ASHKHABAD, Turkmenistan — Secretary of State John F. Kerry held talks Tuesday with one of the world’s most authoritarian and idiosyncratic leaders as he wrapped up a four-day swing through Central Asia.
Kerry’s travels through the five nations of Central Asia, all former Soviet republics, ended with brief stops in the capitals of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Both share borders with Afghanistan and are considered buffers against the Taliban pushing north and the Islamic State militant group’s pursuit of recruits.
Washington wants to broaden ties to the region, which is rich in gas, oil and gold. But it is also home to countries notorious for corruption, torture and repression.
During his stops, Kerry noted that more foreign investment is unlikely unless the governments release political prisoners and stop human rights abuses. State Department officials said it remains to be seen whether the nations will take the message to heart.
The challenge of getting cozy with dictators was starkly illustrated in the Turkmen capital of Ashkhabad. In this city of 800,000 people, Kerry entered a parallel universe where one-man rule and the cult of personality reach heights rarely seen outside North Korea.
The city center is a bastion of white-marbled government buildings. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov personally approves all the marble used in Ashkhabad architecture. Even the U.S. Embassy had to negotiate while building a new facility to ensure that it comported with the president’s vision. Virtually no pedestrians traverse wide avenues, with soldiers spaced at least every half-block.
Across from the massive presidential palace, a three-story building is covered with giant video screens broadcasting state television news shows — all of which start with accounts of Berdymukhammedov’s doings. State media outlets burnish his reputation as a sportsman, showing him on water scooters, basketball courts and soccer fields. A video showing him thrown from a horse was reportedly banned from airing.
Berdymukhammedov is more modest than his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who named the days of the week and the months of the year after himself and his relatives and erected a giant, 24-carat-gold-leaf statue of himself that rotates to always face the sun.
A statue of Berdymukhammedov went up this year, soaring 69 feet atop a marble slab and gilded in gold leaf. “My main goal is to serve the people and the motherland,” he said when parliament voted unanimously to erect the statue. “And, so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.”
But the people have little choice, according to the State Department’s annual human rights report and the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch.
Political opponents of the president have been sentenced to years in prison on secret charges. Journalists have been subjected to forced psychiatric treatment. A former foreign minister has disappeared. Satellite dishes have been banned.
Some aspects of daily life are improving. Days and months have reverted to their regular names, and Berdymukhammedov lifted a ban on the opera and circus. Ballet is still forbidden. But falling natural-gas prices have hit the economy hard. Free electricity, cooking gas and water are being eliminated in an austerity drive.
Things are little better in Tajikistan, whose long border with Afghanistan has raised concerns about extremism spreading across Central Asia.
The government has responded by banning the country’s only real opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which a local court labeled a terrorist organization. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights rebuked the government last month after dozens of party members were arrested.
Although the population is 98 percent Muslim, the government has cracked down on political Islam and expressions of faith. Men with long beards are forced to shave. Children are not allowed to participate in religious education unless it is state-sanctioned. Women cannot go to mosques.
In his visit to the capital, Dushanbe, Kerry urged officials not to go overboard in their fight against religious extremism. After meeting with Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Aslov and President Imomali Rakhmon, Kerry publicly spoke out on behalf of “human rights,” instead of the more cautious “human dimension of development” phrase he used in Uzbekistan on Sunday.
Kerry said he and the Tajik leaders discussed fighting terrorism “in a way that balances human rights, religious freedom, the ability of people to be able to participate politically, and not to allow the battle against extremism to confuse the possibilities of developing the ability of people to participate in the governance and particularly to be able to worship freely.”