Has Trump Remade America’s Priorities in Central Asia?

Successive American administrations have issued “strategies” for Central Asia. And when the FILE – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo poses with officials from Central Asia during a meeting of the C5+1 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Feb. 3, 2020.In Nursultan and Tashkent, days before the announcement of the strategy, Pompeo stressed these objectives with leaders and in the C5+1, a platform for dialogue that comprises the five Central Asian countries and Washington. FILE – President Donald Trump meets Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the Oval Office of the White House, May 16, 2018.Meanwhile, he said, Uzbekistan welcomes the United States returning as a factor in its foreign policy because it “gives Tashkent greater wiggle room to balance among bigger powers.” In response, the U.S. State Department points to “programmatic assistance to support local government efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and enhance economic prosperity.” The U.S. strategy also aims to counter extremist ideologies by supporting more resilient societies. The U.S. has invested over $90 million in border security, conducting over 200 training activities and training some 2,600 officers in Central Asia since 1991. Bilateral military and civilian partnership programs, meanwhile, aim to help former jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria and their families to reintegrate into society while strengthening law enforcement and security service capacity. In Afghanistan, Washington hopes to leave stability as it withdraws. Central Asian governments support the peace process, so the U.S. encourages economic and trade links with Afghanistan through separate trilateral dialogues with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Connectivity, a priority that emerged under President George W. Bush, has been given new attention as Washington seeks to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S. is promoting energy, economic, cultural, trade and security measures linking Central Asia to the West by way of Afghanistan and India — with mixed results. Rights and reforms Other U.S. priorities include advancing the rule of law, democratic reforms and human rights. Washington considers pluralism, transparency, justice and an independent judiciary as factors promoting stability. Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch welcomes engagement “on specific human rights issues and with civil society.” But he argues that Trump has diminished America’s standing as a champion of freedom and justice by embracing autocratic leaders, undermining the value of independent media and walking away from key international mechanisms such as the U.N. Human Rights Council.FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev shake hands in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 16, 2018.In time, the U.S. aims to bolster private investment. But officials say that without predictable contracts and reliable enforcement, it will be hard to attract. Akmal Burhanov, director of Uzbekistan’s new Anti-Corruption Agency, is counting on enhanced U.S. support as he pushes for greater transparency, something Mirziyoyev, evoking the pandemic, has called a “vaccine of honesty.” “We’re working with USAID, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, and are in close touch with the U.S. Embassy,” Burhanov said. “So, we connect with American experts and learn from this country’s experience in spreading integrity to counter corruption and abuses of power.” Burhanov believes American assistance is vital as it prepares to launch unprecedented measures, including revenue and tax disclosure for civil servants; conflict-of-interest laws; anti-corruption clearance for legal documents; and greater openness in state procurement. Every Uzbek official VOA talks to welcomes American expertise. 

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