WATCH: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared alongside Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi at a press conference on the second day of her two-day visit to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on October 22. (natural sound)
DUSHANBE -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used her first official visit to Tajikistan to reach out directly to the Tajik people and stress U.S. concerns over religious and other rights there.
Speaking to a gathering of intellectuals in Dushanbe before meeting with top officials, Clinton addressed some of the most heartfelt concerns of her audience as she spoke of the importance Washington places on human rights.
"We strongly support the right of Tajik citizens to receive a decent education, to own land, to enjoy a free and independent media, to participate equally in the political process and enjoy all the universal rights that should be available to any man or woman," Clinton said.
She also said that Washington "strongly believe[s] that fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, should be protected for all people, young and old, men and women."
Ownership of land and freedom of religion are among the most discussed aspects of life in Tajikistan, where human rights activists still wrestle with the country's Soviet past.
Critics accuse the government of tolerating high levels of corruption among officials who use their position to appropriate private land and sell it for gain. The practice not only exacerbates an already critical housing shortage in Tajikistan. It also complicates the government's own announced program to put more land into the hands of more ordinary citizens so they can farm it to ease the country's chronic food shortages.
At the same time, the government puts strict limits on religion, with young people under the age of 18 and all women barred from praying in mosques. The secular government says young people are better served by attending school and that conditions in the mosques are not appropriate for both sexes to worship simultaneously. Many Tajiks, however, see the measures as intended to counter the return of religion to the traditionally Muslim country and prevent it from becoming a force for change.
But Clinton did not only speak about personal freedoms. She also spoke of the need for economic development in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of the ex-Soviet republics.
"We want to help increase economic opportunity here in Tajikistan so that so many of your people do not have to leave home to find work, that there can be a flourishing economy right here," Clinton said. "Now we know that won't happen overnight, barriers to trade have to come down, foreign investment must be attracted, so the United States is supporting what we are calling the New Silk Road, a network of transit and trade connections to open up new markets for raw materials and energy and agricultural products that can be traded among all the nations in your region."
Out-migration of labor remains one of Tajikistan's greatest problems as the domestic economy is unable to support all those who need to work. The most common destinations are Russia or neighboring Central Asian republics, where illegal migrants are frequently subjected to degrading treatment or slave-like working conditions.
Clinton said that critical to economic development are regional approaches that could help to solve Tajikistan's chronic energy shortages in the winter time and lay a more reliable foundation for economic growth.
"We are working with the Agha Khan Development Network to support new energy, to build an integrated energy grid along the Tajik-Afghan border," Clinton said. "We want to spur growth, create jobs, invigorate the private sector and fully integrate Tajikistan into the South and Central Asian economy."
Many Tajiks say their energy problems are compounded by chronic political feuding between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both of which hold resources the other wants. Tajikistan has ample water sources, while gas-rich Uzbekistan has ample energy. Regional efforts that could increase sharing between the two neighbors, as well as other countries in the region, could help ease the country's current economic isolation.
Yet if concerns for personal freedom and economic opportunities dominated much of Clinton's unprecedented townhall meeting in Dushanbe today, they were not the only subjects which elicited strong interest and periodic outbursts of applause from the audience. So did the sensitive question of women's right in the still very traditional Tajik society.
Asked by a member of the audience whether she feels women have a right to participate in politics, Clinton reminded her listeners of her own personal story as a recent candidate for president in America.
"I think that woman should be given the opportunity to serve in government as officials and ministers," Clinton said. "Many of you probably may remember I ran for president because I believe women should compete for all positions in the political system of their country. And it was a very hard fought election and President Obama defeated me but I then was proud to go work for him when he asked me to serve in his government. So, I think that it should be a question of personal choice."
The town hall meeting was attended by several hundred citizens who crowded into the Cultural Center of Agha Khan in downtown Dushanbe to hear the top U.S. Secretary of State.
One attendee, Tajik journalist Abdugaffor Kamolov, told RFE/RL that the message he took home was one of self-empowerment.
"The message that I got from the meeting with the U.S. secretary of state is that all changes must begin within a person, no one else can bring these changes," Kamolov said. "That is, we ourselves must build our country and our freedom, our independence by our own hands. Nobody will do it for us. Similarly, when you talk with the Americans, they always say that the freedom and independence which they have were created by the efforts of every American."
Clinton was in Dushanbe as part of a regional tour that already has taken her to Afghanistan and Pakistan. She goes on to Uzbekistan today.
Rights activists have urged U.S. officials to maintain pressure on Uzbek President Islam Karimov to improve his administration's poor rights record, which has included accusations of the routine torture of detainees and other grave offenses.
Before arriving in Tajikistan on October 21, Clinton visited Afghanistan and Pakistan to urge increased cooperation against militants responsible for attacks on U.S.-led targets in Afghanistan.
with additional agency reporting