In January of this year, a curious sight appeared in Bucha, Ukraine. A large, round yurt – traditionally used by nomads in Central Asia – offered a heating center, internet access, and traditional Kazakh food and tea to Ukrainians suffering from brutally freezing temperatures and frequent power cuts as a result of Russian air strikes on their energy infrastructure. More “yurts of invincibility” popped up in other Ukrainian towns. The yurts were a kind humanitarian gesture from the Kazakh people, symbolizing Kazakhstan’s subversive solidarity with Ukraine and a growing willingness to challenge Moscow’s traditional dominance in Central Asia.
This act of quiet defiance is emblematic of the region’s shifting geopolitical dynamics. For too long, the U.S. has been on the sidelines while neighboring Russia and China exert enormous influence over countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. But we can see the limits of that influence as Central Asian governments become wary of their dependence on China, whose large economic investments in developing nations often come at huge cost to their sovereignty; and on Russia, whose international standing is in freefall. The U.S. must take advantage of this window of opportunity and offer a strategic alternative based on partnership rather than exploitation.
Unfortunately, an anachronistic law stands in our way. In 1974, the United States passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which denied full U.S. trade relations to countries that restricted emigration rights for Soviet Jews and other minority groups. It was a useful tool to coerce the Soviet Union to improve its treatment of persecuted groups, including in Central Asia. Fifty years later, the Soviet Union is long gone, but this Cold War-era relic continues to limit our relationship with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Since the dissolution of the USSR, U.S. presidents have repeatedly certified that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan comply with the emigration provisions in Jackson-Vanik. All three enjoy positive diplomatic relations with Israel, none engage in state-sanctioned antisemitism, and Jewish citizens are free to emigrate. This is why the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, which led the efforts to champion the original Jackson-Vanik bill, agrees that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan should be granted permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status.
Over the last few decades, Congress passed laws to “graduate” many former Soviet states – including Russia – to normal trade status. But some of the Central Asian states are stuck in the 1970s, not because they deserve pariah status, but largely due to inertia and a lack of focus on the region. That’s a mistake, and here’s why.
Beyond its strategic location, Central Asia is rich in critical resources like hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals. The United States was late to the race for critical minerals, but the Biden administration has made serious efforts to secure and expand supply chains. Granting PNTR to these countries – which have a combined annual GDP of $280 billion – will allow U.S. businesses better access to their markets, promote trade and investment, and create opportunities for growth. Central Asian states can diversify their economies, create jobs, and raise living standards for their populations, all while reducing their economic dependence on Russia and China.
Maintaining the Cold War-era status quo also suggests the United States still views Central Asia through a Soviet prism, not as a collection of sovereign and independent states – a point that regional leaders regularly raise with high-ranking U.S. officials. Removing this bilateral irritant would send a clear signal that the United States is committed to deepening our partnerships in the region.
There’s no doubt that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have more work to do on advancing human rights and political freedoms before they can enjoy a close relationship with the United States, but granting PNTR status would give the United States greater leverage to push on these issues. We have a deep foreign policy toolkit to deploy – including high-level diplomatic engagement, security and economic assistance, and working closely with our democratic allies in Europe – and can bring significant pressure to bear when it comes to human rights and political reform. These are the appropriate tools to use to address human rights concerns – not an outdated trade policy from the 1970s.
As Russia’s influence wanes because of its invasion of Ukraine and countries grow wary of China, the United States has an opportunity (and an obligation) to redefine our relationship with Central Asia. Congress should seize this moment to advance our strategic and economic interests in the region by passing legislation to grant Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan PNTR status, relieving these countries from the outdated restrictions imposed by Jackson-Vanik.