Secretary Albright went on from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Her visit followed trips to the region by CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Louis Freeh. In Central Asia, where former Soviet leaders have held on to power, America’s support for stability and praise for reform often make a muddled message.

Despite a desire to assert their independence, Central Asian leaders look to Russia to help them combat Islamic-inspired political movements that threaten their secular regimes. Islamists are blamed for the February 1998, bombings in Tashkent and for the armed uprising last year in Kyrgyzstan near the border with Uzbekistan. To nervous autocrats, the fierce Russian stand against “terrorism” in Chechnya, and Russian offers of assistance in a broad “antiterrorist” campaign, are far more appealing than American lectures on democracy or NATO’s wimpish Partnership for Peace.

Albright tried to strike a soothing balance with her assertion (in Tashkent) that “the security problems of Central Asia are in the sphere of interest of both the United States and Russia.” She told Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov that the United States would do “everything in its power” to resist terrorism, but she urged him not to radicalize his own population through repression. She had similar advice for Kyrgyzstan’s President Askar Akaev, who acknowledged Albright’s visit by ordering the release of an opposition leader jailed for assault and battery.

The week after Albright’s tour, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met in Tashkent to sign an agreement on concerted action, including the use of armed force, against “political, religious and other types of extremism.” In a bilateral meeting, the Uzbek and Kazakh presidents complained about Western passivity in the face of the terrorist threat. They drew a contrast with Russian energy, resolve and (in the case of Uzbekistan) willingness to supply air-defense systems that the West withholds.