Beyond Pipelines: the West's Central Asian challenge

If the world did change after 9/11, the post-Soviet states of Central Asia seem to be the main beneficiaries.

The Western world is beginning to lose out economically by over-emphasizing this "war against terror." We are discouraging bold but necessary foreign investment. We are allowing some, like those mentioned above, to maintain some form of grip over countries that should be of extreme interest to us, enabling local regimes themselves to justify their frequently repressive policies towards their citizens and stay in power, at least unreformed. The "war against terror" should be directed, privately, by western intelligence agencies, but cease being beamed live, around the world, on CNN or Fox News 24-hours a day. It is a strategy of foolishness. This foolishness is reflected in Central Asia. Every attempt, on my part, to direct the conversation towards democracy, liberalization and privatization is punctuated with the refrain that it is impossible because they are fighting their own "war against terror." Yet, in my opinion, the only persons that are rendering themselves vulnerable to terror in Central Asia are the authorities themselves. By providing no secular alternative, what remains?

Only by adjusting the language will investment be assured, excuses crushed and influence assured. Central Asia's youth is desirous for change, but those that could, albeit gradually, engineer new mentalities are currently being molded into a familiar robotic nomenklatura. As hundreds of their countries' brightest fly off to western universities, some never to return, or at least for long, a concerted effort is not being undertaken to encourage Western higher education institutions to enter these virgin markets. A career in the civil service is still largely determined by education at selected state academies. While, without question, sincere, these local institutions will only contribute to maintaining the old language and dialogue, without guaranteeing new and more refreshing stimulation. Thus, beyond the institutional framework, much work will have to be expended, constantly engaging - through overseas invitations - senior members of these countries' Foreign Service to enable this language and dialogue to be adjusted in order to enable their younger members to be more courageous and bold in their own contributions. Until this is tackled, it will be naïve to expect the creation of democratic and liberal societies.

The danger is that we can continue to convince ourselves that we have, these past twelve months, established permanent footholds in Central Asia. Though military bases have their value, they only contribute to dialogues of (military) capabilities and mutually dependent friendships. Military cooperation cannot emphasize processes of democratization and liberalization.

While the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe continues its thankless task in Central Asia, these five countries remain excluded from membership of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe, away from the media razzmatazz, continues its sterling work in, particularly, the "European" countries of the CIS (without forgetting its earlier achievements in Central Europe). However, to date, it has chosen not to extend its benevolent tentacles into the far more challenging but vital countries of Central Asia. While this policy of caution has, perhaps, been explained by the need to complete the jigsaw of Central Europe (only Belarus and Serbia and Montenegro remain), the United States should not remain aloof from the imperative of encouraging Central Asia's eligibility. Time, for now, should not be wasted endeavoring to admit four of the five states, but concentration should certainly be expended on Kyrgyzstan. If Kyrgyzstan were to inch closer to membership, I suspect Kazakhstan and Tajikistan would follow; but first of all, they have to be entitled and, if they are in Europe for the purposes of the OSCE, then they can be in Europe for the purposes of the Council of Europe.

These are defining years for the Western alliance. The next fifteen years will either determine whether the period after 1989 was just a brief space between the emergence of a multipolar (not bipolar!) world, or whether the gains of the past decade can be cemented. This is an opportunity that we must not squander, but we will have to be much more subtle to realize it.

Tim Potier is the executive director of the European Rim Policy and Investment Council ( This article is based on his observations after an extended visit to Central Asia.

(1) See, for example, the debate over Central Asia between Andrew Bacevich and Charles Fairbanks in the Summer 2002 issue of The National Interest.