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Central Asia’s Autocrats Welcome the Age of Trump
The Trump administration’s narrow focus on fighting the Islamic State could see human rights take a back seat as Washington embraces unsavory allies.
President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, which eschews traditional policies like human rights and democracy and emphasizes killing jihadis, has alarmed traditional U.S. allies around the world. But for the regimes of Central Asia, the former real estate mogul’s brand of international relations is being received with a good bit of optimism.
The five countries of former Soviet Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — traditionally linger on the periphery of American foreign policy, and spend more time balancing Russia and China against each other. Except for a spurt during the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the region’s dismal human rights record limits relations with Washington to transactional affairs dealing with issues like energy security and nonproliferation.
But the Trump administration’s disregard for human rights, obsession with fighting Islamic State terrorists, and calls for better ties with Moscow, including potentially lifting economic sanctions placed on Russia, have Central Asia’s regimes welcoming the Trump era.
“In many ways, this will be music to their ears,” Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, told Foreign Policy. “Trump won’t get tied around the more sensitive issues that concern policy makers in [the United States]. He will be more pragmatic.”
During his inaugural speech on January 20, Trump tossed overboard traditional U.S. leadership in defending human rights and promoting democracy. Instead, he promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.”
Trump’s terror focus is a major opportunity for Central Asian governments to attract Washington’s attention. For a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States focused on promoting energy, security, aid, and human rights in Central Asia. That all changed in 2001, when U.S. policy flipped to serve the war effort in Afghanistan. The United States maintained a military base in Kyrgyzstan and another in Uzbekistan, which both played a key role in helping supply U.S. forces. But both bases later closed, and with them America’s attention to the region.
“Trump’s statement on the need to focus on the fight against terrorism and the [Islamic State] is, certainly, a very encouraging signal for the Central Asian countries,” Erlan Karin, director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kazakh think-tank that advises the government, told FP. It’s the main area where U.S. and local interests align, Karin said, meaning local regimes can now use the same playbook they’ve deployed with Russia and China over the years with Washington.
“The Central Asian countries used to happily pick up slogans of major geopolitical actors on the need to fight against terrorism,” said Karin.
The threat of Islamist extremism has long been a legitimate concern of Central Asian governments, and many have endured terrorist attacks. Right now, the biggest worries are the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the prospect of Central Asian foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria returning home. The Soufan Group, a security consultancy, estimates 2,000 Islamic State volunteers are from the Central Asian states.
But the global fight against terrorism has also been used for domestic purposes by the region’s various autocratic leaders. During the U.S. “war on terror,” regional governments welcomed the enhanced American role, seeing it as way to improve their standing with a superpower and using the guise of counterterrorism to neutralize political opponents.
However, U.S. concerns over human rights abuses and corruption eventually trumped counterterror needs. U.S. relations with Uzbekistan, for instance, were derailed following the Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters in 2005. Washington criticized the regime, and Tashkent kicked the United States off its air base. Likewise, in Kyrgyzstan, two presidential regimes, both of which were ousted in separate popular uprisings in 2005 and 2010, used the U.S. air base at Manas to enrich themselves.
In contrast, the Trump team has a narrow focus on what it sees as the threat from Islamist terror. Mike Flynn, Trump’s National Security advisor, has compared the threat posed by “radical Islam” to that represented by Nazi Germany in World War II. He blasted the Obama administration for failing to embrace “friendly tyrannies” like the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — and current Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — whose local jails are packed to the rafters with “extremists.”
The Trump administration’s close ties with and affinity for Russia could also be a boost for Central Asia. And Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev even broached the topic of improving ties with Moscow during a congratulatory phone call with Trump.
In the past few years, rising geopolitical tension between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine and Syria has been a major worry for regional governments. Western economic sanctions against Russia have indirectly impacted Central Asia, which has sparked a financial crisis in the region. In addition to being an important trading partner and investor in Central Asia, Russia is also a major destination for labor migrants from the region whose remittance flows have shrunk due to Russia’s own economic slowdown.
But Trump still remains an unknown commodity to Central Asian leaders, who — like many Americans — are unsure to what extent the president’s rhetoric will be translated into action.
A litmus test for how far Washington is willing to shift tack in dealing with Central Asia — and autocracies around the world more generally — is a major corruption scandal involving Uzbekistan.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice seized $850 million that was funneled through corrupt deals by Gulnara Karimova, the socialite daughter of Islam Karimov, the longtime dictator of Uzbekistan who died in September. The money was seized through the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, an effort launched in 2010 to confiscate assets of government officials around the world who abuse their influence for personal enrichment.
Karimova is accused of accepting bribes to allow an Amsterdam-based telecom company to enter the Uzbek market. The department is obliged to return assets seized through the initiative to the victimized countries, once a court determines whether other interested parties have valid claims to ownership. Karimova also faces investigations in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland over accusations of bribery and money laundering. The United States was able to file charges because the $850 million in suspected bribes passed through the American financial system on its way to offshore accounts registered in various locales, such as Britain, Hong Kong, Latvia, and Luxembourg.
The big question: will the money be repatriated, given the high levels of corruption within Uzbekistan?
Karimova was once seen as her father’s potential successor before falling from grace in 2014, in what is believed to have been a behind-the-scenes power struggle. While still in favor, Karimova cultivated a glamorous lifestyle as a model, diplomat, and pop singer, where she sang alongside Gérard Depardieu and Julio Iglesias.
Her exploits, however, did little to endear her to the Uzbek people. One leaked U.S. diplomatic cable described her as the “the single most hated person” in the country and a “greedy power hungry individual.” After her falling out, she was placed under house arrest by her father, where she remains today.
The Uzbek government, led by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who formally succeeded Karimova’s father in December, has issued a call for the money to be repatriated back to government coffers in Tashkent. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice told FP that negotiations are still ongoing over whether the sum will be returned.
However, a network of activists and Uzbek dissidents have begun lobbying Washington not to return the money, arguing that would be letting the same officials who facilitated Karimova’s corruption access to the funds. Instead, the group wants the money put into a trust that can be accessed once conditions improve inside Uzbekistan.
“These assets should not be returned to the Uzbek government. The system hasn’t changed, and the money won’t reach any of the people,” Umida Niyazova, director of the Berlin-based NGO Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and one of the activists involved in the campaign, told FP.
But the new Uzbek government has been on a charm offensive with the West, touting piecemeal reforms as a sign of real change. Moreover, Tashkent also still sits astride a U.S. supply route into Afghanistan, which could be used as leverage in negotiations. Activists like Niyazova worry Trump will send the money back to facilitate a broader deal on security cooperation.
“Central Asia should not only be seen as a national security issue,” said Niyazova. “This kind of strategy could hurt the Uzbek people.”
Sanjar Umarov, the founder of Sunshine Uzbekistan, a human rights organization and a former political prisoner under the Karimov regime, shares Niyazova’s concerns. Umarov says that the Trump administration has a unique opportunity to exercise leverage over the Uzbek government by putting human rights at least on par with security.
“There are no success stories of U.S. policy in the region,” said Umarov. “This can be the first one.”
Photo Credit: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images