Kerry Begins 'Stans Tour in Kyrgyzstan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kyrgyzstan on Saturday to kick off a tour of five of the "'Stans," the 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 they have not been abandoned.

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

Already faced with a dramatic economic slowdown, Central Asian governments fear the 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. airbase, hub of the "northern distribution network" for NATO troops fighting in its southern neighbor.

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 insurgency.

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 largely autocratic nations, Kyrgyzstan is the only one running an experiment in parliamentary democracy and it sets an example Washington is keen to support.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said a recent election had been "very robust and competitive" and noted that eight parties are now represented in parliament.

But even with Kyrgyzstan, a small nation of less than six 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 by his own country.

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

On Sunday, he was due to travel on to the ancient citadel of Samarkand in Uzbekistan to inaugurate a new diplomatic format for engaging with the region.

U.S. and Central Asian officials hope the so-called "C5+1" will become a regular a meeting between the secretary and all five of the region's foreign ministers.

Source: Agence France Presse

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