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.