President Joe Biden is turning Washington’s gaze toward Central Asia — a region the West has long been accused of neglecting — in a bid to strengthen ties with the landlocked region bordered by Russia and China.
On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden met with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Former Soviet states have continuing security ties with Russia and growing economic and diplomatic ties with China – and great cultural and historical significance as major arteries of the Silk Road, the ancient network of roads Eurasian trade that linked East and West for 1,500 years. .
Biden described this meeting of the C5+1 diplomatic platform – held for the first time at this level – as “a historic moment, building on years of close cooperation”.
“Today we are taking our cooperation to new heights,” Biden said, emphasizing that efforts would include enhanced counterterrorism cooperation and increased U.S. funding for security in the region, new trade relationships with the U.S. private sector and “the potential for a new dialogue on critical minerals.
None of the other five leaders spoke during the group’s brief interaction with reporters after their meeting.
Analysts say this attention is long overdue.
“No American president has ever visited Central Asia,” Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, told VOA by email. “The United States has never taken the region seriously.”
Eric Green, former senior director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council, told VOA’s Uzbek service that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many countries to reconsider their diplomatic relations.
“This meeting is a recognition of two key factors: first, the changing geopolitical environment in this region following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Green told VOA via email. “This has prompted all countries, especially those bordering Russia, to reassess their political, economic and security positions, and I think there is interest in diversification and balance.
“The second factor concerns the progress of regional integration in Central Asia. This is evidenced by the increased pace of meetings at all levels and discussions on common challenges such as water, energy, climate and trade.
And the time has come, defense analysts say.
“Strained relations between Central Asia and Russia and growing skepticism of Chinese influence have created a window of opportunity for the United States to strengthen its image through greater long-term investments in the region,” said Hunter Stoll, defense analyst at RAND Corporation. on the RAND blog.
“As the United States is unlikely to outspend China or even Russia, its approach must be deliberate and focused on areas where it can achieve the greatest return on investment.”
Kadyr Toktogulov, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, attended the diplomatic group’s inaugural meeting in 2015 in the ancient city of Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan.
“I am very encouraged by the progress made by the C5+1, reaching the presidential level in just eight years,” he told VOA from Prague. “I think it’s pretty remarkable.”
“Face-to-face time with the US president is always a big deal,” he added. “And actually, it’s quite a strong currency when it comes to the Central Asian republics’ engagement with Russia and China.”
The region’s desire for greater global recognition was clear Tuesday at the United Nations, as Biden and other world leaders spoke.
“I am convinced that the time has come to begin an inclusive, large-scale and systemic dialogue between Central Asia and the UN,” said Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the 41-year-old president of Turkmenistan. He added that his country would offer to host the inaugural conference.
“Much more to do”
Berdimuhamedow claimed a landslide victory in a 2022 poll that international observers questioned was free, fair and transparent. He followed the 15-year tenure of his father, a hardline authoritarian who once won a presidential election with an astonishing 98 percent against eight other candidates.
The father-son duo followed the independent nation’s first post-Soviet leader, who commemorated himself with a gold-plated rotating statue of himself in the capital and renamed cities and months after him and members of his family.
Rights groups urged Biden to use the meeting to emphasize human rights. All five countries have a documented history of credible and serious abuse allegations.
These include the government’s harsh crackdown on Kazakh political protesters in 2022, Kyrgyz authorities’ current push toward more repressive laws, and the general veil over human rights and freedom of expression in Turkmenistan – a a nation so isolated, so repressive and so deeply imbued with a cult of freedom. personality around its ruling dynasty that it was nicknamed “the North Korea of Central Asia”.
“They should seek guarantees on basic standards of rule of law and human rights,” said Iskra Kirova, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Biden should call for explicit steps to end politically motivated prosecutions, suppression of free speech, and impunity for torture and police brutality.”
Biden did not mention human rights in his comments, but the White House minutes of the meeting said he “welcomed his counterparts’ views on how our nations can work together to further strengthen the sovereignty, resilience and prosperity of Central Asian nations while driving progress.” human rights through our C5+1 partnership.
Toktogulov noted that all five countries have secular governments, are relatively stable and have cooperated with the United States during its involvement in Afghanistan.
“There is certainly a lot more to achieve and do in terms of respect for human rights, concerns and certain issues – in some republics more than others,” he said.
“But I think it’s the engagement and this constant dialogue that would really help the republics and governments of Central Asia to pay more attention to issues of democracy and human rights, and to actually do something something significant on these issues.”
For now, Toktogulov said, the key is more engagement.
“I would like to see an American president finally go to Central Asia, or maybe one of the next presidential summits could take place in Central Asia,” he said.
In his final words to world leaders on Tuesday, Biden appeared to allude to this.
“I look forward to seeing you soon,” he said. “Maybe in one of your countries.”