The United States has been quietly deepening relationships in Central Asia, but in the process is embracing two authoritarian, lifetime presidents who don’t have great records on human rights. The State Department has repeatedly criticized both for those records and for their generally harsh treatment of domestic opponents.
In carrying out a policy that began during the George W. Bush administration, President Obama appears to be rewarding the dictatorial leaders of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for their short-term assistance in Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism. At the same time, Washington seems to be seeking potential long-term footholds in these two countries, which are adjacent to Russia, China and Iran.
While there clearly are realpolitik reasons for the United States to temporarily ally itself with regimes that are so anti-democratic in nature, similar past relationships since the Cold War have led to sticky situations. Our nation has been dragged into protecting similar leaders against their domestic opposition groups, some of which where seeking more freedom and honest government.
The State Department’s latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011 described Kazakhstan as restricting “freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and lack of an independent judiciary and due process, especially in dealing with pervasive corruption and law enforcement and judicial abuse.” It also referred to “arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner torture” and a long list of other abuses.
The Turkmenistan record in the State Department report was similar.
“The three most important human rights problems were arbitrary arrest, torture, and disregard for civil liberties including restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement,” the report said of Turkmenistan. It added that other problems included “citizens’ inability to change their government; denial of due process and fair trial; arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence; discrimination and violence against women; and restrictions on the free association of workers,” plus, “officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government acted with impunity.”
Back in the Cold War days such leaders labeled their opposition groups communists. These days they call them terrorists or al Qaeda-linked jihadists.
As with other countries facing such threats, the United States is providing both countries with military and other assistance.
For fiscal 2013, the Obama administration is seeking for Kazakhstan some $1.5 million for anti-terrorism and nonproliferation programs, $1.8 million to finance military purchases and $707,000 worth of training for its military in the United States.
For Turkmenistan in the same fiscal period, the White House is seeking $685,000 for military purchases and $350,000 for that country’s military to be trained in the United States. In 2011 it received $1.7 million for anti-terrorism programs.
The sums do not appear significant compared with other countries, but even their token size allows the two dictators, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, to claim to their people that they have the Obama administration’s endorsement.
Two reports released this month on Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan by the Congressional Research Service described in detail how both manipulated elections to remain in power.
If nothing else, Washington’s apparent support clouds the democratic values message that the United States is trying to send around the world. In addition, as if to show their independence, both countries carry on trade with Iran despite the Washington-led economic sanctions meant to pressure Tehran to halt its nuclear program.
In June, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev talked of stepping up the $1 billion in trade and economic cooperation with Tehran after he met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. He said, “We are ready to expand trade ties with the Islamic republic of Iran and regarding the two countries’ capacities, it is necessary to increase the value of trade.”
After a two-day, July meeting in Tehran that included a session with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Turkmenistan Foreign Minister Rasit Meredow described Iran as the “closest and best neighbor” of his country. He added that relations would never be influenced by “marginal issues” such as sanctions. According to the same report, Iran’s Salehi said his country was ready to increase trade with Turkmenistan from $5 billion in 2011 to $10 billion, with much of it coming from natural gas sales.
The United States has pressured India, China and other countries to reduce trade with Iran, particularly in oil and gas. What about Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan?
I have watched the U.S. presence in the region grow since March 2007, when I first read and wrote about Adm. William Fallon, then head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), describing Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan as the future American forward military base in Central Asia. He was justifying funds to construct new, semi-permanent facilities there and described Bagram as “the centerpiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia.”
The next month Fallon told a House Appropriations subcommittee, “We would envision, and this is already with the agreement of the Afghan government, that this place would be the enduring facility . . . within that country by which we would provide continuing support to that nation, and hopefully be able to use that facility for other things in the region.”
The new agreement with Afghanistan, which allows a continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, has made certain that the extensive facilities for U.S. aircraft and personnel will continue to be at Bagram and available, using Adm. Fallon’s words, “for other things in the region.”
Let’s hope those “other things” don’t include military operations to keep in power Washington’s current “allies,” such as the current rulers in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.