If we look at United States foreign policy through the prism of Russia, then Central Asia definitely comes into the reckoning, especially as President-elect Donald Trump seems determined to reboot the US-Russian relationship.
Central Asian leaders appear genuinely cheered by Trump’s election victory and his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he is expected to meet soon after taking office — an event they believe could lead to visits to the region.
It seems Trump has no problems with dictators.
His former foreign policy adviser Carter Page said in Moscow recently that the US has had an “often-hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in its dealings with Russia, China and Central Asia.
Page added that “Washington had missed opportunities to work with leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping because it had ignored principles of ‘respect, equality and mutual benefit.’”
These words are music to the ears of the regimes in Central Asia’s five republics, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Democratization is not going to become a headache for Trump. He is an entrepreneur and instead will focus on economic cooperation.
This is exactly how China operates in the region. Beijing has been successful in its dealings with Central Asia involving security and economic cooperation because it does not bring a political agenda to the table. As a result, Central Asian leaders feel comfortable as there is no pressure.
But the most important factor is Trump’s regular praise for Putin, since Russia has so much influence over the region through economic and political blocs, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Taking this Russian influence into account and the fact that the Russian media been has never been so over the moon with a US president-elect, Central Asia’s leaders are inclined to have the same feel-good expectations of Trump.
Over the past five years, Putin has strengthened Russia’s foothold in the region through the SCO and the EEU and by successfully dealing with political issues. In 2012, the Kremlin put pressure on Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambaev that eventually forced the United States to close its air force base in the country.
It is odd how Trump continually compliments brutal dictators. Apart from Putin, who is for him a “strong leader,” Trump even praised Iraq’s Saddam Hussein for being good at fighting terrorism and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for his leadership skills. He said of Kim: “If you look at North Korea, this guy, I mean, he’s like a maniac, okay? But he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible.”
Trump made numerous statements during his campaign that raised doubts about his commitment to fundamental democratic principles like press freedom, judicial independence, the rule of law, and the rights of women and minorities.
It is clear he prefers authoritarian methods over democracy, which is why human rights organizations, for the first time in recent history, feel at odds with the United States. Freedom House, for example, has urged Trump to protect “freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, judicial independence, the rule of law, and the promotion and protection of the rights of minorities and women, so that the United States can be an example of democracy at its best.”
Apart from Kyrgyzstan, the other Central Asian countries have no experience of democratic elections, with their Presidents-for-life usually becoming irritated by US demands to embrace democratic processes.
Their poor human rights records are constantly criticized in US State Department reports and by American NGOs. Now these long- serving dictators feel are likely to feel they are about to be given some respite under a Trump presidency.
The Central Asian rulers are well-known for their narcissistic behavior, while their paranoia has no limits.
Just last month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev had his face put on the new 10,000 tenge (US$30) banknote, while Tajikistan celebrated “President’s Day” on November 16, an official national holiday introduced by President Emomali Rahmon this year for people to celebrate his achievements. He also recently brought in a law that carries a jail term for people who criticize him.
In Uzbekistan, interim leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev won a crushing presidential election victory earlier in December, but people expect little change from the previous authoritarian regime of the late Islam Karimov, while, Turkenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has a reputation for running one of the world’s most repressive countries.
If Trump disregards fundamental values such as human rights and democracy, the US will stop being an example for such dictators, allowing them to thrive with impunity.