Why the sudden concern for Central Asia rights abuses?

Rivalry with Russia over trade with energy rich Central Asian republics explains US and EU silence over human rights.

Uzbek human-rights activists during a rally in favour of detained Uzbek human-rights defenders in front of the European Commission building in Brussels in 2011 [AFP]
Uzbek human-rights activists at a rally in favour of detained Uzbek human-rights defenders in Brussels in 2011 [AFP]

In post-Ukraine mode, the European Union and United States are sharpening their efforts to address the human rights situation in Central Asia as the region becomes a new front-line in the fight against militant Islamism and a new border for the rivalry between Russia and the West in their new Cold War games. The US and its allies are changing their policy on Central Asia as Russia begins to close the doors.

The US has finalised a review of its interagency policy for Central Asia, and the EU foreign ministers will be discussing their upgraded strategy in a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, with both paying special attention to human rights. Details of the new plans are sketchy but what has been confirmed by all international rights groups is that over the past decade, the EU/US policies of “dialogue” and “bilateral engagement” have done almost nothing to affect the behaviour of Central Asian autocratic rulers or improve the situation on the ground.                                              

With the exception of Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, the other Central Asian presidents have been in power for over 25 years. They all stand accused of having tampered extensively with the electoral procedures and constitution of their republics, and have used indiscriminate brutality against opposition, often amassing personal wealth in one of the poorest regions of the world.

Human rights abuses

Putin edges towards Eurasian Union

Yet because of the overwhelming energy and security interests in the region, little has been said publicly by US or EU officials in criticism of the human rights records of these leaders.

The British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who had the courage to criticise Uzbekistan’s rights record, lost his job in 2004, and was allegedly discredited by the British Foreign Office. Murray spoke about the “prevalence of torture in Uzbekistan prisons” highlighting a case in which two men were boiled to death.

Only a few weeks ago, Amnesty International reported how the head of Uzbekistan’s Human Rights Defenders, Elena Urlaeva, was detained by police and subjected to “two invasive vaginal and anal exams, and other deeply humiliating treatment”.

Uzbekistan may be one of the worst offenders but it is by no means unique. Similar cases have been documented in all of the five republics. The question is if nothing has been said or done in the past decade, what lies behind a new surge of interest on human rights?

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have the world’s largest gas reserves, Kazakhstan sits on the largest oil wells of the Caspian Sea, and Tajikistan is rich with water resources and remains the main corridor to Afghanistan.


“Obviously, what Russia is doing in Ukraine is cause for concern for the countries of Central Asia,” said Richard Hoagland, the US deputy assistant secretary for Central Asian affairs. “And Russian propaganda blanketing the region is presenting a skewed and anti-American/anti-European interpretation of events.”

Crossroads of global commerce

Rivalry with Russia over trade with the energy rich republics of Central Asia explains the silence. The EU’s first Central Asia Strategy was put together in 2007 in the aftermath of the first Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute that led to supplies being cut off in January 2006.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have amongst the world’s largest gas reserves, Kazakhstan sits on the largest oil wells of the Caspian Sea, and Tajikistan is rich with water resources and remains the main corridor to Afghanistan.

Both the US and EU see Central Asia as a crossroads of global commerce and want to be involved in projects which would build regional energy networks meant to ease the transit of gas, oil, and hydro power from Central Asia, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and into the European markets. Yet, their overall economic and security strategy has failed to impress the Central Asian leaders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed with his ambitions plans for a Russian-centred integration that includes both economic and security dimensions.

Their shared concerns over the rising threat of extremism in northern Afghanistan has brought the Russian and Central Asian leaders together in regional meetings where Putin has pledged additional military and economic support.

Actions and reactions

At the same time, Russia and NATO have been holding rival combat readiness exercises reminiscent of the Cold War era. Russia recently announced it was adding 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles into service this year. NATO called Russia’s decision “sabre-rattling” and announced it would have 5,000 troops deployed to Eastern Europe.

Units from NATO allied countries take part in exercises [Reuters]
Units from NATO allied countries take part in exercises [Reuters]

Recent research in the West portrays the post-Ukraine Russian president as intensifying his older policies of “anti-Western nationalism, increased defence expenditure, and the pursuit of hegemony over as much of the post-Soviet space as possible”.

If the rival rapid reaction deployment is the military face of the new Cold War games, sharpening the rhetoric on human rights could be regarded as the soft power aspect of the same, designed to annoy Russia which regards these Central Asian countries as its southern borders.

Central Asian leaders would reject this change in rhetoric as a reminder of the colour revolutions of the 1990s which they blamed on the West.

And for ordinary Central Asians, who have suffered in silence for over two decades, the words from the West could sound hollow and be regarded as simply too little, too late.

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.