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Central Asia: UN Secretary-General Makes First-Ever Visit

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived today in Kazakhstan, the first stop on a visit to the five Central Asian republics. It is Annan's first trip to Central Asia, and the visit reflects the region's growing importance, both economically and politically. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua reports.

Prague, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in the Kazakh capital Astana today for his first-ever trip to former Soviet Central Asia. Annan will spend nearly a week touring a region that has gained international attention over the past year for its strategic proximity to anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan.

In Kazakhstan, Annan held talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who also awarded the secretary-general with the country's highest civilian honor -- the Order of Friendship ("Dostyk") -- for his support of UN-Kazakh relations.

At a joint press conference following the talks, Annan praised Kazakhstan for economic progress made since the country achieved independence in 1991:

"In the decade that has passed since independence, you (Kazakhstan) have achieved a transition from command to market economy, you have attained an enviable rate of economic growth and investment, you have maintained stability inside your country and shown leadership in regional confidence-building measures."

But Annan also appeared to issue a general warning, saying "the foundations of peace are much stronger when people can see that poverty is being reduced, that society is becoming more just, and that these gains can be sustained in the future:"

"The work for enduring peace requires the engagement of everyone. It needs sustained and effective attention from the government in power, from political parties, and above all, from a dynamic and vigilant civil society. Such a vigorous approach constitutes the best guarantee of the fulfillment of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."

Tomorrow (Friday), Annan is expected to meet the heads of local UN agencies. He will also visit speakers of both chambers of the Kazakh parliament and hold talks at the Council of the Kazakhstan Peoples' Assembly.

Annan's trip takes him to a region that has struggled since its 1991 independence. The economies of all five countries in the region -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan -- have remain largely unreformed over the past decade.

In recent months, Central Asian leaders have drawn criticism for increasing attacks on human rights. Local and international rights observers have accused regional leaders of using their nearly unchallenged power to consolidate control of the country and crack down on virtually all forms of opposition.

Following the September 11 attacks on the U.S. and the beginning of the international anti-terror campaign, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan offered the use of military bases to the U.S.-led coalition. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have also forged military cooperation with Washington.

Matilda Bogner, who works for Human Rights Watch in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, says she hopes Annan will use his visit to address the deteriorating state of human rights in the region:

"We would hope that he will raise in each country of his visit [human rights] issues, and raise the possibilities for reform to improve the situation, and specifically that he will raise again civil rights issues that have been raised already by the UN."

In one of the latest examples, Bogner says, the UN's Committee Against Torture in May made concrete recommendations to Uzbekistan on how to improve the country's record on torture.

Bogner says, however, it is n-o-t certain that Annan will make human rights issues a priority during his Central Asian visit.

Alex Vatanka, from "Jane's Sentinel" in London, agrees. He says Annan is expected to offer little more than guarded suggestions or cautious criticism of human rights abuses during his stay:

"There is a degree of diversity when it comes to that issue, but more or less [the Central Asian nations are] all characterized by having in place repressive policies. So human rights opening up on the political front would be an issue that he will raise, I'm sure, because this is a macro-level issue. And this is something he can package in a way that isn't going to offend his hosts in the region."

Vatanka notes that the visit of the UN secretary-general is in itself a victory for Central Asia, a region that has struggled for regional and international significance since gaining independence:

"Kofi Annan's visit to Central Asia is more symbolic than anything else. It is nonetheless of significant importance to the five states of the region, as after a decade of independence, most are still seeking to secure a rightful place on the international stage. So in terms of concrete outcomes, while he is going to spend a week or so in the region, I don't think we should be expecting anything concrete."

On the political and economic front, Vatanka adds, Annan is likely to advocate further regional cooperation and coordination.

After finishing up his Kazakh visit, Annan and his wife will travel tomorrow to Uzbekistan, where the secretary-general will meet President Islam Karimov and other top officials. He will visit the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara during private stops over the weekend, before finishing his trip next week with stops in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Annan arrived in Central Asia from Mongolia, where he stressed the importance of contributions to the UN by small nations, and said larger countries should ensure their smaller neighbors also enjoy the benefits of globalization. Annan said: "What we need more than ever today is a fundamental compact between small states and large, based on an acknowledgment of our mutual interest."

Earlier, during a two-day visit to China, he highlighted the country's looming AIDS epidemic, urging more efforts to educate the public on prevention. "We have to accept that this is not just a medical problem," Annan said. "It is a development problem. It is becoming a security problem. And it really can destroy societies."

The UN secretary-general also asked for international cooperation to defeat what he called "the scourge of terrorism" and said all countries must pledge to deny extremists the financing and safe havens that allow them to operate.