US secretary of state John Kerry brought his Central Asia diplomatic caravan to the Silk Road citadel of Samarkand on Sunday and was welcomed by a notorious strongman.
President Islam Karimov, the 77-year-old autocrat who has ruled Uzbekistan for a quarter-century since independence, hosted Kerry at his sprawling palace complex.
Kerry was keen to discuss closer US economic ties with Central Asia and cooperation in the battle against the Islamic State group, which recruits in the region.
But his willingness to court such a hardline figure will attract criticism from human rights groups.
The US envoy praised the beauty of Samarkand’s monuments, comparing the ancient centre of Islamic learning favourably to the devastation wrought on Syrian sites by IS jihadists.
“We need to talk about the challenges that all of us face regarding security,” Kerry added, noting that Central Asia borders on war-torn Afghanistan.
The two did not take questions. After the brief remarks, they met behind closed doors.
According to the US state department’s 2014 human rights report, Uzbekistan’s authorities are guilty of “torture... denial of due process and fair trial.”
The post-Soviet political system suffers from “an inability to change the government through elections.”
In more colourful language, a leaked 2010 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks branded Karimov’s realm “a nightmarish world of rampant corruption, organised crime, forced labour in the cotton fields and torture.”
Kerry, who on Saturday had a difficult discussion on human rights with his Kyrgyz counterpart, has said he will not shy away from admonishing his hosts on his tour. But he has also made it clear that Washington is ready to work more closely with Central Asian governments in the fight against extremists like the Islamic State group.
On Saturday, Kyrgyz foreign minister Erlan Abdyldaev had complained angrily that the United States had this year given a human rights award to a jailed Kyrgyz activist.
“And I regret that it did result in some concerns,” Kerry admitted, stressing that the disagreement must not hamper cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State.
“We have discussed that very frankly, very openly, and all of us want to move on,” he told reporters after talks with his “friend, Erlan”.
But he added that the United States had been founded with a commitment to human rights and freedoms “and we’re always going to speak to them.”
Later Sunday, Samarkand was the backdrop for the first ministers’ meeting between the United States and all five Central Asian powers.
Limited US role
Diplomats hope the new format -- bearing the less than exotic name of “C5+1” -- will become an ongoing forum for cooperation between Washington and the “‘Stans”.
Kerry and the foreign ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan met over lunch after making brief introductory statements.
All agreed on the need for closer economic cooperation, but none mentioned human rights. Kerry, however, did sing the praises of representative government.
“In Central Asia and elsewhere people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field.”
Washington was among the first foreign capitals to recognise the independence of the Central Asian republics a quarter-century ago when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Since then, Central Asia has tried to maintain a balance between its relations with former master Moscow, rising economic partner China and the United States.
At the height of hostilities in neighbouring Afghanistan, NATO’s war machine maintained important logistics centres in the region, but these have now been closed.
Instead, a newly assertive Russia and a China keen to invest in trade and infrastructure have gained diplomatic ground, with the United States somewhat on the sidelines.
But US and Central Asian officials argue the republics’ relationship with Washington gives them leverage to assert their own agenda in the face of their bigger neighbours.
Kerry is part-way through his first tour of all five of the countries, and has come promising investment in education and cooperation on security threats.