The Platform

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Cold War relics like the Jackson-Vanik amendment need to be retired owing to the realities of the region.

It is time for the United States to forge a new pathway of strategic engagement with Central Asia, an approach that presents an alternative to the dominating forces of China and Russia. However, the archaic Jackson-Vanik amendment is proving to be a hurdle.

In the early months of 2023, the war-torn landscape of Bucha, Ukraine, became the stage for an unexpected yet poignant symbol of camaraderie. Amidst the harsh winter exacerbated by Russian aggression, a traditional Central Asian yurt became a sanctuary, offering warmth, connectivity, and a taste of Kazakh culture to the beleaguered Ukrainian citizens. These “yurts of invincibility” soon dotted other towns, standing as a testament to Kazakhstan’s quiet but firm solidarity with Ukraine—a signal of the changing geopolitical affections in Central Asia.

This shift highlights a critical juncture at which the United States could pivotally influence the region, currently under the heavy sway of Russia and China. While China’s economic forays signal a troubling trend of sovereignty eroding, Russia’s global standing plummets amidst its military actions. Herein lies America’s chance to advocate a partnership model rooted in mutual respect rather than exploitation.
However, this promising path is hindered by a vestige of the past. Enacted in 1974, the Jackson-Vanik amendment originally served as a lever against the Soviet Union to alleviate the persecution of minority groups, including those in Central Asia. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this Cold War relic persists, unjustly constraining America’s ties with nations such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

A statement released following the first-ever C5+1 Presidential Summit during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, highlights the importance of collaboration. In the joint statement signed by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States, collaboration is stressed as the only path forward. “Dedicated to our pursuit of peace and prosperity, we share a vision for sustained cooperation to address the region’s complex challenges and emerging threats. Collectively, we embrace the C5+1 goal of seeking regional solutions to global challenges. Together we affirm our commitment to activities in Central Asia that enhance security, improve economic resilience, support sustainable development, combat climate change, and promote peace. Achieving our shared vision requires sustained partnership that is rooted in mutual respect and accountability to our people. Undertaking this ambitious agenda marks the next chapter for cooperation between the United States and the countries in Central Asia and further underscores the importance of the C5+1 mechanism.”

“We recognize the new atmosphere of partnership under the C5+1 framework, reaffirm the value of the format, and commit to strengthen cooperation, regional security, and sustainable development through regular dialogue and joint action. The commitments made during this Summit are rooted in a shared vision for a more resilient, secure, and prosperous Central Asia. As we work to implement these commitments, we seek to model a sustainable path based on trust to promote inclusive prosperity and security. This joint vision will guide us as we enter the most consequential period in the history of the C5+1 partnership. To that end, our teams will meet regularly, bilaterally, and collectively, and we commit to continue our engagement through C5+1 Ministerial meetings on subjects such as trade, energy, climate, and security. We will endeavor to maintain a high-level dialogue to collectively address emerging challenges, and to ensure our partnership continues to deliver practical results for our people,” the joint statement concludes.

Aside from the C5+1, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States also collaborate closely under the auspices of the B5+1 Forum which serves as a catalyst for economic growth, fostering trade, investment, and economic integration to elevate the economic profile of Central Asia. The aim is for the C5+1’s governments and business sectors to collaborate, transforming Central Asia from a mere transit point into a premier destination in global value chains. To realize this vision, the B5+1 Forum advises on policy formation and the crafting of incentives that enhance trade facilitation, investment, and the smooth transit of goods—tackling regional challenges and extending its reach to the United States and beyond. It champions the synchronization of regulations across vital sectors including trade and logistics, agribusiness, e-commerce, tourism, as well as green and renewable energy.

These nations have consistently met the emigration standards set forth by Jackson-Vanik and maintain cordial ties with Israel, demonstrating no state-sponsored anti-Semitism, and allowing Jewish citizens to emigrate freely. This has led advocacy groups like the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry to endorse the conferring of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status upon these countries.

Congress has moved to update trade statuses for other former Soviet countries, yet some Central Asian states remain unjustly anchored to a bygone era, not due to any misconduct but because of legislative inertia and a dearth of regional attention.

Central Asia’s strategic significance is bolstered by its abundant natural resources, including hydrocarbons and rare earth elements—assets the U.S. must not overlook. The Biden administration’s push to strengthen supply chains can be bolstered by granting PNTR to these nations, thus opening their $280 billion collective market to U.S. enterprises and fostering trade, investment, and growth. This would facilitate economic diversification in Central Asia, promote job creation, enhance living standards, and decrease reliance on Russia and China.

Clinging to an outdated Cold War mentality belittles the independent stature of Central Asian states—a sentiment frequently expressed by regional leaders. Removing this bilateral sore point would signal the U.S.’s dedication to cultivating stronger ties in the area.

While there is room for progress in human rights and political liberties, granting PNTR can amplify U.S. influence to champion these causes. America possesses an extensive array of diplomatic measures, including high-level dialogues, security and economic aid, and collaboration with European democracies, to exert influence over human rights and political reforms. These contemporary tools should replace the outdated trade approaches of the 1970s.

With the erosion of Russia’s sway and the skepticism surrounding China’s intentions, the United States is presented with a prime opportunity—and responsibility—to reshape its engagement with Central Asia. It falls upon Congress to capitalize on this strategic moment and pass legislation that awards Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan the deserved PNTR status, liberating them from the anachronistic strictures of Jackson-Vanik.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.