Washington — The top U.S. diplomat to Central and South Asia says the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have embraced the New Silk Road initiative that seeks to forge closer economic links among them and with Afghanistan, and he and U.S. lawmakers say improved democracy and human rights will also help to bring greater stability and prosperity to the region.
Speaking July 24 before the Europe and Eurasia Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said all five countries “understand that they stand to benefit a great deal from this” New Silk Road initiative, but he said “there's still a lot of work to be done” to put it into effect.
The initiative would restore Afghanistan to its historic position as a regional crossroads in a new network of economic and trade connections that would bring greater economic stability to the country and its neighbors. U.S. officials have said that to implement the New Silk Road, countries in the region need to upgrade facilities at border crossings, remove bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the free flow of goods and people, and eliminate outdated trade policies.
The Obama administration is working toward a future in which “the United States and the countries of Central Asia are partners for peace, security, economic development, democracy and prosperity. We envision a region where goods and services flow easily and efficiently between the Central Asian countries, Afghanistan and South Asia,” Blake said.
He also praised the Asian Development Bank’s efforts to promote regional integration through its Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program, which is working on transport, trade facilitation and energy cooperation.
“The ADB is doing the really hard work of figuring out how to reduce things like delays at border crossings, how to reduce corruption, how to really tackle some of the most difficult issues that … are huge impediments right now to regional economic integration,” he said, adding that the work “has our strong support.”
Democracy is an essential ingredient for Central Asia’s stability and prosperity, and along with its support for civil society in the region, the Obama administration is having a “very frank and open dialogue with the governments about the changes that we think need to be made,” Blake said. Specifically, he called for allowing more freedoms for civil society, the press and worship.
“These are things they shouldn't do because of the United States, but these are things that are in their own interests,” he said, since they would help to attract more business and foreign investment.
The assistant secretary thanked members of the subcommittee and its chairman, Representative Dan Burton, for leading one of the largest-ever U.S. congressional delegations to the region earlier in July, saying, “The length of time you spent there and the very large number of high-level meetings that you had really did help to advance our relations.”
He also thanked Burton and his colleagues for delivering both supportive messages and “tough messages on the need for greater respect for human rights” to their hosts.
In his opening remarks, Burton said the United States has a strategic interest in seeing the countries of Central Asia develop as “sovereign, democratic, economically free states in Central Asia,” and he called for the United States to have a dialogue with the people and leaders of the region along practical lines that emphasize that “the American experience, sovereignty, economic freedom and democracy are not simply moral values, but essential components of stability and prosperity, both of which are so highly prized throughout that region.”
Burton noted that the five countries have been independent only since 1991, but said they were “remarkable in their ability to grow so fast after the 21 years.”
Central Asia’s leaders seek stability and prosperity, but they need to see the connection between reaching those goals with allowing their citizens greater democracy and human rights, Burton said.
“A democratic society that respects fundamental human rights is not simply a moral value, but a lasting foundation for stability and prosperity. Such a society ensures stability by protecting the rights of all citizens, including ethnic and religious minorities, and by providing a forum for discussion and dissent through a free media and an open political process. Such a society also fosters prosperity by providing a transparent legal environment in which one can build a successful business. It also helps by creating a culture of creativity that values innovation,” Burton said.