NUR-SULTAN -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lauded what he said were "real reforms" in Kazakhstan, saying Washington was "here to help" in the oil-rich country's "transformation."
Speaking to RFE/RL in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan on February 2, Pompeo urged the former Soviet republic to join Washington in pressing China over its treatment of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region and said the United States wanted to see Central Asia "prosper."
The secretary of state also commented on the message Washington was sending about press freedoms following the U.S. State Department's removal of a journalist from the pool of reporters covering Pompeo's trip.
Pompeo was meeting with top officials in Nur-Sultan to express U.S. support as Washington competes with Moscow and Beijing for influence in the region.
Washington has seen energy-rich Kazakhstan as a counterweight to Russia in Central Asia, and U.S. oil companies have invested billions in joint ventures to develop Caspian Sea fields.
"We want each of the nations in Central Asia to be independent and sovereign, not a supplicant or a vassal state of any other country in the region," said Pompeo.
Pompeo, who arrived late on February 1, met with President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, before heading to Uzbekistan for the final stop of a tour of five countries.
He was scheduled to meet on February 3 with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, and jointly with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states.
In Nur-Sultan, Pompeo lauded what he said was a "real improvement here in Kazakhstan," adding that there had been "real changes" since Toqaev came to power following the resignation in March 2019 of Nazarbaev, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
"You can see that when more American businesses come," Pompeo said. "They come as a result of the fact that conditions here are improving, that the real reforms are being made."
Toqaev was inaugurated as Kazakhstan's president in June after a weakly contested election that was marred by what international observers called "widespread voting irregularities."
Nazarbaev, 79, continues to control social, economic, and political spheres by leading the ruling Nur-Otan party and the influential Security Council.
Opponents, critics, and rights groups say Nazarbaev, who tolerated little dissent, denied many citizens basic rights and prolonged his hold on power in the country of 18.7 million people by manipulating the democratic process.
The capital, formerly called Astana, was renamed in his honor after his sudden resignation last year.
Protests over poor living conditions and financial shortcomings have been held across Kazakhstan for almost a year after five children from one family died when their home in the capital burned down in early February 2019.
When pressed on human rights issues in Kazakhstan, Pompeo said that "every nation has to get this right for itself."
"The Kazakhstani people must demand it, they must require it, and they need to continue to talk about it. We hope these improvements will continue," he said.
WATCH: Pompeo urged countries of the world to "provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China."
Xinjiang 'A Problem'
Pompeo also urged Kazakh officials to join Washington in pressing China over its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Human rights groups say Chinese authorities have subjected Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to intense surveillance, arbitrary detentions, and forced indoctrination.
China is a major trading partner for the Central Asian country and the Kazakh state-controlled media have generally avoided reporting about the internment centers in Xinjiang.
Pompeo said the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang was "a problem that's got to be taken care of," as he praised Kazakh authorities for not repatriating ethnic Kazakhs from China who have sought refuge in the Central Asian country.
"The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression," Pompeo said earlier on February 2 in a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi.
"We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China. Protect human dignity, just do what's right."
Tleuberdi, whose government has so far refused to criticize China over Xinjiang, made no comment on the issue and focused instead on economic and security cooperation.
In August 2018, the United Nations said an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other indigenous ethnic groups in the region were being held in "counterextremism centers."
The UN said millions more had been forced into so-called "reeducation camps." China denies that the facilities are internment camps.
Pompeo's trip came days after the U.S. State Department removed a reporter from National Public Radio (NPR) from the traveling press pool for his five-country trip, including Great Britain and the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
The removal of the NPR reporter from the pool accompanying Pompeo came after NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly had pressed him about Ukraine and the dismissal of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in a January 24 interview.
Kelly alleged that Pompeo yelled and swore at her during a post-interview discussion in a private room, and has said that she was never told that the conversation was off the record, which the secretary of state disputes.
Asked whether the removal of the NPR journalist came in retaliation to his confrontational interview with Kelly, Pompeo denied that the interview was confrontational in the first place.
"I didn't have a confrontational interview with an NPR reporter any more than I have confrontational interviews all the time in America," he said. "That is the greatness of our nation. Reporters like yourself get to ask me any question, all questions. We take hundreds and hundreds of questions. We talk openly; we express our view; they ask their questions. That's how we proceed in America."
Regarding the removal of the NPR journalist from the reporters' pool, Pompeo said that "with respect to who travels with me, I always bring a big press contingent, but we ask for certain sets of behaviors -- and that is simply telling the truth and being honest."
"And when they'll do that they get to participate and if they don't it's just not appropriate," he added.
When asked what kind of message the NPR reporter's removal from the pool sends to countries with a poor record when it comes to press freedoms, Pompeo replied: "It is a perfect message about press freedoms."
"They are free to ask questions," he said of journalists. "A reporter from that very business [NPR] was at a press conference just yesterday. It is wide open in America. I love it. I hope the rest of the world will follow our press freedoms and the great things we do in the United States."
Pompeo also discussed his upcoming "C5+1" meeting in Tashkent with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
"We'll talk about security matters for sure, we'll talk about economic integration amongst those countries, and we'll talk about how each of these nations can transform their own countries" in terms of political freedoms, economic conditions, and human rights, Pompeo said.
Pompeo will meet separately with Uzbek President Mirziyoev and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
Mirziyoev, a former prime minister, became president after predecessor Islam Karimov's death was announced in September 2016. Karimov had ruled Central Asia's most populous country with an iron fist since before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mirziyoev has taken steps to bolster the country's struggling economy and to implement reforms in Uzbekistan -- where rights abuses had been widespread under Karimov.
Still, rights watchdogs have expressed concerns about conditions in Uzbekistan. Freedom House, for instance, ranked Uzbekistan "not free" in its Freedom On The Net 2018 assessment and said the Internet environment there remained "repressive."
Uzbekistan also has sizable oil and gas reserves, and it has also been seen as a counterweight to Russian influence in the region. It has allied with Washington in the war in Afghanistan and the fight against radical Islamist fighters.
During his stay in Tashkent, the top U.S. diplomat will also participate in a C5+1 ministerial summit with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan "to stress U.S. support for a better-connected, more prosperous, and more secure Central Asia, consistent with the U.S.’s new Central Asia strategy," the State Department said.