US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Kyrgyzstan on a five-nation tour to reassure ex-Soviet republics of US interest in Central Asia. Human rights groups demand that he call for an end to repressive regimes.
Kerry arrived Saturday in Central Asia, which is facing economic slumps and fears of social unrest following earnings declines for the region's oil exporters and the withdrawal of all but remnant US-led forces from neighboring Afghanistan to the south.
Analysts see the ex-Soviet republics as the latest venue of geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Moscow - alongside Ukraine and Syria - amid NATO doubts over Russia's global intentions and the Kremlin's bid to tackle what it perceives as local Islamist insurgency.
Until last year, the US ran a massive air base in Kyrgyzstan, which served as a "northern distribution network" for NATO troops sent to fight the Taliban and back Afghanistan's government.
In the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Kerry was due to open the campus of a new American University for Central Asia and a new US embassy compound.
A US official traveling with Kerry described Kyrgystan's recent election as "very robust" and "competitive" and played down doubts among foreign observers.
On Sunday, Kerry travels on to Uzbekistan to meet regional foreign ministers as part of what Washington calls a "C5+1" initiative to engage with Central Asia.
A senior fellow at the Washington think tank CSIS, Jeffrey Mankoff, said Kerry's visit was connected to Russia's "geopolitical ambitions," including Washington's suspicion that Moscow could be trying to re-establish its former Cold War empire.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are within Moscow's orbit, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could be courted by the US as ostensibly more open-minded, he said.
For years, Moscow and Washington had maintained an uneasy truce over Central Asia in the wake of the 2001 al Qaeda airline hijacker attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
In recent months, Moscow sent extra aircraft to a Russian air base in Tajikistan, while in the Middle East, Russia deployed troops and aircraft to Syria to back President Bashar al-Assad in his fight with a multitude of rebel forces.
"Not all Central Asian nations back Russia," said Temir Sariyev, an analyst based in Kyrgyzstan. "Kerry will attempt to isolate Moscow."
From Syria to Central Asia
Kerry arrived in Bishkek from Vienna, where diplomats from 17 nations as well as the EU and UN on Friday sought ways to end Syria's four-year-long civil war. For the first time since 2011, those talks involved Assad's ally Iran.
Former US assistant secretary of defense Derek Chollet said Friday's announcement by Washington that 50 special operations troops would be sent to Syria to fight Islamic State (IS) militants was also a bid to "give us leverage for the diplomatic track."
Chollet, who is now a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund, said the diplomacy also set up momentum for US President Barack Obama's visit to Turkey in November for a G-20 summit along with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Human Rights Watch on Friday urged Kerry to push Central Asian leaders, such as Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon, to improve their countries' rights records.
Tajikistan's main opposition party was recently banned.
Amnesty International said torture and disappearances were endemic in Central Asia.
Debate over causes
Researcher Edward Lemon of Britain's Exeter University told the news agency AFP that persecution provoked radicalization.
"The danger posed by Islamic State is in fact less than the danger posed by the regime," said Lemon, referring to Tajikistan.
"There's this kind of Soviet system of close regulation of religious practices, and that's more likely to cause people to turn to resort to violence and rebel against the state," Lemon added.
Also watching is China, whose restive Xinjiang region borders Kyrgyzstan and which is present in several Kyrgyz industries, including energy and mining.
ipj/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)