Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan, Dec 2

This was sort of a wild day. We woke up in Astana to gusty freezing winds off the steppe..the winds actually went all night, rattling the windows of the hotel. There was an added attraction in the form of a drunk night-time singer in one of the rooms down the hall...mournful Russian songs, punctuated by yells and laughs. I think he was alone. Altogether it was a little spooky, which is strange for such a futuristic city.

We convoyed back out the airport and got on the plane to Kyrgyzstan. The two places are very different: where Kazakhstan is flat, cold and looks at least potentially rich, Kyrgyzstan is flush up against the foothills of the Himalayas, more temperate, and looks poor. I actually liked Bishkek's looks a lot better than I did's a small, grey city but most of the streets are lined with birch trees and it seemed to have some kind of street life going on.

Clinton did a press conference with the president, one of the few women heads of state in the world, and then we rushed off for another of her "townterviews" at a local university. The students all spoke and asked questions in English and the questions were good -- ranging from how Kyrgyzstan should navigate its future as a democratic countries surrounded by authoritarian neighbors, to what the U.S. plan is for dealing with North Korea. Clinton excels at these events, and I think she enjoys them..she usually stays late to answer as many questions as she can.

After that it was off to the Manas air base -- the real reason the U.S. cares about Kyrgyzstan, because its the main transit hub for troops into Afghanistan. The U.S. seems to have perusaded the new Kyrgyz government to keep allowing U.S. use of the base (which is basically one side of the main airport). It was a slice of military America: pre-fab buildings, soldiers in uniform etc. etc. Clinton gave a brief speech thanking them, and her inner politician came to the fore yet again. You can see how she would (or maybe still might one day be) president.

Then it was back to the airport and an hour flight to Uzbekistan. This is a more problematic stop. Uzbekistan also helps out the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, but its president is a ruthless autocrat who excuses a lot of his repression as a necessary tactic to battle Islamic extremism. Clinton has to walk a fine line here because it looks pretty bad, on the surface, for her to be sitting down with a thug like this. But they've got their rationale down pat: that these visits are a useful chance to personally press for human rights reform. It sounds persuasive when she says it, but you have to wonder. She had no public events with journalists here, so while the foreign press was told about the U.S. message on human rights, we have no way of knowing it it reached anybody in Uzbekistan...

That said, Tashkent looked sort of cool. Lots of big, Soviet style buildings, but lots of lights. The Foreign Ministry guest house, where we waited for Clinton to finish her meeting with the president, is a fantastic Central Asian confection from the times of Imperial Russa. It was apparently once a Romanov hunting lodge, and it is decorated with fantastic traditional murals. They put out a buffet of local pasteries which were fantastic, and (we thought) gave us each a figurine of a traditional Uzbek figure. About half an hour later someone came back and said there had been a mistake, those figurines were NOT in fact gifts, so we had to give them all back....weird.

From here its 5 hours to Bahrain, where we are supposed to get in at about 2 in the morning.