Secretary Kerry begins Central Asia tour

US Secretary John Kerry arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on October 31 to begin his tour of all five countries of Central Asia. He met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and all five Central Asian foreign ministers in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on November 1, and Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, Kazakhstan on November 2. Kerry plans to make additional stops in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan before the tour’s end on November 3.

In Kyrgyzstan, Kerry praised the parliamentary elections held on October 4, characterized by international observers as free and fair, and assured Atambaev that the US will support Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty. Relations between Washington and Bishkek reportedly became strained after Kyrgyzstan criticized the US’s July human rights award to a Kyrgyz dissenter, and analysts believe that Kerry’s visit is meant to shore up relations and counter Russian influence in the region. Kerry repeated his statement of support for Central Asian independence, touching on regional security and good governance in his meeting with the five foreign ministers in Samarkand. Despite human rights’ groups calls for Kerry to raise rights issues during his tour, a State Department release stated that Kerry did not mention particular issues such as forced labor during his one-on-one meeting with Karimov, focusing on general support for rights in addition to trade and security. Security guards ushered out an American reporter who raised the human rights issue during a press conference with Karimov and Kerry, and the question was not fully answered. Kerry highlighted mutual interests in regional security in his meeting with Nazarbayev, while openly criticizing Kazakhstan’s legacy of imprisoning political opposition members. He also met with Prime Minister Karim Massimov and the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan.

US officials traveling with Kerry expressed understanding for Central Asian cooperation with Russia, and Kerry himself reportedly reinforced the space for regional economic integration with both Russia and other partners. While a US official was quoted saying that Russia is exaggerating Central Asia’s vulnerability to security concerns such as the Islamic State and Taliban, regional security has remained a theme throughout Kerry’s tour so far. In Ashgabat, Kerry is expected to endorse the construction of a natural gas pipeline stretching from India through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan (TAPI) anticipated to provide an alternative to Russian supplies in the region.

Follow us on Twitter: @SteppeDispatch

News Briefs:

  • A Russian plane carrying 224 people crashed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, killing all aboard. Russian and Egyptian aviation officials reported the Airbus A321 lost contact with local transit authorities 23 minutes after taking off from resort town Sharm el-Sheikh, and was found by rescue workers hours later. Most on board were Russian tourists headed back to St. Petersburg on the flight managed by small Siberian carrier Kogalymavia, operating under the name Metrojet. The CIS’ Intergovernmental Aviation Committee Spokesman Viktor Sorochenko reported that the plane likely broke into pieces while in midair, a claim denied by a Kogalymavia spokesman saying that the airbus must have been brought down by an external force. Russian and Egyptian leaders pledged to boost ties during Egyptian President el-Sisi’s visit to Moscow in August, citing plans for creation of a free trade zone between the Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union, and Russian assistance in building a nuclear power plant. Neither government has commented on whether the crash may affect relations, with both sides reporting complete cooperation between Russian and Egyptian investigators.
  • Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev replaced his National Bank Chairman of two years, Kerim Kelimbetov, with the bank’s deputy governor, Daniyar Akishev. While the vice speaker of the Senate stated that Kelimbetov fulfilled his role, media reports highlighted the still-fluctuating national tenge and $1.7 billion spent in attempts to stabilize the tenge since the bank devalued its currency amid persistently low oil and gas prices and Russian and Chinese devaluations in August. Analysts claim that Akishev, a trained economist who has been working his way up the bank’s management hierarchy since 1996, is poised to fulfill “the role of a Kamikaze“, citing a deepening economic crisis that Nazarbayev has stated will not end soon.
  • A report covered Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections that resulted in a landslide victory for politicians linked to the ruling party, countering the Azeri Central Election Commission’s claim of free and fair elections. The report points out analyst’s assertions that most of the 769 candidates for the 125 seats in parliament are somehow affiliated to President Ilham Aliyev, although they supposedly represented 15 political parties and one coalition on the ballot. It also cites continuing suppression of opposition parties and leaders, including three main parties’ – Musavat, REAL and NIDA – withdrawal from the electoral process shortly before Election Day. While the UK House of Lords endorsed the Azeri government’s claim of fair elections, a number of international observer organizations including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The elections follow a sustained trend of suppression of political opposition in Azerbaijan.
  •  Controversy over Georgia’s most popular TV station has continued as observers detail perceived anti-democratic actions on the part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Kibar Khalvashi, brother of Georgian Dream member Pati Khalvashi and former shareholder in Georgia’s most-watched TV station Rustavi2, filed suit in August to gain a controlling interest in the station. Analysts suspect political motivations ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections, as the station is pro-opposition and openly backs ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili, for whom support has risen amid talks with Russia on gas supply and Russian military activity on the border with South Ossetia that former officials have said put Georgia’s sovereignty at risk.