Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dushanbe-Tashkent Oct 22-23

The president of Tajikistan had us over to lunch today, which is the first time we've been fed (officially) since the King of Bahrain earlier this year.

After the hectic pace of the past few days, today was a bit better. Clinton's official program didn't start until 10:00 a.m., which at least offered the potential of decent night's sleep. Last night was quiet, and I ordered chicken shashlik from room service -- one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, perhaps just because it was different from the plane food, which has featured turkey at EVERY MEAL this week. We've had turkey sandwiches, turkey chili, turkey lasagna, turkey has been weird and, as the week wore on, sort of disgusting. But last night's shashlik was incredible...a hunk of perfectly "wood cooked" chicken, a fantastic salad of tomatos and onions, and that was it. Couldn't have asked for better.

Back to today's schedule: Clinton went to the Ismaili Center, which is one of the organizations funded by the Aga Khan, to hold another one of her "town hall" meetings with local students, activists, NGO workers etc. These are always pretty impressive, mostly because the people asking the questions seem so sophisticated and their questions (usually in very good English, no matter where we go) so earnest. She talked a lot about human rights -- not a strong suit for either the Uzbek or Tajik governments -- and about allowing religious freedom, which both places are trying to suppress because they fear the growth of Islamic militancy. It was a pretty standard Clinton performance, but you can tell she believes what she is saying so it is effective.

We then got back in the vans and drove back through Dushanbe to the "Presidential Dacha" where she was to meet the president, one of a group of authoritarian leaders that has persisted in this corner of the former Soviet Union. I liked the look of Dushanbe in the is small, grey, and has a lot of Soviet era architecture. But there are snow capped mountains in the distance and the boulevards are wide.

The dacha was a bit looked like an 80s modern office building on the outside, complete with mirrored windows. Inside it was all marble and presidential. She met the president, then came out and did a press conference with the foreign minister. His speech really showed you where Tajikistan is politically -- 100 pct apparatchik, stilted, uncomfortable, government-line. By contrast Clinton seemed very human and alive. She delivered the same message about religion and human rights, this time going harder and saying that regional efforts to suppress Islamic worship risked creating the very kind of militants they were out to discourage. The official party then went into lunch with the president, and we were taken to an other part of the dacha where, low and behold, the lunch above awaited. It was pretty good..little roast quail, hunks of mutton and pilaf, and big piles of cucumbers and tomatoes. Nobody was complaining.

We were not able to get Clinton to talk about the "Northern Distribution Network" -- the backdoor route into Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the other countries in the region. It seems pretty clear to me that that is why she is here, cozying up to these autocrats.

We're in for the evening in Tashkent -- she's off meeting President Karimov, the worst of the bunch.