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Central Asia, US at New Diplomatic Crossroads - 2001-11-15

Is the United States moving into Central Asia, as Russia moves out? That is the question Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution pondered at a recent meeting in Washington.

Speaking at a conference organized by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, she said Russia is now bogged down in a war in Chechnya and lacks the resources to be more assertive in Central Asia. The United States has temporary use of bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but could stay longer if it becomes involved in establishing a postwar government in Afghanistan.

There are opportunities and dangers in the U.S. presence, said Fiona Hill. On the one hand, the United States could prod the authoritarian Uzbek government to allow more freedom, or, it could wind up assisting state security organs, a move that could in turn aid the Uzbek crackdown on its opponents. While Uzbekistan and the other central Asia nations have achieved independence from the former Soviet Union, they have not escaped the system. The power structures remain. "We have seen the state assets transferred into the hands of networks of elites that have really evolved out of the old communist elites," says Ms. Hill. "The entrenchment of old-style Soviet leaders has constrained the development of a new generation of leaders and really blocked opposition political parties from presenting themselves as viable alternatives."

The central Asian economies are weak with high unemployment, said Fiona Hill. Authorities have erected barriers to cross-border trade, though disease and drugs have no trouble crossing. More and more people are falling below the poverty line. There is a sense of impending crisis and a siege mentality. "The government in Tajikistan is in complete disarray," she says. "It only rules the area around Dushanbe (the capital). Is the United States going to get engageded in nation-building in Tajikistan? If that is the case, what does that mean for the relationship with Russia, which provides security for Tajikistan?"

Fiona Hill said this question probably did not come up at the Bush-Putin summit and will be deferred to a later day.

Lisa Coll of the Eurasia Foundation said Tajikistan differs from other countries of the region in its decentralization. A weak central government has led to strong local control. "In doing anything in Turkmenistan, an approval comes from one person, and in Uzbekistan as well, all the decision-making comes out of Tashkent," said Ms. Coll. "My sense in Tajikistan is that the local governments have a lot more power over decision-making."

Fiona Hill said a healthy spirit of public debate is emerging in Tajikistan that is not to be found elsewhere in the region. In coming to Tajikistan's aid, she warns the United States should not favor the central government at the expense of local bodies. Effective government is commonly thought to be central government, she said, but in the case of Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, that may not be true.

As the United States deals with Central Asia, said Fiona Hill, it should stay clear of politics and aid the eager entrepreneurs who could transform the region.