A decade of Western support to make Central Asia’s frontiers more secure and open for trade has achieved little because of widespread corruption and a lack of political will, a new report says. Instead, the aid seems to have whet local regimes’ appetites for handouts, as they try to leverage their proximity to Afghanistan.
The aid projects are run by a variety of donors whose ability to coordinate is a success story, according to the report, titled “Central Asia’s Border Woes and the Impact of International Assistance.” It was published June 6 by the Open Society Foundations. [Editor's note: EurasiaNet.org under OSF’s auspices.]
The report details how the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, United Nations, European Union and United States have collaborated to train thousands of border guards, build barracks and bridges at remote border crossings, and set up state-of-the-art equipment to help keep drugs and extremists out of the region. All this was intended to facilitate trade. But the report also shows how border crossings are plagued by constant petty corruption and donor-funded facilities have fallen into disrepair as recipients fail to take care of them. Entry points that have gotten aid “can often be difficult to distinguish […] from those that have not” in terms of the quality of their operations, says the report. Another disheartening but predictable phenomenon has been Central Asian states’ emphasis on national interests over regional cooperation -- for example, Uzbekistan’s persistence in strangling cross-border trade with neighboring Tajikistan, partly due to the two countries’ rivalry over water resources.
“Central Asian governments are adroit at absorbing aid without putting it to the use donors intended,” says the report. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for instance, sophisticated, “multi-million dollar truck x-rays and radiation detectors [to interdict smuggling of nuclear materials] given to border authorities languish unused.”
“Ultimately, the Central Asian republics got quite a windfall with border assistance,” author George Gavrilis told EurasiaNet.org. “They got refurbished border crossings, high-tech equipment, brick and mortar training academies, remote outposts, training. But it remains unclear how all this aid has improved the functioning of borders across the region.”
At the same time, Gavrilis praised donors’ ability to construct border posts in difficult, remote regions, “even if the states have not done their fair share to maintain the facilities.”
The report covers all five Central Asian republics, but clearly Tajikistan – with its long, porous Afghan border and thriving drug trade – is the West’s biggest concern in the region. Tajik officials have “little incentive to police their borders” due to the lucrative transit of Afghan opiates across the country – a business “valued at $2 billion per year.” This trade “monetizes the Tajik economy and rivals the economic impact of other sectors and industries,” while “giving both central and provincial officials access to revenue,” says the report. “The Tajik border services are a crucial part of the equation and are, as a number of international and Tajik officials and experts maintain, part of the conduit that allows drugs access and protected passage into Tajik territory.”
Another key factor in the Central Asian border dynamic has been the conflict in Afghanistan. The region’s former Soviet republics have been key strategic partners in the US-led military effort, providing transit and other cooperation. These regimes “see their proximity to Afghanistan as a windfall, an opportunity to reap further benefits and aid from international donors without meeting aid conditions,” says the report. They justify this by exaggerating the threat emanating from Afghanistan: “While the rhetoric of Taliban-driven extremism infecting Central Asia has been plentiful, the threat of spillover remains remote.”
Uzbekistan – “the region’s most aggressive border policeman” – has shown no interest in facilitating border trade and routinely breaks related promises. But as long as the country remains crucial to the Northern Distribution Network, NATO’s vital Eurasian transport route to and from Afghanistan, the United States and European Union are unlikely to exert significant pressure on Tashkent to reform. Uzbekistan and neighboring Turkmenistan have been so intransigent, in fact, that the report recommends assistance to the two be stopped: “Their participation is an act of window-dressing intended to show that they are cooperative and multilateral. In reality, they have no intention of moving away from their closed-borders policies.”
The upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose new dangers: “It is in this transition where we run a huge risk—that international and Western aid will transfer even more security-sector aid to Central Asia, increase the leverage of the authoritarian regimes there, and in the process have little to show for it,” said Gavrilis, who is the director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue.
In a worst-case scenario, Gavrilis sees not a problem of “cross-border extremism but rather of closed borders”: “Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will continue to have closed-borders policies and strangle trade in the region while other states, like Kazakhstan, follow suit,” he said.
“The best-case scenario is that border management in Central Asia will become a bit more systematic and predictable. Civilians and entrepreneurs will still have to pay bribes and deal with unpredictable regulations in crossing a border, but the bribe will be less onerous and the closures less frequent,” Gavrilis said. “The bar is low.”