As Antony Blinken makes his first visit to Central Asia as U.S. secretary of state this week, the Biden administration says it is focused on supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the region's five former Soviet republics, which maintain strong political, economic and socio-cultural ties with Russia.
Blinken travels to Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy with the highest level of U.S. investment, as well as Uzbekistan, the most populous country.
The trip is an opportunity to reach out and try to improve alliances as Washington looks to further isolate Russia for invading Ukraine. But democracy supporters are urging the U.S. to promote systemic reforms, arguing that accountability, openness and the rule of law are prerequisites for ensuring the region's long-term security and prosperity.
Richard Hoagland, a former ambassador to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, sees Blinken's trip "as a welcome reminder to the Central Asian leaders that U.S. foreign policy is paying attention while they grapple with their traditionally dominant partner, Russia, because of [President Vladimir] Putin's criminal war in Ukraine."
"Washington has no desire to supplant Moscow in Central Asia," Hoagland told VOA. "But it does want to remind the leaders of the region that the United States has not forgotten their multi-vector foreign policy and continues to be a reliable partner."
Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, a senior policy official traveling with Blinken to the region this week, added that Russia's war in Ukraine has put enormous pressure on these countries.
"We see high food and fuel prices, high unemployment, difficulty in exporting their goods, slow post-COVID recovery, and a large influx of migrants from Russia. We are working to support people in the region," Lu told reporters in a briefing last week.
There has been no official mention of neighboring Afghanistan ahead of this trip, which has long been a priority in U.S. engagement with the region. On February 28, Blinken will participate in C5+1, a diplomatic dialogue launched in 2015 among five Central Asian countries and Washington to boost regional cooperation. Bilateral talks are also planned in Kazakhstan, including with the foreign ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
On Tuesday, in Astana with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and on Wednesday in Tashkent with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Blinken is to focus on security issues and economic cooperation, while also urging leaders to speed up promised reforms.
"Advancing human rights in Central Asia has always been a top priority of the United States. We are committed to supporting the protection of vulnerable populations in Central Asia. That includes refugees, asylum-seekers, LGBTQI+ persons, women, and girls," Lu said.
In both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, despite progress in recent years, the State Department's human rights reports as well as international watchdogs point to widespread violations of basic freedoms, specifically by law enforcement and other authorities.
"It makes sense for human rights issues to feature strongly in Secretary Blinken's talks in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan," said Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia director.
"Human rights improvements would mean more stability, which is certainly lacking in the region. He should, for instance, press for effective independent investigations into what happened during the protests in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan and in the January events in Kazakhstan. Without real respect for human rights, these governments won't be reliable partners for the U.S.," Williamson said.
With Ukraine high on Blinken's agenda, Lu told reporters, "We are not asking for countries to choose between us and Russia, or us and China." He argued that Astana and Tashkent value America's unique political and economic input which "are different from the engagement of Moscow and Beijing."
While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have avoided explicit condemnation of the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine, they have refused to recognize the independence of Russia-backed separatist regions in Ukraine, nor their annexation late last year by Putin.
"We've committed $41.5 million in assistance this year to Central Asia to support food security and economies that we see are struggling. This money will help them explore new export routes, retrain their workforce, reduce unemployment, and spur private sector growth," said Lu.
The State Department is helping Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan avoid secondary sanctions, as the West increases economic and financial restrictions against Russia.
"We have issued a license so that the Caspian Pipeline Consortium is able to transfer Kazakh oil to markets. It's a pipeline that goes through Russia," Lu said. "The purpose of these sanctions is to target entities in Russia that are fueling Putin's war in Ukraine, it's not to harm the interests of Central Asian republics or their peoples or their economies. Here's an illustration of how we have made sure the world knows it's fine to use Kazakh oil that comes out of this pipeline."
Three banks have been transformed from Russian subsidiaries to wholly locally owned, added Lu, through licenses allowing for the transfer of assets into Kazakh hands.
It boils down to freedom
Closely watching Blinken's visit, Uzbek and Kazakh civil society activists are asking the U.S. to push for systemic reforms without which, they argue, these republics will not be able to overcome geopolitical challenges, including preserving their independence.
"We have seen some positive action by the Uzbek government, but it has a long way to go in terms of allowing political freedoms and space for pluralism," Abdurahmon Tashanov, who heads the Ezgulik Human Rights Society, told VOA from Tashkent. "The state must ease the registration of nongovernmental organizations and political parties. The authorities don't seem to want to take these steps."
Last week, President Mirziyoyev voiced support of journalists and bloggers, "confessing" that many around him want to suppress media freedom. He claims he is open to constructive criticism.
"Freedom of expression and media are basic rights to be enjoyed by everyone, not because the president backs them or wants to allow them," Tashanov said.
As a witness to the repressions under the previous Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, Tashanov sees two clear paths for his country: true democratic reforms or further authoritarianism.
American officials say Washington will remain on the side of reforms, and not just in Uzbekistan, advancing "our shared goal of a prosperous, secure and democratic region."