There was a surprise element in the US State Department announcement on July 16 in Washington that its 2014 Human Rights Defender Award goes to a jailed Kyrgyz activist, Azimjam Askaraov. Indeed, the US decision to pick a row with Kyrgyzstan, of all the five “Stans” of Central Asia, is surprising because that country is, relatively speaking, the least authoritarian and repressive of the regimes in the region.

Without doubt, Washington feels emboldened to move up the human rights issue from the backburner now that the US is no longer beholden to the “Stans” to provide the Northern Distribution Network for supplying the American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

All the same, Washington’s focus on the human rights issue at the present juncture is intriguing when the regional security is in great flux and Central Asia is gearing up to face the spill over from Afghanistan. The Tajik President Imomali Rahmon warned only last week that the “Stans” are facing their biggest ever security challenge since they emerged as independent states.

Unsurprisingly, the Kyrgyz government lost no time to condemn the US state department’s move as “creating a threat to civil peace and stability in society”. Furthermore, Bishkek signaled that it might be compelled to renounce the 1993 bilateral treaty between Kyrgyzstan and the US (which grants diplomatic immunity to all American aid workers deployed in Kyrgyzstan.)

Washington promptly warned that any move to abrogate the 1993 treaty could threaten the US-funded aid programs in Kyrgyzstan. An impression becomes unavoidable that Washington and Bishkek are acting and reacting according to some script.

From what one can make out, the Kyrgyz authorities probably suspect that the US aid workers are involved in some sort of covert activities and want them to leave and Washington would have got wind of it in advance.

Curiously, on July 16, Kyrgyz security forces killed six alleged Islamic State [IS] terrorists and detained five others in two shootouts in the capital city of Bishkek. Four Kyrgyz security personnel were wounded in the encounter, which lasted for over an hour. The Kyrgyz authorities have since said in a statement that the terrorists were planning to attack the Russian military base in Kant.

The Bishkek bazaar is full of rumors that the IS has made its appearance in the steppes as the geopolitical tool of the US in the great game in Central Asia.

But then, why would Kyrgyzstan become eligible as a “frontline state” in the great game in Central Asia? One reason could be that the country genuinely qualifies to be a battleground for influence for the big powers. Kyrgyzstan was once in the US orbit (following the “Tulip revolution” and the regime change in 2005), and although it is now regarded as an ally of Russia and has joined the Eurasia Economic Union [EEU], there are still enduring pockets of US influence in that country among the so-called “civil society” and the NGOs, which makes it also the weakest link within the EEU (and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.)

Of course, Kyrgyzstan’s geography is highly strategic. It extends into the Ferghana Valley, which is a hotbed of radical Islamist ideology, and it also shares a border with China’s Xinjiang province. In fact, there is a sizeable Uighur diaspora living in Kyrgyzstan.

To be sure, the loss of influence in Central Asia in the recent decade has prompted Washington to reset the compass of US diplomacy towards the region. In Central Asia, there is no crowbar more lethal than the human rights issue to put pressure on the authoritarian regimes in the region.

The human rights issue has popular resonance, and by championing it, the US can project itself to be on “the right side of history – unlike Russia or China.

The first signs of this tactical shift in the US’ Central Asia diplomacy became available in a speech made by Robert Berschinski, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the US State Department. Speaking at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington a month ago in a testimony titled as “Civil and Political Rights in Uzbekistan and Central Asia”, Berschinski gave a gloomy picture of the human rights record of the Central Asian regimes, going to the extraordinary extent of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the re-election recently of the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Nurusultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov.

Berschinski brought in a compelling argument that the human rights situation in Central Asia impacts international security insofar as the absence of religious freedom and a democratic opposition actually engender the rise of extremist groups in the region.

Berschinski later fleshed out this idea in another speech titled “The Role of Youth, Women, Religious Groups, and Civil Society in Preventing Violent Extremism”, which he delivered at the Central Asia and South Asia Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism at Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 30, just a fortnight before the announcement of the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Defender Award.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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