Crossroads Asia

Washington’s Budgets for Central Asia Grow

But the tension between security and human rights hamstrings U.S. policy.

Washington’s Budgets for Central Asia Grow
Credit: Public Domain

Top diplomats from the U.S. State Department and USAID appeared before a congressional subcommittee last week to make the case for the department’s FY 2017 budget, which requests $164.1 million for Central Asia. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, Daniel Rosenblum of the U.S. State Department detailed the justification behind across-the-board increases in the budgetary requests to support programs in Central Asia.

The largest funding via the State Department’s budget is aimed at Kyrgyzstan, the region’s only parliamentary democracy and one of the poorest states in the region. The FY 2017 request for Kyrgyzstan, $51.8 million, represents a 39 percent increase over the FY 2015 budget. Tajikistan, the region’s poorest state, comes next with a request of $41.6 million, a 44 percent increase over FY 2015. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with requests of $11.6 and $8.8 million, saw increases of 9 and 5 percent respectively. The request for Turkmenistan, the least-engaged state in the region, sits at $4.8 million, a 44 percent increase over FY 2015.

Speaking alongside his colleague from State focused on Europe and Eurasia and others from USAID, Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Central Asia, offered an explanation of U.S. priorities in the region. “The United States has two fundamental, long-term national security interests in Central Asia,” he said. The first, supporting the independence and sovereignty of Central Asian states, “one goes back decades, to the breakup of the Soviet Union.” The second interest is in the stability of those states, specifically with regard to preventing the region from becoming a haven for terrorists.

Rosenblum argues the twin interests “can best be achieved through promoting security, prosperity, and good governance.”

Within the larger budget context–State’s FY 2017 total budget request was $50.1 billion–Central Asia’s $164.1 million is miniscule. And while security is the main motivation for U.S. engagement in the region, specific security assistance falls far behind monies tracked into the economic support fund section of the budget.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“The depth and breadth of our security assistance for some of the states of Central Asia is limited by their human rights records,” Rosenblum said, “and we repeatedly make the point – especially at the highest levels – that a stronger partnership with the United States is predicated upon the substantial improvement of those records.”

The United States cautiously treads a line between rhetoric and action with regard to security and human rights in Central Asia. Perhaps the best demonstration of this tension is Tajikistan. As noted above, State’s FY 2017 request is a 44 percent increase over FY 2015. The monies are destined, in Rosenblum’s words, to “help the government and the private sector address growing shortages in areas of basic need, including food, education, and healthcare,” as well as improving state institutions.

Rosenblum repeatedly makes the connection between accountable and transparent government and security:

We make it very clear that suppressing human rights and fundamental freedoms in the name of addressing perceived threats – and this includes restrictions on peaceful religious practice, the elimination of peaceful political opposition, and the imprisonment of political opponents – is counterproductive to the government’s security and economic interests, and limits the potential of our partnership

To many these words ring hollow. Earlier this year the State Department designated Tajikistan a “country of particular concern” for the first time, despite four years of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommending the designation based on Dushanbe’s increasing campaign that so often arbitrarily linked political opposition to extremism. That campaign has been carried to its logical conclusion, with the country’s former legal opposition decimated, labeled a terrorist group, and its leaders in jail or in exile. Despite State issuing the CPC designation, in the same stroke Foggy Bottom waived the option of sanctions based on national security interests.

The problem is circular: U.S. interests in Tajikistan are primarily security-related, and suppressing human rights is counterproductive to the country’s security. But Washington opts not to increase pressure on Dushanbe because of existing national security interests, namely Afghanistan. In this fashion, the United States is hamstrung. Washington is unable to address the roots of present regional instability and potential future conflagration–accountable and transparent governments, for a start–for the very same reason it has an interest in the region at all.