Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Geopolitical Monitor: Central Asia in 2018: What’s the Future of the C5+1?

"Central Asia in 2018: What's the Future of the C5+1?"
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez
Geopolitical Monitor
11 July 2018
Originally published:

The C5+1 format, a platform for dialogue and cooperation between the five Central Asian nations and the U.S., could gain new momentum after a series of high profile meetings in less than a year. However, how far this initiative can go will depend on the continuous involvement and interest of the parties involved, particularly Washington.

C5+1 Today
The first C5+1 meeting took place in Samarkand in November 2015, and the second occurred in Washington in August 2016. The most recent one was held in New York in September 2017 when, according to the U.S. State Department, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the foreign affairs ministers of the Central Asian states discussed greater cooperation under said format, as well as “ways to promote Afghanistan’s economic development within a regional framework.”

The State Department notes five projects that C5+1 focuses on: counter-terrorism under the auspices of the U.S. Institute of Peace; “facilitating private sector development of the internal Central Asian market”; promoting “low emission and advanced energy solutions”; and analyzing environmental risks under the umbrella of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Apart from the 2017 C5+1 meeting, other noteworthy initiatives include meetings between US President Donald Trump and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in January 2018, and with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan in May 2018.

Central Asia: (Un)united?
One Central Asian expert summarized the future of this initiative to the author very bluntly: “C5+1 only works if the U.S. is involved, otherwise it does not.” The argument being that Central Asian governments, in spite of their statements that preach regional integration and cooperation, still have little interest in working as a united bloc (a high level March 2018 conference in Astana notwithstanding). Even more, without U.S. funding, the aforementioned projects would be doomed to failure due to lack of interest.

With that said, it is worth noting that Kazakhstan has taken a prominent role in approaching extra-regional partners, while Uzbek President  Mirziyoyev is keen on leaving behind the isolationism of the Islam Karimov regime. The one glaring exception is Turkmenistan, as President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow seems content in following his predecessor’s isolationist foreign policy, and also to perpetuate himself in power. Thus, a general lack of cohesion should not be interpreted as continuous isolationism.

In spite of some promising recent developments, there is no certainty that greater regional integration experiments will come to fruition. One Central Asian expert was optimistic, hinting at greater open borders between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the recent suggestion by a Kazakh senator to establish a single Central Asian visa to promote regional tourism and attract extra-regional visitors as examples that greater integration, and even the creation of the Central Asian Union, are possible. On the other hand, another Central Asian expert argued that C5+1 and other regional gatherings are just opportunities for photo shoots and mutual praising, and there is no sincere intention to establish a common foreign policy.

C5+1 vis-a-vis Russia and China
The C5+1 is Washington’s main tool to approach Central Asia as a region. The other one is the US-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council. During their May meeting, President Trump made an offer to President Mirziyoyev to host said meetings. “If it works, TIFA would be a good way to promote U.S. trade with Central Asia… it will never reach Russian or Chinese numbers, but it’s something,” a Washington insider explained. Finally, there have certainly been important bilateral initiatives, like President Trump’s recent meetings with the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but even these are too sporadic to cement strong bilateral ties.

Alarmingly, there is still no  Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department. The current acting head is Principal Deputy Alice G. Wells, whose most recent trips have been to India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, Moscow and Beijing have various outlets through which they maintain strong diplomatic and trade ties with the region, such as the Eurasian Economic Union, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Commonwealth of Independent States, not to mention China’s Belt and Road initiative. Additionally, both countries carry out major bilateral initiatives with Central Asian states. Examples include China’s landlocked port in Kazakhstan, or a late May report by IHS Jane’s which explained that Kazakhstan will purchase four more Mil Mi35-M combat helicopters from Russia, in addition to Sukhoi Su-30Sm warplanes.

Even more, as one Central Asian explained to the author, “Central Asian leaders meet with Russian leaders and Chinese leaders much more frequently than with their counterparts outside the region.” In other words, the two recent presidential meetings notwithstanding, “Washington needs to promote greater diplomatic initiatives with Central Asia if it wants to serve as a counterbalance to Beijing and Moscow… we need to reassure them that we will stick around,” a source in Washington added. Without a doubt, China and Russia have geography on their side, given that they border said region –advances in communications and transportation have yet to make geography fully irrelevant. In other words, Central Asia is their near abroad, while Washington is very far from Central Asia, and also has other foreign policy priorities nowadays.

Final Thoughts
Several commentaries over the years have supported a more ambitious U.S. foreign policy toward Central Asia: see Joshua Walker’s 2016 co-authored piece in The Diplomat or Ariel Cohen’s 2017 commentary in The National Interest. These two pieces discuss similar facts: Russia and China’s role, possibilities for greater trade with the U.S., the C5+1 initiative, and the development of Central Asia in general. Additionally, both authors warn that “the window of opportunity” (Walker) for Washington to increase its presence in Central Asia will not be open forever, hence “the United States cannot afford to just sit and look on from the bleachers” (Cohen).

Central Asia is a region with several moving pieces, including the level of cooperation (or lack thereof) among regional governments and the role of extra-regional actors. Washington’s default foreign policy tool to approach this geographically distant area is C5+1, which currently resembles more a noncommittal, occasional gathering of acquaintances rather than a serious mechanism for allied governments set on challenging Beijing and Moscow’s influence.
As things stand, the future of C5+1 is neither bright nor grim; it’s simply bland.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated, and don’t reflect any official position of

The author would like to thank the various Central Asian experts consulted for this commentary.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Providence: The Church and Nicaragua's Crisis

"The Church and Nicaragua's Crisis"

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy

9 July, 2018

Originally published:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)

On July 1, Pope Francis prayed and called for peace in various parts of the world, including Nicaragua. While acting as a mediator and protecting protesters from the government forces’ repressive tactics, the church there has had an important role in the Central American nation’s ongoing crisis.

The Violence
Civil unrest started in Nicaragua on April 18 when the government passed (very) unpopular reforms to the country’s Social Security Institute (Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social, or INSS) that would have cut benefits to elderly pensioners by 5 percent. Protests led by university students erupted over these changes, and in response the government resorted to repressive tactics, like organizing paramilitary forces to fight protesters.

At the time of this writing, according to the local non-governmental organization the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANDPH), there have been 285 deaths related to the protests against President Daniel Ortega’s government. This number is worth stressing as the Central American country has not experienced a wave of violence so extreme since the internal war in the 1970s and 1980s, during which Ortega overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979. Those events prompted the United States  to back the infamous counterrevolutionaries known as the Contras in an attempt to overthrow him.

While the social security law was the catalyst for the current violence, the protesters’ demands have increased to include regime change due to the head of state’s perpetuation in power. President Ortega returned to power in 2007 and was then re-elected in 2011 and 2016. Moreover, during the last election First Lady Rosario Murillo ran as her spouse’s running mate, so she is now (a very unpopular) vice president.

The author can personally attest to the protesters’ sentiment, at least regarding the Nicaraguan community in Washington, DC. Case in point, the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin America-focused think tank in DC, held an event on June 4 about the country’s situation. The attendees carried Nicaraguan flags and during the question-and-answer section constantly talked about the impending end of the Ortega-Murillo regime: “de que se van, se van” (“they will leave yes or yes”) was mentioned more than once.

The Role of the Church
At a time when the behavior of the government and some of its forces disgusts the Nicaraguan population, the church is one of the remaining institutions that still enjoys popular support and legitimacy. Thus, the Nicaraguan church has attempted to utilize this credibility to find a peaceful solution to this crisis.
An early attempt occurred on April 28. When the protests were heating up, the church organized a massive peaceful protest in the streets of Managua. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes even held a mass in the capital city’s cathedral. A similar peaceful demonstration took place in Matagalpa with Monsignor Rolando Álvarez at the helm.

Nevertheless, the protests and violence persisted, so the church switched tactics. In late April, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Council (Conferencia Episcopal de Nicaragua, or CEN) offered to act as a mediator between the government and the protesters. President Ortega accepted, reportedly stating in a letter that “we are grateful in name of the Nicaraguan families and the government for [the CEN’s] participation as mediators and witnesses to these important developments in Nicaragua.”

In spite of these meetings, the situation has unfortunately not improved as the violence continues. The general perception is that the Ortega regime wants to remain in power and is using the mediation to stall for time while using repressive and violent tactics to intimidate the population into submission. For example, a June 23 CEN press release urged President Ortega to respond to a request CEN presented to him on June 7 regarding early elections in 2019 to appease the protesters. The Nicaraguan leader has flip-flopped about this possibility.

Still, the Nicaraguan church continues its attempts to promote peace. The Nicaraguan media has reported that the aforementioned Cardinal Brenes and Monsignor Alvarez met with Pope Francis in the Vatican at the end of June, and the CEN remains committed to dialogue. The CEN is also involved in monitoring the release of protesters who were imprisoned.

Furthermore, there is footage of priests attending the protests and walking in front of the protesters to dissuade the police from violent, repressive tactics. For a religious nation, a robe-wearing priest is a very powerful image. But this is a dangerous path because it may erode the church’s current image of neutrality, and some individuals may be willing to physically attack the clergy—there have already been incidents of masked gunmen threatening priests at gunpoint.

It remains to be seen how successful the church will be as a mediator in Nicaragua, but there have been some noteworthy precedents in the region. For example, a war between Argentina and Chile almost occurred in 1978—a border dispute known as the Beagle Conflict—which was thankfully averted due to Vatican mediation (a peace treaty was signed in 1984). On the other hand, the church has called for peace and dialogue in Venezuela with little success.

Final Thoughts
Much has been written about the importance of the separation between church and state. However, there are times when the former should be involved in the affairs of the latter, as the church has the moral responsibility to stop unjust violence. For example, the Bible verse at the beginning of this essay highlights biblical support for peacemakers.

The church has pursued peacemaking in Nicaragua while in the past months protests have escalated and the Ortega government resorts to violence rather than sincere negotiation. In this crisis, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Council has emerged as a consequential actor, and hopefully its peacemaking activities will prove successful.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.