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Scholar explores peacekeeping in Central Asia

| Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lawrence Sheets, former Moscow Bureau Chief for National Public Radio and currently a field analyst for the International Crisis Group, spoke Tuesday on the many challenges facing peace building in Central Asia.

The talk, hosted by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, centered on what Sheets called “the tradeoff between human rights and strategic needs” and the problems Central Asian countries have faced since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“The Uzbek government, in exchange for what was basically a ‘don’t see don’t tell policy’ on Uzbekistan … offered [the U.S.] the use of an airbase in a place called Karshi in central Uzbekistan, which was a good staging area and flyover point and refueling point for forward operations in Afghanistan,” Sheets said.

This was done despite the U.S. having full knowledge of what Sheets said were “extremely egregious human rights violations” in Uzbekistan.

“Strategic needs and military needs are deemed more immediate in terms of their importance than human rights issues,” he said.

Most states in the region, which consists of the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, have corrupt or totalitarian governments, Sheets said.

“The Uzbek government is very corrupt,” he said. “It usually makes the top 10 in terms of the most oppressive regimes in the world. … Turkmenistan generally ranks in the bottom five in the world in terms of every sort of human rights index.”

In addition to corrupt governments, militant groups also trouble the region, Sheets said. This threat led to cooperation between the U.S. and the authoritarian regime in 2001 and 2002, he said.

“Uzbekistan is where most of the concern for latent or active Islamic activity is generally linked,” Sheets said. “… It is open to debate how much of a threat radical Islam really plays.”

Sheets addressed concerns for the potential impact of ISIS in Uzbekistan.

“There is definitely a threat, what’s important is judging the extent of the threat and whether or not the main thrust of the perceived threat is to hang onto power,” Sheets said.

The significance of separatist movements as threats to stability is “trumped up,” Sheets said. The Russian minority in Kazakhstan “has no inclination to unify with Russia or even argue for autonomy.”

The governments also frequently employ censorship. Sheets noted how difficult it is for foreign journalists to enter many of these countries, particularly Turkmenistan, but he said individuals can still get vital information if they truly want to find it.

“The fact that you cannot watch much of this stuff on television does not mean people do not know what is going on,” Sheets said. “If you don’t know what is going on then you don’t want to know what is going on.”

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