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BERLIN (Reuters) - The president of Kyrgyzstan warned in his first visit to the West on Tuesday his central Asian republic would suffer the kind of turmoil seen in the south of the region unless it consolidated democratic reforms.
"If we don't develop democracy further in Central Asia or succeed in building a parliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan, then a new Afghanistan will arise in Central Asia," President Almazbek Atambayev told a joint news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The country of 5.5 million people lies on a drug trafficking route from Afghanistan and is home to Russian and U.S. military air bases, while China is extending its economic reach across the border to counterbalance Washington and Moscow.
Kyrgyzstan has overthrown two presidents since 2005 and about 500 people died in clashes in 2010 between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Atambayev became president in 2011 in the first peaceful transition of power in its post-Soviet history.
One of the poorest of the former Soviet republics, the Kyrgyz economy relies heavily on production from a single gold mine and cash sent home by migrant workers. It lacks the rich energy reserves of some neighbours such as Kazakhstan.
"We know what the strategic importance of this region is, you only have to look at the neighbouring countries," Merkel said at the news conference with Atambayev.
Merkel added that Europe must be "fair" in its relations with all of Central Asia and not focus on "countries that have raw materials or are just strategically important as withdrawal routes from Afghanistan".
The two leaders discussed the human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan, including the case of journalist Azimzham Askarov, a campaigner against police brutality who was jailed for life in 2010 on charges of inciting ethnic violence in the city of Osh.
Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was awarded the International Press Freedom Award in absentia this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"I got the impression that the president is very well aware of this situation," said Merkel, adding that they discussed the need to respect the rights of Kyrgyzstan's ethnic minorities.
Atambayev said he would like to see Askarov's case reopened if there were grounds, "but it must all be strictly according to the law and be decided by the courts, not by the president".
"We don't want a clan or a family or a person taking our decisions," said Atambayev, whose predecessor Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in 2010 after being accused of nepotism, corruption and brutality. He took shelter in Belarus.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Roche