Ashgabat: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has begun a trip through the countries of former Soviet Central Asia, a region troubled by poverty, oppression and fears of renewed Islamic insurgency.
Ban`s blitz through five countries, which began on Thursday, appears unlikely to produce any breakthroughs, but it will draw attention to a region often obscured by the shadows of its giant neighbours Russia and China and by the war raging in Afghanistan, just across the borders.
Beleaguered human rights activists in the region are encouraged by the attention, even though Ban has no announced plans to meet with their groups. His statements after meetings with each of the region`s presidents are likely to be carefully watched for indications of how much pressure he puts on leaders who reject Western concepts, or are suspicious of them.
"Just the fact that the UN secretary-general is visiting is an extremely important appearance," Elena Urlayeva of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan said. "A visit always helps us, even despite the fact that our government doesn`t want them."
"The secretary-general has talked about being a `voice for the voiceless,`" Holly Cartner of US-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "He should not miss this unique opportunity to put the full weight of the United Nations behind human rights in Central Asia."
Ban`s trip began in Turkmenistan, the most closed and idiosyncratic of the five countries. Under longtime dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was until recently gripped by a cult of personality nearly as overwhelming as North Korea`s and the country was largely inaccessible to the outside world.
Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, who took over when Niyazov died in 2006, has diluted some of those trappings — including eliminating the image of his predecessor that showed almost constantly on state television — and has allowed limited Internet access for private citizens.
Berdymukhamedov tentatively agreed this year to allow a second political party to be formed, but it was unclear if that would shepherd in genuine pluralism or simply be subservient "official opposition”.
Turkmenistan cracked down on independent human rights workers at home years ago, and activists are watching the trip from exile. The Vienna-based Human Rights Initiative of Turkmenistan wants Ban to urge the country to make it easier for students to study abroad.
Kyrgyzstan, the next stop, on Saturday, once appeared to be the opposite of Turkmenistan, and was hailed as the region`s "island of democracy”. But since Kurmanbek Bakiyev took office in 2005 following protests that drove out the previous president, pressure on human rights activists and independent media has increased. Last month, Bakiyev questioned whether Western-style democracy was appropriate for the country.
Ban`s meeting with Uzbek leader Islam Karimov is likely to be the most tense of the trip, coming less than two weeks after the United Nations Human Rights Committee sharply criticized the country. In particular, the committee called for a more thorough investigation of the brutal suppression of a 2005 uprising in the city of Andijan. Opposition and rights groups claimed that hundreds were killed, but authorities insist the reports are exaggerated and angrily reject any criticism.
Ban then continues to Tajikistan, still struggling to overcome the devastation of a five-year civil war against Islamists in the 1990s and to fight the surge of Afghan opium that penetrates its porous border en route to European addicts.
The trip concludes in Kazakhstan, where media and activist groups operate with relative freedom. But President Nursultan Nazarbayev`s party holds all the seats in the elected lower house of Parliament, and critics doubt the country`s commitment to reform.