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Instability, Lack of Civil Society Handicap Central Asia

(Washington, DC--November 21, 2001) The United States should not lose sight of the dangers posed by political instability and the lack of a civil society while strengthening its ties to three Central Asian allies, two experts on the region told an RFE/RL audience last week.

Fiona Hill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Studies Program, addressed political and security concerns in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan while Lisa Coll, the former director of the Eurasia Foundation's Tashkent Regional Office, discussed the state of civil society in those three countries.

Hill said that, despite five years of limited U.S. military assistance to Uzbekistan, the stationing of American troops there now will not resolve underlying tensions in the region, where Uzbekistan has sought to position itself as a major regional player--and alternative to Russia. The introduction of U.S. troops has also changed the dynamic in Tajikistan, where a government weakened after years of civil war--the area it controls is limited to the territory around Dushanbe--relies on Russian troops to patrol its borders.

Hill noted that prospects for democracy are weak throughout Central Asia, where strong vertical power structures "legitimized" through manipulated elections exist; the pool of elites is rooted in formerly Soviet structures; populations live in sharply declining economic, educational and health conditions; and corrupt political leaders are isolated from public life. Hill said that 80 percent of the people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan live below the poverty line, while revenues from sales of energy could eventually make Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan quite prosperous.

Coll said that civil society initiatives in Central Asia encounter public distrust and hostility from government officials. While non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in Tajikistan flourish in a laissez-faire climate, the Uzbek government has failed to facilitate development of a stable civil society by blocking political participation of domestic opposition and religious groups and co-opting many local NGOs. In Turkmenistan, Coll described a government that has much in common with that of North Korea.

Both Hill and Coll indicated that the densely populated and impoverished Ferghana Valley--home to the Taliban-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (now the Islamic Party of Turkestan) and the social justice party Hezb-e Tahrir--will remain a source for regional instability.