US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Uzbekistan on Sunday for the final stop of a five-country tour in which he is maneuvering to undercut Chinese and Russian influence.
Pompeo’s visit to the Central Asian country of 33 million will see him hold talks Monday with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has embarked on ambitious reforms, welcoming tourism and investment in the once-isolated republic while keeping the authoritarian system intact.
Prior to his arrival in Tashkent, Pompeo met with the leadership of Uzbekistan’s oil-rich neighbor Kazakhstan, where he called on all countries to join the US in calling for “an immediate end” to China’s “repression” of minorities in the Xinjiang region, which Kazakhstan borders.
He asked countries “to provide safe refuge and asylum for those seeking to flee China,” Pompeo said Sunday, speaking at a press appearance with Kazakh foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi.
His visit to the capital Nur-Sultan also saw him meet with Kazakhs who say their family members are detained in Xinjiang, where more than a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities are believed to have been incarcerated as part of an unprecedented security crackdown in the region.
Pompeo rounded off the Kazakhstan visit by meeting with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his long-reigning predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Pompeo will also hold a meeting on Monday with foreign ministers from all five ex-Soviet Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
‘Chinese, Russian activity’
Central Asia is a region where both Russia and China enjoy privileged interests, with Washington struggling to keep up in recent years.
Ahead of the visit, Pompeo stressed that the Central Asian countries on his itinerary “want to be sovereign and independent,” and Washington has “an important opportunity to help them achieve that.”
But he also acknowledged that in the region there’s “a lot of activity – Chinese activity, Russian activity.”
Pompeo also visited two other former Soviet countries – Belarus and Ukraine – as part of a trip that began with a stop in Britain.
The United States was among the first countries to recognize the newly independent states of Central Asia after they split from the Soviet Union in 1991.
At the height of hostilities in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, NATO and the United States maintained important logistics centers in the region, but these have now closed.
Russia has retained military bases and heads security and trade blocs that have helped to entrench its position there.
But Central Asia also increasingly looks east to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road global trade plan as a panacea to treat battered economies.
Targeting Kyrgyz immigrants
Uzbekistan was one of the countries where Washington maintained a base for Afghan operations but the two states fell out badly in 2005, when former leader Islam Karimov oversaw a bloody crackdown on protests.
The relationship had healed somewhat by the time of Karimov’s death in 2016.
His successor Mirziyoyev, who visited Trump at the White House in 2018, has mused on the benefits of joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union, a five-country bloc including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that is seen as a key vehicle for Russia to wield influence in the region.
Pompeo’s meeting with ministers from the five states is part of a format that was first tried under a former secretary of state, John Kerry.
The forum aims to enhance regional, economic, environmental and security cooperation.
One of the five countries, Kyrgyzstan, reacted angrily Saturday to being included in a list of six countries targeted for immigration restrictions by US President Donald Trump.
The impoverished republic of six million said the move had caused “significant damage” to relations.
Pompeo said Sunday during his visit to Kazakhstan that he carried a “perfect message” of global press freedom, following a bitter feud with US media.
A key ally of President Donald Trump, Pompeo has often echoed the president’s disdain for the media.
More than a week ago he reportedly lost his temper with a National Public Radio journalist who asked him whether he owed an apology to the former US ambassador to Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch.
The ambassador’s abrupt removal was a focus of Trump’s impeachment for abuse of power, and also led to criticism of Pompeo for failing to stand up for her.
The feud followed Pompeo to Nur-Sultan near the end of a tour to Europe – including Ukraine – and Central Asia.
While speaking to a journalist on the Kazakh team for Radio Free Europe, Pompeo talked about the “good work the State Department does to train journalists in press freedoms.”
The journalist then asked Pompeo what message his own attitude sent to countries – including Kazakhstan – that “routinely suppress press freedom.”
She referred to his “confrontational” interview with NPR and noted that the State Department had subsequently banned another NPR journalist from the secretary’s plane for this overseas trip, which included a meeting in Kiev with Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky.
“It’s a perfect message about press freedoms,” Pompeo said.
Reporters are “free to ask questions,” he added, despite NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly’s accusing him of shouting, swearing, and suggesting Americans don’t care about Ukraine after she asked about Yovanovitch.
“It’s wide open in America. I love it. I hope the rest of the world will follow our press freedoms,” Pompeo told the Kazakh journalist.
Pompeo insisted that his exchange with Kelly had not been “confrontational,” despite having issued a statement accusing the journalist of lying twice and calling the media “unhinged in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration.”
He also justified excluding NPR’s Michele Kelemen, a veteran diplomatic correspondent, from the plane for his trip.
“With respect to who travels with me, I always bring a big press contingent,” he said.
Under Trump, the State Department has halved the number of journalists allowed to fly with the secretary compared to previous administrations.
“We ask for certain sets of behaviors, and that’s simply telling the truth and being honest,” Pompeo said.
“When they’ll do that, they get to participate, and if they don’t, it’s just not appropriate – frankly, it’s not fair to the rest of the journalists who are participating alongside of them.”