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Central Asia & Caucasus: Obama Administration Adopts Moderate Assistance Stance

The Obama administration is embracing austerity when it comes to providing economic assistance to the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Many states in the region will see their assistances levels remain unchanged, under the administration's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries that have emerged as important conduits for resupplying US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, may even see aid levels fall slightly.

A year ago, the United States decided to nearly double the amount of aid given to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a gesture aimed at strengthening them and making them more reliable partners in the fight against Islamic radicalism. Since then, the importance of the Afghanistan mission has only grown in the eyes of US officials, with an additional 30,000 US troops committed to the fight. Yet, even though the Obama administration's rhetoric in justifying the aid to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan remains strong, aid packages for the two Central Asian states are slated to be smaller next fiscal year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Kyrgyzstan would receive $40.3 million in economic aid in fiscal year 2011, as opposed to $46 million in the current fiscal year. Tajikistan's aid is set to decline slightly, from $42.5 million this year to $41.5 million next year. Military aid, too, is falling: Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Military Financing money (which funds purchases of military equipment) will drop from $3.5 million to $2.4 million, while Tajikistan's will drop from $1.5 million to $1.2 million.

"Central Asia remains alarmingly fragile; a lack of economic opportunity and weak democratic institutions foster conditions where corruption is endemic, and where Islamic extremism and drug trafficking can thrive. Because good relations with the United States in this region play an important role in supporting our military and civilian efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, the FY 2011 request prioritizes assistance for the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan," said the budget documents, released by the White House in early February.

Aid to both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would promote counter-narcotics efforts and health and education programs. Aid to Tajikistan would also focus on border security and combating extremism as well as food security, including programs to deal with "water shortages, inadequate supplies of seeds and fertilizer, a lack of modern technologies, and poor livestock care," according to the documents.

Kyrgyzstan's assistance package would also focus on anti-corruption programs, and its agricultural aid will focus on "improved land usage, increased access to inputs, rationalized irrigation, and facilitation of the use of modern technologies."

Aid to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would remain unchanged over the next year, and Turkmenistan's aid package would decline from $12.5 million to $10 million, under the administration's proposed budget. The figures are still subject to revision by Congress before it is implemented.

In the Caucasus, aid to Azerbaijan and Armenia would stay the same, while Georgia's aid (excluding the special $1 billion in assistance that Washington made available following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war) would increase by almost $10 million, to $68.7 million. Its Foreign Military Financing would remain the same at $16 million, the third-largest package in Europe and the former Soviet Union, behind only Poland and Romania.

The aid increase for Tbilisi "will continue longer-term efforts to support Georgia's stability and recovery from the August 2008 conflict with Russia. US programs will help strengthen the separation of powers, develop a more vibrant civil society and political plurality, bolster independent media and public access to information, enable economic recovery, increase energy security, and continue to improve social sector reforms," the budget documents said.

The budget request shows that the Obama administration "views Central Asia first and foremost as a region of failing states, rather than of countries in transition to democracy," a "pretense" the Bush administration maintained until it left office, said Scott Radnitz, a Central Asia expert at the University of Washington.

"However, the relatively low amounts of assistance budgeted for the region in 2011, especially for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the scattershot nature of the proposed projects, suggest the administration has not settled on a strategy for states that show dire warning signs but do not pose an immediate threat to US security," he added. "The danger is that if we neglect a country with warning signs for too long, problems may fester until we are compelled to give it our full attention, like Yemen last December."

Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Central Asia & Caucasus: Obama Administration Adopts Moderate Assistance Stance

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