Woody Allen is reputed to have quipped that “90% of life is showing up”. This is not a bad starting point in looking at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit last week to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan (no comment on the visit to London). No US Secretary of State had visited Belarus in 26 years; and in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in five years. Rex Tillerson was last US Secretary of State to visit Ukraine in July 2017. So let’s give Pompeo credit for at least showing up in these countries to try to advance US interests.
He brought no deliverables to Ukraine, and in Belarus he made a dubious offer of supplying all of Belarus’s oil supplies to replace those from Russia. It is true that Belarus has a dispute over the price of oil with Moscow, but it is very hard to believe that Russian supplies could be beaten on cost by US, or frankly any other supplier. Lukashenko appears to be trying to use the US to strengthen his bargaining position with Moscow. There is nothing wrong with this, but I am skeptical that the Kremlin sees this as a credible threat. And speaking of showing up, Pompeo did promise to send an ambassador to Minsk for the first time since 2008 which is good. While he is at it, naming a new ambassador to our embassy in Kyiv would be very useful as it has been vacant since Ambassador Yovanovitch was recalled last May. The not too subtle message to both Belarus was that the United States stands to support each country’s sovereignty in the face of threats from Russia. How credible that is viewed in Minsk and Kyiv is an open question.
Not surprisingly, in Pompeo’s visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the main message was to resist greater economic and political engagement with China (this as a major focus of the visit to London also). In Uzbekistan, Pompeo also cautioned about the Eurasian Economic Union as the Tashkent leadership is deliberating this question. He boasted that both countries would be far better off engaging with US companies. That may well be true, but outside of the energy sector in Kazakhstan, much of the US private sector remains critical of the investment environment in both countries. US companies have options around the world to invest, so the onus is really on the countries’ themselves. Uzbekistan after mainly putting up barriers to international investment for more than 25 years is opening up and trying to make reforms to make the investment environment more attractive. This is a noble desire, but it will take years to make significant progress. Rightly the US Government is very supportive and cautiously hopeful about reform in Uzbekistan. But coming to Tashkent with his main deliverable a promise of $1 million to provide technical support for the reform of capital markets, I am afraid that even in Tashkent Pompeo could hear the chuckling in Beijing and Moscow.
Much of US policy towards Central Asia, although not directly stated in the new State Department strategy paper, revolves around resisting “malign external actors”, an obvious nod to China and Russia. None of the Central Asian states is naïve about dealing with their giant neighbors Russia and China. Their strategies may differ over time, but our hectoring about the dangers of Russia and China is rather condescending, and when Washington comes with rather meager offerings, our image is not enhanced by elites nor by the public. I recall in 2014 visiting a former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan whom I had known for 20 years, and the first thing he said was “Andy, can you please tell your friends at the State Department to stop telling me not to join the Eurasian Customs Union? A constructive relationship with Russia is not an option for us, it is a necessity. And by the way, not one major US company has made a significant investment since our independence in 1991.” As the old saying goes, “Money talks…” and you know the rest.
We cannot compete with Russia and China in this part of the world. Nor should we cast so much of our rhetoric and policy in negative terms admonishing them what they should not do. In fact, quoting an old song, “We should accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…” There are very important achievements of US policy in the region. The institution I currently lead, the American University of Central Asia located in Bishkek is likely the most successful US supported project in this part of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should focus on things that the US can do that others cannot, or at least not as well. I think the biggest challenge all of these countries face is building the human capital to effectively compete in the global market place as well as address the challenges of climate change to sustainable development and social stability.
Finally, and the reader already realizes I am not an objective observer, it was a mistake for Pompeo not to visit Kyrgyzstan, especially after the imposition of a partial travel ban here. Kyrgyzstan is not short on various governance deficiencies as well as disputes with Washington, but nobody can dispute the fact that this small mountainous country embraces US values of democracy and freedom far more than any of its neighbors.