US Reassesses Central Asia Strategy

US troopsThe United States has finalized a review of its strategy for Central Asia, a region facing economic and political uncertainty tied to Russia’s flagging economy amid the Ukraine conflict and the murky succession plans of aging regional autocrats.

Experts say that while Russia’s military interference in Ukraine last year was not the sole factor prompting the review, the reassessment shows the Kremlin’s actions continue to cause ripple effects across U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration “recently completed an interagency policy review, which reaffirmed our enduring commitment to the people and governments of Central Asia,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL.

The State Department, which spearheaded the policy review, declined to disclose details of the assessment or when they would be available. People familiar with the matter said they expect conclusions of the review to be made public in the coming weeks.

A congressional staffer told RFE/RL that the strategy would likely be made public in the form of a document that would “lay out goals and objectives for the region.”

The State Department spokesperson said that United States “will continue to work” with Central Asian governments “to uphold regional security, increase economic integration with regional and global markets, demonstrate respect for human rights and democratic governance, and promote other bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest.”

Recent statements from senior U.S. officials indicate the updated policy will not differ radically from Washington’s previous Central Asia strategy, which includes the New Silk Road initiative aimed at boosting regional trade to promote stability following the departure of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

While the pace of the New Silk Road plan has been sluggish, Richard Hoagland, the U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said in a March 18 speech in Washington that the initiative “is our long-term strategy to make Central Asia, including Afghanistan, once again a crossroads of global commerce.”

“Progress is happening. Since 2009, intraregional trade in Central Asia has increased by 49 percent, and since 2011 the cost of moving goods across regional borders has decreased by 15 percent,” Hoagland said, adding that “still much remains to be done.”

Experts on Central Asia say Washington’s New Silk Road strategy is being trumped by China’s aggressive push to build its own “Silk Road” trade routes through Central Asia, details of which Beijing is expected to release this month.

U.S. officials say U.S. and Chinese efforts in the region are not mutually exclusive and can complement one another.

Russia, meanwhile, has secured oil-rich Kazakhstan, the region’s largest economy, as a member of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union, which another Central Asian republic, Kyrgyzstan, is set to join in May.

Kremlin Intentions

While the Central Asia policy review was not “strictly” prompted by Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Russia’s role in the conflict “certainly was on the minds of people who were putting that policy together,” says Paul Stronski, a former director for Russia and Central Asia on Obama’s National Security Council staff.

Senior U.S. officials discussing Central Asia in recent months have repeatedly said that Moscow has no right to force its agenda on governments in the region.

“We recognize that the countries of Central Asia have close political, economic, security, and people-to-people ties with Russia,” Hoagland said on March 18. “But we also maintain that no country has the right to unilaterally determine the political and economic orientation of another country.”

He added that “what Russia is doing in Ukraine is cause for concern for the countries of Central Asia” and accused Moscow of “blanketing” the region with “propaganda” that presents “a skewed and anti-American/anti-European interpretation of events.”

Russia has defended the annexation by claiming that Crimeans faced a threat of violent repression after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv amid street protests in February 2014, an argument Kremlin critics and Western governments dismiss as false.

Russia has also denied accusations by Kyiv and the West that it has provided arms and personnel to pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, says the events in Ukraine present a “specific twist” to the larger issue facing Central Asian states, namely how to “get along” surrounded by large powers who may not have “their best interests at heart.”

He noted comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in August that “the Kazakhs never had any statehood” and that it would be beneficial for the Kazakh people to “remain in the greater Russian world.”

“Putin basically threw down a marker…when he called Kazakhstan an artificial country,” Herbst told RFE/RL.

Aging Autocrats

Both Stronski and Herbst say security threats, including the potential for Islamic extremism, remain serious in Central Asia as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan. But while earlier U.S. policy in the region was focused largely on security issues, the updated U.S. policy needs to address “economic issues and some of the political modernization issues” in the region, Stronski told RFE/RL.

Central Asian governments have been hit hard by Russian financial troubles stemming from plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions. The falling ruble has dented remittances from millions of Central Asian migrants working in Russia and pressured local producers forced to compete against cheaper Russian goods.

Furthermore, the governments in the region — most notably in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — face uncertain political futures. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, both in their 70s, have announced plans to seek reelection this year in ballots almost certain to see them remain in power.

“We have countries that are very much still based on sort of personality-based politics and not institutional-based politics, and so this does create problems in the long term, particularly as you get some very old leaders,” Stronski said.

Financial industry players have voiced similar concerns as well. “Future policy choices are difficult to predict in the medium term because of uncertainty surrounding the eventual succession of Mr. Nazarbaev, who is 74 years old,” the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency noted this month.

Emomali Rahmon and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the respective strongmen presidents of Tajikistan and gas-rich Turkmenistan, are comparably entrenched atop their respective states with no clear successors.

Each of these leaders’ governments has faced criticism from rights watchdogs and Western officials for alleged rights abuses.

Senior U.S. officials insist they are raising these issues with Central Asian governments while saying a balanced approach is needed, a position some rights advocates criticize as a Faustian bargain to secure cooperation on counterterrorism and other security matters.

Fielding a question about a “new” U.S. strategy in Central Asia, Daniel Rosenblum, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Central Asia, told Voice of America’s Uzbek Service in January that the strategy addressed “political reforms” and “respect for human rights.”

“We have robust engagement with Uzbekistan on those issues, on issues of democracy and human rights, and on security, and we think it is possible to pursue both and try to maintain that balance in the relationship,” Rosenblum said. (RFE)

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