John Kerry in Uzbekistan
US Secretary of State John Kerry with his counterparts from Kyrgyzstan (left), Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on Sunday.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski

One has been accused of boiling prisoners alive. Another nurtures a bizarre, North Korean-style personality cult. A third clinched his fifth consecutive presidential term last spring with a totally inconspicuous 97.7 percent of the vote.

Meet US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest partners in diplomacy.

Washington’s top diplomat made his rounds this week to Central Asia’s five former Soviet republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Commentators say Kerry’s four-day trip was aimed at countering Russian influence there. He was also working to reassure the countries that America remains committed in the region even as it slowly withdraws troops out of Afghanistan.

Still, it makes things awkward when most of the five “stans,” as they’re sometimes known, are run by men accused of flouting democracy and systematically abusing human rights.

Case in point: Just last week, rights activists accused Turkmenistan of wantonly demolishing thousands of homes with little regard for their residents.

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Earlier this year, Uzbekistan reportedly banned college political science studies, lest the country’s bright young minds start asking questions about its stifling political climate.

Even Kyrgyzstan, the most open of the five countries, passed a law this year requiring some non-governmental organizations to register as “foreign agents.”

Before his trip, activists called on Kerry to put human rights at the top of his agenda. 

But during a stop in Uzbekistan, journalists on location said he steered clear of publicly criticizing the government of President Islam Karimov, who is accused of torturing his opponents and crushing all dissent. A Washington Post reporter was even escorted away from an official bilateral meeting after she attempted to ask Kerry about human rights concerns.

 

A day later, though, the secretary said in Kazakhstan that fighting terrorism through non-democratic methods — a popular tactic among Central Asia’s autocrats — is a bad move.

“Terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent,” he said.

Whether or not Kerry raised these issues more vocally behind closed doors, there appear to be bigger geopolitical issues at stake.

For more than a decade, Washington had been interested in cultivating allies close to Afghanistan to help its war effort there. It once had air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

But now, as it’s gradually withdrawing most of its troops, analysts say the US is more concerned about Russia’s continued dominance in the region, which the Kremlin considers its own backyard.

Moscow has made numerous overtures in recent years indicating its desire to pull most of the Central Asian countries deeper into its orbit of influence. Meanwhile, its meddling in Ukraine and, now, Syria, makes Western leaders worry that the Kremlin will flex its muscles anywhere it can.

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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