Making Up for Lost Time: The Need to Support Civil Society and Security in Central Asia

On August 3, Secretary Kerry met with foreign ministers of the five Central Asian nations (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) as the prelude to the new C5+1 program. The United States has pledged up to $15 million for five projects related to economic cooperation, climate change, combating terrorism, and—significantly—human rights improvements.

However, it is still unclear how human rights and respect for civil society will play a role in this partnership, and how the United States will incorporate this emphasis into funding decisions and project support.

Over the last twenty years U.S. engagement in the region has been spotty. The United States has fallen in and out of partnership with the Central Asian Five since they each gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It has sometimes collaborated closely, relying on air bases in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan as fueling posts for military operations in Afghanistan, for example. It has also sometimes caused major rifts by raising human rights concerns, such as when the United States called for an investigation into Uzbekistan’s Andijan shootings in 2005.  As a result, the Uzbek government kicked the U.S. military out of its Karshi-Khanabad airbase.

The counterterrorism and security initiatives within the C5+1 program present key opportunities to incorporate human rights protections. Security in the region has grown increasingly fragile.

Kazakhstan, seen as the safest of the five countries, has experienced an uptick in terrorist violence in the last several years. Its first suicide bombing occurred in 2011. This June, 17 people were killed in attacks by religious hardliners in Aktobe, Kazakhstan. In one of the incidents, attackers rammed a minibus through the doors of the national guard building. In July, five were killed in the Kazakh capital of Almaty during a terrorist attack targeting a police station and an office of the national security service. On August 30, Kyrgyzstan experienced its first car bombing, in the capital of Bishkek, targeting the Chinese Embassy.

Central Asia is also known as a major source of foreign fighters to ISIS, though many are radicalized in Russia, where they go for economic opportunities. Their remittances made up 45 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP in 2014, and 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. As Russia’s economy tanks, the risk for social discontent and radicalization to be exported back to the Central Asian region increases. There, the lack of economic and political space exacerbates the problem.

United States Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewell visited Kazakhstan in August, two weeks after Kerry to emphasize the need for counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Central Asian nations. Sewell is well-versed in the hows and whys of increasing support for civil society, youth mentorship, religious freedom, and the opportunity to express dissent as essential parts of the fight against terrorism. She often encourages nations through the Countering Violent Extremism program to increase freedoms as a way of increasing security.

But in most cases these partners have refused. And in response to their refusals, and the continued repression of human rights, the United States has done very little. Yet according to its own framework these actions are increasing violent extremism and threatening local and regional security.

Now the United States has the opportunity to put its theory to the test that greater civil liberties and freedoms are linked with increased security, where Russian, Chinese, and U.S. interests in security and stability could overlap.

After Uzbekistan kicked the U.S. military off its base in 2005, the United States seems to have lost its appetite for promoting human rights in the region. Amidst inconsistent U.S. messaging on human rights, respect for civil liberties and civil society has taken a nosedive. Meanwhile radicalization increased, just as many human rights analysts predicted it would in the early 2000s if the United States lost focus on the region. In the vacuum, Russia and China filled the gaps—without pressure on human rights protections.

But the United States has more leverage than it realizes. Indeed, many analysts note that the region needs the United States more than the United States needs them. The United States can provide the Central Asian nations access to foreign investment, larger markets, international economic and political institutions, and expertise and technology that could be useful to address the concerns of regional leaders, such as fighting terror, improving infrastructure, and developing their economies.

Central Asian states also need the U.S. presence because they too do not want Russian hegemony, and seek to balance out Russian and Chinese strength with U.S. knowledge, markets, and opportunities for access. Furthermore, Russia’s model for promoting security in the region has not been effective—it hasn’t even been effective in Russia. This means the region needs a new approach to promoting security and stability, and the United States has models and innovations to offer.

The United States need not and should not give in when it comes to human rights standards in the C5+1 program. Urging human rights compliance, including tolerating political dissent, space for religious freedom, and due process and fair trials for government critics, will benefit the people of the Central Asian nations, their governments’ interests, as well as the United States’. Increased trust in the rule of law and local governance will—according to the U.S. argument on countering violent extremism—reduce the regional trend toward hardline religious thinking and anti-government extremist behavior, supporting the greater stability and security all participants of the C5+1 seek.


Published on September 12, 2016


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