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Kyrgyz President Cancels September Trip To U.S.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has canceled a trip to the United States that was planned for late September, citing looming elections but hinting at deepening strains in the relationship between Washington and Bishkek.

Atambaev had planned to take part in the UN General Assembly's annual session on September 28 and meet with a number of foreign leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

The change of plans is likely to fuel speculation that what the U.S. State Department describes as a "strong partnership" is unwinding in a region where rivals Russia and China have sought to limit U.S. influence.

Atambaev, who took office in December 2011, has never paid a presidential visit to the United States.

His spokesman, Almaz Usenov, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on August 27 that next month's trip was canceled due to parliamentary elections scheduled for October 4.

Opposition lawmaker Ravshan Jeenbekov criticized the president's decision, suggesting it was aimed at avoiding angering Moscow.

"If we do not visit the [United Nations], international organizations and groups will be less interested in us," Jeenbekov told RFE/RL. "The United States and other Western states might decrease their economic, humanitarian, and social assistance to Kyrgyzstan. It is wrong to follow Russia only. That might turn into an obstacle for our politicians and our youth."

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been tense since Russia occupied and annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March 2014.

Kyiv, Washington, and EU states have tried to punish Russia for its support for separatists in Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Western hopes have been high for Kyrgyzstan since street protests chased its first post-Soviet president from office in the so-called Tulip Revolution in 2005, eventually leading to Central Asia's first peaceful presidential handover in 2011.

The United States and its allies used a Kyrgyz air strip at Manas for a key supply route for military and other operations in Afghanistan after 2001, but handed the facility back in June 2014.

Russia maintains a military base at Kant, in Kyrgyzstan.

And Bishkek this month became a full member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

In July, Bishkek terminated a long-standing cooperation agreement with Washington after the United States bestowed a prestigious human rights award on an imprisoned ethnic Uzbek activist from Kyrgyzstan, a move that the Kyrgyz government called a "provocation."

Ethnic Uzbek activist Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for organizing deadly clashes during ethnically charged street violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, was awarded the U.S. State Department's 2014 Human Rights Defender prize and praised for "bringing together people of all ethnicities."

Bishkek said the move could nurture a dangerous "separatist mood" among Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek minority.

Washington warned that terminating the cooperation accord could "jeopardize" U.S. assistance to the country.

The U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Richard Hoagland, and Kyrgyz Deputy Foreign Minister Askar Beshimov met in Bishkek in late July to discuss bilateral ties.