On September 19, U.S. President Joe Biden met with the presidents of the five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – a major upgrade in the United States’ relationship with the region. Geopolitics (i.e. Russia and China), the specter of instability (the region has seen several incidents of mass violence in recent years), and global challenges like climate change are forcing a rethink of the U.S. approach to the region – not only whether to prioritize Central Asia but also what objectives to pursue in that evolving relationship.
Yet in pursuit of strategic wins, the United States risks deprioritizing human rights and democracy in the region to satisfy Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders.
The meeting took place under the auspices of the C5+1 Diplomatic Platform, a “whole of government” strategy to pursue “an independent, prosperous, and secure Central Asia that addresses common concerns in partnership with the United States.” The presidential-level meeting, the first of its kind, and the creation of a C5+1 secretariat in 2022, are clear signs that the United States is seriously investing in the platform.
Unfortunately, this “whole of government” investment largely excludes human rights and democracy, supposed U.S. priorities in the region, from the initiative. This is a major strategic mistake, given how rampant human rights abuses in Central Asia have fed multiple outbreaks of instability in recent years. It’s also a betrayal of the United States’ historic and principled support for human rights and democracy in the region. This support has helped free political prisoners, supported nascent civic movements, and discouraged even more serious human rights abuses in Central Asia, among the world’s most repressive countries.
Human rights and democracy are off the C5+1 agenda because discussions focus on “common concerns.” As their governments’ records demonstrate, human rights and democracy are not among Central Asian leaders’ priorities despite the ink they devote to these issues in their speeches. Yet Washington is choosing not to lend its diplomatic heft to addressing the full spectrum of challenges in Central Asia, authoritarianism and impunity for rights abuses among them. Instead, the United States is letting Central Asian leaders – who came to power through unfair elections and sit atop vast, repressive kleptocracies – bask in the U.S. president’s glow while sidetracking issues fundamental to human security, justice, and democratic governance.
The United States’ change in tack is taking place at the same time as Central Asian governments tout reform programs meant to modernize their governments, economies, and societies. So-called New Kazakhstan and New Uzbekistan are presided over by leaders who, despite their decades at the top, tout themselves as a transformational break with the past. Unfortunately, the transformation is not going so well. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have each brutally cracked down on protests in recent years, leading to dozens of civilian deaths. Recent elections called to bolster leaders’ legitimacy may have only undermined it, given their improbably lopsided margins and absence of competition.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Kyrgyzstan are ramping up repression. Referrals to my organization, Freedom Now, which provides legal assistance to political prisoners around the world, are increasing as Central Asian governments imprison people unjustly, oftentimes for dozens of years and in inhumane conditions.
In order to understand some of the issues missing from the C5+1 agenda, I asked several former political prisoners and human rights defenders that Freedom Now has collaborated with over the years what they want the U.S. and Central Asian leaders to address.
Alnur Ilyashev, a Kazakhstani civic and political activist who was sentenced to three years of house arrest for his criticism of COVID-19 policies, told me that Kazakhstan’s leaders use “targeted repressions against political opponents to demonstrate their dominance and repress the population.” The justice system “plays a particular role in the implementation of this repressive policy, as it is ready to support any politically motivated prosecution against civil activists with its decision,” he added.
Yet Ilyashev believes that change is possible, as the “U.S. demonstrates to Kazakhstan and the rest of the world that democracy and human rights ideals can be more than just words.” He supports closer cooperation between Kazakhstan and the United States and said that Washington should support “a genuine public dialogue within Kazakhstan.” He noted that “the start of a direct and equal dialogue with the mediation of developed democratic governments” will “minimize the risk of conflict” in his country and “provide conditions for the foundation and ongoing development of democratic civil society institutions not only in Kazakhstan but in the whole Central Asia region.”
Tadjigul Begmedova, chair of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a human rights organization operating in exile, called on the United States to “support Turkmen human rights defenders in exile” like her, and to push Turkmenistan to “allow Turkmen human rights NGOs in exile to register [and operate openly] in Turkmenistan,” which they currently cannot do. Begmedova also highlighted the importance of U.S. leadership on human rights, including at the national level.
“Neither the population nor human rights defenders nor civic activists feel any explicit support from the United States” she told me, but she believes this support can have an impact. She said that the “Turkmen leadership is terrified of facing major international pressure to meet Turkmenistan’s international obligations,” and lamented that recent U.S. diplomats in the region have not engaged in this kind of diplomacy. Begmedova called on Washington to return to the “principled approach” of Laura Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan from 2001 to 2003, which will “bring more results.”
When I spoke with Muhamadjon Kabirov, a journalist and human rights defender from Tajikistan, he lamented that the United States has “always prioritized security cooperation over human rights and democracy in Tajikistan and the region.” That includes sending large sums to the State Committee for National Security, the successor to the KGB in Tajikistan, which is central to its repression of government critics, human rights defenders, and others. Kabirov believes that “U.S. funding has enriched the corrupt, nepotistic, and kleptocratic regime in Tajikistan,” enabling Tajikistan’s current president’s record 31 years at the helm.
The United States’ focus on security in its relations with Tajikistan has also been detrimental, Kabirov said: “U.S. counterterrorism policies are used to justify the regime’s crackdown on the political opposition and civil society.” Meanwhile, preoccupied by security concerns, “Western countries … never held the regime accountable for its crimes against humanity and human rights violations.” One solution proposed by Kabirov is “conditioning financial support to Tajikistan to push the Rahmon regime to respect human rights, respect U.N. opinions on the release of political prisoners, and respect Tajikistan’s international commitments.”
In Uzbekistan, an anti-corruption and governance expert who asked that I withhold their name told me that “the judiciary in Uzbekistan is still de facto dependent,” and that “lawyers fear taking cases directly or indirectly associated with politically sensitive issues or agendas.” While they see some progress, such as the new constitution, which formally protects key rights, “the main concern …. is whether the government will implement these provisions.”
The anti-corruption expert thinks that the United States should “train civil society members, particularly human rights, anti-corruption experts, and journalists to understand the nature and workings of corruption and encourage them to research, develop, and report investigative stories in depth.” Training a cadre of non-governmental experts would help address another issue with U.S. assistance in Uzbekistan: “projects involving partial and unethical experts” who “decide to cooperate with officials and redirect funds from those in need” to more parochial interests – those of officials.
“Corruption schemes are present in all projects” they told me, and international donors should “take tough measures to eliminate corruption” in their view.
U.S. policymakers are right to call the latest C5+1 meeting a turning point in U.S. relations with Central Asia. The question is, as U.S. engagement deepens, will the United States go along with downplaying human rights and democracy in pursuit of strategic expedience, or will it insist on comprehensive engagement and create incentives for demonstrable and meaningful reform?