On November 10 John Ordway, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan, attempted to play down speculation that the Republican defeat in the U.S. mid-term elections could presage changes in Washington’s priorities in Central Asia. In fact, basing his assessment on the continuity of U.S. foreign policy in the region, he told a Central Asian audience that President George W. Bush does not envisage changing the main elements of U.S. policy, which center on efforts to promote democracy and security. Ordway also noted that there is little distinction between the Republicans and Democrats over Central Asia. “That is to say, our foreign policy here covers the main points of both parties. Members of the U.S. Congress, representing both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, visited Kazakhstan, and their attitudes to and impressions from what they saw were the same,” Ordway suggested (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 10).
Nonetheless, there are signs within the region that some political leaders as well as political analysts are restless for a change in the U.S. foreign policy emphasis on “democracy.” In Tajikistan, analysts offer an alternative vision for the development of Washington’s engagement with the region, suggesting that its traditional stress on promoting democracy and human rights will be replaced with a focus on regional economic integration with Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. One illustration of this lengthy process could be the redirection of Kyrgyz and Tajik electricity exports to Pakistan and Afghanistan, which would also foster economic development.
Robert Deutsch, a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Bureau of Economic Integration for South and Central Asia, partly supported this idea, commenting in Dushanbe, “Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan possess great potential for generating electricity, which can be sold in Southeast Asia. Together with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, we will prove that the import of electricity from these countries to Afghanistan and Pakistan is possible.”
Sayfullo Safarov, deputy director of the Strategic Research Center under the Tajik president, observed that similarities in economic interests could foster closer integration. “India and Pakistan have the same position on the necessity of laying a gas pipeline from Iran. There is not any reason for Uzbekistan to worry, too. Its right for receiving water is protected by international law. In addition, Uzbekistan gets more cheap Tajik electricity than anyone else in return for its oil and gas. I think there is mutual understanding between Russia and the Americans. The Russians will produce electricity and the Americans will re-sell it,” Safarov said (Asia Plus, November 9).
Deutsch said there is great potential in Kyrgyz and Tajik electricity exports. He points to Pakistan’s need to import electricity starting in 2010. Afghanistan is in a similar position. Dushanbe currently sells electricity to the north, specifically Kazakhstan and Russia. If it could be persuaded to export electricity to Southeast Asia, this would result in economic dividends for the country, which might underpin future democratic reforms. Thus the suggested shift in U.S. foreign policy is not to abandon democratizing the region, but rather focusing more on the processes of economic integration.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev highlighted the limited influence of the West in the internal policies of the Central Asian states when he addressed a meeting of the Civic Party in Astana on November 10. “The interests of our people and Kazakhstan are paramount. If we pursue our policy and achieve success in the life of the country and the people, our people will appreciate this. This is the most important assessment, but not that of those who will ‘define’ a policy for us from across the ocean,” he said. Frustration caused by the narrow focus on democracy, in a region with no history of democratic traditions or examples of democracy in neighboring countries, may be linked to the ongoing problems of the NATO stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and more pointedly the security situation in Iraq (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 10).
However, pressure on the Central Asian leaders to democratize also comes from other sources, especially as they engage Western multilateral bodies such as the EU or NATO and from Western states. French President Jacques Chirac sent his congratulations to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov on his recent re-election. Praising the role played by Tajikistan in the global anti-terrorist coalition, Chirac also said, “I am sure that our countries will continue mutually beneficial relations on this basis in the future. I would like to reiterate that France is ready to further assist Tajikistan in carrying out reforms and strengthening a law-governed state. Efforts being made by your country have an important and decisive role in the development and expansion of democracy and the ensuring of security in Central Asia” (Tajik TV First Channel, November 15).
Despite the current problems facing U.S. policy in Iraq, which leaves the Bush administration open to criticism elsewhere, democracy and human rights will never be high on the agenda of the Central Asian countries without consistent Western pressure. The EU has reaffirmed this in renewing its limited economic sanctions on Uzbekistan. While wider economic integration is desirable and would produce political and security benefits, Western engagement with the region will be guided by the shadow cast by the massacre in Andijan in May 2005.