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The Promise of Central Asia

Central Asia is frequently in the news these days – and most of the news seems to be bad. The casual reader, viewer, and listener has become acquainted with a region of landlocked and poor countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – that share a legacy of isolation, squandered natural resources, environmental degradation, and Soviet-era political systems.

And yet, it is also a region with a distant history of great economic and cultural achievement in the Silk Road era, and that recently has emerged as a focus of renewed global competition reminiscent of the Cold War. Can Central Asia regain a key role at the center of the huge Eurasian landmass, surrounded by some of the world’s most dynamic economies – China, Russia, and India?

While there is a laudable international effort to help Africa grow out of heavy donor dependency in the next decade, the equally momentous economic-development and human-security challenges facing Central Asia is generally not fully understood. History and geography – measured by distance from the closest seaports – have isolated these countries physically, economically, and socially, and have exacerbated the difficulties of their transitions to market economies. The result is that development and governance indicators in Central Asia are on par with those in many sub-Saharan African countries.

The Central Asian Human Development Report, recently launched by the United Nations Development Program, argues that the countries of Central Asia have a great opportunity to capitalize on their location at the center of a dynamic continent, their abundant natural resources, and their still-strong potential to forge a prosperous, stable, and cohesive region. This will require them to open up to the rest of the world, cooperate with each other and their neighbors, and radically reform their antiquated political systems.