The American secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrived Sunday in Uzbekistan, last stop of a tour in ex-USSR where he affirmed the will of Washington to defend the “sovereignty” of allies of Moscow and counter the influence of China.
Pompeo went the previous days to Ukraine, at loggerheads with Russia, then to Belarus and Kazakhstan, two members of a military alliance and an economic union with Moscow. He landed Sunday afternoon in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, where he will hold talks with President Chavkat Mirzioyev on Monday.
Hours ago in Kazakhstan, Mike Pompeo called on the international community to do more against the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
According to human rights organizations, no less than a million Chinese Muslims, mostly Uighurs from Xinjiang, but also Kazakhs, were interned there in “re-education camps”.
“The United States is asking that all countries join us to demand that it stop. We are asking for asylum for those who want to find refuge and flee China, “said Pompeo.
Beijing denies the figure of one million internees and speaks of “vocational training centers”, intended to help the population to find a job and to keep them away from the temptation of religious extremism.
A report from US parliamentarians accused China in January of “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, where authorities have embarked on a policy of maximum security in response to murderous attacks on civilians attributed to Uighur separatists.
Kazakhstan maintains close relations with neighboring China. But this former Soviet republic has also become a place of mobilization for organizations dealing with the cause of Muslim minorities.
“Independent and sovereign”
Before Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Pompeo visited Ukraine on Friday where he assured Kiev of continued American support in its crisis with Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country. On Saturday, he promised “real progress” in the relationship with Belarus, Russia’s closest ally.
Prior to his visit, Mr. Pompeo stated that these countries, having won their independence when the USSR was dissolved, “want to be independent and sovereign”. He said Washington was planning to “help them get there.”
The American secretary of state, however, recognized “a large Chinese and Russian presence” in Central Asia, shared between five countries with governments that are often authoritarian and disrespectful of human rights.
Kazakhstan, rich in hydrocarbons and uranium, represents the most powerful economy in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has just emerged from almost three decades of isolation with the death in 2016 of former despot Islam Karimov.
Washington is struggling to maintain a real influence in Central Asia, despite the maintenance by NATO of a significant logistical presence at the height of the war in Afghanistan, a presence that does not exist today.
Russia, on the other hand, has maintained military bases there and is at the head of a military alliance and an economic and customs union which involve several countries in the region and assure it of constant influence, beyond historical ties and cultural.
Central Asia is also strongly linked economically to China, which included it in its gigantic commercial project of new silk routes.
Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have experienced changes in leadership since the last visit of an American secretary of state to the region, that of John Kerry in 2015.
In Kazakhstan, Mike Pompeo met President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as did his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retired from power last year after nearly 30 years at the head of the state.
In Uzbekistan, Pompeo will meet Monday with President Chavkat Mirziïïev, who launched ambitious reforms to develop tourism and attract investors while keeping intact the authoritarian political system of his predecessor.