Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Barack Obama and Democracy in Central Asia

Note on Photo: This was obviously created by an anti-Obama Republican - it is untrue that Obama's father was Muslim, that he is atheist, or that he has no experience. Still, I couldn't resist it given its Kazakhstan connections.

In the past few weeks, I have given a couple of interviews to media outlets broadcasting to the former Soviet Union (VOA Uzbek Service and BBC Russia Service) on the question of what last night’s election in the US would mean for the region of Central Asia. While I tried to piece together some speculation on how the leadership styles of McCain and Obama might result in different relations with the Central Asian states, I generally had to admit that Central Asia is probably one of the last regions of the world on either candidate’s foreign policy priority lists.
Now that the election has finally ended and the American public has made an overwhelming statement concerning the failures of the Bush administration and the need for change, we can ask the question more directly - how will Obama’s victory change the relationship between the US and Central Asia. We can speculate that Obama’s promised withdraw from Iraq and increased focus on Afghanistan could shine a brighter light on Central Asia. Perhaps, the new American president’s vow to end the United States’ dependency on foreign oil will even change American realpolitik in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan. But, as US Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland has told the Kazakh press, the general shape of U.S. policy towards Kazakhstan will likely not change. The same could be said of U.S. policy towards the region more generally.
The most important impact that the election of Barak Obama will have on Central Asia, however, may have nothing to do with American foreign policy. It may relate instead to a change in the way that Central Asians view the United States and the concept of democracy and human liberties more generally.

The last eight years have dragged the American concept of democracy and liberty through the mud around the world. This was particularly true in the former Soviet Union where skepticism about political ideologies is perhaps more pronounced than virtually anywhere else on the globe. Having been overfed political ideology for decades, most citizens of former Soviet states view democracy (like communism) as merely a smokescreen for inevitable configurations of power within society. Along these lines, elections, parliaments, and advocacy are often viewed as “opiates of the people,” creating an illusion of participation that supports existing power relations that will likely never change.

While such attitudes are merely an extreme version of what many people the world over, including in the US, often think about politics and politicians, the election of Barack Obama to president of the United States tends to bring such cynicism into doubt. This is certainly the case in the United States where many formerly bitter cynics have suddenly found renewed belief in our system. For months, Obama’s campaign has been fueled by citizen initiative. Hundreds of thousands of small donations sent via the internet by Americans of modest means helped the Obama campaign compile more money than any presidential campaign in history. Thousands of volunteers also bolstered the campaign, manning phones and knocking on doors throughout the country. Finally, on election day, the usually jaded American electorate turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers that have not been seen for about a century.

The optimist in me makes me want to think that Obama’s mantra of Hope may rub off on Central Asia. Afterall, Obama’s win flies in the face of most Central Asians’ assumptions about our country and about democracy more generally. First, Central Asians tend to assume that America is run by a group of greedy oligarchs who are all white men and presumably racists. Under this assumption, surely, America could not elect an African-American…wrong. Furthermore, many Central Asians assume that elections in the U.S., while likely more competitive than in their states, are predetermined affairs manipulated by the powerful and wealthy. While Obama’s election did not necessarily shatter this belief, it certainly suggests that citizens in America still matter and still have a that can often be decisive.

The readers’ comments to the news of Obama’s victory on suggest the campaign’s mantra of Hope is already rubbing off on some, but certainly not all, Kazakhstanis. The usual cynics remain among the commentators on the site - some suggesting that the delegates may not vote in line with state electorates in December; others suggesting that leadership will not matter; one even repeating a conspiracy theory about the US government’s manufacture of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Yet, others who left comments note that things may indeed change and that the American system has shown itself to really reflect the will of the people. One needs to look at these statements in the context of public discourse on democracy in Central Asia over the last four years. Russian media has done a blitzkrieg effort of discrediting democratic reforms following the color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. And, Central Asians have mostly “drank the kool-aid,” believing that real political change is impossible and that any efforts to bring about democracy are really just American conspiracies to bolster US interests. The Bush administration’s use of “democracy promotion” as a justification for the invasion of Iraq has unfortunately helped to support these opinions among most Central Asians I know.

It is too early to tell whether Obama’s historic victory last night can change these attitudes, but it could have an incremental effect, especially if the election is followed by real changes. Such changes would ideally include the re-establishment of a principled, peaceful, and constructive American presence on the world stage. Such an America is likely to be much more appealing to Central Asians than the aggressive face of GW Bush’s foreign policy. It could also be more persuasive in advocating for the Central Asian states to take on political reforms, and it could make it harder for Russia to undermine this message in the region. Finally, if Obama is able to change America’s global image for the better, it will show Central Asian cynics that political change is possible, especially if citizens can mobilize behind it.

Maybe I am overestimating the global effect that this election can have through the power of example, but I am still giddy from seeing those I perceive as the good guys winning a major political battle in the United States. I suppose only time will tell, but today at least I have Hope - hope that a revitalization of democracy in America can translate into a renewed interest in human rights and democracy around the world….even in Central Asia. Of course, that all depends upon the people of Central Asia.

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