Back to event page

The Atlantic Council of the United States

Twenty Years of Kazakhstan Independence

Looking Back: Kazakhstan’s First Twenty Years

Ariel Cohen,
Senior Research Fellow,
Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy,
Heritage Foundation

John Herbst,
Center for Complex Operations,
National Defense University

Larry Napper,
Senior Lecturer and Director,
Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs

Martha Brill Olcott,
Senior Associate,
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Location: Washington, D.C.

Date: Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Transcript by
Federal News Service
Washington, D.C.

ARIEL COHEN: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Everybody hear me? Yes? My name is Ariel Cohen; I’m a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Thank you, the Atlantic Council, for organizing this excellent conference and inviting us. I think that focusing on Eurasia in this town is both necessary and sometimes unthankful. But the quality of this conference will provide thanks to the council.

Twenty years since independence raises some fundamental questions in case of Kazakhstan and other new – newly independent states of Eurasia. How do you create a nation? What does it mean to achieve, accomplish and implement independence? We all know what the baseline was. The baseline was the post-Soviet collapse and the lack of experience of independent nationhood in Kazakhstan and most other countries of Eurasia.

The challenges were enormous. It was getting rid of the legacy of Soviet style of governance: top down, totalitarian or late authoritarian. It was getting rid of the skewed economic structure that was heavily tilted towards the military-industrial complex. We heard from the witnesses to history, from General Scowcroft and others, about nuclear disarmament.

And while the Kazakh nation existed for hundreds of years, the Russian-speaking population did not feel any loyalty to the newly established country. How do you create the national cohesiveness in a situation like that? How do you develop the tremendous hydrocarbon reserves which were deliberately neglected in the Soviet era in favor of West Siberia? How do you build a unique model of culturally predominantly Muslim and at the same time secular country that values education and culture?

To address all that, we have a terrific panel. Starting to my extreme left is the Honorable Larry Napper, senior lecturer and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and former ambassador to the Republic of Kazakhstan. Larry, I remember fondly our meetings there.

To my left, a very esteemed colleague, a person I learned from a lot: Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate of Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of the forthcoming book, “In the Whirlwind of Jihad.” Martha is a co-director of the al-Farabi Carnegie program on Central Asia in Kazakh National University. And I had a pleasure to speak at the joint program in Astana just recently that Martha co-chairs.

Last but not least, another diplomat I hold in very high esteem: the Honorable John Herbst, director of Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University, and former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine – in both places facing challenges in managing them for the benefit of our country.

We said – who is – who is first?

MR. : (Inaudible.)

MR. : I think it was John.


MR. : Yeah.

MR. : John.

MS. OLCOTT: John, then Larry, then me.

MR. : OK. You’re last, right?

JOHN HERBST: I was delighted to be speaking first this panel, figuring I’d therefore be able to speak my views and they would not be repeating what anyone said. But in fact, the previous three speakers have raised all – (laughter) – almost all of the issues that I intended to raise. Nonetheless, I’ll push ahead.

If you go back to Kazakhstan independence, you understand how far the country has come over the past 20 years. I think you could speak about four major challenges that faced the Kazakh leadership of that time. The first was, how were they going to organize politically in the wake of the collapse of communism? The second was, how were they to proceed with economic development, again in the wake of the collapse of the communist system? The third was, how would they manage the various, you might say communal issues that were essential to maintain the country’s stability – the rise of Kazakh nationalism and pan-Turkism, in a country with substantial Slavic population and with the tendencies toward irredentism in the neighboring country of Russia? And then finally, the issue of nuclear weapons.

Looking at that list, you can see how far the country has come. And I’ll deal with those issues backwards. As already discussed, Kazakhstan was quickly moving towards denuclearization – and in the process helping the international community, and the United States in particular, deal with the other nuclear states of the post-Soviet world, in Belarus and in Ukraine.

On the issues of civic comity or ethnic relations, I think you’d have to credit Nazarbayev with great leadership and great wisdom. He understood the importance of the rise of pan-Turkism and of Kazakh nationalism, and he wanted to challenge that in a positive way for the country. But he recognized, the same time, that ethnic chauvinism was a great danger, especially with this very large Slavic population and with certain influential voices in Moscow talking about how northern Kazakhstan properly belonged to Russia.

And so you saw President Nazarbayev, in the early years of Kazakh independence, arguing, as the 1993 constitution was put forward, that in fact, well, Kazakh should be named the official language of the country, but Russian should be recognized as a lingua franca. And ethnic – being an ethnic Kazakh should not be a condition to be president of the republic, but to be able to speak Kazakh fluently would be. So he was a visionary in managing interethnic relations, which were essential to also dealing with the problem of Russian irredentism.

Now Ross said we should talk about anecdotes as we discuss what happened in relations with the United States and Kazakhstan. And I’m – I remember being a deputy to Ambassador Jim Collins, working on the whole post-Soviet space in the early and mid-’90s. And I remember the way we were very skeptical, even laughing, at this bizarre notion of moving the capital from Almaty to the town of Akmola up in northern Kazakhstan. And of course, exactly on the schedule President Nazarbayev set down, the capital was created. A city of three-quarters of a million people exists today, and it’s a thriving and very modern and very impressive city. And in the process, the claim of Kazakhstan to this part of its territory was strengthened. So again, we see visionary leadership achieving important goals.

And of course, then you talk about the economy. I don’t need to discuss that much, because we have already heard from others. The growth of Kazakhstan’s GNP has been extraordinary. Of course, it’s based in part on the good fortune of having extensive hydrocarbon resources. But also, those hydrocarbon resources would not be developed without President Nazarbayev’s commitment early on to market-based reforms; to his understanding early on that, to develop these resources, he needed to have these – the help of the best countries – the best companies in the world, companies which were not necessarily popular in some of the neighboring capitals. And he understood as well that, to fully profit from his resources, he had to develop pipelines out which were not dependent upon one country. And he managed all of those things without provoking any countries in the area, which again is a signal achievement.

The last item on our list is the first thing that I mentioned, and that is the political organization of the country. Here is the one area where I don’t think we can talk about a clear achievement. Yes, the leadership of Kazakhstan deserves credit for creating 20 years of stability. And 20 years of stability is not something to be laughed at, especially in that part of the world. Just look at some of the neighbors, and you know what I am talking about.

But at the same token, we have not seen the institutionalization of a political system. Now, I’m not here talking about the institutionalization of democracy, which is related but distinct. Instead, we have a leadership which is essentially based upon personality. And you have no clear transfer-of-power mechanism, which is the key to stability over time. And the country’s leadership relies upon democratics (ph) symbols and institutions to justify its rule, even as it flouts those values in ensuring election results, muzzling the opposition and muzzling inconvenient media and inconvenient NGOs. This is a serious problem, which I think needs to be addressed. And it needs to be addressed so that there can be a stable transition of power to ensure the stability of the country.

Now I don’t want to end on this negative note, because again, if you look at the list of challenges that the country faced 20 years ago, success in managing nearly all of them is remarkable. And anyone who predicted that 20 years ago might have been dismissed as a Pollyanna, someone who could not see how things would truly develop. So Kazakhstan is a certain success story, and a success story we see as well in the use of the country’s vast resources to develop a cadre of leadership that will take the country forward.

And with that I have one more small anecdote. I went out last year to the Monterey Institute in California to talk about my day job, which is dealing with complex operations of U.S. forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In this class of about 30 people, two individuals stuck out. The first was the actual professor of the – of the class, a young woman from Kyrgyzstan who was making her career in the United States because opportunities there in her native country are not quite what they can be and should be.

The second was an impressive young graduate student seeking her master’s, a Kazakh diplomat, who was there on a government scholarship to get her master’s and then to go back and serve in the foreign ministry. I saw in her the future of a country which is – has unlimited horizons. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. COHEN: Ambassador Napper, you had a unique observation point from a neighboring country, and then followed the developments in Kazakhstan. What is your take on this?

LARRY NAPPER: Well, thanks very much. I appreciate the opportunity that Ross Wilson and the Atlantic Council have given us all to see old friends again that we haven’t seen in quite a while. I go back 20 years on this. Twenty years ago this month, then-Secretary of State Baker called a bunch of us together in the State Department. I had been the office – the office director – the last office director of the Office of Soviet Union Affairs – and was trying then to struggle to re-organize that office.

And he said, I want you – I want you boys to get going here. We’ve now recognized the independence of all these countries, and I want diplomatic – and I want an embassy in each of these countries within 90 days. And by the way, we’re not going to the Congress for a budget supplemental. (Laughter.) It was an election year, you will recall. And so, take it out of your hides, basically.

So we set about doing that. And we – I went back and went through my Rolodex of all the – all the guys that I had worked with and identified those that we – I thought – Dick Miles is here, Bill Courtney – (inaudible) – and we invited them to the State Department. And we said, OK, here’s a one-way ticket – (chuckles, laughter) – and a thin – this is the State Department – thin envelope of $100 bills. No check – no checking system, no credit cards – you remember this, Dick, I know. And here’s an Inmarsat – you know, the big backpack radio thing that you could make a call.

And I said, go out there, find the best hotel you can in town, and get two adjacent rooms: One’s the chancery, and the other’s your residence. (Chuckles, laughter.) And when you have that, then give us a call – (laughter, chuckles) – and we will – (inaudible) – that Inmarsat, and we’ll fly you out a starter kit. Remember the starter kit on the (pallet ?), that – back of C-141, and we pushed it off, and that was the starter kit for these embassies.

And I think Baker had it right, that one of the best things that the United States did in those – in those years was to immediately establish these embassies and diplomatic presence across the whole sweep of the former Soviet Union, and especially in Kazakhstan. And it was very important to us. Bill Courtney was a real pioneer there, and getting that embassy open and established was incredibly important.

I want to underscore what John and others have said about the statesmanship, the statecraft of Nursultan Nazarbayev in trying to – and succeeding in making it seem plausible, first – and then realizing in reality the statehood of – and the independence, the sovereignty, of Kazakhstan. I remember visiting there in – visiting Almaty in September of 1991 – this was after the coup but before independence – with Secretary Baker and Bob Strauss, who was the – an ambassador to the Soviet Union.

And I’ll tell you, there was a lot of – a lot of angst, a lot of concern, on both the – among the Americans and the Kazakhs, as to whether this was going to work or not. Well, the one person that you knew after talking with him, who had it in his heart and his mind and his head that it would work, was Nursultan Nazarbayev. And he was very convincing in that regard.

He laid out his legendary hospitality, including an all-nighter in the – in the (sauna ?) with Baker – (chuckles) – and think about that, and Strauss – (laughter) – you know, the – with the whole thing: the vodka, the birch bark – (laughter) – and birch – (inaudible). Going back to Moscow on the plane the next day, that was the only time I ever saw Bob Strauss under the weather.

But anyway – (laughter) – it – (chuckles) – Nazarbayev was great at this. And he always had a facility of working with American leaders in this way. He could – he could – he – and he was great at establishing partnerships with them and personal relationships. He could needle them gently when that opportunity presented itself. He was also – he – among all these leaders in the post-Soviet states, he had the facility of cracking a joke with these guys that worked.

I recall being in the Oval Office in – with President Nazarbayev and President Bush in December 2001. And – (inaudible) – I’m sorry, December – yeah, 2001, right – 2001 when he came to see – after the 9/11 attacks, came to see President Bush. And he came into the office and said – you know, and he had just been down to see George H.W. Bush in Texas. And he says, you know, I have a message for you from President Bush, the – Bush 41. And the president says, well, what is it? And he says, well, he told me to tell you that he’s going to kick your backside at the Bush family bowling tournament at – (chuckles, laughter) – over the holidays.

MR. : That was it.

MR. NAPPER: And – (chuckles) – yes. And, you know, that got President Bush, you know, and it sort of got the whole – now, you may think that’s a small thing. But to bring that off in the Oval Office is no small accomplishment. And he could do it.

Many have already spoken here about the enormous accomplishment in statecraft that was the settlement of the nuclear issue: the return of the nuclear warheads to Russia and the joining of the NPT as a non-nuclear state. And it demonstrates that what Nazarbayev understood, which is that Kazakhstan and its issues would seldom be front and center for American presidents, but that when it was – when – on those occasions when it was front and center, that it was important that Kazakhstan align itself with the overriding objectives of the United States. That occurred in the nuclear issue, and I want to talk about one other.

And that is immediately after the 9/11 attacks, because I was only six days into my ambassadorship in Kazakhstan when those attacks occurred. And President Nazarbayev immediately visited our embassy. He moved up the opportunity for me to present my credentials so we could begin to do business. He aligned himself, from the very start of the process of what we were going to do after the 9/11 attacks, with the work that had to be done – including working with the Central Asian states in order to put ourselves in a position to bring down the Taliban regime that had sponsored those attacks.

And I recall Yerlan was then foreign minister. He and I worked together. We even had a dedicated phone line installed between the ministry and the embassy so that we could work – I bet that phone is still there, Yerlan. Have you checked on that recently? It may still be there – on overflights and other issues. But that was a very, very important period, and a period in which Kazakhstan moved quickly to align itself with the United States.

Just one other point, and then I’ll stop. In that period, there was a feeling, certainly on the part of the administration, and we in the embassy as well, that this was an opportunity for Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev to move quickly and decisively on some of these issues that John Herbst and others have mentioned – about how to spur the evolution of a more complex, more modern, more transparent, more accountable political system. And the president and I had a number of very interesting conversations on that topic.

I was not as persuasive as I wished I could have been in that period, but we had a very open and frank dialogue on it. And I do hope that some of the recent developments that we have seen in the – with the organization of a multiparty Mazhilis and other developments will in fact see the development of a more modern, more accountable, more open and transparent political system. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. COHEN: Martha?

MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: Thank you. I feel really privileged to be here today. It’s wonderful to see so many people that I’ve known for so long. I’m one of the few people in the room, I think, that has spent the entire 20-year period since Kazakhstan’s independence doing things with Kazakhstan without stop. I feel privileged to have known every Kazakh ambassador to the U.S. and every U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan.

I feel privileged to have been brought in very briefly – Larry remembers, I’m sure (laughs) – to the State Department, working as a special assistant and as a consultant to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger at the very beginning of independence. It was my one stint of government service, and it’s not clear that either the government or I could do it again. (Laughs.)

When Kazakhstan first became independent, Kazakh leaders had very little direct knowledge of the U.S. and U.S. leaders had very little direct knowledge of Kazakhstan. Over the past 20 years, there has been an extraordinary amount of learning on both sides. The Kazakhs began their period of independence with only a handful of trained diplomats.

Very fortunately for Kazakhstan, although these diplomats were few in number, they were an enormously talented group. And on the basis of that group of diplomats – many of whom have served in the U.S., some of whom are in the room now – Kazakhstan today has a diplomatic service that ably represents Kazakhstan across the globe. And the U.S., at the same time, has built a substantial amount of expertise on Kazakhstan and, of course, all of Central Asia. And this expertise is now scattered throughout the appropriate agencies of the U.S. government.

So now, 20 years later, both sides deal with each other with much greater knowledge of the relationship, this has – knowledge of each other, and this has made the relationship – is now developed on a much more solid footing than it was 20 years ago. It’s a solid footing not just of shared goals, but of shared knowledge. It’s a relationship, I think, that is predicated on both sides trying to appreciate each other’s priorities in the formation of domestic and international relations. This effort to try to appreciate each other – even though they don’t always agree – I think is an important foundation of the very solid bilateral relationship that has emerged.

Do the U.S. and Kazakhstan see the world through identical eyes? No, they really don’t. And I think this is really important. Not surprisingly, obviously, given the disparity of size and the global positions of the two people, the two countries, Kazakhstan is generally expected to see its priorities through the U.S. prism. This sometimes leads to challenges in the relationship, because Kazakhstan has its own prism through which it views the world.

If I say inequality, I mean, it’s natural – this disbalance in size and importance has gotten Kazakhstan sometimes to do things it might not have thought about; other times, to do things that it wanted to do. And I think that some of the real successes in Kazakh foreign policy have been strengthened by this partnership with the U.S., the – and I’ll talk about some of these.

I think the partnership with the U.S. has been an important – has been an important aid in Kazakhstan’s multivectored foreign policy. I mean, I think Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, as everybody knows, is multivectored. Kazakhstan’s special relationship with Russia exists parallel with a close relationship with the U.S. It also exists parallel with a growing relationship with China, with Kazakhstan’s global role.

Kazakhstan’s relationship with the U.S. has also – was an important factor in Kazakhstan being able to achieve its goals in the nuclear sector and to be such a leader in the international disarmament movement. This leadership role, I think, in this international voice and international disarmament really made Kazakhstan’s bid to head the OSCE a more successful one. And, of course, it’s served Kazakhstan through the years.

Without this kind of foreign policy, I think it would have hard, even with all of President Nazarbayev’s enormous diplomatic talents and personal charm – it would have been harder for Kazakhstan to have the global role that it has created for itself. As I travel throughout the world, I’m always struck by this. I was in India last week, and really, you know, the relationship between Kazakhstan and India is also a strong one. Kazakhstan has carved out a place for itself, really, everywhere.

It has also created some disadvantages for Kazakhstan. People have talked about the difference in view on political change and political evolution. I think it is also – there are differences in view on national resource management and what the role of the Kazakh – what Kazakhstan’s role is. I mean, you’ll hear more in the energy section. I’d like to point out that it is also – even though the U.S. has been fully committed to a multi – multiple pipelines – I think Kazakhstan has effectively been cut off from shipping its oil out through Iran, oil and gas out through Iran.

And Kazakhstan has had to compensate for this all the way through. In that regard, I think, sometimes Kazakhstan doesn’t get enough credit for its good partnership with the U.S. as well. So in conclusion, I would really say, yes, the worldview of Kazakhstan and the U.S. – U.S. leaders and Kazakhstan leaders don’t always agree.

Kazakhstan has been a strong partner of the U.S. in Afghanistan, and that will give it a leadership role in Central Asia more generally. And there have been prices on both sides; that’s part of what a solid relationship is. I think we all know that in our own lives as well. People can be friends and not always see the world identically. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. COHEN: Terrific. Three perspectives – two diplomatic, one an academic who is also a practitioner.

Now, we have a tremendous talent in this room, and I would encourage questions and comments. To keep this on track time-wise – we’re a little bit behind – let’s keep the questions or comments to about 30 seconds. Please raise your hand and identify yourself.

Who would like to ask the first question? Yes? And the mic is – yes.

Q: Julie Finley. I’m going to have to talk really fast because you said 30 seconds. (Laughter.) But I’m sitting here remembering how very, very strict the U.S. government was with Kazakhstan when Kazakhstan wanted to be chairman of the OSCE – almost to the point of rudeness in meetings. I know because I was rude in meetings. (Laughter.)

And it was a lesson in – a sort of lesson in diplomacy. I think the fact that the U.S. government was so strict and made it so difficult and so uncomfortable for Kazakhstan to reach its objective of chairing the OSCE made those extremely talented people in their foreign office more aware of what a great job they needed to do when in fact they were chairman of OSCE. Frankly, I never had any doubt they would chair it well.

And while a lot of people around the table at the OSCE said, oh my god, what have we done? They’re actually going to be chairman. I used to say, calm down. It’s probably a better foreign office than most of the foreign offices that have been in charge of the OSCE for the years. But it was – I thought it was great that we stood and were – we were vocal and tough about this opportunity. I think it made them better.

MR. COHEN: Thank you very much, Ambassador Finley. Any other questions? Or comments? Yes, ambassador – the mike, please, here.

Q: Rich Kauzlarich, George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Baku. A question, Martha: You mentioned China a bit, but could you reflect a bit on – looking into the future – the possibility of Russian-Chinese competition for influence in Kazakhstan and this part of the world? Thank you.

MS. OLCOTT: Well, I hate the term competition. I mean, I think that China has a strong position in Kazakhstan now. It’s a dominant partner in the oil and gas sector.

Kazakhstan’s participation in the customs union with Russia is something that will slow Chinese economic influence in Kazakhstan. I think that China – you know, unless there’s some sort of crash in China, which – I’m not a China expert and I’m not predicting – on its current economic development trajectory, China is going to be playing a much greater role throughout Central Asia in the coming years than Russia will be.

I think the cards are stacked in China’s favor in the long run. You know, and so I think that Russia – the customs union is part of Russia’s effort to slow it; I think Russia will succeed in slowing things. But inevitably, unless there’s an economic miracle in Russia or an economic crash in China, the balance favors China’s playing a greater and greater role. If that becomes competition – you know, but so far they’ve been tolerating each other because the cards they have are very uneven. I mean, they’re different.

MR. COHEN: And, of course, there is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. That is supposed to be a platform to manage competing interests. I don’t know if I would accept that there is no competition. I think there is. But at least there’s a framework there that they can talk about.

MS. OLCOTT: I mean, other people know more about what goes on inside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization than I do. I think – obviously, there’s competition, but I’m not sure – but the question is, does it become vicious public competition? Both sides are aware of it. But the unevenness of the cards leads Russia to try to play a stronger hand. But I’m not sure that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is able to – I mean, I think it has other functions to be a forum of dialogue; I mean, I think that this is going to go on in parallel space and not be verbalized.

Q: I think, also, that the – if there is a competition for influence between Russia and China in Central Asia, it just simply underscores the importance for Kazakhstan of a relationship with the United States, of the strategic relationship with the United States. Because that is a relationship in which, obviously, the United States can have no territorial ambitions on Kazakhstan and would find it very difficult to somehow monopolize the country’s resources or whatever.

So I think it underscores the importance of that – of the U.S. relationship for Kazakhstan, as a way of saying, OK, we have to deal with these pressures from our neighbors. We can use a strategic partner that is not a neighbor.

MR. COHEN: Two things about that. I think I wrote or said somewhere that faraway neighbors can be as important as nearby friends.

Q: Yes.

MR. COHEN: I’m sorry, far – oops – faraway friends can be as important as nearby neighbors, point number one. And point number two, in this town we tend to sort of phase in and out looking at Eurasia. We cannot afford to look at Kazakhstan and at Central Asia and Eurasia only through the prism of our logistics to Afghanistan. This is not just a shipping depot for our military. We have interests, and will have interests, way past the military phase in Afghanistan.

MS. OLCOTT: But if I can throw something in, I mean, we also can’t simplify this notion of balancing – great powers balancing in Central Asia. And the U.S. has a complex relationship with China. The way it’s going to deal with whatever China is doing in Central Asia is going to be through the prism of a much more evolved relationship – the same with the U.S. and Russia, and the same with Kazakhstan and all its various partners.

MR. COHEN: Right.

MS. OLCOTT: I mean, that’s the thing. We tend, especially when we try to get things to sound bites, to reduce it to two dimensions, when in reality there are at least three dimensions to all these relationships.

MR. COHEN: There’s more than three dimensions.

MR. : Yes, many more than –

MR. COHEN: We have time for maybe one last question. And I cannot resist – Ambassador Steve Sestanovich, right there.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Thanks, Ariel, and thanks to everyone on the panel. I want to raise a slightly different question. Looking back over the past 20 years, whatever correct assumptions the United States made about what its relations with Kazakhstan were going to be, I think in general, American policymakers tended to think of the Central Asian states as a unit, and tended to think that there would be greater cooperation among them than has turned out to be possible.

In fact, the conflicts among them have been rather pronounced. I wonder whether the panelists could say a word about missed opportunities there, about whether there were ways in which Kazakhstan could have done more to facilitate regional cooperation.

MR. NAPPER: Well, it’s a – it’s a real puzzle. Regional cooperation – and it’s great to see you, Steve, by the way – it has been a – something that has eluded the countries of Central Asia. And part of it is because there are so many different aspects of it. One, I think it goes without saying there has been a rivalry, if you will, between Nazarbayev and Karimov, which has been – has been in some sense damaging to prospects for regional cooperation.

I think just the disparity between the size and potential strength of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as opposed to the smaller countries of the region, whose economies are somewhat – and polities are so much weaker, makes it difficult for cooperation to be a two-sided, a two-way street there. As to what the United States could have done more, I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question. I think it has – the answer to that has eluded us as regional cooperation has eluded them.

I don’t know. John, do you have views on that?

MR. HERBST: I worked the issue of regional cooperation fairly extensively when I was in Tashkent. And my sense is that regional cooperation would have been more likely if leadership in the region, especially in Tashkent, were interested in it. But we didn’t really see that. I partly agree with you, Steve, that the United States saw Central Asia as a unit.

But as someone who was working the issues on behalf of the U.S. government, it was very clear to me – and I think not just to me – that we really weren’t going to succeed, because it would require the active participation of the locals, which we did not have. And Uzbekistan was really key on this question – one, because it is one of the two natural leaders in the region, and two, because it bordered each one. And in a sense, it was at the center of many of the problems between the countries of the region.

MR. COHEN: Real quick.

MS. OLCOTT: I will. I mean, I wrote a book about this, actually. You know, that was “Central Asia’s Second Chance.” I mean, I think we did have an opportunity – if the current Silk Road Strategy had been put in with more money and more cooperation, direct cooperation with the International financial institutions. I think we did have an opportunity in 2002, if we spend a lot more money – I don’t mean we; I mean the community – to have affected Uzbek domestic policy in that point in time, that that was a window we had. But I think now, you know, it’s just going to – it will muddle forward. It will improve, I think, as it muddles forward. I think things could have been a lot worse than they were. So it’s not regional cooperation, but it’s not regional enmity either.

MR. : In fact, border issues have largely been resolved.
MS. : Yeah.
MR. : It’s a very positive thing.
MR. : Yes.
MR. : But let’s remember. You dealt here, on the one hand in the Kazakh case, with “Mr. Integration.” Nursultan Nazarbayev came up with the Eurasian union idea 20 years ago, and tried to sell it to the Soviet, you know, leaders, the republic leaders – didn’t work. In Central Asia, the gentlemen in question were so obsessed with keeping their own power, and in a way so insecure – not just Uzbekistan. You know, trying dealing with the late Turkmenbashi. You know, good luck. He was so –
MR. : He was the antithesis of regional cooperation.
MR. : It could – it could be only done from bottom up. I remember Steve’s speeches about Central Asian integration in the ’90s, but there was no buy-in. And again, the cast of characters, on the one hand, you had “Mr. Integration,” but on the other hand you had Mister, you know, Disintegration or people who were trying to surround themselves with minefields and walls so high, it was very tough to integrate.
Unfortunately, we’re running out of time. A terrific panel. Thank you all very much.
MS. : Thank you.
MR. : Thank you to Atlantic Council. And back to Ambassador Wilson. (Applause.)
MR. WILSON: Thank you very much to our panel. We’ll take a 15 minute break now and reconvene at 11:30. Thanks.

Related Experts: Ross Wilson