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Blinken Voices Support for Independence, Sovereignty of Kazakhstan


United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi greet each other at the end of a joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Astana, Kazakhstan, Feb. 28, 2023.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi greet each other at the end of a joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Astana, Kazakhstan, Feb. 28, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged support Tuesday for Kazakhstan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity during his first visit to Central Asia as the top U.S. diplomat.

At a news conference after a meeting with officials of the five Central Asian states in the Kazakh capital, Astana, Blinken said, “We are watching compliance with sanctions very closely, and we're having an ongoing discussion with a number of countries, including our C5 partners, on the economic spillover effects.”

The sanctions are intended by Western nations to pressure Moscow to end its war on Ukraine.

Blinken added that temporary waivers have been granted to companies or entities in countries that are engaged with sanctioned Russian companies so that they have time to wind down those activities and cut their ties with Russia.

On Tuesday, Blinken also announced additional aid to Kazakhstan.

“We also stood up the economic resilience initiative for Central Asia — $25 million to expand regional trade routes, establish new export markets, attract and leverage greater private sector investment, providing people with practical skills for the modern job market. Today, I'm announcing an additional $25 million to that initiative, a total of $50 million to build up the regional economy,” he said at a joint press conference with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi.

Kazakhstan has a population of 19 million people, of whom 3.5 million are ethnic Russians and 250,000 are ethnic Ukrainians.

“The level of concern is very high and has been from the beginning,” said a Central Asian senior official, referring to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Kazakhstan has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is the only one among Central Asia leaders who keeps in touch with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to the official.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan maintains good relations with both Russia and China.

“Kazakhstan will continue its multilateral foreign policy. It means that we are trying to keep the system of checks and balances to develop the mutually beneficial cooperation relationship with all the countries of the world," Tileuberdi said during the press conference on Tuesday.

Blinken renewed the U.S. warning for China not to provide lethal weapons to Russia for its use in the war against Ukraine. He said the U.S. has "information" that China is considering moving beyond the nonlethal support that some of its companies have been providing to lethal material support for Russia.

“We will not hesitate” to target Chinese companies or individuals that violate our sanctions or otherwise engage in supporting the Russian war effort in Ukraine, Blinken added.

Ahead of the trip, the Biden administration said it was focused on supporting independence and sovereignty of the region’s five former Soviet republics, which maintain strong political, economic and socio-cultural ties with Russia.

Blinken’s meeting with Central Asian officials Tuesday was aimed at boosting regional cooperation. It was a continuation of the C5+1 diplomatic dialogue launched in 2015 with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

As he began a meeting with Tokayev, Blinken said he looked forward to engaging with foreign ministers from the group in “ever more practical work in bringing the region together, creating greater connections, connectivity and focusing on practical things that we can do to strengthen that work.”

U.S. officials say the trip is an opportunity to reach out and try to improve alliances as the United States tries to further isolate Russia for invading Ukraine. But democracy supporters also are urging Washington 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.

Strategic move

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 [Russian 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 multivector 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, has said 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.

Blinken’s meetings with Kazakh and Uzbek leaders were expected 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.

Despite progress in recent years, human rights reports by the State Department and international watchdogs point to widespread violations of basic freedoms in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, specifically by law enforcement and other authorities.

U.S. assistance

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, or 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.

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 of Uzbekistan, 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, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev voiced support for 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 repression under previous Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, Tashanov sees two clear paths for his country: true democratic reforms or further authoritarianism.

U.S. 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.”

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.