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Central Asia: An Overview

Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Statement Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment
Washington, DC
April 8, 2008

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As prepared

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Manzullo, and Members of the Committee: Thank you for inviting me here today to talk with you about our policy in Central Asia. Central Asia is a strategically important region at the crossroads of Eurasia. It is going through a period of tremendous change. Many countries have interests there, not least the United States. While the United States faces challenges to its interests, I firmly believe there are opportunities for positive transformation in the region that can lead to lasting peace and prosperity.

To begin, let me clearly state that U.S. policy in the region is firmly based on the premise that the five Central Asian nations are sovereign and independent states with whom we should maintain multi-dimensional relations on a broad range of issues. Our policy is to emphasize our relations with Central Asians themselves. We seek to maintain mature bilateral relations with each country based on our foreign policy goals and values and each country’s specific characteristics and dynamics.

Our overall goal in the region is clear. We aim to support the development of fully sovereign, stable, democratic nations that respect human rights. We also want them to be integrated into the world economy and cooperating with one another, the United States, and our partners to advance regional security and stability. Our strategy rests on three integrated pillars: fostering security cooperation; expanding commercial and economic opportunity; and promoting internal democratic and economic reform and protection of human rights. We see these three pillars as inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. Genuine stability, in our view, is best achieved when citizens have a stake in a government that respects their rights. Stability in turn fosters economic development, accelerates growth, and broadens wealth. Thus, we are determined to pursue all three pillars in a balanced way.

We are promoting multiple linkages to connect Central Asia to the world. Countries should never be left with only one option — one market, one trading partner, one vital infrastructure link. Central Asia is a landlocked region, far from

major maritime trading routes. But it was once a crossroads of global trade and can be once again. Central Asia lies next door to some of the world’s most dynamic economic regions. The more options Central Asians have, the more choices they have, the more independence they have.

Secretary Rice has articulated a clear vision for a stable and democratic Central Asia, one that is increasingly connected to South Asia. It is in the interest of the Central Asian states to build linkages to the south that complement their existing ties to the north, east and west. Our goal is to help them revive ancient ties between South and Central Asia and to help create new links in the areas of trade, transport, democracy, energy and communications.

In August 2007, I was at the opening of a new bridge spanning the Pyanzh River that now connects Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and funded by the U.S. Government with a major contribution from Norway, the bridge will boost economic development by increasing regional trade and investment, and stimulating small and medium-sized businesses and farms. Already since the bridge opened, Afghan vehicle traffic to Tajikistan has increased seven-fold and border tax revenue ten-fold. The bridge is an important piece of a future regional highway network extending from Karachi, Pakistan to Astana, Kazakhstan, including a network of more than 2,400 miles of roads within Afghanistan that have been constructed or reconstructed since 2001.

The U.S. is also advocating for the countries of Central Asia to supply power to northern Afghanistan, and helping to develop the Afghan electricity system so Afghans can benefit from that connection. Together with other donors, we are also exploring ways to export electricity from Central Asia beyond Afghanistan to Pakistan and eventually India. Trade in electricity can benefit both sides, providing much-needed energy to South Asia and serving as a major source of future revenue for the countries of Central Asia.

Mr. Chairman, in your letter of invitation to this hearing today, you asked a number of questions about U.S. policy in the region including our efforts in the areas of democracy and human rights, security, and Central Asian energy. These issues are certainly high on our agenda in Central Asia and we work with each of the five Central Asian states to advance these objectives. The rate of progress often differs in each of the five countries, but we make clear to each of our Central Asian partners that we expect to move forward in all areas of cooperation.

Human Rights and Democratic Reform

Democratization and respect for human rights are fundamental to U.S. goals in the region. Not only are they important goals in their own right, we also believe stability and prosperity come when the government respects the rights of its own people and is responsive to them. Additionally, when people are able to influence the political process through legitimate, peaceful means, they are less susceptible to extremist ideas and violent means of political expression.

While our policy on human rights is clear, it is often our toughest challenge in the region. The post-Soviet legacy of authoritarianism makes it difficult to nurture democratic reform. The challenge increases as our resources decline. Assistance to Central Asia in the areas of human rights and democratic reform has been one of our more effective levers in moving the reform process forward. Our assistance has helped create stronger electoral institutions, fostered civil society, built government capacity to create democratic institutions and political parties and improved some media environments. The challenge rests in creating the political will to properly implement legislation and to convince ruling parties that some dissent and difference of opinion is not a threat to their security. As we work with our Central Asian partners in this area, we recognize that each of the region’s countries is quite different and we must tailor our approach to the local environment.

We are working with the Government of Kazakhstan to fulfill the commitments it made when it was selected to become Chairman in Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010. The Government committed to modernizing its election, political party, and media legislation by the end of 2008. It also committed to preserve the existing mandate of the Organization’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and defend the Office against any future efforts to weaken it. The Madrid Commitments for the Chairmanship may become a useful catalyst for Kazakhstan to intensify political reform.

In Turkmenistan, the government has begun to open up its society under the leadership of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Turkmenistan has freed some political prisoners and is discussing reform of the state media and widening the availability of information. The government has publicly pledged to review international agreements to which they are signatories with a view towards meeting international standards on human rights. These are first steps. Turkmenistan has a long way to go. We seek to open a dialogue directed toward identifying potential areas for bilateral cooperation, including strengthening civil society and access to information, and promoting transparency and accountability. We continue to press the government on individual cases of concern as well as continuing severe restrictions on political and civil liberties. We will closely monitor their progress.

With its vibrant civil society, relatively open media environment, and outspoken opposition, Kyrgyzstan has made impressive progress toward democracy since independence. In September 2007, our two governments affirmed publicly that “Further development of democratic values and human rights are priorities for both nations, and cooperation will continue in this direction.” Nevertheless, the disappointing constitutional referendum in October 2007, inadequate parliamentary elections of December 2007, and restrictions on peaceful assembly indicate Kyrgyzstan still has work to do. We deliver consistent and clear messages at senior levels that the government must follow through on its own stated goal of democratic reform and reinforce those messages with wide-ranging programs that strengthen democratic institutions and promote basic human rights. A $16 million Millennium Challenge Account Threshold Program, signed March 14, 2008, will help Kyrgyzstan promote the rule of law and combat corruption by encouraging reform in the judicial and law enforcement sectors. Kyrgyzstan qualified for the program in November 2005, and we made clear at the signing that reforms in the area of democratic governance still need serious attention, and the success of the program will depend on continued progress in the overall process of democratization. In response, the Kyrgyz government indicated a renewed commitment to the program and democratization in general. We will continue to support their efforts by providing the tools they need and delivering friendly but frank messages about their progress.

In Uzbekistan, we have made clear to the government that the U.S. desires a broad relationship, one in which human rights and democratic development play a vital role. We continually urge the government of Uzbekistan to take concrete actions to improve the human rights situation in the country. Recently, we welcomed some positive, albeit limited, steps taken by the government, including the release of several prisoners of conscience, the resumption of visits on a trial basis to detained persons by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the passage of new legislation combating trafficking in persons. We have urged the government to take additional measures to address serious human rights concerns.

In Tajikistan, the still vivid memory of the Tajik civil war leads some Tajiks to believe that democratic reform leads to instability. We are working to counter this message by gearing our assistance program to build institutional capacity to improve government accountability, as well as supporting the development of civil society.

Security

Our security relationships with the Central Asian states are designed to support their own stability and independence and that of the region. In particular, we are grateful for the Central Asian states’ support for the reconstruction and stabilization of Afghanistan. The most high-profile example of our security relationship with the region is the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, a critical logistics hub for the Coalition effort in Afghanistan. Other countries support international efforts in Afghanistan as well. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan provide overflight rights. Uzbekistan also provides limited overflight rights and is an important transit route for non-lethal supplies.

Equally important, our nonproliferation, counternarcotics, and border security programs continue to produce results despite declining budgets. For example, the drug control agencies of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which U.S. funds helped to establish, continue to provide robust collection of information, which is used to interdict the flow of narcotics and traffickers coming through the region. We are also looking to leverage the offices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as well as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to enhance customs and border security capacity throughout the region.

Energy

Central Asia is clearly significant to our efforts to diversify energy supplies to Europe and the United States. We also consider the development and diversification of the Central Asian energy sector as a critical component in our broader strategy to create those multiple economic linkages that increase the independence of the Central Asian states and introduce market principles to the regional energy market. We are therefore working to facilitate multiple oil and gas export routes, including trans-Caspian routes, to increase the region’s stability and prosperity.

Consistent with our policy of encouraging and supporting the development of market based, competitive energy economies, the Administration has been active in promoting private energy sector investment in the region. Presently, U.S. companies have substantial equity investments in oil and gas production in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, hopefully in the near future, in Turkmenistan. We strongly support these countries and their decisions to open their economies to private investment and world markets. Likewise, the Administration, through the Department of Energy, has an active bilateral effort to collaborate on the development and deployment of alternative energy sources with several of our regional partners.

On March 31, President Bush announced that Special Envoy to the European Union C. Boyden Gray will serve as Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy. Mr. Gray will engage directly with senior European, Central Asian, Russian and other political and business leaders to support the continued development and diversification of the energy sector.

Assistance to Central Asia

Mr. Chairman, you asked questions concerning our assistance to Central Asia, specifically, if we condition assistance on progress in democratizing and upholding human rights, and if Congressional conditions on aid to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have affected U.S. policy. Our assistance policy for the region is designed to support our three pillar strategy of fostering security cooperation, expanding commercial and economic opportunity, and promoting internal democratic reform and protection of human rights. In fiscal year 2008, the total Department of State-controlled budget for the Central Asia region is $104.6 million. $54.6 million is directed toward democratic reform and economic development, including efforts to promote respect for human rights, democratic reform, build civil society, and create jobs and market-oriented economies. Approximately $28.8 million of the total is allotted for security assistance including counter-narcotics and border control programs, military exchanges, and non-lethal defense related equipment like radios and emergency response equipment.

We constantly seek to balance security assistance with democratic progress and upholding human rights, and we make clear to all our Central Asian partners that we desire broad relationships that require progress in all areas of cooperation. Other than Congressional restrictions on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there are no formal conditions on security assistance, but we make sure that progress on other fronts will not come at the expense of human rights. We also believe that our security assistance furthers our goals of sovereignty and independence while strengthening military reform and promoting civilian control, thus complementing our assistance in the area of democracy and civil society development. We can often use the countries’ interest in security cooperation to open the door to broader engagement on the rule of law and, ultimately, democratic development. Though it is often in the clear interest of the U.S. to cooperate on anti-terrorism, nonproliferation and counter-narcotics efforts, we are careful to ensure that security assistance does not inadvertently enhance governments' abilities to repress their citizens.

Congressional restrictions exist on aid to the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in appropriations legislation. With regard to Kazakhstan, these restrictions have been waived on national security grounds. Nonetheless, the restrictions in legislation highlight the importance we give to democratic progress and respect for human rights. While not formally related, they also remind us of the importance of Kazakhstan’s commitments it made upon being selected to become the Chairman in Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010. On Uzbekistan, Congressional conditions put in place in 2004 and 2007 severely limit our assistance to the central government and underscore our serious concern with the human rights situation there. However, these restrictions also hinder our ability to quickly respond to positive changes, encourage additional support for Afghanistan’s struggle to defeat regional terrorism and extremism, and limit our options to react to sudden changes as has been the case in Turkmenistan. These restrictions affect our policy to the extent that we use them as tools to focus those governments on Congressional concerns.

Conclusion

Mr. Chairman, Secretary Rice has articulated a vision for a stable and democratic Central Asia, marked by strong cooperation among the nations themselves and with the broader region for mutual benefit. Furthermore, we cannot overstate the importance of these countries to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. We have ambitious policy objectives in a region still burdened by Soviet legacies. We face enormous challenges at a time when our resources for the region continue to fall. We sincerely thank you for your support in past years and appreciate the flexibility you have provided us to address serious challenges in the region. We ask for your serious consideration and full funding of the Fiscal Year 2009 request.

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you again for this opportunity to discuss this important region. I stand ready to take your questions.



Released on April 8, 2008

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