Unfulfilled Expectations of Democracy: Political Developments in Central Asia after 9/11

Before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia didn’t rank among the regional priorities of US foreign policy. Neither did ordinary Americans have much interest in this region. In 2000, taking part in a scholarly conference held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I dared to complain that, to my observation, the average US citizen often doesn’t have any idea about the very existence of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian “stans” or where they are located. That geographical ignorance and lack of interest came to an end with 9/11, after which Americans would learn more about Central and South Asia and, more broadly, about the Muslim world.

A few months after 9/11, taking part in a program broadcast by a public television station in Chicago and, along with my American academic colleague, answering questions from viewers about our region, I felt how grateful they were to Uzbekistan for its support of the United States in the wake of its tragedy (not long before, Uzbekistan had offered its airbase in Khanabad to assist in the military campaign the United States was launching on Afghanistan). Since then, Operation Enduring Freedom, as that campaign was named in October 2001, has tied together the fates of the United States and Central and South Asia. Tens of thousands of American troops have been sent to fight the war in Afghanistan, and cargo for that war effort has been delivered via the territory of Uzbekistan, along with a few other transport corridors. A geo-strategic partnership between the United States and Uzbekistan was declared following a March 2002 meeting between presidents George W. Bush and Islam Karimov.

What effect has this partnership had on political development in Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia? To answer this question, one should take into account how US foreign policy is being designed and the kind of revision it underwent in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in September 2001. In my own observation, US foreign policy is driven by at least the following three factors: (1) the grand policy doctrine adopted by each US administration that reflects the philosophy of and priorities for the current historical moment; (2) values embedded in the foundations of the American polity, namely, the values of individual and civic freedom and democracy, which often play a role in how US politicians react to world events (as one of the characters in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance eloquently stated, “the United States is a republic, and a republic is a state in which the people are the boss”); and (3) operational and institutional pragmatism employed by various departments and diplomatic missions dealing with everyday foreign affairs.

The reality is that, in responding to world affairs, the institutional pragmatism is sometimes at odds with what the values of freedom and democracy would command. And in some cases, as the Bush era exemplified, the grand policy doctrine can be deliberately elevated to the level of grand ideology. It was probably a great temptation for the Bush administration to react to 9/11 by adopting an ideologically driven agenda that could be articulated in the style and spirit of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” That ideological doctrine crystallized around the all-pervasive concepts of a “War on Terror” and an “Axis of Evil,” aiming to mobilize all “good” and “decent” nations around the world for a crusade against the forces of “evil,” of course, under the moral and political leadership of the United States. The countries that were included in the Axis of Evil indeed were among the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world, and the “war” would be waged on behalf of ideas of freedom. However, it was worrisome that the doctrine acquired the features of a dichotomous, black-and-white ideology with religious overtones, thereby risking oversimplification in describing the scope of international issues and their solutions.

Preoccupied with the War on Terror, the Bush administration reexamined and redesigned many directions of its foreign policy, including its politico-geographical outlook. The culmination of that conceptual shift was the decision to realign some of the State Department’s geographical frameworks, focuses, and priorities. In February 2006, the Central Asian delegate from the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs was moved to the bureau dealing with South Asia, which was renamed the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. That structural reassignment meant that all Central Asian “stans” would be now associated with the other “stans,” Pakistan and Afghanistan (and India), a quite logical decision from the linguistic-toponymic point of view. But the decision also reflected a swing in the US view of its priorities in the region. Central Asia would be hereafter seen primarily not as part of the post-communist world that is experiencing a “transition” to democracy but rather in light of the War on Terror. That verdict was evidently reached due to Central Asia’s proximity to the countries of major US security concern, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also thanks to its predominantly Muslim population.

That politico-geographical realignment played perfectly into the hands of autocrat Islam Karimov, who had long before 9/11 made a war on Islamic dissent the cornerstone of Uzbekistan’s internal politics and the means of boosting the international legitimacy of his regime. Asserting himself in the role of a US ally in the War on Terror, Karimov hoped to be given carte blanche in his dealings with his internal political opponents. However, he overestimated the degree to which the US administration would turn a blind eye to the gross violation of human rights in Uzbekistan. When, in May 2005, hundreds of innocent protestors in Andijan were shot dead by Uzbek government troops, Americans and Europeans, who were brought up in social environments where the respect of human rights is a daily norm, had a knee-jerk reaction to the shocking reports about the massacre. The US administration was so appalled by the scale of the atrocity that it decided to distance itself from the Karimov regime, at least for a while, and moreover, was instrumental in helping a few hundred Andijan refugees who escaped the massacre get asylum in the United States and other Western countries. But that natural reaction cost Operation Enduring Freedom an airbase, as Mr. Karimov was quick to retaliate by revoking his agreement to rent the United States the Karshi-Kanabad (K2) airdrome, which was vital for supplying non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan.

That is not the only instance when US policy in the region has been driven by human rights concerns. At the height of the geo-strategic partnership with Uzbekistan, the United States managed to convince the Uzbek authorities to adopt, although to a limited extent, an “open-door” policy. Indeed, some local NGOs were granted official registration and a number of international organizations and development agencies were accredited and allowed to operate in the country. But that honeymoon period in the US-Uzbekistan partnership didn’t last long, and as the series of “color revolutions” swept Georgia, Ukraine, and later Kyrgyzstan in 2003–2005, Karimov decided to close the Uzbekistan door. Beginning in 2004, hundreds of local NGOs were forcibly shut down, and practically all American NGOs and Western press correspondents were expelled from the country.

In 2006, the Bush administration, seeking to restore the geo-strategic partnership with Uzbekistan, resumed its wooing of the Karimov regime (having decided to dump the human rights baggage as unnecessary ballast hindering the achievement of major strategic goals in the region—knocking out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban). These efforts have continued under the Obama administration, which has distanced itself from the rhetoric and excesses of the War on Terror but is continuing basically the same policy of treating Central Asia primarily as a transport corridor for supplying the Afghan theater of operations. Although the most controversial policies adopted by the previous administration, such as extraordinary rendition, black sites, and waterboarding, seem to have been abandoned and the War on Terror has become a more technical and less ideologically charged “overseas contingency operation,” the core of the US foreign policy toward Central Asia hasn’t changed. And Uzbekistan, with its advantageous geographical position bordering on the relatively stable northern part of Afghanistan, has only become more essential to US military success as the Pakistan corridor has become hampered with the deterioration of the security situation in that country.

The shift toward real politics resulted in the agreement achieved in 2009 with Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to establish and develop the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistical infrastructure designed for the transport of non-lethal cargo into Afghanistan. Tashkent again allowed the United States to use its facilities, this time its airport in Navoi as NDN’s key logistical junction. Henceforth, anything that could jeopardize the deal on NDN would be sacrificed, and as a result, US pressure on human rights issues in the region has significantly weakened. For instance, the United States extended its full support for Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2010, in spite of that country having been criticized by human rights groups for cracking down on political opposition and civic freedoms.

The US administration has itself been experiencing internal pressure from different directions. The American academic and intelligence communities are divided into two camps advocating opposing foreign policy in Central Asia. If figures like S. Frederick Starr and the editors of the Jamestown Foundation advocate the geo-political priorities (following the logic: if not we, then Russia and China) in dealing with the authoritarian “stans,”1 then experts like Eric McGlinchey point out the risks for the United States and stability in the region associated with negligence of human rights and social discontent among the local population.2 Some advocates of improved relations with the Karimov regime at any cost would claim in lobby conversations that Karimov guarantees a certain political stability and keeps down all kinds of radical Islam. Certainly, the appearance of stability and the seemingly problem-free environment for NDN in Uzbekistan apparently satisfy US expectations for the observable future.

As a result, the operational and institutional pragmatism professed by the current makers and performers of US foreign policy commands the preservation of the status quo. Therefore, any social and political changes in the region will take place not thanks to American and European interference but due to mainly internal developments, as it has been with the Arab Spring, which took the West by surprise. However, one can object that the situation in Central Asia is considerably different from that in Northern Africa. Unlike the Middle East and Northern Africa, Central Asia lacks proximity to Europe and the respective cross-border civil and media networks that could transmit the ideas of democracy. For this and other reasons, the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan) look truly unshakable. But how many observers had predicted that Hosni Mubarak would in 2011 undergo arrest and trial for corruption and abuse of power? What is undeniably unquestionable is that Central Asia faces a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability.

In light of the decision by the Obama administration to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by 2014, there have been some expectations that the United States could stop viewing Central Asia principally through the prism of the War on Terror. However, most recent reports suggest that thousands of US troops, including special forces and air power, may stay in Afghanistan until 2024 to help “build up the Afghan army and police,”3 a decision indicating a lack of confidence in DC that the ten-year-long military mission there leaves a sustainable legacy.

In the meantime, the situation in Afghanistan doesn’t raise hopes for either stability or democracy in the region. The current ruling regime has been harshly criticized for its corruption and lack of legitimacy. Hamid Karzai appears to have missed his chance to assert himself as the embodiment of the Afghan people’s will, and he may face the same fate as the Soviet-backed Najibullah, deposed in 1992 and eventually prosecuted by the Taliban in 1996. The expectation that the democratic process in Afghanistan would come to be a good exemplar for the Central Asian “stans” has turned out to be an illusion. Central Asia remains full of and surrounded by autocratic regimes, all lacking cross-national connections that could transfer “viruses” of democratic change.

In May 2011, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a list of “specially designated countries (SDCs) that have shown a tendency to promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members,”4 that is, that pose a terrorist threat. The inclusion of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan on this list perfectly resonates with the policy that sees Central Asia mainly as part of a conceptual framework for the War on Terror. While Astana, searching for other than Tashkent means of raising its international legitimacy, was furious that it was included in this category,5 there were understandably no signs of discontent or objection from Uzbekistan. Karimov seems to be entirely satisfied with such a view of the region by US policymakers, as he himself fits perfectly into this geo-political outlook.

Yet one should realize that, facing a huge and constantly growing labor surplus, the corrupt Karimov regime, like other local autocracies, finds itself sitting on a powder keg. What rescues it from social explosion for now is the country’s free-riding on massive, visa-free, labor out-migration to the more prosperous Russia. But the ability of the Russian economy to absorb more and more labor migrants cannot match the rate of population growth in Central Asia. According to some estimates, around three hundred thousand young people are joining the labor force in Uzbekistan each year.6 Will Russia welcome these new hordes of youth hungry for jobs?

Even economically more affluent and politically more liberal Kazakhstan is witnessing a rise in social discontent fueled by the global recession that began in 2008 as well as rampant political corruption. In May 2011, thousands of workers in Kazakhstan’s richest industry, oil, went on strike in the Manghystau region. Their strike has proven to be the longest in the history of Central Asia. As of this writing, in August 2011, the strike is still going on.

Presidents Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, unchangeable and unshakeable in their rule since 1990, are now both of an age that portends the end of their political careers. Both have uncertain plans and opaque mechanisms for political succession, prompting various elite factions to intensify their struggles for power. Some of these factions may opt, at some point, to support rebellion against emerging favorites as the only way to secure their own futures. Thus, if not the long awaited victory of democratic forces, then a long run of instability is a very likely scenario in Central Asia’s observable future. I would expect this instability to only heighten over the next five or six years.


Alisher Ilkhamov is research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and author of a chapter in the forthcoming book The Neopatrimonial State in Africa and Beyond (Routledge).

  1. See, for instance, Zeyno Baran, S. Frederick Starr, and Svante E. Cornell, “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the EU,” (Silk Road Paper, July 2006, Silk Road Studies Program, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute), http://www.silkroadstudies.org/new/docs/Silkroadpapers/0607Islam.pdf.
  2. Eric McGlinchey, US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe briefing, “Uzbekistan: Three Years After Andijan Events,” US House of Representatives, Washington, DC, May 13, 2008.
  3. Ben Farmer, “US Troops May Stay in Afghanistan until 2024,” Daily Telegraph, August 19, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/8712701/US-troops-may-stay-in-Afghanistan-until-2024.html.
  4. US Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, Supervision of Aliens Commensurate with Risk (Washington, DC: DHS, May 2011), 18, http://www.dhs.gov/xoig/assets/mgmtrpts/OIG_11-81_May11.pdf.
  5. Tengri News, “Astana Puzzled over Inclusion into the US Homeland Security Department’s List of ‘Specially Designated Countries,’” July 22, 2011, http://en.tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/3338/.
  6. State Committee of Statistics of the Republic of Uzbekistan, 2010.