Thursday 15 December 2011

Winds of change in Turkmenistan?

If Russia woke up from its lethargic political Putincracy for a series of unexpected protests this month, maybe this is a sign of good things to come in the political arena in Central Asia. And, indeed, some winds of change have recently been felt in the region. Can you guess in which country? Well, I couldn’t, until I saw the news. Turkmenistan.

The country is known for being the most isolated and averse to any sort of reform in the region. Especially political reform. Well, last July the president himself, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (above), announced that any Turkmen would be able to vie for the Presidency in the Elections set for February 12th, 2012 (read here an analysis about what’s at stake). Yes. He promised free and fair elections “according to the UN and OSCE electoral standards”. Ouch. Poor Saparmurat Niyazov. The good old Turkmenbashi, the former leader of all Turkmen who commanded a mammoth personality cult in the desert nation and died unexpectedly in 2006, certainly would be quite shocked with the possibility. Well, since president’s promise, nothing really happened (that we know of – Turkmenistan is still pretty closed to all eavesdropping). No legislation was passed to regulate political parties, for example. The only party in the country is still the official one, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Maybe the government forgot about its promises...

But then, this week, something odd happened. A former member of the Turkmen cabinet, the former Culture and Tourism minister Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov, came out and criticised the lack of democracy there. And he gave his name, AND allowed the press to publish his remarks AND identify him as the source – read more about this here. This is very, very uncommon in Turkmenistan. What does this mean? Does it mean there are some cracks in the ruling elite? Maybe. If the former minister said something like this so boldly, sure he received the blessing of the President himself. If this is the case, the problem is explaining why he did that. I am not sure, but would guess that his criticism might be an excuse for the government to announce reforms that might hurt some members of the elite, maybe in time for the elections.

On the other hand… maybe not. The guys is just a former minister, for God’s sake (for now – he might be a presidential candidate, who knows?). And, for the elites in Turkmenistan, the skies are still blue and the Karakum desert is still hot. The so-much-expected changes after the departure of the Turkmenbashi are yet to be seen. Actually, there was a talk that the personality cult would cease to exist. But read this: apparently, now the press in the country has nicknamed Berdymukhammedov arkadag (“protector” in Turkmen). His departed boss also had that nice nickname that was so precious and made him levitate over all regular humans. Oh, and by the way, one of the most talked about signs that Berdymuhammedov was serious about getting rid of the bizarre legacy of Niyazov was the decision of dismantling a golden statue of the Turkmenbashi in the capital, Ashgabat, after his death. The famous statue, which rotates to follow the movement of the Sun in the sky, is up in display again in the city… probably because tourists began to complain. After all, the statue was one of the most important landmarks of the country…

PS. Happy New Year! See you in 2012.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

A new wave of Islamist terror in Central Asia?

Is there a new wave of terrorism afoot in Central Asia? There are some indications that it might be a possibility.

First: we already know that Kazakhstan (as seen here some weeks ago) is facing an unseen wave of explosions. At least one of those attacks, the one that took place in October 31st in the Western city of Atyrau, has been reclaimed by a new Islamist puritan group called “Soldiers of the Caliphate”. This group apparently is formed by Kazakh citizens who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, but at this moment there are just not enough indications that it is the case. The Kazakh government announced a ban on the organisation in the end of last month, after another bombing in Taraz (south) left seven dead. Now, on the 4th of December, there was an obscure episode, with seven dead, near Almaty (the commercial capital of the country, in the South) that might have been terror related.

Second: Uzbekistan knows very well how troublesome an Islamist group can be with popular support in an authoritarian regime. The country has recently seen another, to say the least, obscure episode, but in its border with Afghanistan. In November 17th, an explosion destroyed part of the railway there, in the Surkhandarya Province. At first, the local media said that the attack was "terrorist". Then, absolute silence – it was as if nothing had happened. When it took place, some raised the possibility that the railway attacked was used by the US to transport military supplies to its troops in Talibanland. If that is true, it could mean the beginning of a nightmare for Uzbekistan – that has not seen an attack like this in a long time – and the US alike, as it would indicate that there are pro-Taliban operatives in Uzbekistan. But the most recent theory is that the Uzbeks themselves, and not any jihadist organization, is behind the explosion. It would be a way to punish Tajikistan, with whom Uzbekistan has, let’s say, a not so amicable relationship. Read more about this plausible conspiracy theory here. Interestingly, after the explosion, the Uzbek leader Islam Karimov changed the Governor of the province in which it took place.

Third: Uzbekistan already had a lot of trouble with Juma Namangani and his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), regarded as one of the most violent and dangerous Islamist movements in the world. Between 1999 and 2001, the IMU conducted a series of incursions that affected Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. For a time, since them, the group was quiet (the death of its leader, Tahir Yuldashev, in 2009, sure played a part in this). Now, in the beginning of December, the authorities announced the arrest in the Moscow of four people supposedly linked to the movement. The four residents of Central Asia were accused of plotting terror attacks.

Fourth: The IMU has just released (interesting timing) a list commemorating 87 “martyrs” of the organisation that died since last year. Probably, the IMU leaders expect the list to have the effect of rallying its supporters to a bloody vendetta against the infidels. Most members of the IMU are supposed to operate now from the Afghan-Pakistan border or... from Northern Afghanistan, not far from Uzbek lands.

Fifth: On December 6th, Afghanistan had two unprecedented bomb attacks targeting specifically the local Shia minority, who was celebrating a religious holiday. One of the bombings was in the capital, Kabul; the other in Mazar-i-Sharif – a Northern city very close the border with Uzbekistan and that, over the last years, has remained relatively calm in spite of the chaos in other parts of the country. Nearly 60 people died. The Taliban denied any responsibility for these attacks, which echo the Sunni versus Shias bombings that have tormented Iraq for years now. The attacks in recent years in Afghanistan had a different and clear target – the foreign troops and government authorities. What does an unseen attack like this mean, at this moment, so near the Uzbek border?

It is necessary, of course, to take all of these facts and suppositions with a pinch of salt. There are many interests involved in an escalation of the Islamist threat in Central Asia. Russia is aggressively trying to reassert its dominance in the region and would love to have a stronger military presence there to counterbalance the US influence and also, of course, to avoid any further risks to its own borders after the Americans leave Afghanistan in 2014. Karimov and his Kazakh colleague Nursultan Nazarbayev could use the Islamic threat to show strength, announce new security measures and, of course, submit the local Muslims to even more repression. More terrorism would give a good excuse for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to demand more financial help, and so on. One thing, though, is for sure: the Islamist threat is alive in Central Asia, and the best way to deal with it is establish proper dialogue and an alliance with the Muslim world, tackle poverty in the region, offer good schools and allow the people to have a say in their own countries. Authoritarianism and more weapons have not solved the problem in the past, and sure won’t solve it in the future when it flares up again.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Russia teaches Tajikistan a lesson

Maybe it was a Tajik overreaction, but definitely, definitely, was an overreaction (politically calculated) on the Russian side. Hundreds of Tajik immigrants were invited by the Russian authorities to beat it this month after Dushambe dared to arrest a Russian pilot and his Estonian colleague who landed their plane in its territory with no authorisation. The Tajik authorities say they were smugglers, but Russia refuted - of course, as you know, the Russian Federation is not influenced at all by crooks and mobsters, so such accusation is really outrageous. More than a million Tajiks live in the Russian Federation. Many are illegally in the country, but most certainly are honest people who work really hard to send money to their families in the poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Anything that affects these immigrants in Russia is bound to have a serious effect in the economy of the country. Of course, it didn’t take long for the Tajik authorities to release the Russian.

The fact is that Russia is about to go to the polls, and Putin is eager to make a profit on the anti-immigration sentiment that has taken the country. Actually, he doesn’t even need to do that – his party will surely win by a landslide the Parliamentary election in December, and then next year Tsar Vladimir will certainly be back to his throne. This anti-immigration sentiment has been growing for years – to a point that it has lead to some laughable remarks, like those of Chief Sanitary Officer of Russia, Gennady Onishchenko, who suggested that the Tajik immigration be halted on health grounds (curiously, on previous occasions, Onishchenko recommended that wine imports from Georgia and Moldova be halted, when the relations between those countries and Russia went sour). However, the decision of Russia is not only about exploiting the current trend. It is about highlighting its control and power over Tajikistan – a country which is still so dependent of Russia, even 20 years after its “independence”. It takes place in a moment in which Russia is about to adopt, together with Kazakhstan and Belarus, a Customs Union (which probably will be more harmful than beneficial to Astana, but certainly will be very good for Moscow). Anyway, a question needs to be asked: Tajikistan, how dare you believe you could do anything against a Russian citizen? You naughty, naughty country.

A road movie in Kyrgyzstan

I know I’ve done this before in the short history of this blog, but I can’t resist: here is another nice photogallery with images from Kyrgyzstan. Look at those roads, at those mountains. Can’t you feel the fresh air, the snow and the dust? Really, I need to do some serious backpacking there.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Terrorists find virgin lands in Kazakhstan

The recent terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan are really troubling for many reasons. Unlike Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it was never a direct target of Islamist puritans that are known to operate in the region. Actually, Islam is relatively new to this giant country, as big as Western Europe. Most of its population has its roots in nomad tribes that roamed the steppes for centuries and were only “islamicised” after the Russian Empire dominated its territory, on the 19th century. Even so, the Islam that eventually took hold of Kazakhstan was heavily influenced by the traditional customs of the nomads and its shamanistic beliefs. Sufism also plays an important role in Islam here, like it does in Kazakhstan’s neighbours. Puritan Islamism, especially the one that preaches violence and encourages suicide attacks, is utterly against all those “transformations” in Islam. And so it is also utterly alien to these lands.

But a recent decision by President Nursultan Nazarbayev to tighten displays of religious expression was a good reason for the puritans to step up their northern operations. The law, which took effect on October 25th, makes it mandatory for religious organizations to register with the Kazakh authorities. At the same time, the government banned blogs accused of fostering extremism. These “security measures” set the scenario for two big attacks: on October 31st , the eastern city of Atyrau was shaken by two explosions and a suspected suicide bomber was killed, and then on November 12th a new suicide attack took place in Taraz (South). But the tension between the authorities and militants was brewing even before the law became a reality. There were two explosions in May and in September suspects of plotting terrorist attacks were arrested in Atyrau.

What do those attacks mean? First: if there is puritan Islamism, there are people that were wooed by its promises. Those people certainly are not rich – quite the opposite. In a country that has being constantly praised by its stability and its good environment for business, for its vast natural resources and its progressive, westernized society, those militants are the outcasts. Left behind, ignored by the state and with no education, they fell victims to the same lunatics that found fertile ground elsewhere in neighbouring countries. Second, it is crystal clear, as seen many times in the past, that attacking Islam does not lower the risk posed by extremists, but exactly the opposite. Third, by adopting this law without pondering its consequences, and so encouraging new attacks, Nazarbayev is offering an excuse for other leaders to follow suit and crush (again) their Muslims. Of course I am talking about Islam Karimov. The Uzbek deity, who previously this year had allowed unprecedented celebrations during the Eid ul-Fitr, suddenly decided to warn artists against the use of religious themes in their works (read more here). The number of pilgrims allowed to travel to Mecca was also limited. Karimov loves to attack its own countrymen under the guise of being “defending the country from extremists”. Muslims in general can be regarded as extremists if, for example, they grow a beard or go to mosques too often. By spreading terror, in the most traditional Stalinist way, Karimov reasserts its power. Nazarbayev needs to withdraw this new law and show, in unequivocal terms, his respect to religious freedom. He also needs to do what all other leaders in the world are supposed to do: turn all its citizens into real citizens, not outcasts. Otherwise, God knows what consequences we might see in the near future in Kazakhstan and its neighbours.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Kyrgyzstan dreams of stability after imperfect elections

After a difficult test, the people of Kyrgyzstan have reasons to celebrate. The October 30th presidential elections took place with no violence. Of course, there were protests from oppositionists, who claimed that there were huge problems with voter lists, multiple voting and other irregularities. Certainly there were flaws – not a few indeed. But, at least, according to international observers, it was a valid election, in which around three million people cast their ballots to choose Almazbek Atambayev as President for the next six years. Compared to its neighbours Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ruled by Soviet kings that certainly will remain in power until their very last seconds in this planet, Kyrgyzstan has shown that it is a beacon of democracy. It is very, very unlikely that the Kyrgyz will inspire, anytime soon, any change whatsoever in other corners of Central Asia. However, apparently, its path is starting to become a source of envy, as can be seen in this brilliant article.

Atambayev relied on the industrial and Russified north and Uzbeks from the south to defeat his two main adversaries, nationalists who commanded strong support from the southern Kyrgyz. Hundreds were killed in violent ethnic clashes in June last year, mainly in the south. Now, apocalyptic forecasts of more violence are not entirely out of question yet, as the defeated candidates didn’t recognise the preliminary results and might still be planning to rally their supporters - small groups of protestors have already taken to the streets. However, it is reasonable to think that the Kyrgyz are a bit tired of all the instability that, since 2005, resulted in two presidents being ousted during popular revolts. Besides, Atambayek triumph was a clear one – with around 63% of the ballots, he avoided a potentially complicated second round. Had he won by a whisker, certainly the opposition case would be stronger. In other words – if there were irregularities, probably they were not, on their own, enough to elect the former prime-minister.

Well, what now? First and foremost – no big changes on the horizon. Atambayev is a strong supporter of the Parliamentarian experiment in the country, unique in Central Asia, and is not expected to return powers to the executive, as other candidates promised. He also will go on strengthening its links with Russia. The US has already been warned – its lease of an air base in Kyrgyzstan, used to support the war in Afghanistan, will end in 2014 and will not be renewed, said the president elect in remarks after his victory. Finally, Atambayev will certainly not adopt any nationalistic measures that might have a negative impact on the southern Uzbeks, who have given him their support.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Dancing with Karimov

Busy weeks in the new Great Game. As it was during the original one, in the 19th century, Uzbekistan is a top prize. Sick and tired of playing with Pakistan, the US now has decided to look again at Afghanistan’s northern neighbour. First, the Senate in Washington decided to lift restrictions on US military assistance to Karimovland. Then Obama called the Uzbek leader to butter him up during the former Soviet country’s 20th Anniversary, and, finally, this week, State secretary Hillary Clinton popped in for a quick visit, with the usual nagging about Human Rights and the usual Karimov promises of (20 years overdue) reforms. It is clear that the US is courting Uzbekistan and, again, Human Rights won’t be an issue. The’s Dwight L. Schwab, Jr. strikes the perfect tone on the situation, have a look.

Tashkent is now contemplating the possible effects of the withdrawal of all foreign military troops from Afghanistan in 2014. A possible rise on regional violence is forecast. Here is a very good view on that, by an expert that believes that Uzbekistan’s geopolitical importance will definitely grow in the next few years. Russia sure is aware of that and is lobbying hard all countries in the region. Kazakhstan is supporting czar Putin’s dream of an Eurasian Union. There were also fireworks with the creation of a free trade zone including Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. As usual, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan decided to wait and see. Certainly they will dance the usual waltz with Washington and Moscow, and possibly Beijing, before deciding their partner for this party.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

21st century nomads in Kyrgyzstan

Here is a wonderful photogallery showing a nomad camp in Kyrgyzstan. It is amazing that, after 70 years of Communism and 20 years of post-soviet rule, they still survive with the same lifestyle from centuries ago. By the way, this website, English Russia, has some pretty good photos. I love to drop by for a visit every now and then.

Friday 14 October 2011

Good news, bad news

Good news and bad news in the Urunboy Usmonov soap opera in Tajikistan. Good news first – the BBC journalist is now a free man. Bad news: he was found guilty of complicity with islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and condemned to three years in jail - but the judge decided to grant him amnesty. The decision sounds to me like a confession by the Tajik authorities that they couldn’t find any firm evidence, after all, that Usmonov has been helping the islamist group in its “extremist activities” (nonsense, it is a peaceful organization). The Tajik authorities lost a good opportunity to back off and admit they were wrong to arrest him. Usmonov will now appeal and, hopefully, will clean its name. For the sake of free press in Central Asia.

Thursday 13 October 2011


This is not really the venue for long explanations about the upcoming US Presidential elections. In 2012 the americans will be able to kick Obama out of his office – I mean, if they can be bothered, given the (present) array of absolutely inept candidates that are (presently) fighting for a nomination on the Republican side. That’s a pity Sarah Palin decided not to run – at least, she is good looking. Anyway, the campaign drama this week reached far away from the US borders, being felt in Karimovland. Herman Cain, a radio host who wish to be the GOP candidate, said in an interview that he doesn’t know the president of “Ubeki-Beki-Beki-Stan-Stan” and that he doesn’t think it is important to know it.

What amazes me is not the fact that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care. He is 100% right – knowing that Karimov is the president of Uzbekistan, itself, is useless, it is just a trivia question. However, there is something that bothers me a little here. And it is the fact that US politicians – in this case, a possible future White House dweller – seemingly don’t grasp the importance of a strategic country that borders Afghanistan (where so many US soldiers died in the last years) and don’t take opportunities like this to let everybody know that there is something important here. George W. Bush was a Texas man who didn’t give a damn to what happened beyond his ranch. As president, turned the whole country into his own private Texas and was taken by surprise (or not, say many conspirationists) by the 11/9 attacks. It is important for future presidents to do their homework. Yes, this is important, yes, it is worth saying it is important, yes, Uzbekistan is far away, but definitely it is not that far away. Bet that prior to 11/9, Bush thought – if he knew Afgha-Afgha-Afgha-Nistan at all – that the country that harboured Osama Bin Laden was one of the “small insignificant countries around the world”.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Journalist convicted - for “encouraging” suicide of relative…

A lot has been said about the situation of BBC Tajik reporter Urunboy Usmanov, who is being tried in Tajikistan in extremely suspicious circumstances. But he is not obviously the only journalist facing problems with the local authoritarian regimes, which allow very little room for the press to maneuver apart from subscribing to every single decision by the ruling supremo. Here is an interesting and absurd case: Turkmen journalist Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a stringer for Radio Free Europe, was sentenced this week to five years in jail. Little information ever come out of Turkmenistan – a country usually forgotten in a mist of post-Soviet repression – but Yazkuliyev made the mistake of blogging about a huge explosion which took place in the southern city of Abadan in July. According to official sources, the explosion killed 15 people, but opposition groups say it had a death toll above 1,300. And then Yazkuliyev was tried, facing the highly controversial (to say the least) accusation of “influencing” the attempted suicide of a member of his own family. PS: In Tajikistan, besides the Urunboy case, local reporter Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov is also in court, accused of “inciting ethnic tension” after publishing an article about abuses commited by authorities in the north. The trial has now been adjourned until the end of the month. He can be sentenced to 16 years.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Key elections in a divided country

There is now less than one month to go to the October 30 presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan, a country that is still shaken after the violence that took place in June 2010, mainly between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south, and that eventually led to the fall of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. These are key elections – not only because there is a fear of more violence, but because the results will show the future of the Parliamentarian system in place in the small Central Asian republic since last year. Never before such system was tried in the region, that for centuries has been ruled for despotic leaders. Should the Kyrgyz experience is successful, and we have free and fair elections with no violence, this might be the dawn of a true new era in the region, sending a message to some of its neighbours (mainly the Uzbek leader Islam Karimov) that it is possible to follow a different path. But this is a country still divided and there is the chance of a polarising North-South face-off on the second round – with, possibly, a nationalist candidate taking part on the ballot. Here is a good analysis on the Kyrgyz situation.

Thursday 29 September 2011

The gates of Hell are in Turkmenistan

The LA Times has published a nice photogallery showing a giant pit that has been burning in the secretive former Soviet country for decades. It seems here is the real gateway to the Center of the Earth... not Iceland, Jules Verne.

Sunday 25 September 2011

The Obama Doctrine towards Former Soviet Central Asia

Over the last years, former Soviet Central Asia has been a source of increasing interest in Washington. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 in New York and Washington led to the war in Afghanistan and to the emergence of the Bush Doctrine in the region, focused in harvesting support for its military mission to oust the Taliban in Kabul. Ten years later, now the US is about to end its combat operations in the country, and since the beginning his Government, President Barack Obama has been devoting most of his time to other concerns, particularly the Global Financial Crisis and Domestic Health Care reform. At the same time, he has adopted his own doctrine in Central Asia, but with disappointing results so far.

It is clear that, since the end of the Soviet Union, the US has tried to set foot in Central Asia, expanding its influence over Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The region is well known for its untapped energy resources. This, and its strategic location, made it focus of tension and disputes for centuries before 18th century Great Game. As a relative newcomer to the region, Washington has faced additional challenges in its ambitions to increase its influence. Unlike Russia, it lacks decades of shared culture and history with local nations. Unlike China, it stands miles away, far from the borders of any Central Asian country. Obama’s challenge in the region has been to turn these liabilities into assets.

In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington in 2009 (1), Assistant US Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, announced five principles that would be the basis for the US Policy Toward Central Asia in the Obama Administration:

First, to expand cooperation with Central Asian states to assist coalition efforts in Afghanistan; second, to increase development and diversification of the region’s energy resources and supply routes; third, to encourage political liberalization and respect for human rights; fourth, to foster competitive market economies and economic reform and lastly, to prevent the emergence of failed states, or in more positive terms, to increase the capacity of states to govern themselves effectively.

There are few signs that the US has had success while following these principles, except the first – that was already the key element of George W. Bush’s doctrine in the region. Apparently there are two reasons for that.

First, Russia and China are showing signs that are joining forces in order to minimize American influence in the region, particularly in the economic field – focus of Obama’s second principle towards the region. While the US has been for years a strong advocate of the Trans-Afghan gas pipeline, that would allow Central Asian countries to export its gas through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, therefore avoiding the current dependence of Russian infrastructure, Washington was overtaken by China’s investment. Beijing has already built pipelines to its Central Asian neighbors and is becoming the second largest import-export market for these countries (2), while Russia remains of paramount importance for exports through its own territory. The US ambitions remains moored in the Afghan instability.

China, particularly, has also given millions of dollars in loans to Central Asian states without asking for reforms in return – a key aspect of the third, fourth and fifth principles. Washington’s lack of ability in encouraging reform in the region is the second reason why Obama’s Doctrine has yielded few results so far. It seems that the US has not found a way to influence the long standing the local leaders.

One reason for that could be the fact that, despite its rhetoric, during the last years the US has only acted in the region in order to minimize the risk of terrorist activity and gather support to its efforts in Afghanistan. Both goals implied a strong collaboration with local regimes, which were not to be confronted. One of clearest examples of US failure in Central Asia is in the field of Human Rights. Islam Karimov is still ruling with an iron fist in Uzbekistan 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Using as an excuse the danger of extremist Islamic activity, he has crushed the opposition and maintains a dismal Human Rights record, according to NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW). After the Andijan Massacre, in 2005, Karimov was target of criticism from the US and requested the American military to vacate the K2 base near Termez (3). The move was of little impact for American operations in Afghanistan, since the Manas air base, in Kyrgyzstan, could still be used by US forces. Despite this, little has changed in the US-Uzbekistan relations to date. The Uzbek decision to close the HRW office in Tashkent in June 2011 was met with a short statement from the State Department regretting the decision, with no direct criticism aimed at the Uzbek authorities (4). Uzbekistan remains a key US ally in the region, and Washington has made clear it will not pursue intrusive policies towards Uzbek affairs (5).

Developments in Kyrgyzstan – whose presidents were toppled twice in recent years during popular revolts – show that the American Government ambition of prevent the emergence of failed states in the region and increase their capacity to govern efficiently is seriously flawed. For years after the end of Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was considered an example for the region. President Askar Akayev adopted economic reforms aimed at attracting foreign aid and held free and multiparty elections in 1995. But a combination of factors eventually made him change his mind (6). Regardless of his efforts, he was not able to attract enough investment to a country heavily dependent on exports of mineral resources. Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension in the Osh region, pressure from the significant Russian community in the country and from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – wary about how the democratic reforms adopted by Akayev might help extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – also played a part on this. Eventually, the tension inside the country rose to intolerable levels and Akayev was forced into exile. He was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was also ousted from power, in 2010, during a period of particularly intense ethnic violence in the Fergana Valley. Throughout these years, little was done by the United States to help the Kyrgyz economy or foster stability in the country. This played nicely into Russian interests in the region. To date, the US maintains use of the Manas Air Base near Bishkek, but in 2009 the Kyrgyz government announced the American forces would soon be evicted. The decision was announced after Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation announced an agreement in which the Central Asian nation would receive US$ 2 billion in loans and US$ 150 million in financial aid from Moscow (7). American diplomats were forced into action and a new agreement to keep the base was signed. It raised the amount paid by America for the use of the facilities up from US$ 17.1 million to US$ 60 million (8).

An important aspect of the changes in US Foreign policy during Barack Obama term in office has being its relationship with the Russian Federation. In the 2009 G20 summit in London, Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, promised a “fresh start” in their relations. This “rapprochement” would necessarily involve a review of the American plans for a defense system in Eastern Europe. During the George W. Bush years, the plans – that involved the deployment of radar systems in Poland and in the Czech Republic – became a constant source of tension between the two countries. But the idea was later abandoned by the Obama administration. Furthermore, the two countries were able to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, an additional bone of contention between them. The improvement in the bilateral relations has also had impact on the US ambitions in Central Asia. There are no signs that Washington has tried actively to rival Russian interests in the region. After Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed the agreement that preceded the negotiations over the Manas Air base in 2009, few voices in Washington raised criticism against Moscow. A Pentagon spokesman accused Moscow of trying to undermine American use of the Facility (9), and Defense secretary Robert Gates said Russia was “working against” the US in the region (10). These declarations, however, led to no further consequences. Russia, and also China, have been strengthening its links with former Soviet Central Asia through regional international cooperation bodies such as the SCO and EurAsEc, while America remains a distant partner.

Nonetheless, it is also clear that the US, China and Russia share in tackling extremist Muslim groups a very important goal in the region. For China, the links between Muslim Central Asians and the Uighurs in Xinjiang have always been a source of deep concern. For Russia, instability represents an additional risk for millions of Russians that remain in the area. Besides, Moscow is wary of extremist activity after so many attacks from Chechen groups and believes that Central Asia is a source of support for those separatists. Finally, after the September 11th, the US realized the need to fight Al-Qaeda and its allies regardless of how far away they were from America.

If its distance from the region represents additional hurdles for America’s Central Asian aspirations, it also could be an asset in a region that for centuries was dominated for its stronger imperialistic neighbors. For many in Central Asia, the years of Soviet domination are still a vivid memory. Still today, many see the presence of a numerous Russian community in Central Asia as an omen of a possible new era of domination in the future. Taking advantage of its distance from the region, showing no interest in domination and pursuing an agenda focused on mutual economic and defense gains, the US represents a new option of engagement for these countries.

In his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Assistant Secretary Blake adopted a pragmatic tone when analyzing American goals in the region. He said that the US was looking into establishing “consultative mechanisms” with each one of the Central Asian countries to “regularize” their dialog and “channel them into realistic work programs that could really drive progress”. He also suggested that what America is trying to do now is lay the foundations with a view to pursuing its five principles in the future:

Sometimes it can be a challenge to help move our Central Asian friends in the directions that we would like. But I think all of you would also agree that the first step in trying to get that kind of progress that we want to achieve is to create the right atmosphere and the right forms of dialogue. And I think that particularly includes creating the right atmosphere on these tough issues, like human rights.

To summarize, although the Obama administration maintains an ambitious agenda towards Former Soviet Central Asia, it is clear that, facing a complicated situation on the ground, it has decided to follow a slow path in order to fulfill its goals in the region. The Department of State is now adopting a strategy that focuses in collaboration, rather than competition, with other players with interests in the region – namely Russia and China, with whom America share a common goal of tackling extremist activity. It is also trying to improve its ties with local countries by not confronting them in difficult areas such as Human Rights, believing that, as time goes by, it might be in a better position to influence them. Given its natural position, as a distant player, the US has an advantage in dealing with the Central Asian countries, which tend to see Russian and Chinese interests in the region with suspicion. What remains to be seen is whether the Obama Administration will be able to tap into this and make more headway, even with lower expectations.


(1) US Policy towards Central Asia. Remarks by the Assistant Secretary, Robert Blake, at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, July 30th, 2010 -
(2) Central Asia and the Renewal of the Great Game. By Michael Hoffman, Program Manager at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Diplomatic Courier Online, June 16th, 2011 -
(3) Last US Plane leaves Uzbek base. BBC News Online, November 21st, 2005 -
(4) Closure of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan. Press statement by Mark C. Tonner, Deputy Spokesperson, US Department of State, June 14th, 2011 -
(5) US Steps up its Central Asian Tango. By Indian Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, Asian Times Online, August 25th, 2009 -
(6) Jihad – The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid. Penguin Books, 2002. Pages 66-72
(7) Kyrgyzstan to shut US Air Base. Financial Times, February 3rd, 2009 -
(8) Kyrgyz parliament approves US Base deal. Reuters, June 25th, 2009 -
(9) Financial Times, op. cit.
(10) Obama Loses a Key Base for Afghanistan. By Mark Thompson. Times Online, February 19th, 2009 -,8599,1880686,00.html