Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia

The secretary’s visit highlights the dangers of deeper American involvement in a volatile region.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited different countries in Central Asia to push for improved political freedoms in the former Soviet republics and affirm their role as security partners of the United States. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, these countries, many of which are battling internal disorder, remain significant as part of America’s supply routes.

Clinton attended a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan Wednesday where she also spoke with the country’s president and foreign minister. She thanked Kazakhstan for cooperating with the West in the realm of nonproliferation. Earlier this year, she pointed out during a press conference, along with the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan and the United States secured over ten metric tons of highly enriched uranium as well as three metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. “That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons,” she said. “And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands.”

The secretary visited Kyrgyzstan next which has been site to considerable political upheaval in recent months. This spring, violence in the small Central Asian republic forced its president to flee to Belarus while the interim government subsequently struggled to hold on to power. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the unrest.

After meeting with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, Clinton praised her for forming a coalition government two months after the country held parliamentary elections. “There are many who say parliamentary democracy, true parliamentary democracy, cannot work in Central Asia or in many other places in the world,” said Clinton. “We reject that and we think Kyrgyzstan has proven that it can.”

Neighboring Tajikistan has also witnessed waves of armed rebellion in recent months. As the central government appears unable to suppress the uprising, Joshua Kucera at The Diplomat warns of a “power vacuum in a part of Tajikistan that borders northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, both of which are themselves becoming more and more unstable.”

Despite the mounting instability in the region, the United States are preparing a range of strategic construction projects throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The largest project entails the construction of an anti-terrorism training facility in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Currently, the only American base in operation in the region is the transit center at Manas, near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and close to its border with Kazakhstan. Last year, the now ousted president attempted to close the air base with parliament’s approval. Only the intervention of American and Russian diplomacy managed to reverse that decision in June 2009. In return for continuing to operate the Manas facility, the military increased rent payments from $17 to $60 million a year to the Kyrgyz government.

Clinton’s last stop in the region was Uzbekistan, the most populous republic in Central Asia but also its least republican. The country has never held an election judged fair by international observers while the executive wields most actual power. Dissidents are persecuted. Opposition parties are not allowed to exist and foreign media have been driven out of the country. Clinton urged the president, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, “to demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected.”

The State Department has defended Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan as a chance to promote political reform but it is also an opportunity to affirm security cooperation. Uzbekistan is one link in what the United States call their Northern Distribution Network which brings supplies to Afghanistan through Russia and the different states of Central Asia.

The increased American presence risks exacerbating what some observers have dubbed the “New Great Game” which sees China, Russia and the United States competing for influence in Central Asia — very much like Russia and the United Kingdom used to quarrel over the region during the original Great Game in the nineteenth century.

There is moreover a danger of straining relations with Iran whose strategic orientation has shifted northward since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “In the past fifteen years,” according to Dario Cristiani of World Politics Review, “Tehran has been particularly active in trying to create a deep net of institutional and economic links in the region, in part to counter the increasing reach of Turkey, perceived as an American proxy, and of Pakistan, historically an enemy of Iran.” This, he pointed out, explains the strong attention paid by Tehran to nearby Afghanistan and Tajikistan, “which represent cornerstones of the Iranian strategy in the region.”

Iran’s ultimate goal is to become a technological and economic power in the region, and to this end, Tehran is supplementing its cultural and historical links with a more resolute economic presence, including investments in massive infrastructure projects.

Besides the dangers of geopolitics, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides, and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention.

Up to the early twentieth century, Central Asia had no real borders. Rather the region was one large frontier separating the Russian Empire from the British Raj in India. With the emergence of the Soviet Union however and its aggressive attempts at spreading communism abroad, the former khanates of Central Asia were quickly absorbed and divided into neat little socialist republics. Neat, except that their borders were drawn with the express purpose of keeping the populations there divided lest they rise up against the Soviet usurpation.

The borders were redrawn several times during the 1920s and 30s, prompting violent demarcation disputes after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five newly independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet era roads, pipelines and electricity grids.

The Russian influence continues to pervade up to this very day. Kyrgyzstan for instance is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border while north and south seem different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is cut off by a mountain range through which just two usable roads traverse.

When north and south clashed most recently, the country’s interim president asked Russia to intervene but so far, even Moscow hasn’t shown a willingness to submerge itself in this quagmire.