TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton blitzed through the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on Saturday, admonishing the countries’ leaders on human rights while urging closer cooperation on securing their borders with Afghanistan.
Clinton sought to reinforce efforts by both countries to crack down on drug smugglers and insurgents slipping into their territories while also encouraging economic integration along what U.S. officials envision as a “new Silk Road” connecting the former Soviet republics to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Throughout her visit, she repeated familiar themes that were certain to cause discomfort for her hosts, including calls for greater political freedom and full rights for women and religious and ethnic minorities. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been criticized for corruption and for the repression of opposition groups.
“Countries that make reforms to give their people the opportunities for political and economic participation that they demand and deserve will thrive,” Clinton told a town hall meeting in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. “Those who do not will fall behind.”
The visits — wrapping up a week of travel that included stops in Malta, Libya, Oman, Afghanistan and Pakistan — provided a public boost to two countries that have aided NATO operations in Afghanistan and figure prominently in U.S. plans to restore stability in the region.
Tajikistan, a country of 7.6 million and the poorest of the Central Asia republics, has grappled with its own Islamist insurgency, and it has worked increasingly with U.S. officials to prevent a spillover of insurgents and drug traffickers from neighboring Afghanistan. Clinton praised Tajik President Imamali Rakhmonov at a news conference for “critical assistance” in helping stabilize the border.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has given NATO access to air bases as well as to railroads that serve as transit routes for supplies headed to military bases in Afghanistan. Relations between the United States and Uzbekistan have been on an upward track despite U.S. complaints about political repression and human rights abuses.
Karimov Clinton lavishly praised Clinton as she arrived at the white-columned presidential palace in Tashkent for a private meeting. The Uzbek president, who has ruled the country with autocratic authority for more than two decades, expressed his “personal respect, deep respect” for Clinton as the two posed briefly for news photographers.
During their talks, Karimov told Clinton that he intended to take significant strides toward liberalizing the country’s political system, saying he wanted to “leave that as a legacy for his children and grandchildren,” according to a senior State Department official familiar with the conversation. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the diplomatically sensitive exchange, said U.S. officials think that Karimov is sincerely committed to making changes.
“We think there’s quite an important opening,” the official said.
Hours earlier, at the Dushanbe town hall meeting, Clinton was asked bluntly to explain why she would agree to visit a leader with such a dismal record on human rights. Clinton replied that maintaining contact with repressive regimes offers the greatest chance for influencing behavior.
“We do everything possible to make a strong case on behalf of those who cannot get into the door to talk to these leaders,” she said. “I’d rather be having those meetings and pressing for change than to be totally outside.”