Donald Lu, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, says the Biden administration is committed to strategic partnerships, aims to invest in Central Asian sovereignty and independence, and understands why policies of balance toward Russia are rational for Central Asian interests.
But amid unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, Washington has urged Tashkent “to pursue a full, credible, and transparent investigation” into a wave of violence on July 1 and 2, in which Tashkent officially reported 18 deaths, more than 500 arrests, and nearly 250 injuries.
Karakalpaks say they took to the streets to oppose constitutional changes that would deprive them of sovereignty and secession rights. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has since promised not to take any such steps without Karakalpaks’ blessing. His government has pledged to uphold the laws and freedoms while maintaining security under emergency measures.
The State Department called on the authorities to protect “fundamental rights, including peaceful assembly and expression, in line with Uzbekistan’s international obligations and commitments.”
In an interview with VOA, Lu also said Washington prioritizes human rights and democracy alongside counterterrorism cooperation.
He said Washington knows Central Asian economies are suffering because of U.S. sanctions on Russia, with food and fuel prices rising and migrant workers forced home. Lu confirmed licenses to ensure the Caspian Petroleum Consortium and Kazakhstan’s oil industry are immune from sanctions, “because the last thing we want to do is hurt the oil and gas industry of this region.”
But two Kazakhstan-based Russian banks and an Uzbek firm have been sanctioned, accused of aiding Russia. “We want those Russian banks sold, so they become Kazakh banks,” Lu said.
He conceded that Central Asians have deep ties with Russia and, while claiming to be neutral on Ukraine, have complex partnerships with Moscow, which invaded Ukraine in February. But regional decision makers tell VOA they also want balanced relationships with the West.
Lu, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, said that is “a rational policy … to take the best from Moscow, Beijing, Washington, Brussels and Ankara.”
And he stressed continuity in U.S. policy toward Central Asia following last year’s change of administration in Washington.
“We’re not standing against Russia or China but believe in independent, sovereign and prosperous Central Asian countries that respect their democratic institutions, human rights, and civil society,” he said.
In recent visits to Washington, some Central Asian officials told VOA that the State Department and Pentagon have been more deferential to their concerns than in past years. And since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan last year, say experts, the region is dictating its own trajectory.
Lu agreed that “Central Asian states show great leadership in telling us what they want from this relationship,” adding that America is committed to counterterrorism, including the training and equipping of Central Asian police, military, and especially border security forces.
Many analysts believe the U.S. is still mainly focused on security cooperation while democracy and rights take a back seat. Lu disagreed, pointing to Washington’s position on turmoil in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, where dozens were killed in a recent central government crackdown on protesters.
“We’re concerned that civil society is being swept up in this effort to contain anti-government forces and media freedom is being limited there,” he said. “There needs to be a distinction between those who should be captured and prosecuted for anti-government, violent activity and those who are legitimate civil society, free media.”
Lu claimed to see “some pretty spectacular movement in recent years” on human rights in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, for instance, “none of us would have believed that since 2016, the government could have stamped out 100% of forced labor.”
And after violence in Kazakhstan in January, Lu said, “Some real progress towards strengthening of the parliament, reducing the powers of the president, strengthening the human rights ombudsman, and providing more legitimacy for the independent judiciary.”
Lu did not deny that America’s partners in the region are autocrats, including Emomali Rahmon, who has led Tajikistan since 1994, currently making him the region’s longest-serving president.
Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev is pursuing constitutional changes that will make him eligible to remain in power until 2040.
“We support the reform agenda. The things that are publicly announced that they want to do, we absolutely support that. The truth will be shown to the people of this region based on the actions taken by their government,” Lu said.
He added that Washington wants real accountability for January’s violence and human rights abuses in Kazakhstan and “a fair and transparent process of accountability in the court system.”
In Uzbekistan, Lu highlighted problems in registering civil society organizations and religious organizations.
He noted that only two countries in the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, criminalize homosexuality: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Biden administration hopes to see some progress.
“I think the mentality is changing, people’s views are changing,” he said. “Eventually governments will change as well.”
“Even in the United States, we haven’t perfected our democracy,” he said. “We recognize that democracy is not easy. These countries are only 30 years old. They can’t be expected to have all the same trappings of very old democracies. They’re going to have a form of democracy that suits their country.
“And we want to be a supportive, good partner that helps to spread the values of Central Asian people — not my values, not the values of foreigners, but values that are intrinsic to this region. I believe Central Asians are at their core democrats.”
Yet many Central Asians express deep cynicism toward America, blaming it for failures in Afghanistan and accusing it of pushing Russia to attack Ukraine. That may reflect Russian propaganda but even those sympathetic to the U.S. question its commitment.
“We are very far away,” Lu said, and Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara “feel much closer.”
“People are a little concerned about whether their countries will survive into the next few decades. … We believe that these are countries that should exist forever as countries, as people, and we look to invest in the sovereignty and independence of Central Asia.”