On April 14-19, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in an overdue effort to clarify the Clinton administration’s policy in Central Asia. Adverse political trends, currently in progress, are having an impact on the independence of Central Asian countries, and consequently on U.S. interests in the region. Those trends are: first, an increasingly counterproductive nervousness on the part of ruling elites at the specter of Islamic-inspired terrorism in general, and of spring-summer guerrilla incursions in particular; second, a growing dissonance between the region’s authoritarian leaderships and the U.S. over the conduct of recent elections in Central Asian countries, with Washington emphasizing stability and political change at the same time; and, third–as a corollary–Russia’s effective exploitation of the regimes’ sense of vulnerability to “terrorism” and their confusion over Washington’s message. These conjoined trends have recently pushed several Central Asian countries toward a political and military rapprochement with Moscow under the banner of “antiterrorism.”
If Albright’s visit did clarify U.S. policy to the region’s leaders, that clarification might have been contained in her speech at Uzbekistan’s University of World Economics and Diplomacy.” A key part of that text stated that “the security problems of Central Asia are in the sphere of interest of both the United States and Russia.” That formula would seem to assure the Central Asians that the U.S. opposes Russian hegemony in the region and that it intends to uphold American interests there. By the same token, the formula would seem to imply a regulated competition for influence, in parallel with cooperation among the U.S., Russia and regional governments against the threats of terrorism and Islamic radicalism.
While assuring President Islam Karimov that the U.S. would do “everything in its power” to resist terrorism and related threats, Albright also recommended that Uzbekistan abandon the indiscriminate repression of religion, censorship and other heavy-handed responses, which violate the rights of innocent citizens. Such overreactions tend unintentionally to create conditions favorable to terrorists and can radicalize the moderate and peaceful political opponents of the authorities. U.S. officials also urged Karimov to stimulate international investment in Uzbekistan by introducing full convertibility of the national currency–a step long advocated by Washington but resisted by Tashkent.
In Kazakhstan, official think-tank chief Yermuhamet Yertysbaev provided an assessment of potential security threats which was not only unusual in its candor, but also probably closer to the leadership’s real thinking than to its public rhetoric. Yertysbaev, director of Kazakhstan’s Strategic Research Institute attached to the presidential office, listed four such threats to Kazakhstan in the following order: (1) intrusion of Islamic armed groups from Afghanistan; (2) Uighur rebellion in the neighboring Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China, leading to a Chinese crackdown and to a wave of refugees entering Kazakhstan; (3) Russian separatism in the Russian-settled northern Kazakhstan, “in the event that ‘national-patriotic’ circles gain control of Russia’s security agencies and ministries;”(4) disputes over the division of the Caspian Sea, if new and large oil and gas deposits are discovered offshore. On this latter point, Yertysbaev was speaking two weeks after the Russian government had vociferously laid exclusive claim to a newly discovered, large oil deposit which Kazakhstan regards as straddling the two countries’ respective seabed sectors.
The prospect of invasion from Afghanistan being totally unrealistic in view of the great distance between that country and Kazakhstan, it follows that the country’s leadership is far more concerned over potential security threats from the north. That consideration, too, probably underlay President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s public remark to Albright that “Russia is a God-ordained neighbor, not one we chose” and that Kazakhstan can not afford to conduct its relations with Russia and the United States “on an either-or basis.” In a gesture to American and other oil companies, the Kazakh president cancelled the 20 million ton limit which had recently been imposed on the companies’ crude oil exports from Kazakhstan, out of a planned output of 28 million tons in 2000. The limit had been intended to leave crude oil available for processing by Kazakhstan’s refineries; but the oil companies strongly complained over the anticipated loss of export revenue.
On the other hand, Nazarbaev refused to explain last year’s clandestine sale of some forty MiG-21 jets to North Korea; he even seemed intent on shielding the perpetrators, claiming that two main suspects had fled abroad. Nazarbaev brushed aside Albright’s remarks that the main suspect in Kazakhstan had been sentenced to a brief term and instantly amnestied, and that the National Security Committee’s former chief Nurtay Abykaev, dismissed last August for “gross negligence” in the MiG affair, was recently appointed as first deputy foreign affairs minister. In a public snub at the joint press conference, Nazarbaev stated that “it is not for the U.S. Secretary of State to decide who should be appointed and to what post in independent Kazakhstan.” It sounded like Nazarbaev’s revanche for the State Department’s aggressive intercession last year to frustrate the anti-corruption investigation against former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, now a wealthy expatriate with presidential ambitions.
Meeting with leaders of opposition groups, Albright reaffirmed Washington’s concern over last year’s flawed presidential and parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan and informed the opposition that she had again raised the issue with Nazarbaev. The United States encourages Nazarbaev and opposition parties to hold round table discussions, under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with a view to liberalizing the political system.
In Kyrgyzstan, before Albright’s visit, President Askar Akaev preemptively ordered the release of one of the opposition leaders, Daniar Usenov, from custody. While Usenov faces trial on minor charges of assault and battery, another opposition leader in custody, Feliks Kulov, faces far more serious criminal charges stemming from his earlier activities as State Security chief. As in Kazakhstan, Albright criticized the flawed parliamentary elections recently held in Kyrgyzstan. Washington supports the holding of an OSCE-sponsored round table of the government and the opposition, in this case with a view to preparing a free and fair presidential election which is due in December 2000.
Albright brought with her a security assistance package consisting of funds for the training of Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies and border troops and invitations to an anti-terrorism conference for Central Asia, to be held this coming June in Washington. Russian military assistance to the three countries is far more substantial than what Washington can offer (Itar-Tass, Khabar, Tashkent Radio, KyrgyzKabar, M2 Communications, April 14-19).
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