U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mixed courtship of Central Asian nations with efforts to prod their authoritarian governments on democracy and human rights during a visit to the strategic, mostly Muslim region neighboring Afghanistan.
Kerry's first trip around former Soviet Central Asia in more than two years as the top U.S. diplomat comes as both China and Russia seek expanded influence and the extremist group Islamic State draws recruits from the region, where poverty and powerlessness create volatility.
Kerry suggested that steps toward greater democracy would make the region -- where three of the leaders have ruled for more than a decade and only Kyrgyzstan stands out with a relatively pluralistic political system -- more stable and secure.
"We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance leads to gains in every other field about which we're talking," Kerry said at a November 1 meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan with the foreign ministers of that country as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Meeting separately with autocratic Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Kerry made no explicit mention of human rights in the presence of reporters, but said he wanted to talk with Karimov and the foreign ministers "about the human dimension, the issues of individuals and their participation in society".
Kerry was met at the airport in Samarkand by Karimov, who has been in power since before the Central Asian nations gained independence from Moscow in the 1991 Soviet breakup.
Global human rights bodies list Karimov's government as among the world's most repressive, and the latest State Department report on human rights around the world cites torture, forced labour in the Uzbek cotton fields and "endemic corruption." But Uzbekistan has provided logistical support for the U.S.-led military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.
Rights And Trade
As security officers started ushering reporters out of the room where Kerry was meeting Karimov, one American reporter shouted a question to Karimov about his response to the State Department's critique of Uzbekistan's human rights record. Karimov ignored the question. Kerry began responding but the reporter was pushed out of the room before he finished what he was saying, the Reuters news agency reported.
A State Department summary of the meeting said the two men had talked about "respect for human rights and political freedoms" along with security and economic issues.
Kerry, who was in neighboring Kyrgyzstan on October 31 and also plans to visit the other three Central Asian countries, has said he will not be afraid to criticize his hosts. But he has also made it clear that Washington is ready to maintain and improve ties in the region despite its concerns.
With Russia seeking to strengthen trade and security alliances with the Central Asian states, China gaining clout, and the threat from Islamic extremism seeming to grow, Kerry assured the foreign ministers that Washington backs their independence.
"The United States does support the sovereignty and territorial integrity and independence of each country that's represented here," he said at the start of the meeting.
WATCH: Kerry Lands In Kazakhstan As Central Asian Tour Continues
Already faced with an economic slowdown, Central Asian governments fear the sharp reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year signals an end Washington's interest in the region.
Until 2014, Kyrgyzstan was home to a U.S. air base at Manas airport that was a crucial transport and supply hub for NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan. The base has since closed and the U.S. Afghan operation, while prolonged into at least 2017, has been dramatically scaled back.
Economic troubles worsened by last year's oil-price collapse and oil exports and sanctions against Russia could feed social unrest in Central Asia, contributing to the threat from Islamist extremism.
After visiting Uzbekistan, Kerry has arrived in Kazakhstan for the next leg of his journey.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters