As Russian forces pound Ukraine, the United States has raced to reassure Ukraine’s neighbors and cajole skeptical governments to support the embattled country. The U.S. message for states in Central Asia and the Caucuses is a familiar one: the United States supports “their sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated in a Feb. 28 tweet. While this message — crafted in the 1990s and regularly trotted out since then — may have new salience as Russia threatens the very existence of another former Soviet republic, it long ago lost its value as an organizing principle for U.S. policy in a region that has changed dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Yet, as Eurasian governments have dug deeper into corruption and authoritarianism, the United States essentially continues directly and indirectly supporting the region’s kleptocrats and autocrats by touting their reforms and bolstering their repressive apparatuses. To draw a direct line between American support for a repressive regime and potentially serious human rights abuses, look no further than the Kazakhstani government’s problematic response to the January 2022 protests over fuel prices. After protests escalated into violence, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on his security forces to “shoot to kill without warning.” Among the deployed forces was the KAZBAT unit, a regular recipient of U.S. training in peacekeeping tactics. That same unit was rebuked for wearing blue U.N. peacekeeping helmets during a domestic security operation, a violation of U.N. policy that troops may only display the organization’s insignia while carrying out official U.N. tasks. While the United States condemned President Tokayev’s order and urged restraint, the U.S.-trained unit’s involvement illustrates how even targeted and well-intentioned security assistance played a role in the Kazakhstani government’s crackdown.
The severe repression, and the United States’ willingness to provide rhetorical and material support to authoritarians, are remarkably similar in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yet a region increasingly able to chart its own path and changes in the geopolitical environment offer an opportunity for the United States to recalibrate its engagement with Eurasia. The Biden administration’s anti-corruption and democracy agendas, and a renewed focus on meeting human needs, are just what is needed.
Welcoming Newly Independent States as Repression Deepens
The United States was among the first to recognize the independence of Eurasian states in the 1990s, earning it considerable goodwill in the Soviet Union’s aftermath. In those early years, U.S. policy prioritized state sovereignty due to fears Eurasian governments would collapse or reemerge as Moscow’s vassals. While these countries’ connections with Russia remain strong, fears of a Russian takeover have largely subsided as China began challenging Russia’s preeminence in the region, and as Eurasian governments have generally pursued balanced relations with the great powers.
Yet, rather than abandoning efforts to support abusive Eurasian governments, the United States doubled down on this strategy, contributing to the further entrenchment of repression in the region. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States even increased bilateral security assistance to these same regimes, and generally held its tongue when abuses came to light in exchange for Eurasian governments’ cooperation with the United States’ “war on terror.” More recently, the Trump administration bolstered the United States’ so-called strategic partnerships with Uzbekistan, after the death of its longtime dictator, and Kazakhstan, in recognition of cooperation in security and other areas.
In a recent report, “Oppression by Design,” Freedom Now (where I serve as advocacy director) details the abusive governance systems that persist in five Eurasian countries – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – highlighting the patterns of repression and corruption that have proliferated across the region. Authoritarian leaders in Eurasia have cemented their control by manipulating their justice and law-enforcement systems, often accumulating tremendous wealth for their families and friends along the way. Among common abuses are endemic torture, violations of the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and criminalization of homosexuality. Specious claims of extremism and terrorism, such as those made recently during the protests in Kazakhstan, have been widely weaponized to eviscerate the media, political opposition, and civil society.
As authoritarianism has advanced, the United States has regularly praised Kazakhstan and its neighbors for their would-be progress, despite evidence that change has been modest and little of their much–touted reform programs are actually implemented. Last year, just months after Uzbekistan held an election in which no opposition candidates were allowed to participate, the State Department congratulated Uzbekistan on its “bold reforms,” among them the release some political prisoners (the number of remaining political prisoners is difficult to determine) and steps toward economic liberalization. Members of Congress have also joined in the questionable praise, giving Eurasian governments the acknowledgement they crave most.
U.S. government officials often assert that concerns about human rights and democracy are repeatedly raised in private, to avoid embarrassing counterparts or out of diplomatic decorum. But when the United States and other governments praise publicly and criticize privately, they make it easier for authoritarian governments to craft a narrative of progress without having to address the rot at the core of their governance structures.
The United States is providing more than praise. It also sends significant amounts of bilateral assistance to the region, 46 percent of which has been concentrated in the security sector, the very sector responsible for much of the region’s repression. As with Kazakhstan, such assistance, including sales of materiel, joint exercises, and training is fungible, and can directly or indirectly empower the repressive systems of the region’s authoritarians.
To be sure, the United States does not deny the rights abuse, corruption, and authoritarian policies of these countries. Yet, these concerns are often hidden in dense reports or heavily parsed diplomatic statements, and never seem to rise to the level of a foreign policy priority. What instability in Kazakhstan laid bare is that, by accepting and parroting empty pledges time and again, the United States perpetuates authoritarians’ false narratives and the abuses they obscure, undermining not only human rights but also the sovereignty and stability at the center of U.S. policy in the region.
Charting a New Path in a Changed Geopolitical Environment in Eurasia
Eurasian governments are unlikely to cede their independence to Russia, China, or any other power, as the United States once feared. Indeed, they have developed complex and overlapping bilateral and multilateral relationships, thanks in part to U.S. diplomatic engagement over the years. As the United States comes to terms with a decreased physical presence in the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it must also recognize that its capacity to influence security and economic developments in the region is limited. This decreased influence helps explain why Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan largely refused U.S. entreaties for support after its departure from Afghanistan. While decreased influence in Eurasia can be seen as a failure, the United States remains a major regional player, one that is now less encumbered by other policy priorities in the region. It still has considerable sway with governments and publics in the region, enabling the United States to pursue a more honest policy, oriented around the Eurasia region and the needs of its people.
Across Eurasia, the U.S. has prioritized security assistance over other areas. Data from Foreign Aid Explorer, U.S. Agency for International Development, available at https://foreignassistance.gov.
First, the Biden administration must dispense with the assistance that has empowered abusive governments or bolstered their reputations. The administration’s prioritization of addressing corruption and advancing democracy and human rights in U.S. national security and foreign policy is a good start, but these principles must be put into practice in the region. To that end, the Biden administration should revisit the United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025, which tragically continues tired policies that have contributed to the human rights crisis in the region. In line with the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the Central Asia strategy should be reoriented to address the systems contributing to the region’s serious human rights crisis, poverty, and inequality, and holding Eurasian governments accountable for their abuses.
The United States should pursue a more candid relationship with countries in the region, one which reflects the values of human rights and democracy the United States professes. This requires calibrating rhetoric to the reality on the ground, not “reform” ruses largely used to deflect criticism. As meaningful improvements to wellbeing, human rights, and democratic governance are realized – Uzbekistan’s progress in ending forced labor is a notable recent example – the United States should acknowledge and welcome them. But recent experience shows that congratulations upon the announcement of supposed reform programs are usually premature, especially as reform is dragged out indefinitely with no meaningful progress in years. International approval and high-level engagements are often an end in themselves when Eurasian governments pledge reform, and can be used to bolster repressive leaders’ reputations at home and abroad — and heighten their sense of impunity. In order to avoid participating in the reputation laundering, the United States should mete out reputation-boosting accolades sparingly and only when reform is palpable on the ground. The U.S. government also should share its concerns about human rights and democracy directly with the public, rather than just behind closed doors.
The U.S. government also has work to do at home to hold Eurasian authoritarians accountable and protect itself from their malign influence. The United States should aggressively pursue and expand efforts to crack down on authoritarians and their enablers who exploit Western financial systems to launder, store, or enjoy their ill-gotten wealth. Sanctions on Eurasian officials and authoritarian enablers, who, with the exception of Ukrainians and Russians, have been largely spared over the years, must be a part of the U.S. toolbox. With Eurasian leaders reportedly pocketing billions in wealth from their countries, there is plenty of work to do. The Justice Department’s new KleptoCapture Task Force, an interagency law enforcement task force dedicated to enforcing U.S. sanctions, is the kind of whole-of-government approach needed to clamp down on the U.S. system aiding kleptocracy abroad. Such efforts should be expanded to hold Eurasian leaders accountable for their plundering of their nations.
Finally, the United States should double down on efforts to support the region’s people, while avoiding assistance which directly or indirectly bolsters authoritarian governments. This can be done through humanitarian assistance, support for human rights and democracy, and economic development for the private sector and small businesses in those countries. Such assistance will be especially necessary as hardship increases in Eurasia as a result of the spillover effect of sanctions against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine. U.S. financial support should flow to the independent media and civil society that are so essential to democratic development; to fuller participation in the high-tech economy; and to the region’s poverty, water, and other humanitarian challenges. Any support to governments should be calibrated to ensure it does not bolster their capacity for repression or serve as reputation-bolstering glamour projects. Finally, financial assistance to governments must be conditioned upon real reforms and upheld commitments. Eurasian governments must understand that unkept promises have consequences.
The United States has a valuable opportunity to help the people of Eurasia emerge from the shadow of the Soviet Union’s legacy. It cannot do that if it shuts its eyes to the reality on the ground or bolsters authoritarians at the expense of the people they govern.