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Biden Meets 5 Central Asia Leaders on UN Sidelines

Central Asia leaders and U.S. officials, from left, Uzbekistan's Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon, Kazakhstan's Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Zhaparov, Turkmenistan's Serdar Berdymukhamedov, Sept. 19, 2023.
Central Asia leaders and U.S. officials, from left, Uzbekistan's Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon, Kazakhstan's Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Zhaparov, Turkmenistan's Serdar Berdymukhamedov, Sept. 19, 2023.

President Joe Biden is turning Washington's gaze to Central Asia — a region the West has long been accused of overlooking — in an effort to strengthen ties with the landlocked region bordered by Russia and China.

On the sidelines Tuesday of the United Nations General Assembly, Biden met with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The former Soviet states have continuing security ties with Russia and growing economic and diplomatic ties to China — and great cultural and historical significance as the main arteries of the Silk Road, the ancient network of Eurasian trade routes that connected the East and West for 1,500 years.

Biden described this meeting of the C5+1 diplomatic platform — held for the first time at this level — as "a historic moment, building on years of close cooperation."

"Today, we're taking our cooperation to new heights," Biden said, noting that efforts would include strengthened counterterrorism cooperation and increased U.S. security funding in the region, new business connections with the U.S. private sector, and "the potential for a new critical minerals dialogue."

UN Speeches Reflect Dire Realities on the Ground
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None of the other five leaders spoke during the group’s brief interaction with reporters after their meeting.

Analysts say the attention is long overdue.

"No U.S. president has ever visited Central Asia," Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, told VOA via email. "The U.S. has never taken the region seriously in its own right."

Eric Green, former senior director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council, told VOA's Uzbek Service that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted many countries to reconsider their diplomatic ties.

"This meeting is a recognition of two key factors: First, the changing geopolitical environment in this region following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine," Green told VOA via email. "This has prompted all countries, especially those bordering Russia, to reassess their political, economic and security postures, and I think there is an interest in diversification and balance.

“The second factor is the progress at regional integration within Central Asia. This is evidenced by an increased tempo of meetings at all levels and discussions about common challenges such as water, energy, climate and trade."

And the time is right, defense analysts say.

"Central Asia's souring relations with Russia and growing skepticism of Chinese influence have created a window of opportunity for the United States to bolster its image through greater long-term investment in the region," said Hunter Stoll, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, on the RAND blog.

"Because the United States is unlikely to outspend China or even Russia, its approach needs to be deliberate and focused on areas where it can see the greatest return on investment."

'Face time’

Kadyr Toktogulov, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the U.S., attended the inaugural meeting of the diplomatic grouping in 2015 in the ancient city of Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan.

"I'm very encouraged by the progress that C5+1 has made, to come to the presidential level within just eight years," he told VOA from Prague. "I think it's quite remarkable."

"Face time with the U.S. president is always a big deal," he added. "And actually, it's a pretty hard currency when it comes to Central Asian republics' engagement with both Russia and China."

The region's desire for greater global recognition was clear on the floor of the U.N. on Tuesday, as Biden and other world leaders spoke.

"I am convinced that the time has come to start an inclusive, full-scale, and systemic dialogue between Central Asia and the U.N.," said Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan's 41-year-old president. He added that his nation would offer to host the inaugural conference.

'A lot more to do'

Berdimuhamedow claimed a landslide victory in a 2022 poll that international observers questioned for its freedom, fairness and transparency. He followed the 15-year tenure of his father, a harsh authoritarian who once won a presidential poll by an astonishing 98% against eight other candidates.

The father-son pair followed the independent nation's first post-Soviet leader, who memorialized himself with a rotating, gold-plated statue of himself in the capital and renamed cities and months after himself and family members.

Rights groups urged Biden to use the meeting to emphasize human rights. All five nations have a documented history of credible, serious allegations of abuses.

These include a harsh government crackdown on Kazakh political protesters in 2022, current moves toward more repressive laws by Kyrgyz authorities, and the general pall over human rights and free expression in Turkmenistan — a nation so isolated, repressive and so deeply steeped in a cult of personality around its ruling dynasty that it has been nicknamed "the North Korea of Central Asia."

"They should seek guarantees on fundamental standards of the rule of law and human rights," said Iskra Kirova, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Biden should ask for explicit steps to end politically motivated prosecutions, suppression of free speech and impunity for torture and police brutality."

Biden did not mention human rights in his comments, but the White House readout of the meeting said he “welcomed his counterparts' views on how our nations can work together to further strengthen the Central Asian nations' sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity while also advancing human rights through our C5+1 partnership.”

Toktogulov noted that all five nations have secular governments, are relatively stable and cooperated with the U.S. during its involvement in Afghanistan.

"There's certainly a lot more to achieve and to do in terms of addressing human rights, concerns and some of the troubles — in some republics more than others," he said.

"But I think it's the engagement and this constant dialogue that would actually help the republics of Central Asia and the governments of Central Asia to pay closer attention to the issues of democracy and human rights, and actually do something meaningful on those issues."

For now, Toktogulov said, the key is more engagement.

"I would like to see a U.S. president to finally visit Central Asia, or perhaps one of the next presidential summits could be held in Central Asia," he said.

In his closing words Tuesday to the world leaders, Biden appeared to hint at that.

"I look forward to seeing you soon," he said. "Possibly in one of your countries."