The United States is seen as a promoter of democracy and human rights, and Rice could not escape addressing these issues.
But other players have emerged, or reemerged, in Central Asia that have less concern about rights and democracy. And, like the U.S., they have their own business and security interests in the region.
Rice visited three Central Asian nations – Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. All three countries are members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is dominated by Russia; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by Russia and China. Both organizations are suspicious of U.S. intentions in Central Asia.
There was speculation that Rice would avoid talk of democratic reform and human rights issues. But in Kazakhstan yesterday, Rice said there was no conflict between such issues and business and security interests.
“I think if we were interested only in oil and the war on terrorism, we would not be speaking in the way that we are about democracy here," he said. "Quite clearly, while we do have interests in terms of resources and in terms of the struggle for terrorism, we have in no way allowed those interests to get in the way of our open and clear defense of freedom.”
Emphasizing this was the decision to remove Uzbekistan from Rice’s itinerary. U.S.-Uzbek ties are at a low ebb after Washington’s criticism of the Uzbek government crackdown on demonstrators in Andijon in May.
Human rights groups say hundreds of civilians were killed in the violence, which Tashkent has described as an attempted coup by Islamic militants. The U.S. says the demonstration was the result of the government's repressive policies, and has backed calls for an independent inquiry into the bloodshed.
Rice mentioned this in Kyrgyzstan on 11 October.
"Well, our view is that the countries that fulfill their international responsibilities are the ones that the international system respects and ultimately rewards," she said. "Uzbekistan is not fulfilling its international responsibilities at this point, and everyone knows that. And Uzbekistan is losing support throughout Europe and certainly with the United States and that cannot be good for the people of Uzbekistan.”
The fallout from the dispute was the Uzbek government’s demand that U.S. forces using an air base for operations in Afghanistan vacate the facility by year’s end.
Some opposition figures felt Rice was generally too careful in her comments.
Addressing university students in Kazakhstan, Rice called the country a key regional partner and potential model for Central Asia.
Bulat Abilov of Kazakhstan's opposition True Ak Zhol party questioned this rosy interpretation. He pointed out that a prominent Kazakh opposition leader was arrested ahead of his scheduled meeting with Rice.
“[On 14 October], in the middle of Almaty, 20 masked policemen arrested our chief of staff [in support of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai’s candidacy to the presidency], Tolen Tokhtasynov. Do you think it's OK, when, on one hand, a well-educated nation, and, on the other hand, an authoritarian leader can cause those kind of problems? Is it possible, or is there any experience in the world, when authoritarian regimes of that sort were able to hold free, fair, and just elections?"
In Tajikistan, Rice met with leaders of various political parties. There, as in Kazakhstan, Rice focused on ties with the U.S. and progress in democratic reform.
But after the meeting in Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Valiyev of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan said Rice’s praise of the country's progress toward democracy omitted some vital points.
“We all came to the conclusion that the [parliamentary] elections in 2000 were more free and more democratic than the elections in 2005," he said. "And freedom of the press in 2000 was better than in 2005. And we [opposition party representatives] said in such a situation in what direction is Tajikistan headed when two basic democratic institutions of Tajikistan are not even developing. It should be the other way around, that in 2005 the level of democracy and freedom should be better. But the opposite is true.”
Rice’s trip secured more promises from Kyrgyzstan’s leadership that the U.S.-led coalition operating in Afghanistan could still use an airbase outside Bishkek. The base has new significance after the Uzbek eviction notice.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization supported Uzbekistan’s decision about the base. Washington suspects that it was Russia and China who convinced the Uzbeks to make the decision. In the last year officials from Russia and China have been frequent visitors to Central Asia, successfully coming to promote their own business interests and give promises of security help.
In Kyrgyzstan, Rice said it was logical that Central Asian nations maintained good ties with Moscow and Beijing.
“There will be economic and political support for Kyrgyzstan from many countries," she said. "But I want to be very clear -- we want Kyrgyzstan to have good relations with its neighbors, good relations with Russia, good relations with China, good relations in the region. We have good relations with those countries and we hope that Kyrgyzstan will, too. There is nothing about having good relations with the United States that suggests you have to choose to have bad relations with your neighbors. You should have good relations with your neighbors."
Rice’s trip reinforced U.S. ties to the countries she visited and garnered further promises for using the military base in Kyrgyzstan. But for the opposition, or those who feel they have no voice in their countries’ affairs, there was little to offer them hope that the U.S. would want, or be able, to apply much pressure on governments in the region to effect change any time soon.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik Services contributed to this report.)
Rice Calls For Free, Fair Elections In Kazakhstan