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Blinken’s Central Asia Visit Raises Questions on US Role, Assistance

In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fostered deep fear in a region that remains wary of Moscow’s intentions.

“If a powerful country is willing to try to erase the borders of a sovereign neighbor by force, what’s to stop it from doing the same to others?” he asked.

Blinken made the case that U.S. support for Ukraine helps prevent other countries from falling victim to imperial ambitions.

“That’s exactly why we remain committed to standing for the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, the independence not only of Ukraine, but for countries across Central Asia and, indeed, around the world,” Blinken told journalists in Tashkent.

But some analysts say that although countries are receptive to the U.S. views, questions remain about Washington’s commitment to developing economic and energy ties in the region, as well as uncertainty about its Afghanistan policy.

Astana’s posture

Kazakhstan and Russia share a border longer than 7,500 kilometers, currently under demarcation.

Continuing to thread a needle since the invasion, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said Astana appreciated U.S. support, yet emphasized that his country is not threatened by Russia.

“Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Commonwealth of Independent States with other states surrounding Russia. So we consider our relationship as an alliance in the framework of all these multilateral structures,” Tileuberdi told reporters alongside Blinken.

“Kazakhstan has very historic ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Our economies are interconnected … that’s why this situation is quite heavy for us, for our economy, and we are trying to avoid any negative effects from the sanctions.”

Tileuberdi also highlighted that Kazakhstan is America’s top economic partner in Central Asia. Bilateral trade turnover exceeded $3 billion in 2022, more than 37 percent higher than the previous year. Total foreign direct investment from the U.S. surpasses $62 billion, with about 590 businesses running on American capital.

Blinken applauded Kazakhstan for hosting more than 200,000 Russian citizens who have fled their country since the beginning of the war. And Kazakhstan has provided humanitarian supplies to Ukraine.

The Biden administration strongly endorses President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s reform program. “We look forward to seeing additional concrete steps,” Blinken said, “expanding public participation in the political process, increasing government accountability, curbing corruption, introducing presidential term limits, protecting human rights.”

US help for Central Asia?

The U.S. set up the Economic Resilience Initiative for Central Asia last year with $25 million “to expand regional trade routes, establish new export markets, attract and leverage greater private sector investment.” In Astana, Blinken announced an additional $25 million for this program.

“It’s not a very serious gesture,” said Jennifer Murtazashvili, governance and development expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “$50 million is insignificant compared to what other powers are bringing in.”

Murtazashvili thinks the U.S. can truly be a unique partner but sees Washington failing to offer a clear strategic reason to be in Central Asia.

“None of these countries want to be Russia’s vassals. They want more alternatives in all directions, including to the south via Afghanistan. But America does not seem to want to talk about Afghanistan now,” Murtazashvili said.

Blinken joined the C5+1 dialogue in Astana with five Central Asian foreign ministers and held bilateral meetings with each of them.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have pressed the U.S. not to isolate Afghanistan following the Taliban’s 2021 victory. “Afghanistan is part of Central Asia and Washington has a moral obligation to help,” Murtazashvili asserts.

In Tashkent, talking with the U.S. delegation, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev called for active engagement within the U.N. and support of regional infrastructure projects to aid Afghanistan’s people and economy.

Blinken acknowledged the Uzbek government’s “generous aid to the people of Afghanistan, from electricity to emergency humanitarian assistance, especially to women and girls.”

“We should understand where these governments are at present and work with them based on mutual interests,” Murtazashvili said.

U.S. officials say that is exactly what Washington is doing: focusing on strengthening and diversifying energy and commercial linkages, so Central Asians are not dependent on one country or source for trade and investment. “There’s a very strong potential market here, and the more connectivity we have among the countries … the more investment it’s going to attract from outside of Central Asia,” Blinken said.

He pointed out that the U.S. spent $25 million in English-language education in Uzbekistan for the past five years, training 15,000 teachers and providing textbooks to 10,000 schools.

Promote good governance, increase assistance in education and technology, Murtazashvili said. “But Washington does not have a credible record in promoting democracy.”

“Leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have overpromised but underdelivered. They are being very shortsighted,” she added, assessing that their respective publics are more demanding and critical than ever, noting mass protests of recent years.

Human rights promotion

“The U.S. can walk and chew gum when it comes to taking a principled stand on these countries’ backsliding on human rights,” said Steve Swerdlow, a law professor at the University of Southern California, who is also a longtime Central Asia researcher.

“Despite enormous frustrations in urging Astana and Tashkent to pursue reforms, successive U.S. administrations have done well in securing the release of imprisoned human rights defenders and journalists —something that unfortunately Washington must still invest political capital into.”

For U.S. policy in Central Asia to deliver results, Swerdlow said, “Washington should stand up for those courageously and peacefully pushing for openness and accountability.”

Uzbekistan’s acting foreign minister, Bakhtiyor Saidov, underlined America’s continued support of Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda “aimed at ensuring good governance, rule of law, human rights, as well as deepening good and friendly relationships with our neighbors.”

Washington wants to see the full implementation of this agenda, Blinken reiterated, including delivering on commitments to defend religious freedom and press freedom. “The progress that Uzbekistan has made on labor rights shows just how transformative that agenda can be.”

He urged Uzbekistan to fully and transparently investigate allegations of human rights violations “committed by law enforcement officers during July 2022 unrest, holding accountable those responsible.” Blinken was referring to mass violence in Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan.

“We talked about the importance of media freedom, having a strong space for civil society, and we did discuss briefly as well the constitutional reform process.”

Blinken underscored the importance of having a vibrant and well-resourced local media.

“It’s certainly true that Russia has built up a very strong and long-enduring propaganda and misinformation system that is felt here … and the best answer to that, of course, is the strongest possible environment for genuinely free, independent, open media to bring the facts to people and let them make up their minds,” Blinken said.