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U.S.-Central Asia: Interview with Washington's former point man


As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting the leaders of these two countries and holding group talks in Tashkent with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian republics, Voice of America's Navbahor Imamova interviews Evan Feigenbaum, now Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace but a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia. How do the drivers of American policy toward the region today differ from the past? What are Washington’s — and the Central Asian countries’ — challenges and opportunities? How “new” is Washington‘s new strategy? How should the U.S. deal with the leaderships in Central Asia now?


Full transcript of the interview

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Hello from Washington. I'm Navbahor Imamova, and you're watching The Voice of America. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting the region this week, along with his team, holding talks and meeting with the Kazakh leader and the Uzbek leader. In addition to that, there is also a C5 + 1 dialogue taking place in Tashkent, where Secretary Pompeo will be meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries.

Complex priorities and agenda, as far as we know, and here to help us to understand these issues and what is at stake for both the United States and Central Asia, specifically Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, we have Dr. Evan Feigenbaum, the Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former diplomat, [who was once] Washington's point man for Central Asia, who is mostly focused on China and other parts of the world but we know you watch Central Asia very closely, Dr. Feigenbaum.

Evan Feigenbaum: I do. I even go there sometimes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yes, you have visited Kazakhstan. You haven't been to Uzbekistan for a long time.

Evan Feigenbaum: Not for a long time.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yes, but thank you so much for joining us today.

Evan Feigenbaum: Thank you... Thanks for having me.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You served in the Bush Administration. We've seen two U.S. presidents since then. We have seen a Democrat and a Republican. What are some major differences that stand out today from let's say a decade ago, when you were handling the relations with the region?

Evan Feigenbaum: I think, frankly, the biggest difference is the region itself. It's the region that's changed. The United States has been talking pretty consistently since the 1990s about supporting the sovereignty and independence of the countries, for example. It's a very consistent talking point across multiple administrations, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump.

But it's hard to really question that the countries are independent anymore. I mean, they've really evolved a lot, and I really dislike sometimes when I hear people refer to them as "post-Soviet" or "former Soviet" countries, because they've developed. Their independence has been locked in. They've got their own institutions. In a lot of ways, they've become very different from each other, not just different from the former Soviet context. So that, I think, is one big change.

... U.S. talking points and messaging have remained largely consistent for decades.


A second is, I think, that people's expectations and demands in the region are much higher, which means the bar of expectation for leaders and governments is higher, but also for what external partners like the United States, China, others bring or don't bring to the table.

I think if you look at a country like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, for example, it's clear that, as the system has loosened up in Uzbekistan and you're starting to see reforms, that citizens are demanding development. Their quality of life expectations are higher. They want their government to be responsive in ways that they probably always did, but they really didn't have the ability to expect.

So that does raise the bar for external partners, and the problem the United States has, I think, is that U.S. talking points and messaging have remained largely consistent for decades.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Unchanged, you mean?

Evan Feigenbaum: Unchanged in a lot of ways. But what's changed is the region. So people's expectations of their own governments, of their leaders, but also of external partners and how they can support development, human capital, and, frankly, not just talk about independence, but really help these countries to build, that's changed a lot in the region. There are a lot of tactical things. Leadership has changed.

VOA's Navbahor Imamova interviews Evan Feigenbaum, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, Washington, D.C.
VOA's Navbahor Imamova interviews Evan Feigenbaum, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, Washington, D.C.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: But the U.S. officials that we talk to often, diplomats serving as ambassadors and other high levels in the region, they always argue with us, saying that the U.S. policy is not as static as many think, that they have actually been changing and modifying it and improving it, country by country, and that we should look at the bilateral relations separately and the overall strategy towards the region. We know that the Trump Administration has been updating the strategy. But when you look at it, again, as you said, the priorities are the same.

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, I think the key on foreign policy generally - it's not just about U.S. policy in Central Asia - is that the U.S. has to be adaptive to change in global, regional, and national circumstances. So the yardstick that you have to use to evaluate how the U.S. is doing is "how adaptive is the U.S. to circumstances?". It goes back to your underlying question about change.

So if you think about the first decade or so of U.S. policy in Central Asia, it really was about sovereignty and independence. These were new countries. They were fragile states. They had new institutions.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: There is still so much emphasis on that now.

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, but they had to learn. There were a lot of decisions that were made, even on basic stuff - sharing water, crossing a border - that used to be made in Moscow by administrative fiat. So now, all of a sudden, governments had to develop institutions and processes, but also learn how to work together.

So that was the right emphasis at that point. But, as we were saying, when you asked your first question, nobody really questions that these countries aren't independent. They've built their own identities, their own national narratives.

The United States has legitimate and important concerns about things like debt finance, whether China's lending in a way that creates debt sustainability - it's particularly acute in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But the United States really shouldn't be defining its agenda in relation to some other external power's agenda."


So that's important, but the circumstances of it have changed. We then had a period, I think, really in the 2000s, where Afghanistan became a central issue. And that was partly because of American priorities, but it was also because of things that had happened in the region - in Kyrgyzstan, for example. So that became an important new strand, an important emphasis. If you remember the 2002 U.S.-Uzbekistan agreement for instance, it was part of the subtext, as well as being explicit in the agreement.

But President Trump has made very clear that he'd like to get the United States out of Afghanistan, bring this war to an end. And, at some point, that really can't be the central axis on which American policy turns.

So I think the U.S. is groping for purpose, even though, at the high strategic level, a lot of the interests remain similar and some of the tactics remain the same. As I said, the bar of expectation is different, and I think the trap that the United States runs the risk of falling into is, number one, to define its own role negatively in relation to what other external powers are doing. You see this a little bit, for instance, in the emphasis on China - the Belt and Road and so on. The United States has legitimate and important concerns about things like debt finance whether China's lending in a way that creates debt sustainability. It's particularly acute in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but the United States really shouldn't be defining its agenda in relation to some other external power's agenda.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Why not?

Evan Feigenbaum: Because American foreign policy should not be reactive, on the back foot, and on defense all the time. It should be proactive and on offense, which is to say it should support the countries by leveraging uniquely American strengths.

I'll give you an example: A lot of the infrastructure finance that China does in the region is really uniquely Chinese in the way they do it. The United States doesn't do state-backed lending through a state-backed ...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah, but that's exactly what we hear constantly from all the parts of the U.S. government that work with the region. They say, "We're not competing with China. Our offering is very unique and very special." What makes the U.S. offering so unique? What is so special about it?

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, I think that that's the key is: the United States is not going to be able to "out-China China," and the United States shouldn't try to be China. It shouldn't try to be Russia, either, for that matter.

So what U.S. should be looking to do is not to be more like China, but to leverage, as I said, uniquely American strengths.


Navbahor Imamova, VOA: But they should watch them, right?

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, yeah. But so, China does a lot of its lending, for example, through state-backed loans, through state-backed policy banks, and that's just not how the United States does things. We don't have that legacy of project finance.

So what the U.S. should be looking to do is not to be more like China, but to leverage, as I said, uniquely American strengths. What are those? It's connections to the global capital markets. It's best-in-class financial services firms. It's the most innovative firms and just outstanding best in class science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It's the voting weight that the United States and partners like Japan have in the international financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

So those are the things, rather than trying to build a bridge, that really are uniquely American. And I think you're starting to see some of that. For instance, not this year, but in 2018, I was at the opening in Astana of the Astana International Financial Exchange. Actually, I happened to be in town during the opening ceremony, and they do have partners like NASDAQ and Goldman Sachs that have been part of the spin-up of the exchange, but also an attempt to try to connect that thing to the global capital markets in ways that I think would leverage uniquely American strengths to support where Kazakhstan is trying to go.

Now, they have Chinese partners, too. But the point is best-in-class financial services firms and best-in-class financial services practices are really not Chinese. They're American. So that's what the US has to do, not to try to be more like China.

Uzbekistan Summit of Central Asia Leaders, Tashkent November 29, 2019
Uzbekistan Summit of Central Asia Leaders, Tashkent November 29, 2019

... economic activity in Central Asia needs to leave more of the value-added in the region."

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: That's exactly what we hear from the Central Asian governments too, specifically from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, that they want that kind of American engagement. They want American businesses. But you know that there are major challenges. It's not easy for Washington to convince these big firms to go do businesses in the region. There are issues of transparency. The level of corruption is still very high. There are a lot of issues that the region that they need to work on.

What are some of the challenges that you see now, if we look at the current dynamics, as well as opportunities? Washington sees a lot of opportunities in Uzbekistan, and yet, the pace of assistance is not as fast as the Uzbeks would want to see.

Evan Feigenbaum: Sure. But I think the first thing is, before you get to Washington, you really have to start with the governments and institutions in the region.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Fair.

Evan Feigenbaum: The question for me is: what's in their interest, and what should they be seeking from external partners? I think from my vantage point, there really are three things: One is economic activity in Central Asia needs to leave more of the value added in the region. So, for instance, there's a lot of talk about transit, but if you have trains going from China to Europe - and Central Asia is just the transit point and you have people in Kazakhstan essentially waving at the trains as they go by, but none of the actual value added gets left in the region - that's not in the interest of the country.

So the first thing is, they have a responsibility to their publics to demand of external partners that economic, commercial and development projects leave more of the value added in the region. Then they have to figure out how to do that.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, basically, not through the region, but with the region.

Evan Feigenbaum: Your point is right. It shouldn't just be about transit. Transit's okay, but it should really be about who and how does more of the value-added get left in the countries in the region themselves? That's the first thing. The second thing is, projects have to be judged by the yardstick of whether they actually support development: the development of institutions, the development of a stronger, more robust, more sustainable economic base.

To give an example, there are a couple of the countries in the region that really have economies that are very heavily dependent on a couple of extractive sectors, mining, oil, and gas. There are a lot of countries in the world that have been lucky in that way as well, right?

But it's not enough just to be lucky. I can think of a lot of oil economies around the world that are also lucky, but they're badly governed and, frankly, their people who have not grown in per capita income. And they're countries that are not doing well. So it's not enough just to be lucky. You have to really build an economic substructure. So they need not just investment, but investment that supports development.

Then the third thing I'd say, and probably the most important, is I think at the end of the day, the regions of the world that do best are the ones that invest in and develop human capital. So here, you can say to me, "Oh, you guys can't just order American businesses to invest." That's exactly right. But, as I said, the U.S. excels in things like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. That's why, if I were back in the government, I would want to do all kinds of STEM initiatives in the region.

How do we support development in a robust and multidimensional sense, and how do we help build human capital in the region?"


I think there are ways to do that that aren't about a return to investment or a bad yield on capital. And those are the kinds of things that the United States can do better, more efficiently, and often more effectively - and that develop the human capital in the countries in ways that I think would be much more robust.

Human capital doesn't have to just mean education. It could also mean in terms of worker quality. It can mean in terms of the industrial mix. But those are the things, before you get to what Washington has to try to offer, those are the yardsticks that countries, governments, businesses, institutions should be judging what external partners give and provide and can offer.

If you filter it through that lens, and now you're sitting in Washington and you're making American strategy or American policy, what you should be saying is, "How do we find ways to leave more value added or support the leaving of more value-added in the region? How do we support development in a robust and multidimensional sense? And how do we help build human capital in the region?"

That's a very different way of thinking than just saying, "Oh, China's building a highway" or "They're building a bridge. How do we build a bridge?" Because the U.S. can't mobilize that kind of finance in the same way.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Then you look at numbers, right? I mean, numbers matter. For Uzbekistan, for example, the U.S. assistance consisted of about $11 million in 2017. It was over $100 million in 2019. So the U.S. officials proudly explain that, "There... See our increasing engagement and interest and involvement?", specifically in Uzbekistan.

Another big issue here, which is something that is being discussed, I believe, in Tashkent with Secretary Pompeo and President Mirziyoev and others, there is the registration of the U.S. based NGOs. And some of them were, simply put, kicked out during your time... I know that you remember all those cases, and some of those organizations have been struggling to get back. They want to get back, and they seem to be supporting the reform agenda. They want to be a part of that reform process that started in Uzbekistan three years ago, and they want to work with the Mirziyoyev administration.

That is an opportunity for Washington, obviously, but also a major challenge. How do you convince this system that is still largely run by the people from the previous government, from the previous leader, Islam Karimov? How do you build trust? How do you work with them, and how do you shape the new system?

... if you want trade and investment, you need legal guarantees. You need certainty. You need predictability. You need institutions that function. You need rule of law, even in the commercial or institutional sense. So it's not just 'my' agenda. This should also be 'your' agenda, if it's those things you want to talk about."


Evan Feigenbaum: Well, it's hard. Well, you have to push. And you have to have a sustained push, but you have to have it make sense to countries in the region. It's funny. It's been a long time since I was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia. But I'll tell you a story from those days.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: A decade. It flies fast.

Evan Feigenbaum: More than a decade. I think 13 years now. But I'll tell you a story from those days that I think resonates today: I was in Tajikistan. I think this must've been in 2006, and, like many American officials, I started talking about the rule of law. My Tajik counterpart, who was a minister in the government, then looks at me, and he says, "Oh, rule of law! There you go with your democracy agenda again. I want to talk about trade and investment." I looked at him, and I said, "I am talking about trade and investment. Because if you want to trade and investment, you need legal guarantees. You need certainty. You need predictability. You need institutions that function. You need rule of law, even in the commercial or institutional sense. So it's not just my agenda. This should also be your agenda, if it's the things you want to talk about."

So I think, at the end of the day, yes: American officials have, still are, and will always continue to be pushing for NGO registration. And it's not just about NGOs. I know RFE/RL, for example, is pushing in Tajikistan to have their correspondents be able to report from there.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Also in Uzbekistan.

Governments will never do things that they do not believe are in their interest. So the key is, you have to, as in my rule of law example, define interest in a way that either makes sense in their context or has some mutuality to it."


Evan Feigenbaum: In Uzbekistan, too. So, I mean, you have to push. But I think, over the long term, what really matters is trying to make these things make sense in a changing context in the countries. And where you don't have change, like in a place like Turkmenistan, you'd be much less likely to be successful there. I mean, in my day, we had trouble even with some of the education programs in Turkmenistan. There were some things we were able to do.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Most of those challenges continue. They're still the same, right?

Evan Feigenbaum: But the reality is countries will never, governments will never do things, that they do not believe is in their interest. So the key is, you have to, as in my rule of law example, define interest in a way that either makes sense in their context or has some mutuality to it. If you can't, then you're down to sort of using the hammer. And then you have to convince people or you have to take something away. It's a bargaining process, and you have to say, "Well, here's what that'll cost you" or "Here's how ..."

But, at the end of the day, these are interest-based calculations for the government - in the national interest, and sometimes, frankly, in the leadership's or in the elites' interests, quite apart from the national interest.

So that's the challenge. And the United States has challenges there that some other external partners, like China, frankly don't have, to be blunt about it.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets with Central Asian (C5) foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in New York (AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets with Central Asian (C5) foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in New York (AP)

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, President Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, who Washington officials describe as a reformer, as a modernizer, seems to be open for all kinds of business with the United States. How do you convince his administration? How would you convince that it is in that government's, in that country's interest to work with some of the big development groups that are based in Washington? What would their presence mean for the country, long term?

Evan Feigenbaum: I remember in my day, and I worked on Central Asia in the U.S. government at a time when it was really the lowest point in the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah, we remember those days.

Evan Feigenbaum: It was the year after 2005. It was really low, and part of the challenge ...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Post Andijan.

Evan Feigenbaum: Exactly. It was a year after Andijan. Basically, the challenge was to restart some kind of relationship from, really, what was a non-existent relationship at that point. So one way to do that was to explore the functional baskets in which you could have a relationship.

... We're also realists: we don't expect that cooperation in every basket will move at the same pace or to the same scope, but that these countries cannot opt out entirely of entire areas of functional cooperation and coordination with the United States. You can't say, 'Oh, I won't do democracy. We'll just do investment.'"


I never expected, at that point, that Uzbekistan was going to be more excited about coordination and cooperation in the democracy basket compared to the commercial basket, for instance. But you didn't want a situation in which an Uzbek official would say to an American official, for instance, "Well, we do health, but we don't do education." Right? "We'll do economic cooperation, but only this kind of economic cooperation. And that democracy and governance thing, forget it. Don't want to do it."

So I think it starts with consistent, clear, and ultimately persuasive messaging that the United States doesn't have the luxury of one- or two-dimensional relationships. We want multidimensional relationships, but we're also realists - that we don't expect that cooperation in every basket will move at the same pace or to the same scope, but that these countries cannot opt out entirely of entire areas of functional cooperation and coordination with the United States. You can't say, "Oh, I won't do that democracy. We'll just do investment."

If you want to convince them, I think you've got to find a way to make it in their interest, and there are interests and parts of these governments that will never see those things that you were talking about as being in "their" interest, much less in the country's interest.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: It's a constant challenge.

Evan Feigenbaum: That's right. So, I think the answer is that it's all part and parcel at a strategic level with how a country like Uzbekistan wants to be perceived internationally. In other words, things tend to go together. So if you want to build confidence in the trajectory that the country is on - the kind of confidence that leads people to want to invest, to do business - you need to send messages in word, in deed, and in all dimensions of your system that the country is opening and is open to all kinds of groups and activities in ways that were not the case before.

That's something that I think: the bar of international expectation on these governments, but particularly on Mr. Mirziyoyev, as the government in Uzbekistan has been raising it. And people are very excited about Uzbekistan.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah. High expectations.

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, the good news is they're excited. The harder news is it raises the bar of expectation. So what has to be delivered, demonstrated, and shown is a little higher. I don't think it's so easy to segment those things anymore.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev speaking to the Oliy Majlis, country's parliament, Tashkent, January 24, 2020
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev speaking to the Oliy Majlis, country's parliament, Tashkent, January 24, 2020

So a lot of what's happening between the United States and Uzbekistan would have been unthinkable. You don't want a situation where people feel a sense of hopelessness that a country can't change.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We're in front of the Capitol, and there is an Uzbekistan Caucus on the Hill now, which promotes close relations with Uzbekistan. Several members of Congress are very hopeful and optimistic about what's happening in Uzbekistan.

But that optimism, that praise is also a pressure. Many want the country to move faster. They want Mirziyoyev's administration to take bigger steps in terms of democracy, in terms of so many other things that really matter for the future of the country.

You've talked a little bit about this, but my last question to you is how would you deal with a leader like Mirziyoyev, who obviously is the byproduct of the previous regime, but who seems to be genuinely wanting to move the country forward? But he's being incredibly careful, right, as he consolidates power, as he strategizes for the next five, ten years ...

He just said, "We want democracy. Democracy is the only way forward," and that sounds great... We know things are not as fast, when it comes to the reform process. What are the ways to really tell him that it's time to move faster?

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, I think that's what the U.S. government is doing. And, I mean, I've been out of it for a while, but watching what Alice Wells says, what Secretary Pompeo and others say ...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So they are doing the right thing, the right strategy right now?

Evan Feigenbaum: I think the messaging has been pretty consistent. So I think that's good. I think they have the right to be excited, given where we were before. I mean, I described to you a little about where we were in my day. So a lot of what's happening between the United States and Uzbekistan would have been unthinkable. You don't want a situation where people feel a sense of hopelessness that a country can't change.

So the good news is the sense of expectation is grounded in both the perception and the reality of change. Is it comprehensive change? Is it enough change? Is it sufficient change?

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: The President himself says it's not enough change at all.

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, that's good.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We hear that from him ...

Evan Feigenbaum: That's good.

I think the international community, having had its expectations raised, it has a right to expect, number one, that the trajectory will continue in an upward way.


Navbahor Imamova, VOA: ... almost on a day-to-day basis.

Evan Feigenbaum: Remember, we're only three years into this thing. I mean, it's going to take a lot of change of the substructure, not just the superstructure, to make reform meaningful. Every country has politics, even countries that are one party governments, countries that are ... Even in Mr. Karimov's day, they had politics in Uzbekistan.

So, ultimately, it'll have to work within the national circumstances. But I think the international community, having had its expectations raised, it has a right to expect, number one, that the trajectory will continue in an upward way. What that means is I've often seen reform in Uzbekistan described as one step forward, two steps back ...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Right, exactly.

Evan Feigenbaum: ... or one step forward and then one step to the side. That ultimately erodes confidence. And it's inevitable the sense of excitement can't be sustained, but you need the excitement to give way to less hubris, but, nonetheless, enthusiasm about the long-term trajectory of the country. I think that's the challenge.

The thing about Uzbekistan is, I think the way most people who hoped even against hope in the old days was that the country, if you had one adjective to describe the country, it would be "potential." Right? Tourism.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Lots of potential.

Evan Feigenbaum: Tourism? What potential. Human capital? What potential.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: They love that word, don't they?

... things that build the human capital, develop the country, integrate it with its neighbors, but ultimately into the global economy in a way that is sustainable. That's what the country and these countries need. That's where the United States should be positioning itself, not as the un-China, not as the un-Russia."


Evan Feigenbaum: Development, what potential. Right, but at the end of the day, people grow impatient, and potential needs to turn into something real. It's true that people are excited. When I listen to people talk about Central Asia here, they all talk about Uzbekistan all the time. But if you look at the realities on the ground, Kazakhstan's economy is still at least three times larger than Uzbekistan's. It's about 159 billion GDP. Uzbekistan is hovering around 50. Per capita, Kazakhstan is probably eight times larger than Uzbekistan now. So the good news is there's room to move.

But time's wasting. And that brings us back to some of what we talked about before, which is things that build the human capital, develop the country, integrate it with its neighbors, but ultimately into the global economy in a way that is sustainable, that's what the country and these countries need. That's where the United States should be positioning itself - not as the un-China, not as the un-Russia.

It can point out the flaws in the model that the Chinese bring, but, ultimately, it needs to offer something positive, proactive, and useful that leverages its strengths and isn't just on defense and reactive all the time.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Well, one of the potentials that we always heard about Uzbekistan was that the country is the largest society, the largest system in the region, and could play a leading role in the regional integration process, in terms of connectivity. Tashkent seems to have a relatively clear strategy on that now. Washington sees them taking over the regional leadership, for example.

Evan Feigenbaum: Yeah.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: They appreciate the steps being taken by Tashkent to connect the region, to make it more relevant globally, which brings me back to C5+1, a dialogue that has been taking place between the five countries of the region and Washington. Do you see that as an effective platform? How do you assess this kind of an engagement?

Evan Feigenbaum: Well, frankly, it depends what's done with it. The United States had a C5+1 with Central Asia before there was an actual C5+1.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Right. Yes.

Evan Feigenbaum: We had a trade and investment framework agreement that included all five Central Asian countries. It was the only regional, as opposed to bilateral, TIFA, so-called "TIFA" that the United States had. That goes back to 2004, '05, '06.

So meeting with a group in itself is only as useful as you make it. For example, there's a lot of discussion about how China is now in many ways the most active and the fastest rising, in terms of influence, external power in the region. China actually tends to prefer to bilateralize most of its relationships. I don't even think China has a C5+1 in the region. It meets in the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] context, but it really tends to try to divide countries and treat them bilaterally, in terms of its diplomacy and in terms of its development.

Uzbekistan has gone from being the obstacle to connectivity to actually trying to facilitate it."


So it's not the mechanism - it's what you do with it. And I think the connectivity thing is important, but, ultimately, what we're back to is the challenges that always faced connectivity in Central Asia.

So the good news about Uzbekistan is twofold: One, Uzbekistan has gone from being the obstacle to connectivity to actually trying to facilitate it. In the old days, you could always count on Uzbekistan to oppose all sorts of regional connectivity schemes. So that's a very important step, because it was the necessary but not sufficient condition to doing real connectivity in the region.

The second thing, is Uzbekistan had terrible relationships with some of its neighbors - with Tajikistan, for example. And that's changed.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: That's been improving.

Central Asia leaders meet in Tashkent, November, 2019
Central Asia leaders meet in Tashkent, November, 2019

Evan Feigenbaum: In fact, I saw something in the news the other day about supporting hydropower projects, which was just unthinkable. So the necessary conditions are now in place, but they're not sufficient. And the reason they're not sufficient is, really, [that] the problem for connectivity in Central Asia has not just been a question of will. It's been overcoming structural obstacles.

Central Asia is unlucky because of its geography. It's terrible to be landlocked. It's even worse, if you're Uzbekistan, to be double landlocked.

If Uzbekistan thinks that it has a human capital advantage, for example, that can't just be about having a large pool of labor. It has to have a large pool of skilled, educated, trained labor, and that makes it much more attractive as a destination for value-added."


There was a World Bank study years ago that showed that if you're landlocked, it knocks about a point and a half off your growth rate, just because you're landlocked. In other words, transaction costs and transit costs are so high.

So you can put the necessary conditions in place, but you can't overcome the structural impediments unless you do some of the things that other countries have been able to do. And that, at the end of the day, brings us back to stronger institutions, economic diversification, finding a way to leave more of the value-added in their region.

If Uzbekistan thinks that it has a human capital advantage, for example, that can't just be about having a large pool of labor. It has to have a large pool of skilled, educated, trained labor, and that makes it much more attractive as a destination for value added.

So connectivity is not just about hard connectivity: roads and bridges. It's soft connectivity: it's regulatory factors, trade, education, and the ability of people to interface with each other. I think, really, those are ...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, in many ways, they're not just kind of passing through.

Evan Feigenbaum: That's right.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: They're stopping and doing business with those.

Evan Feigenbaum: Those are the plays for the United States. And that's the things that the United States has talked about, but has had trouble leveraging because it faces long odds. So it's not an easy region to do these things in. But I think if you compare it to ten years ago, and certainly if you compare it to three to five years ago, and especially in terms of that country [Uzbekistan], there's definitely opportunities now that didn't exist not so very long ago.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah, and, the fact that the Secretary of State is visiting the region means a lot, too, for them and for here. The last time the Secretary of State visited Central Asia was in 2015, when John Kerry went there.

Evan Feigenbaum: Right. So that's good.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah.

Evan Feigenbaum: Presence matters.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah, yeah, of course.

Evan Feigenbaum: Woody Allen once said 80% of life is just showing up. So I think that's a true statement.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We really appreciate you taking time and talking to us here at the Mall. It's a cold evening in Washington, but we still wanted to talk to you here. This is the where we spend a lot of time, right? We will continue to watch the region from there and from here, obviously. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Evan Feigenbaum: Thank you.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We've been talking to Evan Feigenbaum, the Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Evan Feigenbaum: Okay, thank you.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Thank you. Keep watching us. Let us know what you think of all the issues we've just discussed. I'm Navbahor Imamova in Washington.

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    Navbahor Imamova

    Navbahor Imamova - "Amerika Ovozi"ning yetakchi multimedia jurnalisti. "Amerika Manzaralari" turkumidagi teledasturlar muallifi. Ko'rsatuvlar taqdim etish bilan birga prodyuser, muxbir va muharrir. O'zbekistonda akkreditatsiyadan o'tgan yagona amerikalik jurnalist. "Amerika Ovozi"da 2002-yildan beri ishlaydi. Jurnalistik faoliyatini 1996-yilda O'zbekiston radiosining "Xalqaro hayot" redaksiyasida boshlagan. Jahon Tillar Universiteti Xalqaro jurnalistika fakultetida dars bergan. Ommaviy axborot vositalari bo'yicha bakalavrlikni Hindistonning Maysur Universitetidan (University of Mysore), magistrlikni esa AQShning Bol Davlat Universitetidan (Ball State University) olgan. Shuningdek, Garvard Universitetidan (Harvard University) davlat boshqaruvi va liderlik bo'yicha magistrlik diplomiga ega. Jurnalistik va ilmiy materiallari qator xalqaro manbalarda chop etilgan. Amerikaning nufuzli universitetlari va tahlil markazlarida so'zlab, ma'ruzalar o'qib keladi. "Amerika Ovozi" oltin medali sohibi. Toshkent viloyati Bo'stonliq tumani Qo'shqo'rg'on qishlog'ida ziyoli oilasida ulg'aygan.

    Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America. As anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for nearly 20 years on TV, radio and online. For the last year, she has also been reporting from inside Uzbekistan as the first-ever U.S.-based accredited correspondent in the country. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Imamova played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented over 800 editions of the flagship weekly show, “Amerika Manzaralari,” which covers American foreign policy focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She speaks frequently on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences. Her analytical pieces have been published in leading academic and news outlets including Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Atlantic. Imamova also is the founding President of the VOA Women’s Caucus. She began her career at the Uzbek state broadcaster in Tashkent. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mysore, India and a Master of Arts in journalism from Ball State University, Indiana.

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