Donald Lu, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, says the Biden administration is committed to strategic partnerships, aims to invest in Central Asian sovereignty and independence, and understands why balancing policies toward Russia is rational for Central Asian interests.
But amid unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, Washington has urged Tashkent to “pursue a full, credible and transparent investigation” into a spate of violence on July 1 and 2, in which Tashkent officially killed more than 18 people. 500 arrests were reported, and nearly 250 injuries.
Karakalpaks say they have taken to the streets to oppose constitutional changes that would deprive them of sovereignty and secession rights. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has since vowed not to take such steps without Karakalpaks’ blessing. His government has pledged to uphold the laws and freedoms while maintaining security under emergency measures.
The State Department called on the authorities to “protect fundamental rights, including peaceful assembly and expression, in accordance with Uzbekistan’s international obligations and obligations.”
Lu also said in an interview with VOA that Washington prioritizes human rights and democracy along with cooperation against terrorism.
He said Washington knows that Central Asian economies are suffering from US sanctions against Russia, with food and fuel prices rising and migrant workers being forced home. Lu reaffirmed licenses to ensure the Caspian Petroleum Consortium and Kazakhstan’s oil industry is immune to sanctions, “because the last thing we want to do is hurt the region’s oil and gas industry.”
But two Kazakhstan-based Russian banks and an Uzbek firm were punished, accused of helping Russia. “We want those Russian banks to be sold, so they become Kazakh banks,” Lu said.
He conceded that Central Asians have deep ties with Russia and, while claiming to be neutral towards Ukraine, have complex partnerships with Moscow, which invaded Ukraine in February. But regional decision-makers tell VOA they also want balanced relations with the West.
Lu, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, said it was “a rational policy … to take the best of Moscow, Beijing, Washington, Brussels and Ankara.”
And he stressed the continuity of US policy towards Central Asia after last year’s administrative change in Washington.
“We do not stand against Russia or China, but believe in independent, sovereign and prosperous Central Asian countries that respect their democratic institutions, human rights and civil society,” he said.
In recent visits to Washington, some Central Asian officials have told VOA that the State Department and Pentagon have been more respectful of their concerns than in recent years. And since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan last year, experts say, the region has been dictating its own trajectory.
Lu agreed that “Central Asian states show great leadership in telling us what they want from this relationship,” adding that America is committed to fighting terrorism, including the training and equipment of Central Asian police, military and especially border security forces.
Many analysts believe the US is still focused primarily on security cooperation while democracy and rights are given a back seat. Lu disagreed, pointing to Washington’s stance on unrest in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, where dozens were killed in a recent central government crackdown on protesters.
“We are concerned that civil society is being swept away in this attempt to contain anti-government forces and media freedom is being restricted there,” he said. “There must be a distinction between those who are imprisoned and prosecuted for anti-government, violent activities and those who are legal civil society, free media.”
Lu claimed to have seen “some pretty spectacular movement in recent years” about human rights in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, for example, “none of us would have believed that the government could eliminate 100% of forced labor since 2016.”
And following violence in Kazakhstan in January, Lu said: “There is some progress towards strengthening parliament, reducing the powers of the president, strengthening the human rights ombudsman and providing more legitimacy for the independent judiciary. ”
Lu did not deny that America’s partners in the region are autocrats, including Emomali Rahmon, who has led Tajikistan since 1994, making him the region’s longest-serving president.
Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev is striving for constitutional changes that will enable him to remain in power until 2040.
“We support the reform agenda. The things that are publicly announced that they want to do, we absolutely support it. The truth will be shown to the people of this region based on the actions taken by their government,” Lu said. said.
He added that Washington wanted real accountability for January’s violence and human rights abuses in Kazakhstan and “a fair and transparent process of accountability in the court system.”
In Uzbekistan, Lu highlighted problems in registering civic and religious organizations.
He noted that only two countries in the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, criminalize homosexuality: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Biden administration hopes to see some progress.
“I think the mentality is changing, changing people’s views,” he said. “Eventually, governments will change, too.”
“Even in the United States, we have not perfected our democracy,” he said. “We recognize that democracy is not easy. These countries are only 30 years old. They cannot be expected to have the same characteristics of many old democracies. They are going to have a form of democracy that suits their country.
“And we want to be a supportive, good partner who helps spread the values of Central Asian people – not my values, not the values of foreigners, but values that are intrinsic to this region. I believe Central Asians is in their core democracies. ”
Yet many Central Asians express deep cynicism towards America, blaming it for failures in Afghanistan and accusing it of pressuring Russia to attack Ukraine. It may reflect Russian propaganda, but even those who are US-sympathetic question its commitment.
“We are very far away,” Lu said, and Moscow, Beijing and Ankara “feel much closer.”
“People are a little worried about whether their countries will survive in the next few decades … We believe that these are countries that should exist forever as countries, as people, and we are looking to invest in sovereignty and independence from Central Asia. ”