A curious press release went out today that urges the US public and government to support investment in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan. (Unsurprisingly, it is currently the top news item at The American Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce at the moment). The release casts US business as the force that should be left behind to secure American strategic interests in Central Asia after troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014. The release argues that lawmakers will be dropping the ball on achieving long-term benefits to the US should they fail to get behind US investment in the region.
The argument in the press release contains nothing that is self-evidently ridiculous or false, but it is three paragraphs heaping with wishful thinking. In other words, it’s probably perfectly crafted to excite at least a few members of Congress.
Karimov’s government would surely be over the moon to have the US government encouraging massive investment in Uzbekistan, but it should not be forgotten that Uzbekistan ranks almost as poorly in economic freedoms as it does in political rights and civil liberties. It is a terrible climate for foreign investors, with perhaps a few exceptions, where US investors stand risk to suffer as bilateral relations deteriorate. Additionally, investors should be cautious about the finances of the Uzbek state. Official economic statistics are unreliable and suspect, and there are some indicators — major interruptions in gas and power supplies and last year’s massive overhaul of consumer trade outlets — that suggest powerful elites are looking for new stones to squeeze to sustain their lifestyles. Instead of encouraging US businesses to walk into an uncertain environment where they face shakedowns by bureaucrats and cotton campaign labor organizers, Congress would be better served to press Uzbekistan to improve its business climate.
More importantly though, does the US even have a post-2014 strategic policy for Central Asia of any sort, let alone one that a community of US investors in the region could support? The answer to that appears to be “no.” If that is indeed the case, this press release reads instead as a call not for the US government to support US investors in the region as much as it does a plea for it not to abandon them.