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Kerry Kicks Off Central Asian Tour With Visit To Kyrgyzstan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.

BISHKEK -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kyrgyzstan on October 31 to kick off a tour of the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Over four days, at official events in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, Kerry will seek to reassure them the United States has not abandoned them.

He landed at Manas airport outside Bishkek and headed into the capital to meet President Almazbek Atambaev and Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev.

Already faced with a dramatic economic slowdown, Central Asian governments fear the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will end Washington's interest in the region.

Until last year Kyrgyzstan, Kerry's first stop, was home to a massive U.S. air base at Manas airport that was the hub of the "northern distribution network" for NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Kerry attends the opening of a new compound at the U.S. Embassy.
Kerry attends the opening of a new compound at the U.S. Embassy.

The base has since closed and the Afghan operation, while prolonged into at least 2017, has been dramatically scaled back, cutting off a huge source of foreign income for the Central Asian state.

Combined with a drop in the price of the region's oil exports and sanctions against its major economic partner, Russia, the five republics are facing a squeeze.

This may, in turn, feed social unrest in a region with an unenviable recent history of brutal government repression, partly in response to fears of Islamist insurgents.

Kerry is under pressure from human rights defenders to admonish his hosts for their record, but U.S. officials said he will also be keen to show America's supportive side.

Of the five countries, Kyrgyzstan is the only one with any democratic credentials and it is setting an example that Washington supports by establishing a parliamentary democracy.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said Kyrgyz parliamentary elections earlier this month had been "very robust and competitive."

Six parties won seats in parliament.

But even with Kyrgyzstan, a small nation of less than 6 million people, ties have not always been warm.

In July, relations soured amid Kyrgyz official anger that Kerry's State Department had awarded a prize to a human rights activist jailed in his country.

After his official meetings in Bishkek, Kerry was to open a new compound at the U.S. Embassy and a newly built campus at the American University of Central Asia.

On November 1, he is due to travel to the ancient citadel of Samarkand in Uzbekistan to inaugurate a new diplomatic format for engaging with the region.

In blue-domed Samarkand, once a central point on the Silk Road, Kerry will hold a meeting with foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states.

Visiting the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, Kerry is likely to praise a U.S.-backed project aiming to bring Turkmen natural gas to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan. The route will reduce Turkmenistan's reliance on Russia to buy its output.