The price of Central Asia's resources

As the war against the al-Qaeda shifts its focus to Yemen — the ancestral place of the man who has become the face of the events following 9/11 — what does the future hold for Afghanistan and the region? Are the spin doctors in Washington looking for exit strategies from Afghanistan or is the threat from Yemen as serious as it was perceived from Afghanistan in the last quarter of the last century?

Even as the Taliban’s offensive resurges in different parts of the country the ‘war against terror’ is turning to new allies with the opening up of Central Asian routes for NATO supplies being the latest in such partnerships. And yet, 30 years since the Afghan mujahideen took on the military might of the Kremlin in 1979 — and even though the war between these two sides and a host of other non-state actors ended 10 years later — the violence is yet to.

Not only did the Red Army withdraw vanquished from Afghanistan but watching the Caucasus and Central Asian states take their destinies into their own hands as they threw off the yoke of the restwhile USSR held much promise for the western countries engaged in the region. Two decades later their democratic development appears to have hit a roadblock.

Despotic states
Even as the fledgling Afghan democracy’s struggle with issues of governance continues to remain in the news many fear that the Central Asian Republics (CAR) have suffered as a consequence with little or no attention focused on them. From the repression of women’s rights and media freedoms, the abundance of arms and the nexus between criminal and terror networks Central Asia today is largely seen as a collection of despotic states displaying varying degrees of oppression.

Their own political histories and social structures have meant that for many of the people in these countries, the western concept and forms of  democracy are not only alien to them but their own lack of experience with pluralism or free media have manifested in a weak resistance, if any at all, to their authoritarian regimes.
Thus, even as its more infamous neighbour, Afghanistan, struggles to form and function through democratic tools the decay in the existent ones among its Central Asian neighbours is difficult to ignore. Even countries like Kyrgyzstan, that were once the rare democratic examples for other CARs in the midst of established tyrannical regimes have collapsed into the same state.

Uzbekistan has been consistently listed by rights groups among the world’s most repressive countries ever since it gained independence in 1991. Less than six months after the Afghan elections it is Uzbekistan’s turn to vote for parliamentary elections — to compete for 150 seats in the lower house of the country’s bicameral legislature.
Ironically, there are no opposition parties taking part in the elections and the ‘democratic’ choice to the voters is between four parties that back the country’s authoritarian regime. These are the elections that President Karimov describes as “a step in the larger democratisation process.”

Like in Afghanistan, here too the western governments have stayed away from the controversy as Uzbekistan agreed to allow non-military supplies to pass through its territory, a possibly vital supply route for the Afghan conflict. Subsequently, even the European Union lifted the last of the sanctions imposed against the country in 2005 in response then to the Uzbek government’s brutal crackdown on protestors killing hundreds of people.

Even as most of the wars sponsored by the United States have been waged on the question of human rights and democracy, yet quite ironically, it is these very issues that have been shelved with regard to the CARs for the more critical conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And even as these countries become new allies their far from democratic leaders have used this to their advantage as Washington has consistently had more lenient rules of democratic engagement for its allies, Pakistan being a prime example.
Not surprising then that as long as the West’s realpolitik is engaged with the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq and new energy sources remain a critical concern the resultant policies might continue to claim their price by sacrificing democratic values and human rights issues in Central Asia.

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