Memoir | Diplomatic tradeoffs in Central Asia
A senior American official describes trying to square two Bush administration priorities: human rights and the Global War on Terror.
This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
Five years into the American war in Afghanistan, after the U.S. had established military bases and supply routes in Central Asia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to move responsibility for the region out of the State Department’s European Affairs Bureau and over to the Bureau of South Asian Affairs.
This was not a popular decision among our Central Asia envoys. They stressed that U.S. policy had long supported a European orientation for these states through their association with trans-Atlantic institutions, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which would, it was hoped, facilitate their development into market-based democracies. The ambassadors emphasized how little the Central Asian states had in common politically, culturally, linguistically and economically with South Asia. The ambassadors also argued that the decision would deeply offend the Central Asians, who would feel they were being lumped together with the South Asians and demoted to “third world” status compared to their “second world” position as former Soviet republics.
As I recall, my colleagues never received a reply. The decision had been made. The office in European Affairs responsible for Central Asia was shifted to the South Asia Bureau where a deputy assistant secretary position was established and the department renamed the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
The rationale behind the move was not just administrative, but part of a grand strategy to encourage north-south trade and economic, political, and security connections between Central and South Asia that would help break Central Asia’s almost total dependency on Russia. The move also aimed to foster Afghanistan’s development as a key regional link rather than as the barrier it had historically presented between Central and South Asia.
The reorganization also aligned with the Defense Department’s earlier decision to move the Central Asian states from the authority of European Command to Central Command and from the Secretary of Defense’s European Policy Bureau to the Asian Policy Bureau. Central Asia had also merged with the South Asia Directorate at the National Security Council.
In early 2008, I was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (DAS) responsible for Central Asia in the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA.) The U.S. policy I inherited as DAS focused mainly on maintaining Central Asian logistical support for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, supporting U.S. energy interests in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, pushing for human rights, especially in Uzbekistan, and encouraging greater trade and border cooperation among the five countries.
Above all, for the Bush National Security Council, the main U.S. priority in Central Asia was to ensure continued, if not enhanced, Central Asian support for the transit routes supplying Afghanistan – the Northern Distribution Network. A major challenge I faced was how to pursue this national security priority in tandem with advancing the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda,” which included promoting “democracy” and responding to human rights concerns without jeopardizing our transit requirements there.
This challenge was most acute in Uzbekistan. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, strongly encouraged by a broad-based collection of human rights organizations, sought to punish Uzbekistan and President Islam Karimov personally for human rights abuses following his heavy-handed response to protests in Andijan in 2005. The Bush administration’s condemnation of Karimov’s handling of the protests, which led to his decision to throw the U.S out of the Karshi-Khanabad air base, raised concerns at the Defense Department that Karimov would shut down the transit route completely if the U.S. were to single out him or Uzbekistan over further human rights abuses.
In short, I faced the classic conundrum of squaring two Bush administration priorities: supporting the Global War on Terror versus pursuing “The Freedom Agenda.” My days as DAS would often entail Defense colleagues shouting at me in one ear while State human rights colleagues shouted in the other.
In the end, I tried to channel the moral outrage over Uzbekistan’s human rights problems into frank, confidential conversations with senior Uzbek officials. I balanced discussing how they could improve their human rights performance, and thereby their image with the U.S. government and Congress, with praising them for their support of American security needs in Afghanistan.
Although human rights groups criticized this quiet diplomacy and urged a policy of naming and shaming Karimov, I doubted such tactics would result in any great success or breakthroughs. In fact, this approach, as it had been applied earlier after Andijan, seemed to elicit the opposite response from Karimov. He grew even more adamant and repressive. Uzbek Foreign Ministry officials would usually advise us not to raise human rights issues directly with the president, lest he launch into a tirade and reject out-of-hand whatever we would ask of him and then refuse to see any future U.S. government visitor.
In meetings, however, Karimov himself would usually raise human rights at the onset and go into a lengthy defense of his policies before turning to other subjects. I must credit our ambassador to Uzbekistan at the time, Dick Norland, an accomplished career officer, for his superb job in Karimov management. Through respectful yet frank discussion he was able to persuade Karimov to release a prisoner here and there, and also maintain his support for the transit corridor. On my first visit to Uzbekistan as DAS, I remember meeting a jubilant Mutabar Tadjibayeva, a prominent human rights activist, who had been released from prison shortly before my arrival, thanks in good measure to Dick Norland’s carefully crafted and timed appeals to Karimov.
Later under the Obama administration, I faced a similar challenge when Kazakhstan assumed the chairmanship of the OSCE and set out to organize a summit meeting in Kazakhstan for OSCE member heads of state. The event would showcase Kazakhstan and its president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who clearly wanted President Obama to attend and become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Central Asia.
Supporting Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship had been a minor ordeal for the Bush administration. Despite opposition within the State Department, my predecessor believed he had negotiated a deal whereby the U.S. would support Kazakhstan’s chairmanship if Kazakhstan would commit to undertake specific steps to liberalize its laws. Kazakhstan subsequently obtained the 2010 chairmanship with our support, but adamantly denied having made any specific commitments to reform.
Now under the Obama administration, the European Bureau, which curated relations with the OSCE, and the Human Rights Bureau, argued that no senior official should attend the summit. They thought it would only serve to embellish Nazarbayev’s image and not advance human rights, a cardinal goal for the U.S. in the OSCE.
My colleagues had a point, and it would have been hard to persuade a rights-oriented president like Obama to attend a summit in remote authoritarian Kazakhstan. However, sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the summit, we thought, had merit, especially to maintain Kazakhstan’s support for our transit routes and show regional powers like Russia and China that the U.S. had serious interests in Central Asia. In the end, despite dueling internal memoranda and long discussions, Secretary Clinton understood what was at stake and, at the last minute, flew to Kazakhstan.
Diplomacy often requires such trade-offs.
Speaking their language
My duties as DAS included making what we called “parish” visits to the region. This meant visiting each capital at least once a year to “touch base” with the host governments and get a feel for the situation in our embassies and in society more broadly, including meeting with civil society representatives and visiting a market or two to get a sense of the economy. Fortunately, I knew most of my government interlocutors from my earlier trips to the region. Those people rarely changed.
I vividly remember my meetings with Turkmenistan’s new president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. They were glad to meet almost any official from Washington, since so few ever travelled to their remote countries, where flight connections were scant and unreliable. Rahmon reminded me very much of his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, also a former state farm director. He was just as blunt, especially in describing for me at great length the psychology of his Uzbek neighbor Karimov (who was, in turn, equally blunt in describing Rahmon to me when I later met Karimov as ambassador).
Berdymukhamedov, on the other hand, was relatively new to power. He was much more circumspect and almost reverential in discussing his neighbors. Since I had been preparing for a possible assignment as ambassador to Turkmenistan before I was appointed DAS, I had studied some Turkmen and was able to deploy my language capability in my first meeting with “Berdy” (as we called him for short). I recall his utter astonishment and pleasure to hear a foreign visitor speak Turkmen, especially after I recited a little poem in Turkmen my instructor helped me compose and which I had memorized.
Using the local language, even if only a few phrases, magically affects host audiences and certainly makes one stand out among most other diplomats. After that encounter, I never had a problem securing a meeting with Berdy, who would tell his entourage: “Here is the only American who speaks our language.” On a later visit to Ashgabat, I had the opportunity to give a public speech and used the occasion to address the crowd in Turkmen. After my first sentence the room erupted in thundering, rhythmic applause. I got the sense the audience probably cared little about what I said. What mattered to them was my effort to say it in Turkmen.
Fear of the bear
As the Bush administration drew to a close, another challenge I faced was dealing with the effects of the worsening relationship between Washington and Moscow in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. Those hostilities shocked and worried the Central Asian governments, but none wanted us to drag them into it by joining our efforts to condemn Russia at the UN and other fora.
Each republic in the region was, after all, highly dependent on Russia for trade and transit. Russia was also a vital source of income, especially in the form of remittances that millions of migrant laborers from Central Asia sent home. The Central Asian leaders would often warn us that the Russian bear, once aroused, can be irrational and dangerous in its rage, especially toward its immediate neighbors. Our sanctions against Russia also worried the Central Asians, who feared the sanctions could affect or be applied to them because of their extensive, economically existential ties to the Russian economy.
Russian reaction to U.S. actions worried us in the South and Central Asia Bureau too; after all, Russia was a key transit state for supplies going to Afghanistan. I spent a lot of time with my European Bureau colleagues trying to ensure our policy toward Russia did not inadvertently damage our vital security interests or our political relationships in Central Asia. Under the circumstances, I was glad Central Asia had been removed from the European Bureau, since the bureaucratic separation helped shield our interests in the region from the European Bureau’s almost single-minded focus on punishing Moscow, regardless of the “collateral” damage to other countries whose support we needed.
A New Silk Road to nowhere
When the Obama administration took office on January 21, 2009, a new cast of policymakers appeared along with a changed organizational structure. As a career officer, I stayed on as deputy assistant secretary. However, my boss, Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher, who was also a career officer, was replaced after a few months by another career officer, Robert Blake, a South Asia hand. At the National Security Council, responsibility for Central Asia was moved into the directorate for Russia, headed by Stanford academic and Obama’s Russia advisor Michael McFaul. I understood McFaul wanted jurisdiction over Central Asia because he had previously worked on Central Asian issues for the National Democratic Institute.
As with many new administrations, one of the first things the Obama administration wanted to do was devise new “strategies” for every region, including Central Asia. It was clear the new administration, like nearly all previous administrations, wanted to differentiate itself from its predecessor. One result was the famous “reset” policy with Russia.
In my experience, policymakers in most administrations find, usually after their first year in office, that they have little time to strategize amid the crisis management that quickly occupies most of their working hours. Ultimately, while the strategies may have juggled priorities, in substance U.S. policy toward Central Asia varied little from the Bush to Obama administrations.
The State Department too came up with a “new” approach to Central Asia, also to demonstrate a break with the way the previous administration had conducted relations in the region. A new structure for maintaining our bilateral relations was established, called annual bilateral consultations, or ABCs. The ABCs were conceived as annual interagency meetings held in alternating capitals with the U.S. side led by our assistant secretary of state.
The idea was in keeping with the Obama administration’s effort to facilitate a whole-of-government approach in our foreign relations to include representatives of all U.S. government agencies with interests in the particular Central Asian country. In the State Department, we called preparing for these ABC’s “the herding of the cats” as we coordinated across multiple agencies and departments. This approach, however, was more a change in form than substance.
As someone who straddled both administrations, I did not detect much change in U.S. policy toward Central Asia or how we conducted our relations. What did change was the amount of time Assistant Secretary Blake could devote to Central Asia. With Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in control of those portfolios, and India policy lodged firmly in the hands of Under Secretary of State William Burns, our Assistant Secretary had ample time for Central Asia. This certainly elevated the level of attention devoted to the region.
Our Bureau also pursued a “new” policy in the first term of the Obama administration called “The New Silk Road” initiative. In essence it renamed and revitalized the Bush administration’s efforts to encourage greater trade, transit and energy links between Central and South Asia to help stabilize and benefit Afghanistan. Secretary Clinton unveiled the initiative in a speech she gave in Chennai, India, which unfortunately meant it had little resonance in Central Asia or anywhere else.
I tried to argue, to no avail, that the initiative was unrealistic in light of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and rising Afghan tensions with Pakistan, which had stymied the previous administration’s efforts. Moreover, the effort was woefully underfunded, especially in contrast to China’s more robust and slickly advertised One Belt, One Road (now the Belt and Road Initiative). Even the name “New Silk Road” was hackneyed. The Central Asians themselves seemed interested in the New Silk Road only so far as each could obtain new funding for their own pet projects and exports, often in competition with each other. By the time I left the Bureau, the New Silk Road was, in my opinion, a road to nowhere.
I stayed in my DAS position until early fall of 2010, after my nomination to be ambassador to Uzbekistan had been sent to the Senate. Highlights during my last few months included helping set up a phone call between Karimov and a reluctant President Obama to obtain enhanced military transit support and facilitating an Obama meeting with Nazarbayev on the margins of a nuclear summit Obama hosted in Washington. (Here, McFaul thought he had obtained specific human rights commitments from the Kazakhstanis as the price for the coveted meeting, but after the meeting, much to McFaul’s chagrin, the Kazakhstanis suffered a serious bout of amnesia.) My term ended, however, almost literally with a bang, as a series of nearly back-to-back crises in Kyrgyzstan absorbed my attention through my final days in office.
The price of Manas
The first crisis was the Kyrgyz decision to close the U.S. base at Manas, a critical link in the logistical chain supporting coalition efforts in Afghanistan. At a joint press conference in Moscow in February 2009, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev publicly promised his beaming Russian host, President Medvedev, to close the base. Medvedev, in turn, announced that Russia would provide Kyrgyzstan over $400 million in economic assistance. Upon Bakiyev’s return to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz government began the formal process to abrogate the base agreement with the U.S.
At first, the State Department leadership was somewhat ambivalent about seeking to reverse the Kyrgyz decision. The base had created numerous problems in the relationship with Kyrgyzstan, especially after a U.S. airman, who was guarding the base entrance, shot and killed a Kyrgyz truck driver, who was delivering goods to the base. Under the Status of Forces Agreement with Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Air Force refused to allow the Kyrgyz authorities to investigate the case and simply offered the deceased’s family a standard monetary compensation. This did not sit well with the Kyrgyz public.
There were other incidents surrounding the base that further soured relations. The Kyrgyz political opposition often accused President Bakiyev and his family of profiting handsomely from the payments the base made for deliveries of aviation fuel and the rent for the base itself. And then there was the obvious problem the base caused with the Russians. They had originally supported a U.S. base after 9/11 but almost a decade later were wondering whether the U.S. military had any intention of leaving the neighborhood and if it was using the base to check Russian influence in Central Asia.
The Defense Department senior leadership also initially hesitated about going back to the Kyrgyz, and was considering alternatives to Manas, but the head of U.S. Central Command at the time, General David Petraeus, made a case for approaching the Kyrgyz. He cited the vital importance of the base to military efforts in Afghanistan and the overall Global War on Terror, which had become for many in the U.S. government, and especially the military, the highest priority in U.S. foreign and security policy. And so, despite skepticism the Kyrgyz would change course after publicly promising Russia that the base would be closed, the Defense and State Departments came up with a bundle of funds. They agreed to offer the Kyrgyz government higher rent for the base plus a structure to provide additional economic support under the aegis of a joint economic commission.
As our embassy in Bishkek had suggested after making discreet feelers to the Kyrgyz, the willingness of the Kyrgyz leadership to receive our negotiating team indicated they were open to, if not eager for, a deal. After all, the Kyrgyz government (and probably its leadership personally) had made millions from the base lease and the sale of aviation fuel. This provided a consistent stream of hard currency compared to the ambiguous “assistance” Russia had offered.
The U.S. negotiating team, led by Ambassador Jackson McDonald, headed off to Bishkek. In a few days, assisted by our ambassador and embassy team, they succeeded in getting the Kyrgyz leadership to accept the enhanced U.S. offer, although the Kyrgyz insisted that the facility now be called a Transit Center, not a base. Upon their return to Washington, the team wondered if they had been negotiating with the Kyrgyz government or the Bakiyev family. Bakiyev’s son Maxim seemed to play a major behind-the-scenes role in the negotiations nominally headed on the Kyrgyz side by the young foreign minister.
U.S. officials were jubilant at the outcome, but Russian reaction was swift and predictable. This led to the second crisis: the ouster of President Bakiyev. Months after the Transit Center agreement was announced, sharp criticism of Bakiyev and stories of his and his family’s corruption sprang up in Russian media. The accusations spilled into Kyrgyz media, stoking demonstrations calling for Bakiyev’s ouster. Bakiyev’s security forces attempted to quell the disturbances by shooting demonstrators, but a concerted effort by protesters to enter the presidential administration building led rapidly to Bakiyev’s precipitous fall and exile.
During Bakiyev’s hurried departure, his extravagantly wealthy son Maxim, who held no official position in the government, was landing in Washington, ostensibly to lead the annual bilateral discussions with the U.S. The talks never took place. Upon hearing his father’s fate, without even leaving Dulles airport, Maxim took an immediate flight out, leaving the bewildered Kyrgyz foreign minister stranded in Washington. (Fortunately, the foreign minister’s brother-in-law happened to be the Kazakhstani ambassador to the U.S., who helped him return home.) Now, with the Bakiyev government out of the picture, we had to establish relations with a new Kyrgyz government under new leadership.
Soon after assuming office, Kyrgyzstan’s interim government under acting president and former opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva began to investigate the allegations of the Bakiyev family’s corruption. This included reports that the family had benefited directly from the lease and fuel contracts associated with the U.S.-run Manas base/transit center. This put the U.S. government and the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek in a difficult position. Although the lease and contracts were negotiated with and approved by the Kyrgyz government, the U.S. did not ask or know where the money actually went once paid into the bank accounts given by the Kyrgyz government. NSC Director McFaul advocated for democracy and transparency and was a friend of Acting President Otunbayeva. He pushed the Pentagon to investigate the contracts and start placing all its contracts on a publicly accessible website to ensure full transparency.
McFaul also hoped Bakiyev’s ouster would allow Kyrgyzstan to strengthen its position as the region’s only “democracy.” Interagency meetings he chaired resulted in a concerted USAID-led effort to “double down” its assistance programs in Kyrgyzstan, ostensibly to “make Kyrgyzstan’s democratic gains irreversible.” Foreign officials and the international circle of democracy-promoters started to descend on Bishkek in great numbers. This overwhelmed the new Kyrgyz government as it struggled to get itself established and taxed our relatively small embassy. We spent a lot of time and effort in Washington assisting our post, sending out additional help and trying to manage the influx of Americans all wanting to help Kyrgyzstan.
Our efforts to build relations with the new government were further hampered by its poor relationship with our embassy. Leaders of the new Kyrgyz government, like Otunbayeva, had previously frequently criticized the embassy for being too close to the Bakiyev government and too aloof from the opposition. After I had received these complaints from the opposition and their friends in Washington, I had suggested to our ambassador that the embassy engage more, albeit discreetly, with the opposition.
The ambassador countered that the main mission of the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan was to maintain the base. The ambassador feared too much contact with the opposition might jeopardize the base with the Bakiyev government, with whom the ambassador had cultivated a close relationship, again to ensure government support for the base. That relationship indeed paid off with the new Transit Center agreement, but unfortunately backfired when Bakiyev fled the country and the opposition assumed control. Otunbayeva made clear to her friends in Washington her opinion of the ambassador. It certainly hurt our ambassador and the mission’s efforts to build a firm relationship with the new government at a critical time.
As the new Kyrgyz government began to get on its feet, the third Kyrgyz crisis struck. I had personally warned both the Kyrgyz government and our government that it was imminent. During my first visit to Kyrgyzstan after Bakiyev’s fall, I travelled to Osh, the largest city in south Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic Uzbeks had long comprised the majority in the city and its environs.
Under the independent Kyrgyz Republic, ethnic Kyrgyz nationalists assumed political control in Osh and began to reduce the Uzbek character of the town and region. This was also true in the city of Jalal-Abad, which had also been the political stronghold of the ousted president Bakiyev. In Osh my Uzbek interlocutors expressed clear anxiety that the local Kyrgyz authorities, particularly the ethnic Kyrgyz mayor of Osh, treated the Uzbek population as a dangerous fifth column who had joined forces with northern Kyrgyz opposition politicians to oust their political protector Bakiyev. My conversation with the brusque and thuggish Osh mayor confirmed that attitude. It was also clear that the new leadership in Bishkek did not control the south, where the regional governor, answerable to Bishkek, clearly played second fiddle to the Osh mayor, who was reputed to control all income flows, licit and illicit, in the city and region.
When I returned to Bishkek, I met with President Otunbayeva and senior members of her government and warned them about the potentially explosive situation in Osh. They reacted rather angrily, insisting that the Uzbek population should assimilate if they wanted to live in the Kyrgyz Republic. The drafter of the new Kyrgyz constitution scoffed at the very idea of translating the document into Uzbek to help Kyrgyzstan’s largest minority understand it. It seemed that for Otunbayeva and her government, democracy meant rule by the ethnic Kyrgyz. All other ethnic groups had to assimilate or accept ethnic Kyrgyz domination if they wanted to live in peace.
After returning to Washington I penned a memo to the State Department leadership describing the situation in Osh as a powder keg waiting to explode. I advocated for a high-level entreaty to Kyrgyzstan’s government to try to prevent such an outcome. Washington’s focus, however, was on helping, not chastising, the new Kyrgyz leadership, especially Otunbayeva, whom senior American policy makers viewed as a stalwart democrat and a friend. (Otunbayeva subsequently received a State Department “Woman of Courage” award, which caused a previous awardee, the Uzbek human rights activist Tadjibayeva, to return hers.)
Within a couple weeks of my visit, Osh exploded. The local Kyrgyz leadership turned its armed police and security forces on the Uzbek population, leaving hundreds dead, raped and injured. Over 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks, largely women and children, fled across the border into Uzbekistan. McFaul, Blake, and the European Union’s Special Representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel flew to Bishkek to counsel Otunbayeva and call for a cessation of the bloodletting. I briefed Secretary Clinton, other senior State Department officials and members of the National Security Council on the situation.
In Kyrgyzstan, Otunbayeva and her government, unable to control the situation in the south, frantically called for the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to intervene militarily to quell the violence. Russian President Medvedev, speaking for the organization and citing the treaty’s obligation not to interfere in the internal affairs of its members, declined the request. Kyrgyz calls for the UN to send peacekeeping forces failed to gain traction before the violence subsided.
In the meantime, Uzbekistan’s President Karimov surprisingly opened Uzbekistan’s tightly sealed border with Kyrgyzstan to accept thousands of terrified Uzbek refugees. He even allowed UN agencies, which Tashkent had previously deemed unacceptable, to establish refugee camps on Uzbek soil. Karimov’s restraint and openness to facilitate humanitarian aid to the victims occasioned a rare call of thanks from Secretary Clinton. Karimov assured Clinton that the last thing Kyrgyzstan and the region needed in this turbulent time was an invasion from Uzbekistan. I recall his words: “Madam Secretary, the presence of one Uzbek soldier on Kyrgyz soil would be a catastrophe.”
After four days of violence and mayhem, the bloodletting in southern Kyrgyzstan ebbed and then stopped. Uzbek neighborhoods and businesses lay in ashes. Inhabitants warily started to return to clean up the mess and bury the dead. Without much warning or consultation, Uzbekistan ordered the refugees on its soil sent back to Kyrgyzstan. The camps closed and the border was again sealed. I suspected Karimov did not want the ethnic Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to infect Uzbekistan’s populous Ferghana Valley with the habits of democracy and free speech, however imperfectly they functioned in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz authorities studiously deflected blame for the violence and focused their efforts on attracting international aid to rebuild Osh. The Kyrgyz government plan was aimed at dispersing Uzbek communities and continuing the policy of assimilation to “solve” Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic problem in the south.
In Washington, Samantha Power and colleagues in the State Department’s War Crimes office called for those responsible for the atrocities to be found and held accountable. Under pressure from the U.S. and EU, the Kyrgyz government reluctantly allowed an international team to compile a report, which the government later criticized and disavowed as one-sided. The government placed blame on the Uzbek community itself. It later prosecuted and sentenced to life imprisonment Uzbek human rights activist Azimjan Askarov for allegedly inciting interethnic violence leading to the death of Kyrgyz policemen. Askarov died last year in prison, despite years of efforts by the U.S. and EU to effect his release. No ethnic Kyrgyz was ever convicted of involvement in the crimes against the Uzbek population.
During the Kyrgyz crises, I had numerous discussions with Russian counterparts in Washington and Moscow aimed at learning Russia’s positions. I hoped we could work together, or at least not at cross purposes, to find ways to ensure stability. I considered working with Russia necessary not only because of Russia’s significant role and influence in the region, but also in view of the importance of Central Asia to Russia’s own security. Despite the Georgia crisis that had negatively affected U.S.-Russia relations at the end of the Bush administration, the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia, along with the fact that Central Asia was no longer under the purview of the State Department’s Russia-wary European Bureau, allowed us to engage the Russians directly.
My Russian counterparts appreciated our efforts to understand their interests, even though one of their aims was to limit U.S. activity and military presence in Central Asia. During one particularly frank conversation at a meeting in Moscow, a senior Russian official showed me a file containing biographical data and assessments on several Kyrgyz political figures and asked me who among them I thought would make a good leader of Kyrgyzstan. Though fascinated by the question, I noted to him that the Kyrgyz should and probably would have the final say, regardless of what we thought. The Kyrgyz may be few and relatively poor, but like many other mountain people, they could be stubborn, willful and fiercely independent despite the odds against them.
I also spoke frequently with EU Special Representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel, an experienced French diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow. I would often catch him on his cell phone as he was boarding a train in Brussels or getting into or out of a taxi in Paris. He tried his best, despite the EU’s cumbersome bureaucracy and convoluted decision-making process, to rein in rabid Kyrgyz nationalists and urge Otunbayeva to take a more constructive approach to the ethnic Uzbek population in her country.
In the end, I would say that time, rather than any specific diplomatic efforts, settled the immediate situation in Kyrgyzstan. It did not, however, solve the underlying problems that led to the violence in the first place. As I had experienced many years before during my service in India, when I witnessed massacres of Sikhs in Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, societies with deep ethnic and religious tensions tend to explode, often unexpectedly. They descend into spasms of horrible violence that then die down like a fire deprived of oxygen, but leave smoldering embers of resentment ready to flare again in the future without warning.
George Krol was deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs from 2008 to 2010. He later served as ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Part 1 in this series is available here.
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