• Issy Williams

From Democracy to Complicity: The United States' Declining Reputation in Central Asia

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Rewind to 2001: the Bush administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom, the American counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan in 2001. In their efforts to oust the Taliban from power in the country, the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as in the surrounding countries of Central Asia, was enhanced on a major level. Within a very short space of time, Central Asia transitioned from a region of peripheral US interest to one upon which the security of the American nation relied. Critical to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom was American access to Central Asian military bases in countries bordering Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which provided two of the most well-known military bases, thus entered into a relationship of unprecedented closeness and mutual dependence with the US. Twenty years later, Central Asia and the neighbouring South Caucasus are regions associated primarily with irremediable conflict: the decades-long clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh; Uzbekistan’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Andijan in 2005, and an abundance of corrupt, one-party governments. Rarely is the region discussed vis-à-vis its relationship with the West, which raises the question: why is the US security influence in Central Asia so minimal these days?

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US played a key role in helping the five Central Asian states find their feet in a post-Soviet world. From the offset, the US presence was defined by democratising efforts in the region, but with a very debatable degree of success. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which has been referred to as ‘an island of democracy and stability’, most other Central Asian countries have eschewed democracy and have instead become what regional expert Alexander Cooley calls “patrimonial regimes”.(2) Such regimes have retained the authoritarian, one-party system of their former Soviet overlords, violently suppressing government opposition. In such countries where ‘democratization [has become] conflated with enacting regime change’, actors and entities encouraging democracy have been deemed ‘actual security threats, not just political nuisances’. (3) Uzbekistan, for instance, witnessed a merciless crackdown on protestors in the southerly region of Andijan in 2005, flagging two major issues: a disregard for human rights and prolific corruption within the Uzbek government and its security forces. Quite clearly, Central Asian methods of governance ran in sharp contrast to American regional democratisation efforts.

Thus, when the US publicly raised its concerns over the violent suppression of demonstrations in Andijan, Uzbek officials met them with a severe response. Carrying specific repercussions for Operation Enduring Freedom, US access to the K2 Air Base in the country was terminated with immediate effect. Well aware of their reliance upon the cooperation of Central Asian states, the US was faced with a decision between its security operations and the promotion of democracy in the region. The US undoubtedly endorsed the the latter, but not at the cost of its own security. Therefore, it learned to develop a higher tolerance for regional authoritarianism in order to maintain a working relationship with Uzbekistan, turning a blind eye to the corruption and human rights issues so rife at the height of its government. In this way, Uzbekistan successfully forced the US into playing by its own rules.

Kyrgyzstan also offered support for the US operation in Afghanistan through the opening of the Manas Air Base near its capital, Bishkek. Unlike its Uzbek neighbours, Kyrgyzstan has been considered a struggling democracy, arguably the result of significant “westernising” investments from the US in the early stages of Kyrgyz independence. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has experienced two revolutions in 2005 and 2010, both of which have witnessed the successful installation of a new government. New York Times journalist Craig Smith has attributed these revolutions to the ‘awakening effect’ of its more democratic, civil society, where freer speech has encouraged further open political opposition. (4) However, following the 2005 revolution, the arrival of new Kyrgyz leader Bakiyev onto the scene served as a harbinger of tenser US-Kyrgyz relations. It soon became clear that the new president was vulnerable to Russian financial persuasions, which were likely the motivation behind Bakiyev's threat to expel the US from the Manas Air Base in 2009.(5) Russia was later discovered to have offered Kyrgyzstan a $2 billion aid package at that very time which is, in the opinions of many journalists, far from a coincidence. (6) A continuation deal for the US to remain at Manas was eventually reached, but only on the condition of dramatically increased rent payments. Bakiyev’s threats made clear that US access to Manas was certainly not a guarantee and relied upon full cooperation with the lofty financial demands of the increasingly corrupt Kyrgyz government. Despite initially appearing as more of a natural US ally, events such as these saw Kyrgyzstan forcing the US to play by its own rules, just as Uzbekistan had done before it.

The US decision to cooperate with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on their terms generated some success, securing continued access to the Manas base and incorporating Uzbekistan into other supply routes into Afghanistan. However, this ongoing cooperation ended up contributing to US decline in Central Asia, as it was brought to account for supporting the survival of states which were fundamentally authoritarian. These deviations from the US moral compass represented, at the most basic level, complicity with the crimes of the Uzbek and Kyrgyz regimes, knowingly neglecting major human rights problems and corruption in pursuit of their security agenda in Afghanistan. As external and domestic actors realised this, the undoing of the US reputation in Central Asia began. Their transgressions played directly into the hands of regional US enemies, namely Russia, which had been lobbying Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to evict the US from their military bases for years. (7) Certainly, these anti-Western efforts must be viewed within the context of Russia’s wider agenda in Central Asia, where it still seeks to serve as the main security provider. (8) It is therefore unsurprising that Russia has used its voice in organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to promote itself as such, whilst simultaneously encouraging US departure from Central Asia. (9) Criticism has also come from Kyrgyz opposition leaders who accused the US of having ‘courted Mr. Bakiyev – who they admitted was an autocrat’ in order to avoid eviction from Manas. (10) Notably, domestic Kyrgyz criticism shows that even by cooperating with the corrupt regime, the US still failed to secure its future in Kyrgyzstan.

Aside from being undesirable, US influence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has also become unnecessary in recent years. With China’s rise as a regional economic superpower, income from US payments to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has now been eclipsed by the lucrative rewards promised by the Belt and Road Initiative. Scholars have pointed out that now, China and other neighbouring powers ‘can more readily provide aid-like funds without the same conditional demands’, rendering American marriages of convenience redundant to Central Asian states. (11) Russia has already demonstrated its ability to fulfil regional security needs through its intervention in Syria, and the SCO also offers informal security arrangements as western influence declines.

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin with Central Asian leaders at 13th SCO summit, 2013 (Huang Jingwen/Xinhua) (12)

Such circumstances have led to the status quo of today, where China and Russia are now the major regional players, and a US presence is difficult to discern beyond its investments in the Central Asian oil and gas industries. The deteriorating reputation of the US, stemming partially from its complicity with the crimes of Central Asian governments, has sent it into a downward spiral in Central Asia. Coupled with its failures in Afghanistan, a lacking desire or need for American influences in Central Asia has gradually pushed it out of the region . Where Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were once important adjuncts to American security, they are unlikely to see a strong US presence again, although power dynamics will certainly continue to shift as China becomes ever more powerful.

(1) "America and the Taliban Have Struck a Deal: Now for the Hard Part", The Economist, 27th February 2020. [Image]

(2) Alexander Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012),19; ICG Asia Report No.22, "Kyrgyzstan at Ten: Trouble in the "Island of Democracy"", International Crisis Group, 28th August 2001 <https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/kyrgyzstan/kyrgyzstan-ten-trouble-island-democracy>. (3) Cooley, Great Games, 24. (4) Craig S. Smith, “U.S. Helped to Prepare the Way for Kyrgyzstan’s Uprising”, The New York Times, 30th March 2005, <https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/30/world/asia/us-helped-to-prepare-the-way-for-kyrgyzstans-uprising.html>.

(5) Olga Dzyubenko, “Kyrgyzstan starts moves to close U.S. airbase”, Reuters, 4th February 2009, <https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-usa-base-idUKTRE51310X20090204>

(6) Anvar Rahmetov, "Kyrgyzstan: Tracking Russia’s Assistance Package to Bishkek", Eurasianet, 18th February 2009, <https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-tracking-russias-assistance-package-to-bishkek>.

(7) ORIGINS: Current Events in Historical Perspectives, 'Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev with then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, 2006' [Image], Ohio State University, <https://origins.osu.edu/article/69/images>.

(8) Paul Stronski, quoted in Gemma Stewart and Sumaya Quillian, "Sitting on the Sidelines? U.S. Decline in Central Asia", Pacific Council on International Policy, 20th February 2019, <https://www.pacificcouncil.org/newsroom/sitting-sidelines-us-decline-central-asia>.

(9) Daniel Kimmage, “SCO: Shoring Up the Post-Soviet Status Quo”, Eurasianet, 9th July 2005, <https://eurasianet.org/sco-shoring-up-the-post-soviet-status-quo>. (10) Clifford J. Levy, “Upheaval in Kyrgyzstan Could Imperil Key U.S. Base”, The New York Times, 7th April 2010, <https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/world/asia/08bishkek.html>. (11) Cooley, Great Games, 164.

(12) "President Xi Jinping visits four Central Asian nations, attends G20, SCO summits" [Image], Xinhua.net, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/xjp201309/index.htm>.

At the time of writing, Issy Williams is an MA student at SOAS University of London, where she studies Intensive Arabic with Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Her main interests involve contemporary power politics in Russia and the Middle East.