Congress Caucus on Central Asia

Nothing highlights the growing importance of Central Asia in Washington more than the formation of a congressional caucus.

The 21-member, bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Central Asia held its roll-out reception on November 18. Its stated aim is to strengthen US-Central Asia relations, paying particular attention to the shared interests of combating terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as promoting the development of the region’s natural resources and encouraging democratization. The caucus is co-chaired by non-voting delegate Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment, and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

"For purposes of our energy security and especially given the increasing presence of US troops in Afghanistan and the threat terrorist organizations pose to all of us, now it is time for us to help the Central Asian countries make a peaceful transition to democracy," Faleomavaega said during the November 18 reception.

The caucus launch punctuates a year of increased focus on Central Asia by US officials. The establishment of the Northern Distribution Network - a route that funnels military and non-military goods to Afghanistan from Europe via Central Asian states -- has significantly heightened US interest in regional security issues. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Washington-based trade and business councils for Central Asian states have become more robust, and those tied to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have each held investment seminars in the United States this fall.

According to congressional staff, Faleomavaega was the driving force in creating the caucus. In 2006, responsibility for Central Asia was switched into his Foreign Affairs subcommittee, causing the delegate to become more involved with regional issues. But according to his office, Faleomavaega’s original interest in Central Asia was based not on security or commerce, but on a shared nuclear history with his home territory of American Samoa. The South Pacific was a testing ground for US nuclear weapons during the Cold War - just as Kazakhstan served as the chief test site for Soviet scientists. The delegate was the first American legislator to visit the Soviet testing ground in Semipalatinsk.

About 100 guests attended the November 18 event, which included several speeches and traditional Central Asian dances. Among the attendees were diplomats from Central Asia and the former Soviet Republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, members of Congress, State Department officials, trade council representatives, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Umarov and US Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland. The keynote speaker, Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, announced that the State Department will be initiating annual bilateral talks with Central Asian nations. The first round of talks is expected to occur in 2010, he added.

"We aim to conduct these consultations in a spirit of mutual respect, which means that we won’t pretend to have a monopoly on wisdom, or seek to impose our system or to preach or patronize," Blake said "But we will expect the same kind of respect in return and won’t hesitate to speak, as friends, on issues like human rights or corruption."

Central Asian diplomats have reacted positively to both the formation of the congressional caucus and to the State Department’s initiative. "Kazakhstan is pleased by the creation of the US Congressional Caucus on Central Asia, and we are honored to be a part of that caucus," Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s envoy to Washington, said November 23 in written comments to EurasiaNet. "It is another example of the meaningful relationship between Kazakhstan and the other nations of Central Asia and the United States. As an emerging democracy, we intend to engage fully in the caucus to continue strengthening relationships as we build our own democratic processes."

On the question of democratization, Faleomavaega called for patience on behalf of the international community. "The path to democracy is difficult," he said. "Considering that until 18 years ago, the Central Asian countries had no known democratic past, it is my hope that we will offer these countries a helping hand rather than a clenched fist."