Washington’s top diplomat traveled to Central Asia to kick-start a historic initiative to reinvigorate U.S. engagement with the region, but it was the unceremonious treatment of a reporter that is going to stick in the memory.
Activists had hoped in advance of John Kerry’s whistle-stop tour that human rights issues might feature prominently on the agenda. But talk of those was relegated to the sidelines — in public at least.
Instead, Kerry focused on prospects of security, energy and economic cooperation, which have long constituted core priorities for Washington.
The closest Kerry came to mentioning Central Asia’s poor human rights record in public was in remarks about “quality of governance and the strength of democratic institutions.”
“In Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said at the meeting on November 1 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with foreign ministers from the region’s five former Soviet republics.
The U.S. State Department said in advance of the tour that this meeting would form the basis of a new diplomatic format, which it has dubbed C5+1.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned and about which we are talking,” Kerry said.
The muted tone of those remarks will have come as a disappointment to many.
Central Asia faces a bleak economic outlook and policy-makers should prepare for the long haul as the shocks buffeting the region are likely to be enduring, the International Monetary Fund has said.
In Central Asia, “the situation and outlook are worse than for the world economy as a whole,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, said at a briefing in Almaty on October 23. “This is because the region has been hit by three major external shocks.”
The IMF identifies the wave of external shocks as the fall in global prices for the commodities that Central Asia exports, which range from oil and gas to metals, repercussions from the recession-hit Russian economy, which the IMF expects to contract by 3.8 percent this year, and the shifts in major global exchange rates pressuring regional currencies.
Added to all those woes is the slowdown in China, a major trading partner and investor for the Central Asian states.
The IMF says that as a result, the region will experience slower growth than it has become accustomed to in recent years.
Kazakhstan — which is suffering from low oil and metals prices and struggling with pressure on its currency that has seen the tenge lose around half of its value since the central bank moved to a free float in August — is expected to see growth of just 1.5 percent this year, according to both IMF and government forecasts. That is down from 4.3 percent last year.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is pulling out of the Eurasian region in the wake of a three year-long scandal over its business dealings in Uzbekistan that saw it accused of funneling illicit payments to associates of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The company will gradually wind down its operations in its Eurasia section, which includes the six former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan, as well as Nepal, and ultimately cease them altogether, it said in a statement on September 17.
The Swedish-Finnish company said it would focus instead on its telecoms business in Europe “within the strategy of creating the new TeliaSonera.”
“It is our belief that it is possible to do business in Eurasia which are [sic] both profitable and sustainable — but it is important to enter markets in a correct way,” it said.
When TeliaSonera entered Uzbekistan’s lucrative telecoms market, it allegedly used Karimova — at the time a major business player with telecommunications interests, but now under house arrest in Tashkent on corruption charges — as an intermediary.
TeliaSonera’s problems began three years ago, when a Swedish television station aired a report claiming the telecoms giant had made dubious payments to a shell company run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan in order to gain access to Uzbekistan’s market. That report sparked a major corruption investigation in Sweden that is ongoing to this day. The resignation of former chief executive Lars Nyberg and the dismissal of several senior company executives ensued the following year.
It appears that the Pentagon's propaganda outlet in Central Asia is going out of business. The recently passed U.S. defense budget bill eliminated funding for the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a program that published a variety of regional "news" websites, including Central Asia Online. American newspaper USA Today, which has done a lot of investigations into the TRWI, reports:
"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2014 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended for the Trans Regional Web Initiative," the annual defense law says. It makes an exception for a $2 million payment to pay for the termination of the program by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and to transfer some capabilities to other parts of the military.
EurasiaNet's David Trilling wrote the definitive piece on Central Asia Online for Foreign Policy in 2011, noting that its Uzbekistan coverage "has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy's rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats." He added that the website sometimes "downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed by the U.S. government.":
The number one topic of conversation among Washington's small band of Central Asia watchers -- and the much larger band of Central Asian Washington watchers -- is about what will happen to U.S. policy in the region after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan. U.S. policy in Central Asia over the last decade has been so dominated by the war in Afghanistan that's it's hard to imagine any more what the U.S. interest in the region might be absent that. And a couple of recent discussions in Washington provide a view both of the public and the behind-the-scenes conversations that are going on about this -- and highlighted the huge divide between what the U.S. says officially about its future policies toward Central Asia and what it is really thinking about.
One discussion, at the think tank New America Foundation, featured newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar discussing "Regional Connectivity in South-Central Asia." As that title implies, it was all about the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative. The U.S.'s New Silk Road has taken enough beatings in this blog and elsewhere that there is little need to kick it when it's down. (Still, another takedown piece was published recently by Eugene Imas in The Diplomat, "The New Silk Road to Nowhere.") But one part of Sumar's presentation stood out:
A U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing on the "emerging threat of resource wars" in Central Asia, but failed to demonstrate that that threat was emerging, or even a threat at all.
The hearing was held by the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats and chaired by Representative Dana Rohrabacher who is bringing his idiosyncraticbeliefstoward the region to the committee's work since being appointed to chair it earlier this year.
Rohrabacher opened the hearing with a dark warning, that "increasing global demand for supplies of energy and minerals is sparking intense economic competition that could lead to a counterproductive conflict. ... A zero-sum world where no one can obtain the means to progress without taking them from someone else is inherently a world of conflict. When new sources of supplies are opened, as is the case with Central Asia, there is still fear that there is not enough to go around and thus conflict emerges." But other than the general observation that China and India were both growing a lot and both needed resources, how conflict may emerge from that situation was not explained.
There is an interesting piece posted recently on Foreign Policy’s website that highlights how authoritarian-minded leaders in Eurasia are becoming adept at leveraging thuggish behavior.
The article, titled “The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen,” is written by Alex Cooley, a Central Asia specialist at Columbia University. It examines the ways in which Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to stifle dissent.
The fall of the Soviet Union presented what should have been a golden opportunity for Turkey to develop a sphere of influence in the Turkic republics of Central Asia. For various reasons, though, things didn't quite work out that way. In many ways, Ankara now finds itself having better relations and more influence in the Middle East -- a region whose countries it traditionally kept at an arm's length -- than in Central Asia.
What went wrong? Nadir Devlet, a professor in the International Relations department of Istanbul Commerce University, tries to answer that question in a new paper for the German Marshall Fund that takes a look at the last 20 years of Turkey-Central Asia relations and that suggests that a new outreach effort from Ankara may be on the horizon. From his paper:
Turkey’s efforts to penetrate the Turkic regions of the former Soviet Union with its own influence have had a number of successes and failures. President Gül has been a particular advocate for a more assertive Turkish approach in this regard. Yet to date, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turk- menistan are not important business partners for Turkey, despite their geographic proximity, energy riches, and other resources. Turkey’s relations with Turkmenistan are in fact deteriorating, and its relations with Uzbekistan — which with a population of nearly 30 million is Central Asia’s most important actor — are at their lowest level in many years. Turkish-Turkic integration clearly has a long way to go. Yet we should not be surprised to see Ankara assigning height- ened importance to the larger Turkic world in its emerging foreign policy as Turkey gives up its former commitment to the status quo for a more visible strategic activism.
Speaking in Washington on October 27 following her return from a trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that bipartisanship is essential if the United States is to achieve its strategic objectives in the region.
Clinton defended the Obama administration’s approach in the face of growing skepticism among Republican Party members of Congress. She insisted that the administration was "meeting our commitments and progressing towards our goals" in Afghanistan and across the region and needed to remain fully engaged.
“America paid a heavy price for disengaging after the Soviets left in 1989,” she said. “We cannot afford to make that mistake again. … We have to be smart and strategic. And we have to work together to protect our interests.”
Clinton stressed a need to strengthen security in the Afghan-Pak border area. In Islamabad, she joined with senior US military and intelligence leaders in insisting that Pakistan’s government and military get out of the terrorist sponsorship business since “trying to distinguish between so-called good terrorists and bad terrorists is ultimately self-defeating and dangerous.”
Clinton reassured committee members that “talking” with the Taliban and their allies did not mean that administration was abandoning its core goals. “Insurgents must renounce violence, abandon al Qaeda, and abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan, including its protections for women and minorities,” Clinton said. “If insurgents cannot, or will not, meet those redlines, they will face continued and unrelenting assault.”
An allleged State Department cable from Brussels recently released by the activist group WikiLeaks illustrates the challenge to governments by the radical Islamic organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir which seeks to restore theocratic government under the caliphate. WikiLeaks said the full text of the original cable, which was sent September 8, 2004 and discusses events in the Caucasus and Central Asia, was not available.
The cable is a good example of how governments talk about groups in civil society behind their backs, hoping to encourage some civic actors even as they remain ambivalent about others. Referenced in the cable are Michael Swann, South Caucasus and Central Asia Desk Officer in the EU Council Secretariat, and Jan Lucas Van Hoorn, Director of the Southeast and Eastern Europe Department in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the Netherlands was then EU president):
On Central Asia, both sides agreed on the difficulty and importance of helping to build civil society. Swann commented that the EU had to deal with "substandard governments and substandard civil society" -- the governments were suspicious of efforts to reach out to NGOs and other groups, while NGOs and the press tended to take irresponsible actions that aroused further government suspicion. The U.S. and EU, suggested van Hoorn, needed to call all parties on their behavior -- and to encourage further contact between government and civil society representatives.