Lost in Central Asia’s ‘Human Dimension’

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry's hastily announced trip to meet with the dictators of Central Asia has produced more questions than answers about what he hoped to gain from the tour.

By Nigina Valentini, Program Officer, Eurasia

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry’s hastily announced trip to meet with the dictators of Central Asia has produced more questions than answers about what he hoped to gain from the tour.

The itinerary, which included visits to some of the world’s most repressive states, put human rights activists on alert. Secretary Kerry then stunned the human rights community during his stop in Uzbekistan, when he seemed to have difficulty even using the words “human rights,” instead referring vaguely to “the human dimension” as one of several issues to be discussed in private with authoritarian president Islam Karimov.

Kerry went to Central Asia to strengthen cooperation on several key policy goals, including economic growth, environmental protection, and regional security and stability. In a speech later in the trip, Kerry rightly emphasized that “both stability and prosperity are closely linked to good governance,” which is measured by “the independence of a judiciary; by the health of the civil society; by the ability of every individual to enjoy basic freedoms of thought, speech, and religion, and to engage in political expression of political views.”

However, it is unclear how these goals can be reached if the United States is unwilling to confront its Central Asian partners with the reality that they are moving in the wrong direction, and thereby maintain its reputation with the people of these countries.

Smoothing ruffled feathers

In Kyrgyzstan, Kerry backpedaled on a human rights award that the State Department had recently given to Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist and human rights activist who is serving a life sentence in prison for supposedly inciting ethnic hatred in 2010. In an embarrassingly apologetic manner, Kerry “clarified” that the award was “honoring a lifetime of achievement” rather than commenting on “any judgments  with respect to one particular event or incident,” and the United States “did not mean, nor did we intend to, nor did we interfere with the security interests of the Kyrgyz Republic, nor would we.” In effect, Kerry declared U.S. neutrality on Askarov’s absurd designation as a dangerous criminal.

The Kyrgyz government had retaliated for the award to Askarov by terminating a 1993 bilateral cooperation agreement, which will hurt Kyrgyzstan in the long run. Meanwhile, the interethnic conflict of 2010 remains unresolved, as ethnic Uzbeks continue to languish in prisons after unfair trials or are otherwise treated like second-class citizens. Failure to move forward on reconciliation with ethnic Uzbeks by addressing the trauma of the conflict on both sides—which would in turn foster trust and understanding between the two communities—will inevitably hinder progress toward democracy.

Kerry also held his tongue on two proposed laws in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament that would target the LGBT community and nongovernmental organizations. Both measures are modeled on existing Russian legislation, though the Kyrgyz version of the law banning so-called “gay propaganda” would impose even harsher penalties than the prototype developed in Moscow. Each time U.S. diplomats minimize human rights abuses in the region, the space for democracy shrinks a little more, along with American credibility.

Avoiding awkward questions

An American journalist prompted another uncomfortable moment for Kerry in Uzbekistan, where he met with President Karimov and with the region’s five foreign ministers in a “new format for dialogue” known as the  “C5+1.” A reporter from the Washington Post was escorted from the room at the conclusion of the Karimov meeting when she called out a question about human rights, adding to the impression that neither side was really interested in discussing the topic.

The past 20 years have proven that playing nice with dictatorships in Central Asia—and limiting criticism to closed-door conversations—is a failed policy. Karimov in particular continues to ignore what the New York Times called “private warnings and occasional public shaming in human rights reports,” yet the United States still seems inclined to believe that Karimov “is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.”

For what it’s worth, Kerry advised his five counterparts that “in Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective.” But the greatest boon from the visit to Samarkand may have been the fact that residents were able to enjoy a day and a half of electricity and hot water.

An equivocal warning on extremism

In Kazakhstan, which has vied for a leadership role in the region by heavily investing in economic development, Kerry was somewhat more direct in suggesting that economic prosperity ultimately depends on stable governance and rule of law. He also delivered the crucial warning that political repression and human rights abuses in the name of countering extremism are ultimately “counterproductive.”

Unfortunately, these messages were diluted with a heavy dose of praise. It may be standard diplomatic practice to compliment one’s host and call for a stronger bilateral relationship, but Kerry undercut his own remarks on the dangers of repression by thanking Kazakhstan’s president for his “leadership” on combating violent extremism.

Moreover, the positive comments come at a time when Kazakhstan is considering legislative changes that would put a greater burden on nongovernmental organizations in what is already a restrictive environment, and let the authorities apply the new controls in a discriminatory manner.

Investing in civil society, women’s rights, and youth should be a high priority in U.S. efforts to counter violent extremism in Central Asia and around the world. Economic development is also an important component of any successful formula. But it will all be futile if citizens continue to be jailed for their religious beliefs, political views, and peaceful dissent, which fosters hostility toward both the governments responsible and those who turn a blind eye.

An empty gesture?

On the whole, Kerry’s rhetoric differed little from that used by U.S. officials on previous trips to the region, employing a mixture of warm praise, optimism for future cooperation, and gentle reproaches on democracy and human rights. The United States did announce a new package of assistance programs, but all dealt with trade, the environment, or educational and cultural projects—reflecting long-standing ideas that have had little impact on the region’s political deterioration.

The message sent to the human rights community was that macroeconomic development and short-term stability will continue to come at the expense of ordinary citizens, and that dictators will practice business as usual with no strong objections from Washington.