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Has Obama put human rights on the back burner?

Observers worry the administration is muting criticism because of Central Asia's strategic importance.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally, demanding a presidential election be declared illegal, in Bishkek, July 23, 2009. (Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — As the United States re-fortifies its presence in Central Asia — planting military bases and extending supply lines to neighboring Afghanistan — many observers are asking if Washington’s human rights agenda will take a backseat to a more steely-eyed realpolitik.

In Almaty and Bishkek and Osh, as well as other cities around this strategic but remote region, an impression is already forming that the Obama administration is softening its criticism of local authoritarian regimes so as not to risk annoying them and thereby jeopardizing the war against the Taliban.

“It now seems that the U.S. is very quiet on everything,” said one Western official in Kyrgyzstan who wished to maintain anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Their silence is striking.” The five Central Asian states have flitted in and out of Washington’s radar since the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991. First seen as free market democracies in the making, they assumed added importance with the recognition that their bountiful oil and gas reserves could supply Western markets.

Then, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Central Asia’s position became important to the U.S. strategy for striking back. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan border Afghanistan and were used as transit points, while the U.S. also set up major bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. (Germany and France also established operations in the area.)

There were setbacks, however, in the strengthening of U.S. ties with the region. In May 2005, Uzbek government forces in the city of Andijan opened fire on a crowd of primarily peaceful demonstrators who had gathered after militants attacked a local prison and then took hostages. Hundreds were possibly killed. Washington criticized the government's actions and aided in the airlift of refugees from the region. After that, Tashkent kicked the U.S. from its air base in the country’s south.

More recently, Kyrgyzstan announced the ejection of American forces from Manas Air Base, a major troop transit and refueling center. Bishkek however reversed its decision in June when the U.S. upped the total amount it was paying from about $17 million to close to $180 million.

Now the U.S. is sending more troops to Afghanistan, where the fight is escalating. At the same time, the main supply route through Pakistan’s Khyber Pass is looking increasingly tenuous, making Central Asia more essential than ever. In addition to maintaining their grip on Manas, U.S. officials negotiated the opening of a new base in Uzbekistan, as well as transit agreements with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

But the increased American presence has been paralleled by an assault on civic freedoms. The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have never been the most democracy-friendly locations, and their governments now are either totalitarian or “authoritarian lite” — that is, with room for limited public debate, but still fully under the control of a supreme leader.