In Belarus, there are growing questions about how drastic a shift Alyaksandr Lukashenka is making away from Russia and toward the West.
In Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoev is struggling to persuade the outside world that his reforms are a genuine turn away from the corrupt authoritarian system that his country has long been shackled to.
In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is trying to shed his country’s reputation for corruption and mismanagement, while struggling with a six-year war against separatist fighters backed by Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to the region on January 30, visiting those three countries, plus Kazakhstan, on a trip aimed at cultivating political and economic ties with the former Soviet republics.
Many of them are looking to the United States for support: financial, moral, and military.
But the United States is gripped by the political turmoil surrounding the impeachment of President Donald Trump, raising questions about how stalwart its support for the countries is. And Pompeo himself is traveling under a cloud, due to an angry interview with a U.S. reporter, and what was widely seen as retaliation against the reporter’s employer.
Here is what’s at stake on Pompeo’s trip.
Kyiv is Pompeo’s second scheduled stop. His first was London, arriving on January 29 for meetings with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other officials. Washington’s relationship with Britain has been buffeted by the debates leading up to Britain’s departure from the European Union on January 31, but on the whole, the relationship remains solid.
Less so with Ukraine.
Ukraine is at the heart of the impeachment proceedings in Washington, something that has befuddled many Ukrainians and left President Zelenskiy’s administration struggling to manage.
Zelenskiy continues to have high opinion-poll ratings nine months after winning last year’s presidential election by a landslide, but there’s growing impatience within Ukraine over whether he’ll be able to root out endemic corruption or bring the country’s oligarchs to heel.
He has made notable steps toward trying to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million. There have been two big prisoner swaps. But a major meeting in December, which included his first face-to-face encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yielded no breakthroughs.
Though European nations have provided more overall financial aid, Washington has been the largest provider of military aid, sending Ukraine night-vision goggles, flak jackets, counterbattery radars, and, more recently, sophisticated anti-tank missiles known as Javelins.
Last year, Trump’s White House held up a congressionally authorized military aid package to Ukraine for months. The aid was released only after lawmakers complained. House lawmakers impeached Trump in December, accusing him of trying force Zelenskiy to investigate one of Trump’s challengers for the presidency. The Senate is deciding whether to remove him from office.
Trump also forced out the U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch. Democrats, and many U.S. diplomats, have criticized Pompeo for not doing more to defend her.
That issue came up during an interview with National Public Radio reporter Mary Louise Kelly last week, prompting Pompeo to abruptly end the interview and then berate the reporter in a private session, according to the broadcaster. The State Department then barred another NPR reporter from traveling with Pompeo on his trip.
Pompeo’s visit to Kyiv, where he arrives on January 30, will “highlight U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the State Department said.
He is the most senior U.S. official to visit since his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, did so in July 2017.
Following Kyiv, Pompeo travels to Minsk on February 1 to meet President Lukashenka, a wily politician who for 25 years has tried to thread the needle between the demands from his massive neighbor to the east and those from the European Union, NATO, and Washington to the west.
Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 spooked Lukashenka and other regional leaders. He’s made several gestures seen as conciliatory toward the West, where he had been considered a pariah for cracking down on Belarusian civil society and opposition groups.
The result? Washington and Minsk announced the restoration of full diplomatic ties last year, 11 years after Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador, and most of the U.S. mission as well. In September, John Bolton, then the White House national-security adviser, visited Minsk, the highest-level U.S. official to visit in more than a decade.
The Kremlin ratcheted up its pressure on Belarus. In December, Lukashenka and Putin were expected to sign an agreement, a potentially big step to flesh out a Union State that for years has existed mainly on paper.
In the end, Lukashenka balked.
Moscow responded by suspending oil exports to Belarus — something that has kept the Belarusian economy afloat for years. That made Lukashenka even more defiant.
“We have our own country, we’re sovereign and independent,” he said on January 24. “With our brains and hands, we earn what we can, we’re building our own country. And we can’t be a part of some other country.”
Pompeo’s visit is seen widely as a further effort by the U.S. administration to encourage Lukashenka and nudge Belarus further out of Russia’s orbit.
However, days prior to his departure, a list of a new countries that would be added to an existing U.S. travel ban leaked to reporters. Belarus was among the countries on the list.
The White House has neither confirmed nor denied the new list, but the issue of whether Washington was seeking to penalize Minsk, even as it tried to encourage Lukashenka, was expected to loom over the visit.
Pompeo will seek “to underscore the U.S. commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize our bilateral relations,” according to the State Department.
After Minsk, Pompeo will travel to Kazakhstan, where he will meet with President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.
He’ll also meet with Nursultan Nazarbaev, who stepped down in March 2019 after more than 27 years as president but still holds several powerful titles and positions, including head of a strengthened Security Council, and still commands wide authority throughout the government.
His eldest daughter, Darigha, has amassed both wealth and clout in the latter part of her father’s rule. On the day that Nazarbaev’s transition to what some have dubbed president emeritus was announced, Darigha assumed the position of head of the country’s upper chamber of parliament. That was seen as a sign that she may ultimately succeed her father.
The official State Department announcement does not mention if Pompeo will meet with Darigha.
Washington has in the past looked to Kazakhstan as a natural counterweight to Russia in Central Asia. Major U.S. oil companies have made billions in investments in joint ventures to develop Caspian Sea fields, and the country has the region’s largest proven reserves of oil and gas.
Like Lukashenka in Belarus, Nazarbaev was rattled by the Russian annexation of Crimea. Much of the population of northern Kazakhstan, along the border with Russia, is ethnic Russian, and there were worries that Moscow could make claims on some border territories. To this date, it has not.
But, as with Belarus and Ukraine, that has afforded Washington a small opportunity to nurture ties.
Pompeo’s meetings are intended to “reaffirm our shared commitment to peace, prosperity, and security in Central Asia,” the State Department said.
Pompeo is scheduled to land in Tashkent on February 2 and to meet with President Mirziyoev, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, and other officials before departing the next day.
Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country, and has sizable oil and gas reserves as well. In the past, it’s been seen as a partial counterweight to Russian influence in the region. It’s also allied with Washington in the war in Afghanistan and the fight against radical Islamist fighters.
Under the autocratic rule of Mirziyoev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was isolated from the West, particularly after the 2005 massacre of civilians in the city of Andijon. The country also gained a reputation for unyielding corruption that put it at the bottom of many rankings.
Since taking office after Karimov’s death in 2016, Mirziyoev has sought to cultivate new economic and political relationships — not just with Washington but with European nations, among others, and even financial centers like Wall Street and London.
He has also pushed to change the country’s cotton harvest, a key source of revenue and a perennial source of concern over the use of forced labor, including child labor. His administration has also fired scores of officials — some senior– held over from Karimov’s era.
It’s unclear how deep or sustainable the reform agenda is. Some of his government ministers are holdovers, and some have been suspected of involvement in past corrupt deals.
His government is also locked in a very public legal fight with Gulnara Karimova, the elder daughter of the late president. She is being held in a Tashkent prison, accused of bribery inside and outside the country, as the government seeks to recover hundreds of millions of dollars of Karimova’s that they say belongs to the state.
The changes have yielded positive press, but some rights activists say they are merely window dressing.
After years of being elbowed out of the region, the State Department launched the C5+1 initiative in 2015, in part to try and counterbalance Russia’s dominance.
Pompeo’s visit to Tashkent will include meetings with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — to “stress U.S. support for a better connected, more prosperous, and more secure Central Asia, consistent with the U.S.’s new Central Asia Strategy,” the State Department said.Print