU more recently) tried to deal with countries “flexibly”, what’s the results of that folks?

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