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Kerry Kicks Off Central Asian Tour With Visit To Kyrgyzstan

  • RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

BISHKEK -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev in Kyrgyzstan at the start of his tour of the five countries of Central Asia.

Kerry congratulated Atambaev on the country's parliamentary elections held on October 4, which were deemed free and fair by international observers, a rarity in the region.

Kerry later told Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev that Washington has "staunchly supported [Kyrgyzstan's]...independence, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and I can assure you that is not going to change."

Kerry and Abdyldaev attended the ceremonial opening of the new U.S. Embassy building in Bishkek and a newly built campus for the America University of Central Asia.

Kerry will continue over the next four days to visit Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan in an effort to reassure them of United States support.

Already faced with a dramatic economic slowdown, Central Asian governments fear the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will end Washington's interest in the region.

Until last year, Kyrgyzstan was home to a massive U.S. air base at Manas airport that was the hub of the "northern distribution network" for NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Kerry (left) holds talks in Bishkek with President Almazbek Atamabev

Kerry (left) holds talks in Bishkek with President Almazbek Atamabev

The base has since closed and the Afghan operation, while prolonged into at least 2017, has been dramatically scaled back, cutting off a huge source of foreign income for the Central Asian state.

Combined with a drop in the price of the region's oil exports and sanctions against its major economic partner, Russia, the five republics are facing a squeeze.

This may, in turn, feed social unrest in a region with an unenviable recent history of brutal government repression, partly in response to fears of Islamist insurgents.

Kerry is under pressure from human rights defenders to admonish his hosts for their record, but U.S. officials said he will also be keen to show America's supportive side.

Of the five countries, Kyrgyzstan is the only one with any democratic credentials and it is setting an example that Washington supports by establishing a parliamentary democracy.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said Kyrgyz parliamentary elections earlier this month had been "very robust and competitive."

Six parties won seats in parliament.

But even with Kyrgyzstan, a small nation of less than 6 million people, ties have not always been warm.

In July, relations soured amid Kyrgyz official anger that Kerry's State Department had awarded a prize to a human rights activist jailed in his country.

Kerry's next stop, on November 1, is to the ancient citadel of Samarkand in Uzbekistan to inaugurate a new diplomatic format for engaging with the region.

In blue-domed Samarkand, once a central point on the Silk Road, Kerry will hold a meeting with foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states, being dubbed the C5+1.

Visiting the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, Kerry is likely to praise a U.S.-backed project aiming to bring Turkmen natural gas to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan. The route will reduce Turkmenistan's reliance on Russia to buy its output.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters