Saturday, September 24, 2011

Central Asia at the UN

Alas, it is that time of the year when world leaders flock to New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) annual high level meeting. The September event is one of the only opportunities for heads of states, from America to Zimbabwe, to gather in the same space, at the same time to engage in an inclusive dialogue and debate on the status of the international order and future issues to be addressed.

Granted, the annual spectacle also showcases the diversity in sanity, perspective and personal charisma of the world's leaders, from Ahmadinejad to Qaddafi and Chavez. Foreign Policy Magazine has a fantastic photo essay "When They Were Kings," highlighting some memorable UN General Assembly speeches. The FP feature excludes some great historical moments, such as when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the delegate desk at the 902nd UNGA in 1960, protesting the speech by the delegate from the Philippines.

Charismatic, comedic leaders aside, the UNGA meeting crystallizes the numerous challenges and diversity of interests in the international community. Leaders know that what they say at the UNGA bears considerable weight. They have the ear of literally the entire international community. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.

The speeches by Central Asian leaders illustrate cross-cutting themes of concerns for regional security and infrastructure and economic development. President Nazarbayev discussed the need for increased cyber-security. Domestically, Kazakhstan aggressively combats cyber-threats and has banned many blogs including Blogger, WordPress and LiveJournal.  In fact, I did not have access to The Sholk Road Adventures site the entire time I was in Kazakhstan. Prior to my departure, I set up Blogger so that I could email in my blog posts. The government is concerned about the role of blogs as a source of extremist information that promulgates radical and potentially destabilizing information. These worries are not entirely unjustified, especially following the "Arab Spring." Members of the April 6th movement in Egypt collaborated with organizers of the nonviolent Serbian youth movement, as documented in a PBS Frontline documentary.  The Kazakh government is implementing additional cyber-security measures. A new government regulation introduced in June requiring websites to have servers in Kazakhstan prompted Google to withdraw their operations in the country. Now, Google searches in Kazakhstan are routed through Kazakhstan is not the only state concerned about the internet as a source of instability. Uzbekistan recently launched a state-controlled social networking site to supplant Facebook.

Central Asia received other special attention at the UN. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with President Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan to discuss regional issues and continued support for the UN Regional Centre for Preventative Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA). Security is the most important issue facing Central Asia. For more details and analysis, please read an article I co-authored in Central Asian Newswire on Central Asia in the Age of Global Terrorism.

In his speech to the UNGA, the Turkmen President highlighted the importance of investing in infrastructure and energy development. I recently wrote an article for Central Asian Newswire on the need to increase regional infrastructure networks and was pleased to see the President address this issue at the UNGA.

I hope that the rhetoric at the UN materializes in efficient and effective policies and is not forgotten in the coffers of history as yet another ignored call to action.  But in light of the debate on Palestinian statehood and the focus on the Middle East, I am not holding my breath hoping for Central Asia.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Transportation Networks in Central Asia

Greetings Comrades! My sincere apologies for the lack of posts the past two weeks. I have been busy with the beginning of fall semester.

I really enjoy all of my classes, two of which are on Central Asia. The first, "Central Asian Security Issues" is taught by Daniel K. Burghart, who has a wealth of on-the-ground experience in the region. For the first week, we read the first 120 pages of Daniel Hopkirk's "The Great Game," which was a real thrill. Hopkirk brilliantly captures the mystery of the steppe people and the challenges faced by European explorers during the 19th century. My second Central Asian class is a history course taught by Erik R. Scott, a post-doctoral candidate specializing in the Caucuses and Central Asia.

Last week, we were discussing nomadic pastoralism and the various steppe empires throughout history. I had quite a thrill in class last week when Professor Scott put up a picture of Yasawi's Mausoleum in Turkestan as an example of Timurid architecture and the contribution of Islamic scholarship in the region. While I was the only one in class who had visited Turkestan, another girl spent three weeks in Uzbekistan and had visited Samarqand and Bukhara, the bastions of Timurid architecture. Interestingly, she commented that the sites were incredible, but most of the tile work was restored during the 20th century. In Turkestan, the restoration efforts left much to be desired.

Finally, please read my new piece in Central Asian Newswire, "Transportation Networks are Expanding in Central Asia!" Thanks!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Celebrating Twenty Years of Independence

During the fall of 1991, the world witnessed the collapse of the world’s last great empire, the Soviet Union. One by one, beginning with the Baltic States and ending with Kazakhstan, the fifteen republics voluntarily seceded from the union. Today, September 1, 2011, marks twenty years of independence for Uzbekistan, while Kyrgyzstan celebrated its independence yesterday, Tajikistan celebrates on September 9th, Turkmenistan on October 27th, and Kazakhstan, the last republic to secede, on December 16th.

Twenty years following the fall of the “evil empire,” the triumph of capitalism over communism, and the inauguration of a “new world order,” does the reality on the ground reflect the academic theory and diplomatic rhetoric? Is life really better for the people of Central Asia?

These questions are too big to answer in one blog post and I will spend the next few weeks exploring this question. For now, I will make the argument that generally for the people of Central Asia, life is better in 2011 than in 1991. The region’s economies are transitioning to a free-market system. In Uzbekistan, 2011 is the year of small businesses and entrepreneurship.  Kazakhstan, an ardent supporter of free trade, is in a customs union with Russia and Belarus. While Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian state with full WTO membership, all of the CARs belong to the UN, and retain either full or observer status in the SCO, CSTO, CIS, and WCO, among other IGOs. In 2010, Kazakhstan marked a turning point in its diplomatic history, serving as chairman of the OSCE.

I gained a fresh perspective on the true meaning of twenty years of independence for the CARs over the summer in Kazakhstan. While dining on manti, baursak and chai, in an Uzbek choikhana with my Kazakh friend, we discussed the country’s politics and role in international relations. My Kazakh friend commented how Western states over-exaggerate Kazakhstan’s “oppressive” regime. “The people in the West do not understand how far Kazakhstan has come since independence. One of my earliest childhood memories was waiting in line for bread. Today, you can easily walk into any store and buy food.”

She makes a valid point. While the Central Asian regimes may not uphold freedom of press, speech and organization, certainly Kazakhstan has made remarkable progress in providing basic services to its people. When compared to Somalia, the crystallization of a weak and failing state where thousands of people die everyday from starvation, or Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, where hundreds are imprisoned for political crimes and live in a constant state of starvation, the CARs appear relatively well off. Sure, the CARs have their problems, as all countries do. When people have food to eat, which is really all that matters on a day-to-day basis.

To their credit, the Central Asian states, with an exception of Tajikistan during the civil war, have managed to maintain their statehood, as defined by Max Weber as an entity that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a given territory. While there are continuing, almost intractable conflicts, such as the recurring clashes in the Ferghana valley, the June 2010 violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan and the porous Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, the fact that the Central Asian regimes have preserved their statehood as defined by Weber, as Machiavellian as the region’s leaders governing techniques may be, deserves to be noted.

Twenty years of independence, the Central Asian republics are secure in their statehood. Their people can eat without waiting in line for hours and their government officials can participate in the international system. Bravo.