REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
By Navbahor Imamova
WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.
Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.
He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.
"I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.
In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.
Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.
"Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.
The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."
During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.
That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.
Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."
"The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.
"This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."
Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.
'Possibility of positive change'
Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.
In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."
This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."
"Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."
"Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"
Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."
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The U.S.-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce is pleased to host a virtual discussion with CACI Chairman Dr. S. Frederick Starr on "U.S. Policy Through Central Asian Eyes".
When: Tuesday, June 20, 2023, 8.00 AM EST – 9.30 AM EST
Who: Elena V. Son, Executive Director, AUCC, USKGZBC, USTJBC, USABI (moderator) and Dr. S. Frederick Starr, Distinguished Fellow for Eurasia and Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, American Foreign Policy Council
With Opening Remarks (in alphabetical order of Central Asian Countries) from:
Click to Register. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.
About the event: Join the U.S.-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce webinar which will focus on the unprecedented challenges that the U.S. and Central Asian countries are currently facing. It is an excellent opportunity to learn from Dr. S. Frederick Starr about how Central Asian governments perceive American policies.
"Today both the countries of Central Asia and the U.S. itself face unprecedented challenges at the global and national levels... It is important for Washington to know how its positions and actions are perceived by the countries towards which they are directed. Official statements by Central Asian governments and on-the-record comments by their officials touch on this question but cannot answer it, for they often gloss over the officials’ real concerns or present them in such watered-down generalities as to render them unrecognizable. In an effort to gain a better understanding of how Central Asian governments perceive American policies we have therefore turned to the Central Asians themselves, including senior officials, diplomats, business people, local policy experts, journalists, and leaders of civil society organizations. In all, we have conducted some fifty interviews. All our subjects spoke on the condition of strict anonymity and “not for attribution".
We have been impressed not only with the candor of our interviewees but also the positive spirit in which they made their comments... Even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and looked forward to improved and deepened relations with America in days to come. And all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours." Continue reading here.
Join the spring 2023 Rumsfeld Foundation's Central Asia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and Afghanistan (CAMCA) fellows for a presentation on the regional economic and political implications of Russia's war in Ukraine. Speakers will examine various strategies to better protect their sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and improve conditions for further economic development. Register for this in-person event to discuss these issues and learn why the U.S. should support the CAMCA countries in this challenging international environment.
When: Tuesday April 25, 2023 - 3:00-4:30 PM EST
By S. Frederick Starr
October 30, 2022
The meetings by heads of state in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent earlier this summer showed clearly that America’s abrupt departure from Afghanistan last year and its long-term neglect of Central Asia did not mark the end of history. Quite the contrary.
SINCE THEIR independence from the USSR, the five Central Asian states that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been the object of great power dreams. Russia, with steady persistence, has tried to lure them back into its sphere of influence, if not of direct control, through economic and security alliances. The United States and Europe have worked to develop them as market economies, and to implant civil society and democratic institutions there. Meanwhile, China assigned them key roles in its Belt and Road Initiative and loaned them billions to develop economic strengths that complement Beijing’s own. Applying Julius Caesar’s classic divide et impera maxim, all these major powers have offered rewards for cooperation and withheld them from the recalcitrant. As a result, the Central Asians risked becoming mere objects of great power maneuvers and not subjects in their own right.
This summer, the Central Asians themselves took two steps to overcome this fate. First, on July 21 the presidents of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, meeting at Issyk-Kul in the Kyrgyz Republic, signed a far-ranging agreement to coordinate their efforts by forging a web of institutional links. These cover areas as diverse as trade, economics, social policy, ecology, medical research, and security. Such a regional consultative structure is urgently needed. Until now, Central Asia has been the only major world region that does not have its own web of institutional ties, i.e., a structure for formulating common policies and organizations capable of implementing them. This left the region at the mercy of major powers and of neighboring states, all of which have proven adept at playing Central Asians off against each other.
Furthermore, on July 26 the same regional states, supported by senior officials from several dozen other countries worldwide, including the United States, Russia, India, the European Union, and China, convened in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, for the purpose of expanding contacts with the new government in Kabul. Their immediate goals were to eliminate threats from extremist bands operating from Afghan territory and to identify changes in Taliban policies that would open the door to broader interaction between Afghanistan, its Central Asian neighbors, and the world. These meetings covered areas as diverse as information, finance, and women’s and minority rights. Their longer-term objective was to improve relations to the point that the Central Asians could open direct transport corridors through Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, and Iran.
Whether these two ambitious initiatives will succeed is an open question. Their very existence, however, reflects the Central Asians’ determination to shape their own destiny and to emerge as a world region with linking institutions comparable to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Baltic Council, or other regional bodies worldwide.
WHY, THREE decades after gaining independence, have the Central Asian states suddenly focused on linking arms and collaborating? Three very different developments gave rise to this important movement. First, the unplanned and abrupt American withdrawal from Afghanistan left the Central Asian countries facing a chaotic and potentially dangerous neighbor to the south. Besides threatening a rise of instability across the region, the tumult in Afghanistan extinguished the hope of opening southward trade routes that would give the Central Asians direct access to the Indian subcontinent and the booming economies of Southeast Asia. The importance of that potential “door to the south” cannot be overestimated. Without it, all Central Asia would be left under Russia’s economic and political thumb and unable to constrain China’s economic incursions. Only with such a corridor to South Asia would these countries be able to affirm their own sovereignty and independence while at the same time establishing balanced and constructive relations with all the major political and economic powers.
Second, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sent a shock wave across all Central Asia, not least because, like Ukraine, all the states in that region had only recently freed themselves from Russian rule and now feared that Moscow was trying to impose it anew. This was no mere paranoia on the part of the new sovereignties. Had Vladimir Putin not compared himself to Peter the Great, who expanded Russia’s territory by conquering neighbors? Had Dmitry Medvedev, head of Russia’s Security Council and former Russian president, not announced that the attack on Ukraine was but the first step towards reassembling all the lands that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union? Central Asians had already established contacts with the West, but those links did not suffice to enable them to counterbalance pressures from the north and east. The obvious next step was to create new economic and political links with South and Southeast Asia. But this requires reopening links of communication and trade that have lain dormant since the rise of the Soviet Union.
The third factor that gave rise to the new spirit of regional vitality on display at Issyk-Kul and Tashkent was the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as president of Uzbekistan. His predecessor, Islam Karimov, had solidified Uzbekistan’s independence by walling the country off from its neighbors, including the other four Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan advanced, but at the price of the resentment of its regional neighbors and the hostility of the West, which condemned its heavy-handed treatment of its own population. Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s former prime minister, brought a sharp change of course after his election in 2016. In a series of dramatic moves, he instituted legal reforms, set about developing a market economy, and loosened many long-standing controls on the Uzbek populace. Most important, he declared peace with all Uzbekistan’s neighbors, opened cross-border contacts and trade, and began systematically reaching out to the other Central Asian states. By so doing, he launched the movement that bore fruit in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent.
What was actually accomplished in the region-wide protocol—formally known as the “Agreement on Friendship, Neighborliness, and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century”—that the five presidents agreed upon in July? The document includes thirty-two sections that are designed to “consolidate their efforts” for mutual benefit. Of course, it commits signatories to respect existing borders, to not interfere in the internal affairs of other partner countries, and to resolve differences peacefully (sect. 2). But it goes far beyond this. Thus, section 5 calls for mutual support in the face of threats to the “independence, sovereignty, and territorial wholeness” of any member state. Backing up this call, the protocol (sect. 6) commits the signatories to abstain from joining any military bloc that might threaten any of the five states, and to forbid their territories to be used by any foreign state for activities directed against any of the other member states.
Nor were these mere words. Section 7 calls on the parties “to realize mutual action to develop collaboration in military and military-technical sphere on issues of mutual interest.” This parallels Article V of the Washington Treaty that governs the actions of NATO members, which states that an attack on any NATO member is to be considered an attack on them all. Section 7 also commits the signatories to coordinate their actions with respect to all other international and regional organizations to which they may belong. Among threats requiring such coordinated action are specified: terrorism, extremism, separatism, international criminal groups involved with narcotics and arms, and human trafficking. However, the same logic would extend to all other threats to the sovereignty of any member state. The goal, states the protocol, is to establish all of Central Asia as a “zone of peace.”
The many other chapters of the protocol commit members to develop structures for cooperation in legislative and judicial matters, transport, logistics (sect. 14), and all activities affecting trade and investment. The document then goes on to commit members to joint action with respect to the reconstitution of the depleted Aral Sea (sect. 19). Topping off this ambitious agenda is the call for closer links among the academic institutions of member states (sect. 20, 21), structured exchanges of teachers and specialists, the sharing of fundamental and applied research (sect. 24) in diverse fields, including medicine and technology, and the development of common information systems (sect. 23). Tourism also claims a place in the document (sect. 27), which calls for region-wide tours supported by common visas.
One may object that the five presidents papered over important differences between the languages, histories, and cultures of the signatory states. Anticipating such criticism, they went out of their way to affirm that Central Asia constitutes “a single historical and cultural space” (sect. 25), in which diverse peoples have fruitfully interacted and collaborated for millennia. Their agenda called for studying and making known these neglected commonalities. Moreover, the presidents acknowledged that within the borders of each country are linguistic, cultural, and religious minorities. On this delicate issue, they all agreed to support such minorities within their borders and enable them to thrive without compulsion from the national governments (sect. 26).
Three of the presidents signed the protocol at the Issyk-Kul meeting, while the other two—Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Serdar Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan—gave assurances that they would sign at the next meeting of the group. The former evidently wanted first to resolve the conflict on the Tajik border with Kyrgyzstan, while the latter, in office for only three months, wanted first to consult with his colleagues in Ashgabat. Both assured their colleagues of their support for the project.
S. Frederick Starr is founding chairman of the Kennan Institute and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
By Erica Marat and Johan Engvall
May 12, 2022
For many of Russia’s neighbors, the war in Ukraine has accelerated the process of breaking out of Moscow’s orbit and abandoning loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. While governments from Moldova and Georgia to Kazakhstan are distancing themselves from Putin’s offensive in Ukraine, the war is also prompting a deeper reexamination of the meaning of the past in former Soviet territories. The idea of “brotherly nations” promoted by the Soviets is now overshadowed by the notion that Soviet Russia may have never pursued true equality with its neighbors—not now, nor a century ago when the Soviet empire was established through mass violence.
Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is becoming just another neighbor in the eyes of Kazakhs, Georgians, Moldovans, and others.
Several governments have shown greater independence from Moscow than expected. Last month, Kazakhstan declared it wouldn’t hold a military parade to celebrate the Soviet interpretation of its World War II victory. Earlier, Kazakhstan reportedly also refused Russia’s request to supply troops in Ukraine. Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan expanded cooperation in rerouting energy supplies to Europe bypassing Russia. As explained by the Kazakh deputy foreign minister, “If there is a new Iron Curtain, we do not want to be behind it.”
The more a country is politically free and allows space for the critical reappraisal of its past, the less its public is likely to support Russia’s regional dominance.
Long-serving Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov spoke out in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. Perhaps due to political pressure from Russia, he was later removed from his position and appointed to another post. Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister was sacked as well—likely because of insufficient public support of Russia’s war.
In Moldova, which depends on Russian energy supplies and hosts hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, President Maia Sandu said her government is following Russia’s actions in Transnistria with “caution and vigilance.” A few days after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Moldova applied for European Union membership, along with Georgia and Ukraine. Both Moldova and Georgia face Russian occupation of parts of their territories (Transnistria as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively), which they don’t recognize as legitimate.
Acts of everyday resistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine in Central Asia and the South Caucasus vary from small businesses posting “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine!) next to their products and civil society groups collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine to members of the public wearing yellow and blue: the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The Russian war symbols Z and V are rare or banned by the state.
Seeing the Soviet regime as a colonialist government both unites nations around a joint history of trauma and builds resistance to Russian attempts to subjugate them. Russian modern imperial ambitions in Ukraine or Georgia look offensive in these countries. The more a country is politically free and allows space for the critical reappraisal of its past, the less its public is likely to support Russia’s regional dominance.
In Kazakhstan, a critical look at its history of mass starvation that killed millions of people have now spilled from academic discussions into the public. In Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, historians and activists now openly blame the Soviet regime for purging national elites. In Ukraine, a sharp turn against alignment with Russia in 2014 came as Moscow annexed Crimea and the occupied Donbas.
Reexamining the Soviet past is taking place despite the fact that most international scholarship still sees the Soviet empire as a modernizing power of a backward people, especially in Central Asia. The seeming equality among nations of the empire and its anti-capitalist stance earned a large following among the anticolonial left in both the West and especially in formerly colonized countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The war in Ukraine is revealing the human costs of the empire’s expansion today even in the face of grassroots resistance. Like Putin’s increasing control of Russia today, the Soviet system was totalitarian, controlling the everyday lives of its people and superimposing Russian culture on all ethnic groups.Distancing themselves from a romanticized view of their Soviet pasts, these societies are now generating pressure for political change at home—challenging the type of post-Soviet authoritarian leadership model that has been common across the region and has its roots in totalitarian rule. In the past several years, protesters in Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine demanded reforms to post-Soviet state institutions, such as police and intelligence services that are designed to serve the political elite and not citizens.
Anti-regime collective mobilization is a sign of a more politically engaged society that expects participation in decision-making and free elections. Ukraine’s resistance to Russian occupation is the ultimate example of how domestic pro-democracy mobilization rejects authoritarian rule.
In the face of this tide of new expectations, incumbent autocratic leaders are increasingly in peril. For example, in Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko only managed to survive a prolonged popular uprising in the fall of 2020 once he received support from Putin. Lukashenko was able to suppress the protests, but the collective grievances of Belarus’s society have not been solved. In the early days of the invasion, Belarusian railway workers sabotaged Russia’s supply of equipment to Ukraine. The brave act damaged Russian logistics, preventing the Kremlin from moving troops and materiel forward.
Kazakhstan’s political setup is similar to Russia’s—a president sits at the top of a pyramid of power, doling out posts and assets to allies in return for loyalty and a cut of the spoils. But following Kazakhstan’s nationwide uprising in January, the country faces the test of transforming into a more representative political system. Despite decades of authoritarianism, citizens mobilized in historic protests to demand better economic opportunities and the end of the president’s unlimited political power. Many in Kazakhstan’s uprising were young people of the same age as the independent state itself. They now see themselves as agents of change, willing to risk more than their parents could stomach.
Moscow’s ability to influence national decision-making processes in former Soviet territories appears to be waning. Despite Moscow’s objections, Russian only remains a state language in Belarus, although it retains the status of an official language in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet in the early 1990s while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are at different stages of the same transition.
Only four countries have joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and the intergovernmental military alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has six members, Russia included. Both of these Russian-led organizations are likely to become ever more unpopular among political incumbents and the public. Even after the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan in January, which helped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev secure his hold on power, the Kazakh government has shown greater opposition to Moscow’s war than expected.
Russian political influence is also declining because Russian culture is losing its dominant position and has to compete with other worldviews for the hearts and minds of younger generations. These more diverse generations are formed by domestic as well as foreign influences, whether from Turkey, the Persian Gulf, or Europe. Traditional and nationalist-oriented values tend to resonate in more rural areas while liberal ideas and values are usually concentrated in urban centers. Large pro-Ukraine protests were held in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. Even in countries like Kyrgyzstan, where the government banned antiwar protests, a few brave activists still filled the streets.
Rather than be pawns that are moved around on the Kremlin’s chessboard, Russia’s neighbors are increasingly turning into active players in the international arena.
Separation from Russia does not necessarily mean these countries will seek a closer alignment with the West. Political incumbents in Central Asia and the South Caucasus may be more inclined to seek closer ties with China and Turkey. Countries that depend on Russia’s political and military support—notably Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—may still show careful support of close ties with Moscow. But even there, political leaders shied away from publicly siding with Putin’s rhetoric of “denazification” in Ukraine. The unpredictable consequences of Russia’s war might leave these states no other choice but to diversify their diplomatic relations.
Rather than be pawns that are moved around on the Kremlin’s chessboard, Russia’s neighbors are increasingly turning into active players in the international arena—and have not hesitated to play external powers against one another to extract maximum benefits. They prefer to maintain ties with many regional powers; Russia is becoming just another neighbor, along with the EU, China, Turkey, and Iran.
In that way, Central Asian countries are becoming more like other countries in Asia and Africa—searching for multilateralism rather than solely attaching themselves to one actor: Russia. The ability of these states to resist Moscow’s pressure to support the invasion of Ukraine would not have been possible without their long-standing efforts to preserve their sovereignty and identity themselves by diversifying their diplomatic alliances.
To understand the effectiveness of Russian power in the former Soviet space, it is no longer sufficient just to know the Kremlin’s intent. Former Soviet colonies are on the verge of breaking away from the last remaining legacies of Soviet rule. The war in Ukraine points at the need to consider countries formerly occupied by the Soviet regime as entities with their own complex domestic processes despite Russia’s efforts to direct and dominate them.
Many citizens of former Soviet states in Central Asia and the South Caucasus now see Russia as a belligerent neighbor engaging in genocidal violence rather than as an historic ally. Time is thus not on the side of Putin’s imperialistic and nationalist crusade to reassert Russia’s exclusive control over its neighboring countries—because Moscow’s neighborhood is no longer a collection of its former colonial subjects.