Advocating for a Better Central Asia

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by Nathan Hamm on 2/4/2013 · 4 comments

When I saw that OSI had published a policy brief arguing that “the degree to which the United States holds countries in Eurasia publicly accountable for respecting human rights and democracy depends on each country’s relative strategic importance to the United States, not the human rights conditions in each country,” I anticipated writing a long discussion of the argument, issues, and difficulties in promoting human rights in the region. But then it said that Tajikistan, later described as “the only one of the three countries [Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan] that is not an important link in the Afghanistan logistics chain,” is not strategically important to the U.S. Is this a joke? Because I thought this was pretty well known.


The above is taken from a brochure (PDF) put out by Move One, a logistics company. For those not wanting to click through to see the larger capture of the page, it describes the KKT (Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan) route of the Northern Distribution Network. It describes it as “the most reliable route into Afghanistan for military, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial freight.” Compare it to the previous slide and you will also notice that it is slower. And looking at the route it takes, you should notice that it is especially at risk of weather-related slowdowns. But this is a dependable route and Tajikistan is strategically important to the United States. No amount of cherry-picking changes that.

So that complicates the claim being made here. If Tajikistan is in fact strategically important, then why is the United States so willing, as OSI claims, to criticize it? First, I am not convinced that the United States is so clearly more critical of Tajikistan than Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, but nobody is going to win an argument that boils down to perceptions.

The second reason for differences in public criticism over human rights that may exist is that the dynamics of the bilateral relationship with each of these countries is different. This is a far more important issue and should be a feature of serious policy discussions. Uzbekistan is notoriously hostile to critique. That does not mean that we should refrain from criticizing its abysmal human rights record, but there is very little to be gained in publicly doing so. Kazakhstan’s government seems increasingly sensitive to public criticism, but it is in most ways an easier partner with which to deal. It seems odd to put it on par with Uzbekistan. And while Tajikistan’s government does not exactly welcome public criticism, it, like Kazakhstan, is not going to derail the bilateral relationship over criticism.

The United States certainly can get away with stronger public criticism of Central Asian governments. But rather than recommending “do it more” after a wholly unconvincing argument about why the United States criticizes some of these governments more than others, it would be more useful to examine the constraints and opportunities before the United States and European governments in each bilateral relationship.

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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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Narcogen February 4, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Just to play devil’s advocate for a second… any possibility that MoveInc cites the KKT route because that’s the one they offer? It’d be hard to promote your services on a transit route that you admit is slow, unsafe, and unreliable.

As for the thesis… I’m not sure what it is. OSI’s statement in the policy brief you mention would seem to be self-evident. Are you suggesting that because you see an apparent inconsistency, the US is actually behaving altruistically in the region? Or something else?

If you had to rank the following countries in terms of the US’ expenditure of funds, effort, and attention, how would you rank them? If you had to rank them in terms of strategic importance in the region, either geopolitical or economic, how would you rank them?

Is there any way that Tajikistan doesn’t end up either last or second to last in one list, if not both? Is there any doubt that it is not due to a lack of need for aid of attention, but rather a lack of any significant other interest?

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan.

PS, the PDF link seems to be 404’d.

Nathan Hamm February 5, 2013 at 12:45 am

MoveOne offers several other routes. Many of its competitors offer KKT services. Early in the NDN’s life, there was small hope that KKT would provide enough throughput to reduce Uzbekistan’s dominance of the traffic. It can’t compete with Uzbekistan’s rail, but the more important point to this discussion is that Takistan is more strategically important than OSI is suggesting.

No, the US isn’t altruistic. Many of the differences in the public parts of the bilateral relationships have more to do with each country’s leadership and the nature of each relationship. While OSI makes an apparently sensible claim, that’s all there is to the case. One can take quotes from officials and stack them differently to tell the story another way. Truth is, there’s not the kind of variability in public statements that is claimed. And where there is variation, there are probably a lot of really banal explanations beyond the big one I think is at work. (For example, Tajikistan got a lot of criticism for a while for big steps back in elections and religious freedom. Sadly, Uzbekistan does not get criticized for every way in which it fails to meet basic human rights standards because anymore, nobody expects it will actually try to meet them.)

tl;dr – they don’t have their facts straight and their hypothesis does not uniquely, or even all that effiiently, describe what’s going on in the data. And the Russia part was bizarre.

On the expenditures/importance question, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan or obviously the two most importance. More narrowly on regional security, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan compete for the top spot.

The other part is trickier to answer as there is no obvious metric. But both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan receive a lot more attention than people realize. They, along with Kazakhstan, are actually interested in doing things like receiving security training and actually using equipment they request. Last I heard, Uzbekistan had little interest in anything more than receiving hand-outs and payments.

Nathan Hamm February 5, 2013 at 10:03 am

PDF link is fixed now.

andy February 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Sorry if this is not the correct place for this. (I know very little about Central Asia and wanted to sound a little less clueless around the water cooler)

A colleague has mentioned to me that the former prime minister of Tajikistan, Abdulmalik Abdullojonov, had recently been arrested in the Ukraine and held in conjunction with an earlier Interpol warrant (He is being accused of attempting to kill the President and other major charges). The Ukrainian Government is deciding whether or not to extradite him to Tajikistan.

My colleague was adamant that the US Government should intervene and assist their permenent resident (Abdullojonov lives in the US). He also stated that sending Abdullojonov back to Tajikistan would result in him being tortured and persucuted.

A few quick questions: Is the Government of Tajikistan’s request for extradition legit? Or politically motivated? And if the Government of the United States believes that he is being extradited on purely political grounds, do the benefits of intervening outweigh the costs?

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