Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has undergone significant changes since the transition that brought Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the Presidency. Most notable has been the country’s outreach to Uzbekistan’s neighbors, including Afghanistan, which has a transformative potential for Central Asia as a whole. Uzbekistan has also reached out to the international community beyond Central Asia, while maintaining the country’s long-standing policy of eschewing membership in Russian-led integrative structures.
The Forum event, moderated by CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr, featured a summary of a new Silk Road Paper authored by Richard Weitz on the subject, and provided opportunity for discussion.
Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Military-Political Analysis, Hudson Institute
John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council, Ambassador (Ret.)
Moderator: Fred Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
The event took place on January 22, at 1319 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20036, from 11:00 to 12:30 pm.
Event Summary by Sarah Martin
On Tuesday, December 12, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) hosted an off-the-record roundtable discussion at the American Foreign Policy Institute on Kazakhstan’s unique form of secular governance among its Central Asian and compared to its Western counterparts. The event was a continuation of CACI’s research on the models of secularism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The previous discussion unpacked practices of secularism as found in Azerbaijan. This event also follows the release of a Silk Road Paper on Kazakhstan’s relationship with Europe.
As CACI tracks and evaluates the government models in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, the intent is to build a larger, more comprehensive image of secularism as experienced and practiced in the entire Central Asian region. Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular have the potential to be an important partner to the United States and Europe in their fight against radical Salafi-jihadism and their defense against Russian aggression. However, Dr. Cornell noted that an understanding between the US and Central Asian states is critical. As of yet, there is a jarring disconnect between Washington and Astana, and that disconnect lies on either country’s understanding of the relationship between politics, religion and their society’s tolerance for extremism.
The mixing of religion and politics in the Islamic world has led to unpleasant and costly experiences, Dr. Cornell said, though it is not for lack of trying. Turkey is one such example. The West once heralded Turkey’s secular model as a prime example of modernization done correctly in the Middle East. Later, this approach changed to a sense that secularism was unnatural and counter-democratic; instead, “moderate Islam” enjoyed American and European support. However, Turkey’s recent rejection of democracy, its embracing of authoritarianism charged with a resurgence of conservative Islamic rhetoric, has left much room for skepticism regarding the relationship between religion and politics. Some even suggest that a moderate model of religious-leaning forms of government in the Middle East is unfeasible, considering that within Muslim-majority states, sharia law is widely supported, according to a Pew study. In any case, the record of “moderate Islamism” is not encouraging and there is a growing realization of this – but not of what western powers should support instead. In this regard, a growing interest in secular governance should not be excluded. Some developments, such as Saudi Arabia’s recent shift, may indicate that change is on the horizon. “There is an appetite for new ideas,” Dr. Cornell said. The challenge is that within the Middle East and North Africa, there are little to no examples of enduring, secular governments. Dr. Cornell suggest that as scholars and policymakers, organizations and governments ought to look further east to the former Soviet sphere of Central Asia for these examples.
It is widely assumed that “secularism” in Central Asia is a form of light atheism, vestigial limbs of the Soviet period. This is not the case, Dr. Cornell points out, and it is this base assumption that erroneously shades the West from fully appreciating the experiment in governance that Kazakhstan, for instance, is attempting to do. Indeed, during the early 1990s, the governments of the Central Asian republics engaged in lively conversation and rigorous debate regarding what type of government they were to pursue in their newfound independence. Overwhelmingly, the consensus was towards a government that kept an arm’s length distance to religion and matters of faith. This was an active decision made by the people who lived and considered Kazakhstan home.
Independence from the Soviet Union meant more than simply a reclaiming of political autonomy. It meant opening up to the broader world of Islam for the first time in decades. Kazakhstan is a multi-confessional state, in that more faiths than just Islam call the country home. After 1991, missionaries from many directions including Saudi Arabia and South Asia, came to spread their particular interpretation of Islam. Christian missionaries from Europe, America, and South Korea also entered the fray. However, this onslaught of foreign missionaries led to anxiety from government officials, in particular as well-funded radical groups from the Gulf established a presence in the country. In 2011 and 2016, a series of terror attacks caused Astana to reconsider their approach to religious affairs.
Kazakhstan sought to temper the influence of Salafi-jihadism by actively promoting “indigenous” faiths – Hanafi Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy – and by regulating practices of religion by requiring religious communities to register with the state. It is not the local and old faiths that post a threat to the state, Dr. Cornell said, it is the new wave of new faiths and interpretations, and that is what Astana is trying to stem the tide and influence of.
Actions such as these have drawn ire from organizations and government agencies like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which deride Kazakhstan and other states for not creating an open environment of religious freedom. There is a linguistic challenge in describing exactly what Kazakhstan seeks to do, Dr. Cornell explains. The challenge stems from the assumption that secular governance equals the freedom of religion established with the U.S. constitution. But the French model of secular government, laïcité, aims not to create a public space of different religions, but to stem the influence of a dominant religious tradition over public life. There is no English equivalent to the term, and many in the anglophone world conflate French laïcité with their own understanding of secularism.
Dr. Cornell suggested that because of this fundamental difference, Western and Central Asian governments tend to talk over and by one another. He also said that what is needed before anything is an honest dialogue trying to understand and accept the premises of Kazakhstan’s model of secularism and what they are attempting to accomplish.
The questions asked and points raised by members of the audience were thought provoking and facilitated a lively conversation. One member of the audience inquired about the nature of Islam and its relationship with democracy, as is often a point of discussion. Dr. Cornell answered that there is nothing unnatural or un-Islamic about what is happening in Central Asia, and that there is no reason to assume the Muslim world is and should be more akin to Saudi Arabia or even Iran than to Kazakhstan.
Another member of the audience raised the issue of state-building. It was asked what measures Kazakhstan could take to encourage a sense of “state” rather than driving out all of the Salafi-jihadists. Dr. Cornell responded that there must be means and ways of creating a positive content of secularism, strengthening the sense of Kazakhstani identity and filling it with meaning, rather than focusing only on excluding all the elements considered untoward.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council would like to invite you to a roundtable lunch discussion on “Secular Governance in Central Asia: the Case of Kazakhstan”. Since independence, Kazakhstan has remained faithful to secular statehood. In recent years, Kazakhstan’s leaders have strengthened the secular character of the state’s laws and education system. But what does secularism mean in a Central Asian context? How does the state balance the goal of religious freedom with the need to shield the state from religious influence? What are the implications for the broader Muslim world, and for Western policies?
The discussion forms part of CACI’s ongoing research on the relationship between politics and religion in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The discussion will be led by CACI Director, Dr. Svante Cornell.
The discussion will take place on December 12, at the American Foreign Policy Council, 509 C Street NE, from 12:30 to 2 pm. A light lunch will be served.
Event Summary by Jack Verser
On October 2, 2017, CACI hosted a roundtable, off-the-record discussion on Black Sea Security. The lunch discussion aggregated specialists from countries in the Black Sea region. Speakers at the lunch included American Foreign Policy Council Senior Fellow Stephen Blank, Margarita Assenova of the Jamestown Foundation, and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Senior Fellow Mamuka Tsereteli.
The Black Sea Security Roundtable began with a discussion on the conversation’s newfound international relevance. In analyzing the current state of the Black Sea from the Georgian perspective, Minister Victor Dolidze emphasized that Georgia wants to be involved. He continued that Georgia views security in the region as its number one priority and wants to contribute to NATO efforts and interests, including the maritime, land, and air components of NATO Black Sea security efforts. The minister also emphasized that Georgia was currently the biggest non-NATO contributor to NATO missions and remains committed; however, they are interested in drawing a grand joint strategy to maintain stability and security with concrete Georgian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian contributions. In addition to these multilateral efforts, Georgia would like bilateral talks with other Black Sea bordering countries on the subject of trade, human rights, and security partnerships.
Inquiries were made to the minister regarding Georgian efforts to counter Russian encroachment into Georgia and the Black Sea region. According to the minister, despite the international efforts led by the U.S. against Russian aggression, Russian behavior, such as ethnic cleansing, and destruction of Georgian property has not stopped. It is therefore important to the Georgian people that their government promote policies that help the citizenry during this time, such as increased visa mobility, free health care to occupied territories, and hepatitis elimination efforts.
Following the minister’s remarks, AFPC’s Stephen Blank discussed hard security matters in the region and Russia’s role in the region. According to Dr. Blank, Russia has attempted to intimidate Black Sea countries by using “soft-power” techniques like imposing economic pressure and implementing information warfare. Despite Russia’s Zapad exercises and anxiety over the Baltic, Russia is building up its military in the Black Sea and in Ukrainian territory. The country is developing and implementing Anti-Aircraft “bubbles” in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, Armenia, and Turkey to cut off Ukrainian naval access to the Black Sea. Additionally, Dr. Blank argued that Russia may be engaging in GPS “spoofing” in the Black Sea to affect maritime trade, which could create a potential opportunity for Russia to engage in piracy in the region. While the tactics in this grand strategy are flexible according to Blank, Russia’s long term goal is to restore Soviet-level influence in the world, threatening the post-Soviet space and Europe. By inciting ethnic conflict and discord in western countries, Russia can project power and promote its strategic agenda. To Dr. Blank, the greatest threat to Russia is not a NATO invasion, but rather the democratic integration of Eurasia and the increased spread of NATO influence. Dr. Blank concluded that with increased western influence in his backyard, Putin would have to give up his imperialist dreams.
A question was raised on Georgia’s NATO cooperation and how it adapted to Turkey’s role in the region. According to Minister Dolidze, they have adapted well and coordinated effectively with NATO. The minister emphasized that Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia’s trilateral relationship built the basis for the modern Black Sea situation. Other participants, including Ms. Assenova, argued that Turkey’s recent coup and political changes have become the main problem for further cooperation in the Black Sea among these countries, and perceptions of Turkey have changed for the worse in the Balkans and Bulgaria. Islamist trends and the oppression of political opposition within Turkey threaten the Baltic countries. According to Ms. Assenova, the mistrust was a significant obstacle in forming a flotilla between Turkey and Bulgaria.
Ms. Assenova commented that Romanians are known for their cooperative and innovative efforts. Generally, Bulgaria’s intentions are aimed at maintaining the status quo, as the government is extremely weary of undertaking any security efforts independent of support from NATO or the Black Sea community. In order to align more closely with NATO, Bulgaria needs to modernize and de-Russify its military, replacing engine refurbishment efforts with Russia with analogous efforts in Poland, replacing Russian jets with other foreign jets, and the modernization of the Bulgarian flotilla. For these endeavors to be successful, Ms. Assenova argued that the Bulgarian defense budget must increase substantially, and profound cooperation between NATO, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania must occur.
The roundtable then shifted focus to Black Sea security being one of the top priorities for Bulgaria. It was suggested that Bulgaria remained committed to NATO obligations; however, they emphasized the need to avoid abrupt change and act with caution, as the stakes were slightly higher for Bulgaria due to the 500,000 Russians in the region, Bulgarian investment, capital, and tourism are contingent on these Russians.
A Turkish participant emphasized the country’s status as a committed NATO ally and its plans to reestablish a Turkish influence in the Black Sea within the constraints of its current political climate. Turkey’s Black Sea influence is not static. According to Turkish representatives, there is strong Turkish support for China’s Belt Road and Initiative (BRI), and they hope China and India can begin to trade in the region. Turkey does not want to isolate other regions from the Black Sea, only emphasize the significant role Eastern Mediterranean Security plays in the Black Sea. Other participants also mentioned that this situation may serve as a good opportunity to improve the relationship between Turkey and the West and to unite against Russia. Turkey is optimistic about the Black Sea’s future, and supports any efforts toward long term security and stability.
Other participants assessed that Azerbaijan considers itself a part of the region. Energy security remains their priority, and they strive for secure energy flow from their Caspian resources to Black Sea countries. For this reason, a clear understanding of the security situation is important to them. They expressed concern over the ambiguity of the U.S. and EU positions in the region and inquired as to whether there were more flexible formats of achieving stability than working through the political and legal constraints of NATO. To Azerbaijan, the clock is ticking: there is no physical barrier to Russian encroachment into Georgia.
Those at the roundtable agreed that now is the time to pay attention and devote resources to the Black Sea. There are wide-reaching trade implications to any developments in this region, as well as geopolitical implications of increasing Russian aggression and influence. Multilateral authority via NATO, US, and Western involvement may be necessary to protect and unite smaller regional players together for the common goal of stability. Future talks and further bilateral relations are also necessary to this end.