Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Top US Diplomat Holds Call With Tajik Counterpart

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a phone call on June 1 with his Tajik counterpart.

Top US Diplomat Holds Call With Tajik Counterpart
Credit: Freestock.ca

On June 1, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke via phone with his Tajik counterpart, Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin.

Per a State Department statement reviewing the call, it was fairly standard diplomatic fare. Blinken “affirmed the United States’ continuing support for Tajikistan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence” and also thanked Muhriddin for Tajikistan’s “leadership on regional security issues, support for Afghanistan peace negotiations, and continued partnership on counterterrorism efforts.”

Also par for the usual course was a reference to underscoring the “importance of advancing regional connectivity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms for all.”

Perhaps most interesting is a direct reference to the recent Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes. Blinken expressed condolences for the lives lost and “commended the efforts to de-escalate hostilities, demarcate the border, and achieve a lasting peaceful resolution of the dispute.”

U.S. officials, such as the chargé d’affaires heading the U.S. mission to the OSCE in early May, have referenced the problem on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Chargé d’Affaires Courtney Austrian in early May urged the two sides to reduce tensions and “avoid further violence.” 

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The Tajik side’s readout of the call mentioned neither the border clashes nor human rights, but did suggest the two discussed measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Blinken’s call with Muhriddin has not been paired (at least not yet) with a publicized companion call to the Kyrgyz side. Without making too much out of a distinct lack of evidence (and readouts from diplomatic phone calls are thin on substance anyway), it’s worth noting that Kyrgyzstan-U.S. relations have been on rocky ground since the October 2020 botched parliamentary election, sudden downfall of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and the rise of Sadyr Japarov.

The most recent statement on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is from April 16 and expresses “disappointment” regarding the release of Raimbek Matraimov, characterized in the statement as an “organized crime boss.” In March, the U.S. State Department responded to the release of another crime boss, Kamchybek Kolbaev, by announcing an increase (from $1 million to $5 million) in the reward it has offered since 2014 for information leading to his arrest and/or conviction.

Difficulties in one area of relations can bleed into unrelated other areas if they affect the tone and tempo of communications. It takes two sides to schedule a phone call and arguably, at the present moment, the United States is more keen on engaging the Tajiks — perhaps in hopes of basing counterterrorism forces in the country after the withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete — than the Kyrgyz. 

But this comes with its own difficulties. Kyrgyzstan may be tumultuous politically, and losing its democratic credentials, but Tajikistan is a solid autocracy. Emomali Rahmon, with more than 28 years in power, is among the ranks of the world’s longest serving leaders. On the same day Blinken reportedly mentioned the “importance of advancing regional connectivity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms for all” to his Tajik counterpart, Tajik authorities sentenced yet another former member of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) to a five-year prison term.

The Biden administration came in to office pledging to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Blinken launched a February 2021 statement regarding the United States seeking to re-enter the U.N. Human Rights Council thusly: “The United States is committed to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated, and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.”