Presented at CORE Workshop on Democratization in Central Asia
Hamburg, Germany
February 10, 2007

Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak before you today.


None of the five Central Asian states have fulfilled the democratic aspirations that were held by their citizens some fifteen years ago, not to mention the aspirations held by people like us, outside observers, the analysts and activists that are gathered at this meeting.

One of the questions that we are now seeking to address is the one of what do we do with our disillusion. Fifteen years ago we were dealing with newly formed states, states which we in hind sight mistakenly saw as “blank slates” which we were able to strongly influence. Having skipped most of the traditional stages of a struggle for national independence, we expected that they might be able to rapidly transform themselves into European-style market economies with democratic or at least truly participatory political systems.

But the combination of euphoria and quasi-chaos of the last years of Soviet rule, did not lead to a period of revolutionary transformation in the region. Chaos, or more rightly civil war, did develop in Tajikistan, but fortunately such human and material devastation did not occur elsewhere in the region.

But unlike most of the Central European countries and the other new European Union members, the elites in the Central Asian countries were very firmly entrenched, and most of those within the elite who favored democratic style political reforms largely opted to continue working with the conservative and dominant part of the ruling elite rather than joining with the political opposition, many of whom were at least publicly committed to introducing constitutional reforms that offered the promise of bringing their countries more in line with the rule of law and expanded opportunities for political participation.

Now fifteen years have passed, and the region is facing an inevitable transition to a new leadership, and maybe even to a new generation of political figures. While the next generation of leaders was socialized in the Soviet state, and may even have worked for it, the majority of the population in Central Asia has no memory of Soviet rule and they are being socialized in very different political conditions.


What can we learn from our false hope of fifteen years ago?

I think that it would be a mistake to conclude that these cultures are in some way incompatible with political participation or with adopting political systems based on rule by law.

First, this gives us an opportunity to consider what mistakes we may have made in trying to spread democratic reform in the region.

Secondly we should consider what has changed in the region. And only then should we consider what we should do next

Some of the things that I am going to say will sound quite critical. I say them after long reflection. It is not to attack the good works that people are doing, but to ask why are we doing these good works Are we confident that we are not simply imposing the right values, but that we are doing it in ways that maximize the potential for success of our efforts?

I was obviously among those who were tremendously excited by what I then believed to be the enormous prospects that the collapse of the Soviet Union raised. I continue to believe that some form of participatory society could have emerged in each of these countries, had we been more proactive in our approach to them. In fact I believe that democratic societies can still emerge. Although in many cases this will entail more patience on our parts than would have been the case a decade or so ago, as some of these societies have changed a lot, in ways that make them less friendly to and less capable of developing democratic societies than had previously the case.


Let us look at what we might have done wrong.

We were not proactive enough in promoting either political or economic reform in the region. Supporting reform in Central Asia was neither a priority of the U.S. nor of Europe, and in most ways policy in this region became a hand-maiden of the policy toward Russia. And only when disenchantment with Russia increased did the U.S. and Europe increase their degree of engagement.

After September 11, 2001, engagement of the U.S. in particular, and the west more generally increased in the region. But this was not because the U.S. or other outside actors believed that their opportunity for influencing developments in the region had changed, but rather because they believed that it was necessary for their own security. For the U.S., the new interest in the region was driven by a desire to facilitate military operations in Afghanistan, and in both Europe and U.S. to strengthen energy security and the energy security of their allies.

And the timing of U.S. and European interventions may not necessarily coincide with periods in which outside efforts to influence outcomes will yield fruit. The receptivity of the various leaders in Central Asia towards change has varied over time, as has the kind of changes that they will tolerate, depending upon their own assessment of the consequences of reform, whether it will enhance their capacity to rule.

The shortage of funds available for technical assistance for political and economic reform in the region makes it more critical that the potential benefit of assistance has to be maximized.

One of the justifications given for the relatively small sums involved in political and economic technical assistance is the complaint that these countries are unable to absorb larger sums.

I have two comments in that regard.

First, corruption is problem in Central Asia and is likely to continue to be a problem well into the future. In addition to the revival of patrimonial politics that independence has brought in many parts of the region, Central Asians were no strangers to corruption from Soviet-era economic practices.

But to be effective in this region we must expect that part of assistance will be lost to corruption. We must fight against this, and build in constraints to minimize its impact. But expecting that some of the assistance money being offered will be lost to corruption is unfortunately part of the price of engagement in the region. Furthermore, I would argue that corruption exists even in most of those programs which we believe to be “corruption-free,” it is just that we don't know enough about those involved in the project to have been able to spot it.

Certainly there were several areas in which all five Central Asian countries could have absorbed a great deal more assistance, without a serious risk that corrupt practices would have diminished the funding to a point that it was not effective.

There was a real hunger for projects that would reform the legal sector. This includes programs designed to help reform the judiciary, to reform legal training, and to reform the security forces, both police, and other special internal security forces. There were U.S. programs in all of these areas, but their reach was influenced by the size of the allocations made to them. Some of these policies have led to impressive changes, especially in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where even today reform has gone far enough that we are able to project the shape of what a fully reformed system could look like, even though it is far from being implemented. Funding for these projects continue, but were never expanded to meet the demand, although somewhat larger sums of money were spent than might initially appear, given that projects for reform of security forces are sometimes funded as part of defense budgets and do not necessarily appear in declassified versions of national budgets.

The same was also true of programs that were designed to increase the administrative capacity of local and regional governments. These are programs that were cut back even faster than legal and judicial reform, because of concerns about working directly with non-democratic regimes as well as declining technical assistance bases.

Everyone in the region favored educational reform, and with the exception of Turkmenistan, their understanding of reform was fairly consistent with how it is understood in the west. The education systems of the region have fallen into varying states of decay, from near cataclysmic collapse in the case of war-torn Tajikistan, to the deliberate dismantlement of the system for ideological purposes in Turkmenistan, to problems of serious declines in the quality of rural education just about everywhere, but most seriously in Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

One of the great risks that Central Asia faces is that of declining literacy and educational attainment. During Soviet times there were, for all intents and purposes, universal levels of literacy, and some of the highest levels of popular attainment of secondary, specialized secondary and higher education anywhere outside of the U.S., Europe and the most developed of the Asian economies. This is no longer the case, which means the next generation is likely to be quite different from their parents.

But U.S. focus in particular was more on curriculum development, and promoting new content to civic education, and to a lesser extent to English language education, something that does serve these countries well, as it increases the number of people able to study abroad. But it in no way deals with the inequities developing within the country's themselves between those with access to the best public schools in the leading cities or to private education. From the very onset most Central Asian countries were eager to get assistance to deal with deteriorating conditions in rural education, both in terms of their deteriorating physical plant, the critical shortage of teachers and other educational personnel, and the acute shortage of new texts for mathematics, science, and technical subjects (especially in the national language, but also increasingly in the Russian language as well). To a limited extent, some of these areas have been, and continue to be dealt with through projects of the Asian Development Bank, but the need is continuing to increase, and almost no new sources of funding have been identified, especially those which are eager to fund the education system's infrastructural reform or dealing with reform traditional core subjects, such as science and math.

Finally, there are a host of problems related to the management of borders, which could have been addressed far more effectively ten or fifteen years ago. These are topics the EU and U.S. are not very interested in, partly to address some of the recovery problems in Afghanistan. But solving them now will be far more costly, and requires dealing with regimes that are relatively hostile to or frightened by integration.

Ironically, ten or twelve years ago, Uzbekistan would have been a relatively enthusiastic participant in many of the regional trade and border projects that the U.S. is proposing as part of its CAREC initiative, to create trade ties across Afghanistan, in part to help fuel state-building efforts in that country, a project that also enjoys support from the ADB. This comes after a relatively unsuccessful effort by the Europeans to push TRACECA, the Central Asian Caucasian transit corridor. Ironically, if the current focus had been applied at the beginning of the TRACECA project, that project might have succeeded, because at the time TRACECA was introduced, Uzbekistan had yet to adopt its isolationist stance (which came after bombings in Tashkent in early 1999). Now however, the focus on meeting the technical needs of trade, through uniform tariffs, customs and improving the quality of border control can actually facilitate trade if there was sufficient economic demand and transport infrastructure.

Much like the first time around, the unsettled nature of Afghanistan remains a major problem in trade to the open ports in south Asia, but the lack of cooperation of Uzbekistan with this project compounds the inherently difficult transit through the region, forcing the various Central Asian countries to opt for longer routes and routes with more difficult terrain that by pass Uzbekistan. In fact, Uzbekistan has also proved an obstacle to free trade efforts sponsored by Russia, and has still not signed a host of agreements necessary to integrate it into the economic community which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. And these Moscow-based efforts will also become more problematic after Russia and Kazakhstan join the WTO.

In all of these areas, the amount of money available for programs in the field was sharply limited by the patterns of disbursement of funds. Most of the U.S. foreign assistance money in this area goes to projects that are top-heavy with salaries for western consultants or the western NGO which are the project facilitator; the latter can go up to sixty percent of the grant in the most extreme. In addition, a lot of the money earmarked for “educational' exchanges funded by the U.S. government, actually goes to U.S. institutions who host them, or U.S. airlines and motel chains. Moreover, there has been minimal follow-through on the fate of those who come to the U.S. (with U.S. funding or private funding). There are alumni associations for these people, some they have organized for themselves, but there was never any conditionality attached to subsequent placement for these people. Those who have returned home, and large numbers simply don't, find it very hard to fit back in to government or society.


These problem areas continue to exist, and some of these problems have deepened, making more money, not less money necessary, be it local or international, to successfully address them.

The region has changed over the past fifteen years. Unlike fifteen years ago, when the question of its ability to survive as a nation was at stake, Kazakhstan has become the most stable country in the region, accepted by powerful nations like Russia and China as having a right to exist, and even one with a viewpoint that needs at least to be heard although not necessarily heeded. The country has no real likelihood of state collapse. Kazakhstan has become a self-confident nation, led by a highly an experienced and almost supremely confident political leader. Nazarbayev and much of the senior Kazakh elite now believe that their resource wealth and pace of economic development give them the right to carve out an international position of their own, one of relative prominence.

For a variety of reasons, some accidental, others not, Kazakhstan 's leadership have staked a great deal on getting the chairmanship of the OSCE for 2009, and while they have been willing to have the decision of the OSCE postponed, they have not been willing to delay their chairmanship.

A large number of OSCE states are supporting Kazakhstan 's chairmanship, and their CIS colleagues are doing so enthusiastically, the EU members are divided on this question, most hoping that the postponement of the decision until late 2007 will encourage Kazakhstan to make further, and much needed, political reforms. The U.S. and U.K. accepted the postponement of the decision, but have been highly critical of Kazakhstan 's bid, because of that country's very imperfect record of democratic reform.

But Kazakhstan 's unwillingness to accept the U.S. and U.K. request that they defer their chairmanship until 2011 suggests that there will be a large price to pay if Kazakhstan is turned down as chairman of the OSCE.

There is a real question as to how much the OSCE, the EU, its member states or the U.S. can do to build democratic societies in Central Asia, if these states are not going to be willing participants in the process. For that reason the decision about Kazakhstan 's chairmanship is likely to become a decisive one for the future of that organization. If Kazakhstan is turned down, on matters of principle, for its failure to live up to enough of the OSCE goals, the OSCE is likely to become of less important in Central Asia. It will certainly find it more difficult to spread its message of democratization, there and in the states of the CIS more generally.

Whereas, an OSCE headed by Kazakhstan will certainly not be a guiding light for the spreading of democratic institutions, but it would allow the OSCE to continue its important election monitoring work in Central Asia and the south Caucasus. It also may make the OSCE a more effective organization in achieving security cooperation in these regions, and make it easier for Vienna to offer the good auspices of the organization in situations requiring conflict resolution.

The only state in Central Asia that has had regime change that focused on a seriously flawed election process, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan has now gone beyond the point in which it is easily influenced by outside actors. The political system has entered a system of sustained and quasi-managed chaos, in which competing political groupings are finding it difficult to achieve a sustainable formula for may likely to have gone beyond the point easy influence by outside actors. The political system is fragile, and has been undermined by a period of protracted negotiation between key political and economic groups within the country, which have provided very unstable results. Kyrgyzstan has introduced two different constitutions since November 2006, after spending roughly a year debating three other variations.

It seems unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will become a fully failed state, as two of its neighbors, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan see their own stability as tied directly to that of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Both these states, most likely in concert and in consultation with Russia, their CSTO partner, would seek ways to stabilize the situation in Kyrgyzstan, preferably short of the direct application of force. But the presence of a U.S. base notwithstanding, the major influences in this period of crisis are more likely to be these very concerned neighbors than the OSCE members from western Europe or from across the Atlantic. But without doubt, the Kyrgyz will continue to reach out to the OSCE and other multilateral organizations, and especially to international financial organizations, for assistance. Moving beyond the current level of political confusion, though, will be a time consuming and quite possibly not a highly satisfying activity.

Society in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have changed dramatically over the past fifteen years, in ways that are likely to increase the burden of those interested in building democratic, participatory or civil societies in this part of the world.

In all three countries, there has been a steady erosion of the secular values in society. Overall, the spread of traditional values, be they national-cultural, traditional-religious or fundamental religious has proceeded far more rapidly than the spread of western “civic cultural” values. This is also true of large pockets of population in Kyrgyzstan and smaller pockets in Kazakhstan, but Kazakhstan in particular, but in the latter case in particular there is a growing sector of society that has been exposed to and share general “western” or secular values.

This is not the case in either Uzbekistan or in Turkmenistan. Gradually over the last fifteen years, those who were committed to introduce a western style political regime in Uzbekistan as their first priority, political reform “first-ers” have been marginalized in Uzbekistan,. Most have left the country, although some of the human rights activists in their numbers have even gone to jail. What remains in Uzbekistan is a group I would term economic reform “first-ers,” secular (either by the Soviet understanding or the western understanding of the term), those who believe that the country is in desperate need for economic reform. Most of these people accept the argument that the expansion of rule of law is critical to insure their success, particularly with regard to the protection of property. Many of these people would like Uzbekistan to attract more foreign direct investment. They also understand that Uzbekistan will have substantially less international credibility if it doesn't accept some of the European and OSCE norms in particular.

But traditionally such “economic first-ers” have generally been a group that western NGOs have been reluctant to engage with, preferring to work almost exclusively with the “politics first-ers.” Many in the Uzbek elite would like to see their country have greater engagement with the international community, and increased assistance on meeting some of its “human needs” based problems. However, it is far less clear that the Uzbeks would accept international conditionality.

Turkmenistan is entering a period of great risk transition and potential risk. The challenge the outside community faces is how we can increase our leverage in this country. The democracy-building and assistance community will face a sharp choice, whether to work with the new president, to help him achieve what he claims is his goal, to achieve gradual political reform. Or alternatively, we can view him as politically corrupted, because of the undemocratic nature of how he took power, and, as many Turkmen opposition figures based outside of the country argue, we should refuse to engage with him.

Part of the answer will be provided by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov himself, whether, or not he will make good on his promises to open his society to outside influences, through allowing access to the internet, and to begin the process of legal reform. It is also unclear whether he will agree to work closely with a group of western interlocutors even as he does so. His willingness to have the OSCE observe his election, an invitation that Vienna decided to not fully accept, given how little time they were given to create a full-scale observation plan. Instead they opted to send a smaller fact-finding team.

The option of not-engaging with Berdymukhammedov at all implies that it is somehow in Turkmen, and also in western, interest for the current government to fall. This thesis, which was also advanced by many critics of President Karimov, at the time of the disturbances in Andijan, is predicated on the assumption that western influence will increase in the advent of regime failure. Certainly, this is something that western-based opposition promise. Yet, at least with regard to Turkmenistan, it is hard to believe that any subsequent regime would have much flexibility in the short term to reduce Russia 's role in that country's economy. The sale of Turkmenistan's gas to Russia provides the predictable and sustainable cash transfers that the regime in Ashgabat depends upon for its survival, going a lot further to help subsidize the countries unreformed agricultural sector, which in turn provides the income for the bulk of the population. Signing bonuses for future transport or gas and oil development projects will leave short-term sustainability issues unresolved.

Similarly, a dose of realism is necessary to evaluate the political and economic prospects in Tajikistan. Ten years after the signing of the Accord of National Reconciliation which ended that country's civil war, political institution building has largely stalled in that country. President Rakhmonov has extended his power base in the center, although the political system remains a partly decentralized one, where some local officials have areas of great discretionary authority, but all other power is vested in a strong presidential system. NGOs, at least those with explicitly political agendas, are increasingly more restricted in their activity, but the sector remains an important source of income for the white collar class in the country. Groups working with social and economic issues generally are able to operate relatively freely, and continue to enjoy strong international technical support. But the country still remains captive of its geographical position, with economic development opportunities sharply diminished by the instability in Afghanistan, trade restrictions introduced by Uzbekistan, and the continued energy interdependence of these two states.


Given the changing political realities of the region, how can we outside actors seeking to advance the acceptance of OSCE norms, maximize the chances of success for our effort.

First, we should make more of an effort to view events in this region through a locally focused lens. Too much of what we have done, or not done, in the region was shaped by what we thought about outside influences that were active there. First we relegated the region to Russia, then when we decided that Russia was a negative influence, we sought to restrict counter Moscow's engagement through embracing regimes that often were far more antithetical to basic civil and political rights than the Russians were.

Secondly, in more recent years, there has been something of a tendency to use certain “outlying” states in the region, like Uzbekistan, as ways to appease our own domestic human rights constituencies. This is especially true in the current political environment. The U.S. and the U.K. are deeply entrenched in a military operation in Iraq that has rooted itself in the alleged defense of a “freedom” agenda, but has pursued this agenda with a strategy that has clearly gone wrong. “Talking tough” in a country determined (although not necessarily accurately) as having little security importance, may help create an image of successfully advancing our principles. In this regard we must feel confident that we are not creating policies that may be against our respective national security interests simply to appease those “who shout the loudest.”

Thirdly, and this closely relates to the first point, I think that the U.S. and its various European partners make a big mistake in not trying to engage the existing governments. E.U. or U.S. sanctions, absent strong international backing, do not have the intended effect, forcing some level of deprivation upon these governments that is sufficient to modify their behavior.

We need to ask what sanctions are for. Are they to oust regimes, or is it to change their behavior. The experience with sanctions is a very mixed one, and in recent years that have not resulted in regime change. But, as I have already stated, a policy designed to achieve regime change makes me very uncomfortable, particularly in a situation like Uzbekistan, where there are few people in any western capital who would feel comfortable predicting what would come next. The devil one knows certainly does seem better than setting up an unregulated struggle for power in which no strong pro-western political forces have been identified, and in which state collapse is a decided possibility.

Now, I don't believe that there was an interest at the senior policy-making level in any of the western capitals that sanctions might have the effect of ousting Karimov. But there was a hope that these sanctions would prove costly to Tashkent, and that they could modify the Uzbek regime's behavior.

But they did not have the desired affect. E.U. sanctions against Uzbekistan are now being reduced because of the perception that they are doing more harm to the security needs of some of the E.U. states (most particularly Germany which depends upon a military base in Uzbekistan to support its military mission in Afghanistan ). But one of the reasons that sanctions didn't work, was that other countries, Russia and China, were happy to race in to help Uzbekistan compensate for the loss or reduction of U.S. and European engagement. The same situation is likely to occur if the U.S. introduces sanctions against Uzbekistan, since the country has been labeled a “country of particular concern” for its treatment of religious freedom issues.

The Russians and Chinese, both in their bilateral relations, and in the context of their shared membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, stress their common values with the Uzbeks. They, unlike the U.S. and E.U., highlight the need to respond decisively in the face of terrorist threats, in their analysis of the events in Andijan in May 2005.

This not withstanding, the Uzbeks do not like to become any sort of international pariah, or to have the movements of their leaders and their families denied freedom of action in Europe or in the U.S. Yet they don't want to have to publicly admit any errors, or ask forgiveness, such as creating an OSCE or E.U. sponsored formal investigative commission to examine the events in Andijan.

The current E.U. strategy of targeted engagement with the Uzbek government shows more promise at modifying the behavior of the Uzbek state than the previous sanction regime, although the current level of engagement is limited and the concessions of Tashkent modest by any criteria.

Fourthly it would honestly be in our own interest to at least the criticisms that the Central Asians offer of our behavior, both more generally and in regards to other policies toward them. I believe that that E.U.-Uzbek and U.S.-Uzbek relations could have been handled much more skillfully, in a way that made the Uzbeks more responsive to western criticisms of them.

The “War on Terror” has introduced a set of new ambiguities into the international arena. Western democracies have granted limited use of extraordinary powers to the executive branch, licensing special tribunals, and removing some basic legal protections when national security are said to be threatened. We view the threats we face as real, and so serious that they justify the temporary suspension of some of our long accepted civil rights. Unlike in Central Asia, we do not view these threats to our national security as the consequence of bad politics on our part. This is a distinction that foreign, and especially non-western leaders find rather self-serving. U.S. military forces made use of torture, and there have been efforts to identify those responsible for these excesses and to punish those responsible. But at the same time U.S. security forces have expanded the definition of what are acceptable interrogation techniques, techniques that may well be viewed by others as qualifying as torture. The U.K. did much the same when confronted with the threat of terrorist attacks in England by those pressing for changed policies in Northern Ireland. Those in Central Asia that are most cynical, simply argue that powerful states can maintain a double standard forcing weaker states to accept standards that they themselves will not accept. Inevitably there is an element of truth to such allegations, as stronger states do define international standards for all others, especially when there is unanimity of view among a large number of western states. But we might do better at modifying the behavior of weaker and less democratic states is we were at least a little more cognizant of the ways in which w

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