Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Promoting Democracy: An Interview with Stephen Sestanovich. (Foreign Policies toward the Region)

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Promoting Democracy: An Interview with Stephen Sestanovich. (Foreign Policies toward the Region)

Article excerpt

These countries are not ours to remake. But influencing the direction they take is not only something that we can contribute to. It is very much in our interest to do so.


Journal: Is there a serious analysis out there that says that democracy is just not right for Central Asia?

Sestanovich: Absolutely. I have heard that argument from virtually every president in Central Asia! I have also heard it from despairing human rights activists and from journalists who visit these countries from time to time, only to discover that things seem unchanged or worse from their last visit.

One has to be realistic about the obstacles to democracy created by decades of Communist rule--and by the traditional order that preceded it. But let's not over-learn the lessons of this so-called realism. In other regions, after all, communism and traditionalism have not been an absolute bar to democratic progress. It wasn't so long ago that people wrote off democracy in the Balkans. These countries, we were told, just weren't ready for modern institutions. "Ancient hatreds" were deep in society and would block progress for generations.

Now, one can't leap from this record to the optimistic conclusion that it will be as easy to build even rudimentary democratic institutions in Central Asia as in Southeastern Europe. Yet even in Central Asia some of the ingredients of democracy are present. Yes, elites have to believe that the rule of law and market economies and political pluralism serve their interests, or they won't embrace them. Well, Central Asian elites are aware of the price that they have paid over many centuries for their isolation from international political trends. They know that if they are simply seen as backwaters of some sort of contemporary "Oriental despotism," they're not going to command the attention of the outside world, much less attract its resources.

There's also the element of fear Elites in this region know there is a political alternative to their own rule: groups that can exploit Islamic traditions to mobilize popular support and can offer a pseudo-democratic alternative to the status quo. Of course, some people insist that to stave off a radical future of this kind, you need dictatorship. But I don't encounter a lot of confidence in this region that repression is an effective answer over the long term.

If you wake up the presidents of Central Asia in the middle of the night and ask them whether the current system is an effective long-term formula for their country, most of them--if they aren't really awake yet--will admit that the answer is, no. They just want it to be effective for as long as they are around! And that's the problem. You've got a basic acknowledgment of the need for a transition to a different system, but a lack of vision and imagination on the part of people who are ruling these countries now about how to get there. They figure that what they have now benefits them and a small circle around them; it may even benefit a larger class than that. They can't quite believe that they can continue to thrive--in some cases, perhaps, continue to survive--if they relax their grip on political power

Journal: According to the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. assistance to the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) has increased significantly since 2001. Although much of this assistance is earmarked for security and law enforcement, a significant sum is being allotted for democracy programs. What are these programs?

Sestanovich: A little history is important here. It wasn't always true that democracy-promotion was part of American foreign policy. The Carter and Reagan administrations' interest in human rights changed that. President Reagan proposed to establish the National Endowment for Democracy, based on the thought that our interest in the establishment of democratic institutions should have some money behind it, and some organization. …

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