Central Asia: What's Next?
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to speak here today.
As a young Foreign Service officer, I was posted to Tashkent in 1993, just two years after Uzbekistan became an independent country. It was still very much a major outpost of the former Soviet Union – with an emphasis on Soviet. I was not a Sovietologist. My previous diplomatic assignments had been in South Asia, where the political heritage was the British Empire.
In Tashkent, which totally fascinated me and which I loved, I knew there was something radically different than what I was used to. My initial housing assignment from our embryonic embassy was a cottage on the former KGB compound. But I quickly learned that KGB was not so very “former.” I soon learned that I could not meet with any government officials unless the Uzbek side included a KGB minder – with just one exception, the Chairman of the Union of Journalists, whom (I learned later) “reported up his chain,” as they say, and regularly challenged me to vodka-shot competitions.
I mention this because it points, in my view, to the fundamental difference between Central and South Asia. South Asia’s colonial heritage was the British Raj, and it inherited, to one degree or another, the European heritage. Central Asia, by contrast inherited the colonial heritage of the Soviet and Russian Empires.
Why is this important? The European heritage with its government structures and social contracts flows from the Western Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment; whereas the Russo-Soviet heritage flows in nearly a direct line from the Byzantine Empire.
That explains, in part, why only three of the 15 former Soviet Socialist Republics, the three Baltic nations, have had a relatively easy and relatively successful transition. They had a European heritage because they didn’t become “Captive Nations,” to use Cold-War speak, until World War II.
But Central Asia never had that. It had decades and decades of the Soviet and Russian Imperial Empires and, before that, it was nomadic with tribal khanates – with the exception of the brilliant efflorescence of the Arab Renaissance, which fed the European Renaissance, and which was actually located geographically in modern-day Uzbekistan.
Let’s focus down now on the five Central Asian states. Under the Soviet model, the economies of the five Central Asian republics were dictated by the central-planning resource needs of the broader Soviet Union, resulting in economic structures centered on single cash crops, like cotton, or exploitative industries.
At the end of 1991 and onward, these newly independent governments had to fight an uphill battle to develop diverse and dynamic economies, and continue to do so today -- with varying levels of success.
Since my first diplomatic Central Asian tour in Uzbekistan, I’ve spent many more years working in Central Asia, including as Ambassador to Tajikistan, Chargé d'affaires for a year in Turkmenistan, and Ambassador to Kazakhstan.
So I’ve seen first-hand, over 20 years, how the states of Central Asia are still evolving and striving to overcome their Soviet legacy.
I am gratified that the United States, from the beginning, sought to assist Central Asia as it developed. We were among the first to recognize the independence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Using the authorities of the 1992 FREEDOM Support Act – in which “FREEDOM” is one of those brilliantly quirky Congressional acronyms that stands for “Freedom for Russia and Emerging [Eurasian] Democracies and Open Markets”, we dedicated considerable resources to support the former Soviet states, as they transitioned, over time, from communism and central planning toward our ideal for them of democracy and free markets.
But I’ll tell you honestly, many would ask: Why? Why should we expend resources for this? Why should the United States care about the countries of Central Asia?
The most fundamental reply is this: Look at the map.
Central Asia shares borders with Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Iran – this is an “interesting” neighborhood, to say the least.
If nothing else, geography makes Central Asia critically important for the United States. But besides that, the region has much to offer. Let’s consider some facts.
Central Asia is comprised of secular governments with majority Muslim populations.
While the region’s governments still struggle to find a balance between secular state policies and religious freedom, its Muslim majority and religious minority groups have lived together peacefully for centuries. If nothing else, let’s not forget the ancient Bokharan Jewish community of modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Further, the region is awash in natural resources:
- Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world;
- Kazakhstan has the second-largest oil reserves of the former Soviet Union, second only to Russia;
- Uzbekistan is a major producer of uranium (as is Kazakhstan) and has large natural gas reserves, as does, quite likely, Tajikistan;
- And Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have significant hydropower potential.
But the economies of Central Asia are more than the sum of their energy-generating potential:
- Kazakhstan pursued fundamental macro-economic reform from the beginning and has now created a financial services hub for the region.
- Uzbekistan’s educated population of 30 million has a huge potential to provide entrepreneurial, innovative economic growth.
- Kyrgyzstan implemented democratic structures from the beginning and to this day remains the test case for democracy in Central Asia.
- And Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s natural beauty could attract throngs of trekkers from Boise to Beijing, powering a thriving tourism sector, as could Uzbekistan’s great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bohkhara, and Khiva.
So the United States clearly has an enduring interest in strong bilateral relationships with each of the five Central Asian states.
While these five countries were certainly helpful in supporting our Afghanistan efforts, our relationships with them are much more dynamic and go beyond a single (yet important) issue like Afghanistan. And yet, the Central Asians are now uneasy, as we transition in Afghanistan and ask, “Are you going to cut and run?”
For over a year, we have been saying, “No, we assure you we are NOT going to cut and run! And if you want objective evidence, simply look at the fact that we have built, or are now building, major new, state-of-the-art embassies in every capital of Central Asia. Why would we expend this kind of taxpayers’ money if we weren’t serious about long-term relationships? I want to emphasize: the U.S. diplomatic presence in Central Asia is not temporary; it’s enduring long into the future.
Broadly speaking, we have four critical areas of cooperation and concentration in Central Asia – security cooperation, economic ties, promotion of human rights and good governance, and efforts to bolster each country’s sovereignty and independence.
While our policy goals can be grouped into these four broad categories, the way we implement our policies in each country varies greatly.
This is not a monolithic region – it’s a dynamic and diverse group of states with independent and diverse national interests, and we adjust our approach according to the specific conditions in each country.
And if we want to enable Central Asia to reach its full potential, if we want to help connect Central Asia to lucrative external markets in Europe and Asia, if we want to improve governance and rule of law in the region, we must remain engaged. And we will.
Over time, we have learned to take each country as it is. The days of talking about “the ‘stans” is long past. We recognize that the countries of Central Asia differentiated their own paths and, to be blunt, jostle with each other. The interests of one sometimes conflicts with the interests of another. For example:
- upstream and downstream countries are still working to sort out water rights;
- borders were ill defined, especially with the unusual system of enclaves and exclaves in the sensitive Fergana Valley that the Soviets carved up in a classic “divide and conquer” cartographic and ethnographic exercise in the 1920s and 1930s;
- supply chains for essentials like food and electricity were suddenly split among separate sovereign entities.
Partly as a result of this history of conflicting national interests, Central Asia is now one of the least economically integrated regions in the world.
But with the right engagement from its partners and neighbors, it can transform itself into a model of connectivity.
Already, intraregional trade is increasing – albeit from a very low base – and the cost of moving goods across borders is decreasing. And this is not just within Central Asia. Trade with China, Turkey, and other neighbors is on the rise.
Central Asia’s immediate neighbors see the potential, and they are also focusing their efforts on greater regional connectivity.
Let’s start with Afghanistan, where we have spent a tremendous amount of blood and treasure over the past 13-plus years.
With a reduced U.S. combat presence and Afghan National Security Forces taking the lead, Afghanistan’s stability will increasingly depend on its ability to sustain itself, not just in the security sphere, but also in the economic sphere.
While the international community will continue its strong support for Afghanistan in the near future, eventually and inevitably Afghanistan will have to stand on its own two feet.
But that will only be possible if Afghanistan can connect its economy to the countries of Central Asia and South Asia, to China and to Europe, serving as a hub for regional energy markets and with reliable trade and transport links, benefitting the entire region.
The United States is doing its part to help build those markets and links, especially with our New Silk Road initiative, which focuses on improving north-south energy markets, trade and transport infrastructure, customs and borders procedures, and business networks.
Through our efforts, we’re increasing efficiency, growing the economic pie, opening borders to trade and closing them to crime, and spurring innovation and understanding.
And Afghanistan is also embracing the vision of Asian connectivity. Just last week, President Ghani addressed a joint session of Congress and said, and I quote:
We are engaging our neighbors across Asia to build trust in trade. Afghanistan will become a platform for cooperation in a vast region that extends from India to Azerbaijan and beyond.
He then spoke of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, which would run through Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, across the Caspian to Georgia, and on to Turkey and Europe.
China, another important neighbor, has plans to advance Asian connectivity with overland and maritime routes.
China has committed tens of billions of dollars to building roads and rails to better connect its factories to markets in Asia and Europe.
For example, by using overland routes, one part of China’s ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt will reportedly cut commercial overland transit times from western China to Germany and beyond to 14 days – whereas before it took 44 by sea.
China is investing heavily in Central Asian transport infrastructure.
Once built, these new highway and railroad connections will also open up new opportunities for U.S. and other international businesses to better access Asian markets, including those in Central Asia.
China’s development of energy, road, and transport infrastructure in Central Asia can be consistent with and fully complementary to U.S. efforts.
We certainly don’t see China’s involvement in Central Asia in zero-sum terms. We’re consulting with China and looking at where we can collaborate in our efforts. In fact, in May, I’ll lead a U.S. government team to Beijing for in-depth consultations on how we might collaborate to benefit all of our national interests – first and foremost the national interest of the Central Asian states and Afghanistan.
And, because international companies are more likely to invest when they can compete on a level playing field, we need to ensure that the emerging regulatory architecture in the region meets international standards.
To promote that level playing field, we are cooperating with the governments of Central Asia to help create institutions that meet those international standards.
We provide technical assistance to our Central Asia partners to promote “open but secure” borders and reduce regulatory barriers to trade.
However, as a cautionary footnote, let me add that level playing fields and adherence to international standards will depend on political will at the top. And in some, but not all, Central Asian states, I have to admit that’s still a work-in-progress.
Central Asia’s geography also places it in close proximity to Iran, a country that shares many ancient cultural and economic ties with Central Asia.
We are aware that there are areas on which Iran's Central Asian neighbors need cooperation, such as water conservation, desertification, and countering the trade of illicit narcotics.
So we hope that Iran finds a productive way to work with its Central Asian neighbors.
Turning north, Russia remains an important trade partner for the countries of Central Asia, which also share close historical, cultural, and linguistic ties with their neighbor.
Remittances are a clear indicator of how large Russia’s economic role is – money sent home from migrant laborers working there comprised about 50% of Tajikistan’s GDP and 30% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP last year.
Even with the recent decline in the ruble’s value, the economic ties that bind Russia and Central Asia remain strong.
And even though the European Union is now the top consumer of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas exports, trade with Russia is still critical for Kazakhstan’s economic well-being.
Kazakhstan is also a key member of the new Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan and Armenia will join this year.
In our view, the Eurasian Economic Union should be trade-liberalizing rather than trade-restricting, should not become overly politicized, and should not impose conditions or restrictions on its members’ ties with other countries.
So we encourage the Eurasian Economic Union to follow the successful, open model of the European Union and not establish new trade barriers, which would impede regional economic growth.
And it goes without saying that Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and aggression in eastern Ukraine, is a serious cause for concern in Central Asia.
So with such prominent and powerful neighbors – China, Russia, and Iran – the Central Asian states remain interested in maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with the United States as they employ, in differing ways, multi-vector foreign policies with the goal of gaining maximum benefit, while preserving their sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.
For all the reasons I’ve so far outlined, we believe that close ties with the countries of Central Asia are clearly in our own national interest.
And yet, conferences like this one notwithstanding, the states of Central Asia do not receive much attention in Washington, D.C.
For one, they lack powerful diaspora groups that can advocate to Congress.
And most policy makers are focused on hotspots around the globe. Central Asia is not in this category – and thank God for that!
The exception to that rule is human rights – which people in Washington indeed do pay attention to.
We are consistently engaged with the countries of Central Asia to improve their track records on human rights, with the clear recognition that effecting change in this area will be difficult and will definitely require long-term engagement.
Progress takes place slowly, and we must convince each government that reforms are in its own interest.
Furthermore, these issues are core to our policy because they are fundamentals of our worldview.
Let me be both humble and frank. Our own human rights record is nearly 240 years in the making, and it is still very definitely a work in progress. But there is no doubt that our commitment to improving human rights in our own country has made us a stronger and more resilient nation.
So while we share many common interests with the countries of Central Asia, like increasing commerce and supporting stability in Afghanistan, we don’t shy away from the issues that remain a challenge, like human rights and religious freedom.
If I may, I’d like to add a personal, as well as professional, view here, based on long years of experience. A reliance solely on public “naming and shaming,” as well as threats of sanctions, has little, if any, effect in Central Asia. What does tend to work is to build relationships with like-minded senior officials in those countries who can then advocate their own views to their leadership. This kind of patient, traditional, reality-based diplomacy does – on a case-by-case basis – work in Central Asia.
Over the years, we have strongly supported assistance programming to improve governance and human rights in Central Asia.
We have supported human rights organizations, rule-of-law reforms, civil society, and the mass media, including now, increasingly, social media.
Through a variety of long-running and well-established educational and cultural exchange programs, we’re also directly supporting the people of Central Asia.
Let me add an important footnote here: this kind of “soft diplomacy” does NOT have as its goal “Color Revolutions,” as Moscow nefariously whispers in Central Asian ears with its onslaught of “black propaganda.” What we simply do is stand with the people of Central Asia who want nothing more than better lives for their children and grandchildren, as do people all over the world.
Our programs aren’t about making us feel good. They’re about expanding understanding of our policies, our values, and our principles – which are congruent with the Western Renaissance, which are congruent with the Arab Renaissance – both of which we believe are totally relevant and wholly humane.
Our public diplomacy is about creating personal relationships with people, no matter where they might be, who want to make things better, who want to create a better, more humane world.
Here’s an interesting factoid. Over the last 23 years, well over 24,000 citizens of Central Asia have come to the United States on State Department-funded exchange programs.
They have gone on to become high-ranking government officials, effective community leaders, and successful business pioneers. We are very pleased for them.
We’re investing in people to drive the region’s growth and evolution, because we know how important this region is to our own interests.
I am also pleased to tell you that we have a cadre of talented, veteran Ambassadors with decades of Central Asian experience now serving in the region or about to be deployed.
So we will continue to engage with Central Asia to advance our interests there. We will continue to invest our resources in the region’s security and its economic, political, and social development.
And we will continue to forge long-term relationships, built on mutual interests and mutual respect.
We have been with the countries of Central Asia from the beginning, and we will still be with them in the years and decades to come.
Thank you. I look forward to a good dialog now with your questions.