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 Google.ru. 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.

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