“Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality,” President John F. Kennedy remarked in Bonn, Germany, in 1963. The president was fresh off his successful establishment of the Peace Corps in the United States and was now convincing allied countries to establish their own volunteer organizations. West Germany was one of the first countries to follow suit, and JFK had traveled to Bonn to celebrate the inauguration. “This is a moral crisis,” the President continued, “However repugnant the communist system, we must admit it succeeded in winning the devotion of many in certain parts of the world. We must make people realize there is something to which they can give greater devotion to than communism.”
Dante never said that. In fact, as anyone who was forced to read Dante’s Inferno in their formative school years will recall, those who remained neutral were sent to the lobby, in limbo between heaven and hell. The deepest—and presumably the hottest—places in hell were reserved for the traitors.
JFK’s lack of literary prowess aside, he made it clear that volunteers from the free world could show foreign nationals, in theaters ranging from Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Far East, an alternative path to that of communism.
This goodwill generating strategy seemed to pay off upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Peace Corps saw an opportunity to expand rapidly into the newly independent countries, all of which were searching for a new post-communist identity. Then-director of the Peace Corps, Paul Coverdell, and President George H. Bush, quickly opened up Peace Corps programs in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and even Russia itself.
President Bush invited a group of these new post-cold war volunteers to the Rose Garden of the White House prior to their deployments. In a speech, Bush remarked, “It is as if the Peace Corps has been in training for this historical moment. It shows our mission, our desire for peace, knows no political or geographical bounds.”
Within two years of the Soviet Union’s collapse the Peace Corps had volunteers teaching English, developing communities, and assisting in health programs in four of five Central Asian countries, excluding only Tajikistan, which was then in the throes of a civil war.
But this was before Putin’s rise to power in 2000, which saw worsening relations between Russian and the West.
The first Central Asian country to expel the Peace Corps was Uzbekistan. In 2005, as a result of the U.S. criticizing Uzbekistan for the Andijan Massacre, Tashkent scaled back relations with Washington. Volunteers came within days of having their visas expire before being granted temporary 1-month visas, which upon expiration, were not renewed.
Turkmenistan ended its program in similar, although—as with everything in Turkmenistan—idiosyncratic fashion. In 2009, less than 24 hours before new volunteers were to board a plane to Ashgabat, the government in Turkmenistan informed the Peace Corps that the new volunteers would not be welcomed to the country, despite having already issued the volunteers valid visas. Turkmenistan capriciously dealt with volunteers in-country, whimsically denying visas, and then granting them months later. The program ended in its entirety in 2012.
The Peace Corps abruptly ended its program in Kazakhstan in 2011 without an official reason given. The Kazakh government issued a statement thanking the Peace Corps and calling the pullout an indication of the, “great progress in the political and socio-economic development over the 20 years of its independence.”
While Kazakhstan had seen rapid development on the back of its oil, gas, and uranium deposits, such a reason does not account for the abruptness of the departure. According to volunteers, there was an increasing amount of suspicion from Kazakhstan’s intelligence service (KNB). KNB officers went as far as sitting in on volunteers’ classes. Further, a leaked diplomatic cable tells the story of a volunteer who was arrested with explosives at a mine site in what the U.S. Ambassador said, “appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up, likely orchestrated by the…KNB”
For the reader keeping score at home, that leaves Kyrgyzstan as the only country left in Central Asia with a Peace Corps program, where your correspondent currently serves as a volunteer.
Not only is Kyrgyzstan the last bastion of the Peace Corps program in Central Asia, but to make matters worse, not all is well in Kyrgyz-U.S. relations. Bishkek booted the U.S military off a base outside the capital in 2014 and after the U.S. State Department granted a jailed activist an award in July, Kyrgyzstan scrapped its cooperation agreement with USAID. Redolent of Peace Corps experience in Uzbekistan, volunteers who needed routine, annual visa renewal in August were delayed until the 11th hour, before being given temporary, four-month visas.
The United State’s poor policy in Central Asia plays a role in the decline of U.S. influence in the region. For example, the U.S. cozied up to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the now deposed, and nearly universally despised, former President of Kyrgyzstan. This, among other irritants, leaves Kyrgyzstan with skepticism regarding U.S. presence and intentions. A New York court’s dropping of charges against Maxim Bakiyev, the enormously corrupt son of the former leader, didn’t help.
Undeniably though, the biggest factor in the decline of Kyrgyz-U.S. relations is Russia’s newfound hubris in their exporting of both soft and hard power. On the soft power front, which challenges the Peace Corps, while the Obama administration made LGBT rights a tenet of U.S. foreign policy in 2011, Russia has made denial of LGBT rights a tenet of their foreign policy. From blocking benefits for families of gay UN employees to pressuring countries in its sphere to outlaw “homosexual propaganda.” Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are debating legislation that mirrors Russia’s laws.
Further, Russia promotes a skeptical view of NGOs and civil society organization. Russia considers Peace Corps volunteers to be spies, and doesn’t think too much higher of civil society organizations, some of which work with Peace Corps volunteers. These views are repeated in Russian media, frequently consumed in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has implemented, and Kyrgyzstan is considering, legislation mimicking Russia’s ‘Foreign Agents’ law, which make it harder for NGOs receiving foreign funding to operate. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have little civil society left to clamp down on.
This is today’s moral crisis; today’s communism. And this is what the Peace Corps counters, though indirectly. Volunteers who provide English training, start sport clubs, run camps, teach computers skills, or by their mere presence, are providing options to which people can give greater devotion to than bigotry and skepticism.
For many in the U.S., Central Asia is far away and lacks any strategic value. But that is our mission; our desire for peace knows no political or geographic bounds. Losing out on the cultural exchange—the knowledge volunteers bring to Central Asia and bring back to the U.S.—would be a loss to America, Kyrgyzstan, and Central Asia. With John Kerry visiting Bishkek in the next few days, he should push to preserve the Peace Corps presence in Kyrgyzstan. Failing to do so might not send the U.S. to the hottest places in hell, but it will at least resign us to the lobby.
Ryan P. McCarthy is a current Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, he tweets @Ryan_PMccarthy.
The content of this article is of the author’s alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Kyrgyz Government.