U.S. Policy Towards Central Asia
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT: We’d like to start. Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to see you all here today on a hot July Friday. It’s a real testament to the importance of today’s event. And it’s with great pleasure that I introduce to you Assistant Secretary Robert Blake. Most of you or many of you know him and had the pleasure of hearing him before.
Assistant Secretary Blake is a career foreign service officer who has had extensive experience in the Middle East and in South Asia before coming to his current position as assistant secretary of South and Central Asia. Prior to that position, in addition to various other postings, he served as ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives until – from 2006 until the time of his posting. It’s a pleasure to turn the floor open to you for your comments and the questions I know you’ll be happy to take.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. Well, first of all, Martha, let me really thank you for, again, putting on a nice lunch and giving us the opportunity to talk a little bit. I don’t have to tell all of you that Martha’s one of the real great experts on Central Asia, and so it’s really been terrific to have her counsel. And we testified earlier this week in front of the Helsinki Commission as well.
I really want to add my own warm words of welcome to everybody here. As many of you know, I was out in the region last week with our deputy Secretary of State, Jim Steinberg, for the OSCE ministerial, and then we took the opportunity also to go to Tashkent, and then to Bishkek, and after that to Osh. So what I thought I would do is just kind of – maybe just start by giving a kind of – a little bit about Central Asia and our overall policy, and then go into a little bit more about Kyrgyzstan itself and some of the things that we saw, and then we’d be glad to open up for questions and comments and so forth.
As all of you know, Central Asia is a region of really significant importance to the United States and our national interests. Recognizing the uniqueness of each of the five Central Asian nations and their sovereignty and their independence, U.S. policy supports the development of fully sovereign, stable, democratic nations that are integrated into the world economy and cooperating with one another, with the United States, our partners, to advance regional security and stability.
This is has been our longstanding policy in the region, but how we pursue it has differed from administration to administration. So, shortly after coming to power, the Obama administration undertook a full review of our policy toward Central Asia. And we decided on five main priorities, none of which will be any surprise to any of you.
First, to expand cooperation with Central Asian states to assist coalition efforts in Afghanistan; second, to increase development and diversification of the region’s energy resources and supply routes; third, to encourage political liberalization and respect for human rights; fourth, to foster competitive market economies and economic reform and lastly, to prevent the emergence of failed states, or in more positive terms, to increase the capacity of states to govern themselves effectively.
To pursue all of these priorities, we decided to expand our civilian engagement with each of these countries and to establish consultative mechanisms with each of them to try to regularize our dialogues and channel them into realistic work programs that could really drive progress in each of the areas that I previously outlined.
Soon after I took up my duties last summer, I traveled with Undersecretary of State Bill Burns – our Undersecretary for Political Affairs, on an interagency delegation to the region in what, at that point, had been the highest-level civilian visit to the region in many years. And in his meetings, Undersecretary Burns proposed the establishment of these Annual Bilateral Consultations that would be augmented by six-month reviews.
So all of our friends in Central Asia agreed to that proposal. And since that visit I have chaired consultations with every one of the countries in Central Asia, except Kyrgyzstan. We were planning to have our annual consultations with the Kyrgyz in April, when – in fact, they arrived the day that the momentous events took place in Kyrgyzstan, so we naturally suspended those talks. But we hope to have those at some point, and we’ve certainly had plenty – (chuckles) – of contacts with the Kyrgyz in the last several months.
We’ve had some fun times. The poor Tajik Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Zarifi, was here – (chuckles) – during the February snow storms. So he spent an entire week waiting the U.S. government to open up. (Laughter.) We ended up having some of the consultations in my living room to – (chuckles) – to have our talks. But, you know, I think that’s emblematic of the good dialogue that we’ve had and a very serious dialogue. Almost every one of them that has taken place over the course of two days, so we’ve really had a chance to get into real depth on all of the issues and priorities that we are each trying to advance.
Now, all of you, or many of you know much more about Central Asia and have been working on Central Asia a lot longer than I have. But you, I think, recognize that sometimes it can be a challenge to help move our Central Asian friends in the directions that we would like. But I think all of you would also agree that the first step in trying to get that kind of progress that we want to achieve is to create the right atmosphere and the right forms of dialogue. And I think that particularly includes creating the right atmosphere on these tough issues, like human rights. And so we’ve tried to do that in a – in a way of mutual respect and mutual understanding so we can, again, really make progress on this.
I think we are making progress in the area of human rights. And I’d be glad to come back to that because we really have made, in each of our Annual Bilateral Consultations, an effort not only to include civil society components, but also to include business components. Our last visit to Turkmenistan, that took place a little while ago – earlier this summer, was our first ABC overseas. And we – I took with me a business delegation to Turkmenistan. I think it was quite a successful visit, and, again, it underlined that we really want to have wide-ranging and broad progress on each of the areas that I outlined.
I often read some commentaries that the Obama administration is too focused on the security relationship with these countries and that we forget about human rights. And I know that makes for good news copy and good – maybe it’s good blog bytes, but I also want to tell you that that’s wrong. This administration has not shied away from discussing, in a very frank and a very full manner, all of the human rights issues. Many of the ambassadors are – from the Central Asian countries are here today and they will not be surprised to hear me say that.
My colleague, Mike Posner, who’s the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor, has frequently co-chaired the sessions that we have on human rights and democracy. And he came out with me to Turkmenistan and to Uzbekistan on our most recent trip earlier this summer to underline the importance that we attach to those particular issues.
We also hear the charge, from time to time, that the United States is too interested in maintaining the transit center at Manas international airport in Kyrgyzstan, and that, therefore, we refused to criticize the Bakiyev regime about human rights. And, again, I just want to assure all of you that we raised human rights in every meeting that I attended and that – you know, we were preparing for quite a robust discussion in April when the delegation was coming in here. We had planned to have a civil society component to the dialogue. We’d invited many of the civil society folks who are represented in this room to a session that I would have chaired with the foreign minister.
So I think we are – we do want to make progress on human rights. And it’s – we’ve said to our friends in each of these countries that, particularly, is we want to expand security cooperation. That’s got to go hand-in-hand with progress on human rights.
Let me also just say another thing, which is that the United States is really not in competition with any country over influence in Central Asia. I know many people talk about the Great Game. And, again, I know that makes for good copy, but it really doesn’t have much basis in reality. Our goal is to maintain mature, bilateral relations with each country in Central Asia, based on our foreign policy goals and each country’s specific characteristics and dynamics. And again, we don’t really accept any country having exclusive interests in any part of Central Asia.
We do maintain that it’s in the interest of all countries in the region to undertake policies that can produce a more durable stability and more reliable partners for everyone, including the United States, to address many of the critical challenges that are faced in the region, from non-proliferation, to counter-narcotics, to energy security, and combating terrorism.
Before I conclude and open this up to questions and comments, let me say a few words about the upcoming OSCE summit to be held in Kazakhstan later this year and then just talk a little bit about the situation in Kyrgyzstan and what the Obama administration is doing about it.
With regard to the OSCE summit, as I said, I was part of Jim Steinberg’s delegation that went for the ministerial that was held in Almaty earlier this month, and ministers there, as all of you know, discussed holding a summit later this year sometime, in Astana, under the chairmanship of the Kazakhstan chairman-in-office. This will be a truly historic event. This will be the first OSCE summit that’s been held in Central Asia and it’ll be the first summit that’s been held in 11 years. And it’s our hope that this will shine a light on developments in Central Asia, and the role that the OSCE has played, and can play, in promoting its principles across all three dimensions throughout the OSCE region.
We think that Kazakhstan has done a very credible job as OSCE chairman-in-office, and I also would say in dealing with the situation in Kyrgyzstan, where the OSCE has been at the forefront of efforts to promote peace, democracy and reconciliation. In offering to host this summit, Kazakhstan has agreed to follow the example of past summits and allow full access by NGOs, as happened in Istanbul in the last summit in 1999.
We think this is important not only so that Kazakhstan can demonstrate its commitment to upholding the human dimension, but also because this year marks the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. So I can assure you that at the summit the United States will stand up for all of the OSCE principles, and especially with regard to human rights.
On Kyrgyzstan, I think you all know the facts of the recent past: In April, a bloody uprising overthrew President Bakiyev and brought in a provisional government. Clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-June were really a very strong test for the government. During the violence, over 350 people were killed, and about 400,000 were displaced, with roughly 100,000 of those going to – temporarily to seek refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan. I think the situation has generally stabilized, but tensions remain very high in the south still. Humanitarian organizations down there are now transitioning from emergency relief to recovery and reconstruction, and, most importantly, to reconciliation.
While we are encouraged that there’s not been a recurrence of the violence, President Otunbayeva and the provisional government face very daunting challenges. Fears and tensions remain, particularly among ethnic Uzbeks. As I said, I was in Osh last week and felt this myself in many of the conversations that we had with people, where we just stopped on the street and had discussions with both ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
Since April, I’ve been there, in fact, several times and have had many conversations with the provisional government leadership. We support a number of steps that we think should be taken to help heal the wounds of the past, but also help Kyrgyzstan to chart a more stable future. And let me just tick those off and I’d be glad to elaborate on any of those later on.
First, we think that we need to boost security forces in the south to prevent further violence, and that the principal and best mechanism for doing that right now is through the establishment of an OSCE Police Advisory Group. Second, we’re encouraging local Kyrgyzstani law enforcement and judicial institutions to act as reliable and credible community partners in order to build trust with the people. Third, we want to encourage investigations, both domestic investigation and international investigation, into the causes of the violence of June, both to help understand how to prevent fresh outbreaks of violence, but also to ensure accountability for those who were responsible.
We also want to help Kyrgyzstan establish a functioning democracy in these very important parliamentary elections that are going to take place in early October. And last, but not least, we want to help the people of Kyrgyzstan, particularly those in Osh and Jalalabad, to reconstruct their homes and reconstruct their lives before winter starts up.
Earlier this week at the Kyrgyzstan Donors Conference, a host of international donors, including the United States, pledged $1.1 billion in response to a World Bank- and government of Kyrgyzstan-drafted Joint Economic Assessment. The pledges exceeded the needs outlined in that assessment by $100 million, which I think is encouraging.
The United States pledged $48.6 million, which comes on top of our existing annual assistance program. We joined the donors community in speaking with one voice in calling on the government to insist upon a fair plan to provide transitional housing to all those who lost their homes, to also provide a comprehensive international and domestic investigation into the recent violence and also to support the planned OSCE Police Advisory Group.
Finally, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan has also tested its neighbors, particularly Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. We are working with our partners in the region and with Russia so that there will be no repetition of these tragic events. Uzbekistan played a helpful role in taking in a large number of displaced persons, which contributed significantly to the international relief efforts. Its government quickly and effectively addressed the humanitarian needs of these people, and ultimately helped to save a lot of lives. We hope that, if needed, Uzbekistan would once again be willing to open its borders to provide a safe haven.
We appreciate Kazakhstan’s efforts to galvanize the OSCE’s efforts to help stabilize the situation in Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan supported the OSCE’s decision to deploy a Police Advisory Group in Kyrgyzstan. It has expressed its commitment to enhance the OSCE Center in Bishkek and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR’s efforts to assist Kyrgyzstan with the parliamentary elections in October.
As a very powerful economic neighbor, Kazakhstan has a crucial role to play in continuing to help Kyrgyzstan to achieve economic and social stability, including by maintaining its borders open and accepting some of the important agricultural exports that will now just be coming to harvest.
As the international community works with the provisional government to help confront these many challenges, I think coordination and consultation are going to be really essential. The United States remains in constant contact with the governments in Tashkent, in Astana, in Moscow, in the European Union and, of course, the United Nations to help ensure the security and stability in Kyrgyzstan and proper coordination.
The crisis has brought Russia and United States together in a region where so many people often suggest that we are rivals. President Medvedev and President Obama have even issued a joint statement on Kyrgyzstan at their last meeting, so we think that’s a good and promising basis to build on.
So let me stop there. And I’d be glad to take your questions on any of what I’ve talked about, or anything else you’d like to talk about. Thank you very much and again, a warm thanks to Martha and her colleagues for hosting us today.
MS. OLCOTT: Thank you. When you’re recognized to ask questions, please identify yourself.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So I can decide whether I want to answer your questions. (Laughter.)
MS. OLCOTT: (Chuckles.) No, because this is – no, we’ll start with Cathy.
QUESTION: Hello, I’m Catherine Fitzpatrick. I’m with EurasiaNet.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Hi.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you, in making the agreement for the OSCE summit, did the U.S. raise any cases, such as the case of Evgeni Zhovtis, or any other issues that you would like to see resolved before the summit? And did you get into the question of when the implementation meeting would be, because the precedent there has been to hold it well in advance of –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: – the summit. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to get into specific cases, in terms of what we discuss in our bilateral dialogue with our friends. But let me just say that we attach a great deal of importance, as my remarks attest, to making progress on human rights, including with Kazakhstan. I think Kazakhstan is aware that there’s a certain amount of skepticism on the part of many members of the OSCE about insufficient progress that’s been made in the area of human rights.
So I think they’re committed to trying to make some progress between now and the time of the summit. And they also are committed to hosting a human dimension review before the summit. So I hope that that we can see progress between now and then.
And let me also just say, in terms of the summit itself, we hope that there will be an NGO, a civil society component to that and I think the Kazakhs have agreed, in principle, to do that.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mark Schneider, International Crisis Group. Specifically with respect to Kyrgyzstan and the recent violence in Osh and – could you give us your sense of the status of the police observer mission, both with respect to the issue of investigating the violence that occurred and actions which might be taken in addition to help prevent further violence? And I say that in light of the announcement – or the press report, let’s say, of the Kyrgyz community in Russia in Moscow opposing the police mission. I’d just be very interested –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Moscow or in Osh?
QUESTION: – very interested in your views.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah, again, I think the government is committed to seeing both a domestic investigation proceed, as well as an international one – that will be led by Kimmo Kiljunen, who’s well-known in the OSCE, but also somebody who’s well-known to the provisional government.
We have encouraged Mr. Kiljunen to make sure that he has the benefit of the advice of the U.N., and others who have a great deal of expertise in this area. And I think he’s committed to do that. I think that will help a lot to ensure that this is – really is a solid effort and a credible investigation that does take place.
As you say, there is some resistance on the part of some in Kyrgyzstan to the deployment of a Police Advisory Group. I think the OSCE is well aware of that, but also is counting on the support of the provisional government. I think that the president herself has expressed her support for this, as have key members of her government.
So I think we and the OSCE and others will count on that to help ensure that there’s a smooth deployment of this Police Advisory Group, and that that hopefully can take place as quickly as possible. We hope within a month or so, or maybe, you know, a little bit more than a month.
But already efforts are under way to try to recruit the necessary people. And I can say that, speaking from the United States perspective, that we will provide both a robust part of the financial component of that, and we will also be contributing some – or we hope to contribute some of the police of our own.
QUESTION: Erica Marat, Russian service, Voice of America. I have a question regarding the fifth priority of the U.S. policy –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Regarding the what?
QUESTION: Fifth priority, the failed states – preventing failed states priority.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Oh, yes.
QUESTION: Where in the region do you see elements of a failed state? Thanks. (Laughter.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I don’t want to put it in terms of failed states. I think several of the countries face, you know, a lot of big challenges, and not the least because of the economic problems from the global recession, from the situation in Afghanistan.
You know, Tajikistan is obviously one country where we have been concerned. Their remittances account for almost half of their GDP and remittances fell quite dramatically as a result of the economic situation in Russia. And so obviously they have some quite considerable economic challenges that they face and those are not helped by their proximity to Afghanistan, which makes it difficult to sometimes attract foreign investment.
So the United States has worked hard to – both to provide humanitarian assistance, but also we have, again, a robust bilateral aid program to help our friends in Tajikistan to help meet a lot of these challenges.
And one of the really important ones also is on the energy side. And I don’t have to tell you there’s been quite an – (chuckles) – important dispute with Uzbekistan over the Rogun facility. And again, that’s something that I think is important to try to work our way through as quickly as possible and help provide a resolution to that, so that they can meet their energy needs as quickly as possible in a way that will be acceptable to both of those countries.
MS. OLCOTT: Behind you – behind you.
QUESTION: Andrew Pierre, Georgetown University. For the first time, for me, I was in Kyrgyzstan last October, early November – actually, sent by the State Department to talk about Obama’s foreign policy. And I got a lot of feedback regarding the base in Manas.
Already at that time, there was a sort of feeling that the U.S. government, and particularly the U.S. embassy – and I’m a great fan of Tatiana Gfoeller, but nevertheless – the U.S. embassy was too focused on that priority and not enough on, sort of, the overall relationship with Kyrgyzstan. And since then, of course, we’ve had the whole question of the oil and you know, the contracts and so on.
So my question is, what are we doing, or what is being done to sort out – to provide a little transparency, if you like, with regards to the fuel for the base? And important as our base there is, or our use of their airport is, what can be done to sort of diminish its profile in such a way that in Kyrgyzstan and in Central Asia, in particular, it’s sort of more accepted?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. Thank you very much. That’s a very good question, a very important question. And thank you also for being a speaker because we really appreciate that.
Let me answer that in two ways: First of all, just – I think I already addressed the human rights part of that, which is to say that, you know, human rights has always been a very important part of our dialogue and will continue to be so. And if you look at the public statements that I’ve made in all my visits to Kyrgyzstan and other senior-level officers have made that is always an important component of what we talk about.
In terms of the base itself and the fuel contracts and so forth, we have made every effort to be as transparent as possible. The Department of Defense has now – has competitively rebid the Manas fuel contract. And the Department of Defense and the U.S. government are committed to being as open and as transparent as possible about this so that there are no, kind of, sweetheart deals that are cut under the table. We want to do this in a very – again, in a very transparent manner.
We have posted information about the Manas Transit Center on embassy Bishkek’s website, as well as information about the fuel contracts. So again, we want to be as transparent as possible about this. In every – in all of these cases, the Department of Defense has open, competitive bidding processes. And again, we want to – we want to try to model that behavior, and we’re making our best efforts to do so.
QUESTION: On the issue of reconciliation, what has been – what steps have been discussed so far with the Kyrgyz government and also among the donor countries?
MS. OLCOTT: Identify yourself.
QUESTION: Regina Yan, with Eurasia Foundation.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much. Well, as I said earlier, I think tensions are still very high in the south. So an important part of the reconciliation process will be, first, to just provide humanitarian assistance to help those who were displaced by the violence, and make sure that they can, you know, get back to their homes, be able to rebuild their homes as quickly as possible and are supported – you know, receive food and other assistance in the meantime while they’re waiting for that.
Secondly, as I said earlier, security is vital to this. And providing a more secure environment so that, again, the residents of Osh and Jalalabad can feel more, you know, more safe is important. So we’ve put a lot of effort into this deployment of this Police Advisory Group.
Third, I think there are a number of efforts that need to be made on the human rights side. There continue to be a lot of human rights abuses in – that we hear about and that the people are well aware of. I met with many NGOs while I was there, and human rights activists in Osh last week. And they talked about continuing reports of abuses in custody, and arbitrary arrests, and people coming into people’s houses and beating children, and things like.
So obviously all that’s got to stop. I immediately raised all those concerns with the deputy commandant in Osh, whom I met with right after having that meeting with NGO activists. So, again, I think it’s very important that the government itself be aware of these and that they take steps to stop them.
Last but not least, I think there is room now for efforts, on the reconciliation, to try to bring these communities together. So I know the OSCE is looking at various things that they could do. Many of the activists that we spoke to said that it’s too early and emotions are still too raw to bring together the young men who were involved in much of the violence, but that perhaps there is scope to bring together women, and mothers, and the religious leaders.
So the OSCE is looking at ways that they can do that. Those groups of people can really serve as very important bridges between those two communities. So, again, the OSCE I think is looking at ways to do that, and the United States would be pleased to try to support that.
QUESTION: Bill Veale, from the U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association. In your opening remarks, you’ve mentioned that among the topics – from the consultations you would be having with individual countries, would be business issues.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Could you elaborate a little bit more on that? I understand you’ve had this already with Turkmenistan, but in that particular vein of the bilateral talks. And then perhaps also I’d like your view of the idea of what might be happening with Basket II in the OSCE context, in terms of maybe thinking about investment-climate types of issues in the post-Soviet context here. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thanks, Bill. Again, in all of our Annual Bilateral Consultations – I mean, obviously every country’s different, but this is a very important part of our, of our overall effort, is to improve the business climate, not only for our companies who are already operating in many of those countries, but also to improve the investment climate for prospective investors, so that they have greater incentives to try to come here and invest in those countries.
We also think there are some important business opportunities, particularly in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. And so we – that’s why we decided to take a delegation to Turkmenistan, to Ashgabat. And I think – again, I think there was quite a lot of progress. I’m looking forward to seeing your counterpart, Eric Stewart, to find out exactly – you know, a month or two later, what’s really come of it. But there was – there were a lot of MOUs, and other things that were discussed, and there was – there seemed to be a lot of optimism, so I just hope that we can now follow through on that.
And I see that as a model for some of these other countries. When we have our next ABCs, both in Uzbekistan as well as in Kazakhstan, I hope we can do the same. Obviously, we’re only going to do that if there’s interest on the part of the American business community to do that, but we want to support you in all of your efforts. And I imagine there will be interest in the case of Kazakhstan – (chuckles) – and Uzbekistan.
So we look forward to, again, putting together a robust delegation and again, using that as an opportunity to try to encourage our friends in all these countries to improve the investment climate, and provide opportunities for American companies. Because I do believe there are significant opportunities.
In terms of the OSCE part of it, yeah, I think there – that will be – I don’t have anything concrete to tell you yet, but definitely that’s one of the – one of the high priorities is to use the summit for that purpose as well. Thanks.
QUESTION: Cathy Cosman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. I had a question regarding Uzbekistan – (laughter). I had a question regarding Uzbekistan. While you and others have praised Uzbekistan for its reception of the refugees from Osh and Jalalabad, nevertheless, other aspects of the Uzbek human rights record leave a lot to be desired.
And while Uzbekistan was named a country of particular concern for its maltreatment, to put it mildly, of religious believers and its general law on religion and many other aspects, I was wondering when the CPC-state decision will be issued again, and whether, as the commission hopes, Uzbekistan will again be named a CPC?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I can’t – I can’t give you any specifics on the timing of the CPC. I’m just not quite sure. That’s something that our colleagues in DRL, Mike Posner and others, could probably tell you.
But I can tell you that, on our recent visit, that that – that this was a very, you know, important topic of concern that Mike and I raised with the government of Uzbekistan. And you know, again, I think this is one of several areas where we see is a very high priority and hope that we can make progress.
QUESTION: Grant Smith, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. To pick up on an earlier comment of yours, do you see a role for the U.S. in helping the countries of the area come to an agreement on further development of their water resources – which is a potential flashpoint after all – or is this something that’s best done by multinational organizations?
And do you see a necessary financial component there, remembering that an earlier agreement, the Indus Waters agreement, although somewhat different, it involved a substantial financial component?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, Grant, thank you for that question. I don’t have to tell you that – (chuckles) – water is one of these very controversial and divisive issues, not just in Central Asia but also in South Asia. But it’s also something that I think we need to try to grapple with, because it becomes very quickly a national security issue in many of these countries, particularly now with many of the changes that are taking place as a result of climate change.
So there – these problems of water supply, I think, are going to grow over time in all parts of the South and Central Asian region. So it’s incumbent upon the United States and other donors to do what they can to try to help.
As you say, in almost every case, a lot of this is going to require cooperation among the countries themselves. In the first instance, we support the efforts of the U.N. office in Ashgabat, where Ambassador Jenca is doing a – quite a terrific job to work with the countries to see what can be done to advance a water agenda between many of these countries.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some quite ticklish issues in places, for example, between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And those are probably best addressed in – not in public fora like this. But we have – the United States has supported a feasibility study, has called for the support of an independent feasibility study that would be conducted by the U.N. and paid for by the U.N. to take a look at some of the issues surrounding Rogun. And the Uzbeks, for example, are very concerned that this is going to be built in a seismically active area. So I think that deserves a close look.
They also want to make sure that it’s the right way to go to build a big dam, and not a series of smaller dams. And I think that’s a – that’s a fair point that deserves a close look as well.
And I think also we want to – we want to see how this is going to benefit both of these countries. As always, any downstream country is going to be concerned about its vulnerability to supply disruptions from upstream, so there needs to be some sort of mechanism. In the India and Pakistani context, the World Bank has a mechanism under the Indus Water Treaty that provides such a mechanism, and both countries have availed themselves of that many times over the – in the 50-year history of the treaty.
And I think that’s done a lot to, again, to reduce water tensions between them, but even then they’re still very high. But they’re high not because of these bilateral disputes. They’re high because populations are growing and water needs are growing very fast and the resources diminishing.
So that’s a long way of saying that I think probably the best progress can be made through institutions like the U.N. And if we can do – we can support their efforts, we’ll be glad to do so. I think we will be doing so in a modest way. And then if there are things that we can do on a bilateral basis, with friends like the Tajiks and the Uzbeks to, again, to try to narrow differences, we’d be glad to do that.
QUESTION: Louise Shelley, George Mason University. There’s been a lot of discussion that there were drug conflicts behind the conflicts in the south of Kyrgyzstan and this is a problem that affects all of Central Asia. You haven’t mentioned this as one of your policy concerns in the area and I wanted you to develop this more.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, there are a lot of different issues. I probably couldn’t name them all, but that’s definitely one of them. There’s a – there’s a drug-trafficking network that comes right up from Afghanistan and through many of the Central Asian states into Russia. And that’s of great concern to all of those states, and also a great concern to the Russians, and to the United States, since a lot of these funds still go to people in Afghanistan and into – that help to sustain some of the Taliban and others.
So this is a very important concern, and it’s something that we look at closely. And I think one of the things that needs to be done now, in Kyrgyzstan in particular, is to try to bring that under control. Because I think part of the, sort of, toxic mix that you saw in the violence in June was because of criminal gangs who were part of this violence. And certainly some of their money is derived from the drug trade.
So I think that is a very important component to it. And I think one of the things that can be done is to help Kyrgyzstan to revamp its own drug-control agency, and take a, kind of, stronger stand itself on some of the challenges that it faces.
QUESTION: Anders Aslund, Peterson Institute. I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to elaborate a bit upon the U.S. policy stand on the events in Kyrgyzstan on the 7th of April. That very day, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev both came out and strongly condemned the Bakiyev regime for corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism, while the U.S., somewhat later – you and others made the statements at a much lower level, saying that it was important to keep peace.
And the Kyrgyz media reported, at least for the first three days, that the U.S. ambassador refused to talk to anybody from the new government. Could you elaborate a bit on this? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: (Chuckles.) I must say, your memory is much better than mine about the exact unfolding of events in April, so I can’t really comment on what our ambassador may or may not have said.
But as in all of these crises, you know, our first responsibility is to the security of our American citizens. And that’s both private Americans but also our own embassy. So in the first days of any such crisis, that’s exactly what we were focused on, is to make sure that the personnel at the U.S. embassy, the personnel at Manas and the personnel – other Americans in places like Osh and others were safely accounted for. So there was a great deal of effort in that regard.
I don’t recall that the United States was particularly quiet about some of the events there. I think we expressed our public concern about things, and, again, called for a quick resolution to the situation. And as you – we all remember, it was extremely fluid at that time, and I don’t think any of us quite knew what was going on. So it, you know, was sort of difficult to make comments about, you know, individuals, and so forth.
QUESTION: I’m Dana Marshall, with Dewey & LeBoeuf. And the question is on Iran sanctions. I wonder if you could elaborate, to the extent that you can – I know this is probably a sensitive area, the degree of commitment that you’re picking up among the countries of Central Asia about working with the United States, with the EU now, and many other countries along these directions?
Are they committed to the U.N. side of this? Are any of them planning to go beyond the U.N., as the United States and the EU and others have done? Where are some of the problems or the opportunities that we may be able to leverage their cooperation to move forward on our objectives?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I have to say that I – in terms of the sanctions themselves, I haven’t heard any suggestion that these – any of these countries are not going to abide by their U.N. obligations, as member-states, to observe and implement the sanctions. So again, I expect them to do that, and I have no – I have no indication that they won’t.
I think the, kind of, larger question is – the concerns I’ve heard from several of the states, and I don’t want to name them because, as you say, it’s very sensitive – about what they see as the implications for the region of an emboldened Iran if it does, in fact, acquire nuclear weapons. So I think they’re very conscious of that and very worried about that and agree with the approach that the United States and others have taken to try to do everything we can to limit the ability of the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons and to make sure that if there is a nuclear program, that it’s a peaceful, civilian program that’s conducted under the auspices of the IAEA with full access by the IAEA.
QUESTION: Karen Saunders, George Mason University. Returning to Kyrgyzstan, I wonder if you could comment on what’s being done to balance the need to open borders – to allow refugees to cross into Uzbekistan and other countries on Kyrgyzstan’s borders, with the need to increase border security to prevent illicit trade: human trafficking, human smuggling and things of this nature?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, as I say, that was more of a concern during the – during the violence in June, where, again, we commended, and continue to commend, the government of Uzbekistan for opening its border very quickly and for receiving the almost 100,000 refugees in a very professional manner. And I myself had the opportunity to visit the Ferghana Valley, and to go and see many of the camps that have been set up in a very short time.
The government of Uzbekistan also welcomed the UNHCR after a hiatus of five years, which, again, I think was very positive, and they continue to work, I think, productively with the UNHCR. So that’s a kind of continuing good sign.
But, as I said earlier, we hope that if there is recurrence of violence, that the government of Uzbekistan will again open up its borders and allow people to cross over into safety and that they will, again, work with the international humanitarian aid organizations to provide assistance.
But it’s impossible to predict if, you know, if that’s going to happen, or when. And I think the government is committed to trying to do that. As you know, Osh is only four miles from the border, so there’s – it’s very short, and that’s the natural place that people would probably seek refuge. Sorry, what was the second part of your question?
QUESTION: What is being done to balance the need for some openness – (off mike, inaudible) – with illicit trade in human trafficking and human smuggling?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. I think the second part of that question, I think our friends in Kyrgyzstan are most concerned perhaps about the border with Tajikistan and the possibility, particularly in Batken, that, again, narcotrafficking, and perhaps human smuggling – I haven’t heard of human smuggling, but that’s certainly not unusual – and other kinds of illegal activities, and terrorist activity could come across that border.
And so I think – and that’s not because of any ill will on the part of Tajikistan. It’s just a difficult border to patrol and to control. So that – I think that is a particular priority, in terms of trying to improve border security.
MS. OLCOTT: Any hands? I didn’t – I have a question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Please.
MS. OLCOTT: Okay, and then I will, I will – we will thank you. You set forward an ambitious agenda for the U.S. and for the international community in Kyrgyzstan – and including the introduction of OSCE police, which is going to take time to achieve; these various commissions, national and international and now this promise of over a billion dollars of international assistance to be staged over almost three years.
In each case, the solutions almost – the proposed solutions assume time is frozen, to some degree, which is why I think, having had the opportunity to share so many platforms with you, I think you’ve kept saying, “if, unfortunately, violence resumes” – (chuckles). The situation, though, is far from static.
Today the mayor of Osh received an award, voted by the city council of Osh, giving him, making him hero of Kyrgyzstan – if I have the title correct – and two other people for what they’ve done to stabilize the situation in the region.
That same city council – and this was all done with President Otunbayeva’s presence in the city, or she was about to land in the city because she’s in the south. It was a manifest statement of power on their part. The same city council has said it’s against the police being brought there.
And the assistance packages, some of them will require parliamentary approval. And we don’t even have a date for the parliamentary election, let alone the election. Because some of the longer-term money, obviously, requires somebody to take financial responsibility for it.
The whole humanitarian assistance – and the U.S. policy talks about getting people back to their homes. But next week, even, I think they begin building high-rises on some of the property that was held by Uzbeks – I mean, that was historically owned by these people, that they were kicked out of at the time of the riots.
So by the time the assistance money comes for resettling people, there will already have been ditches dug, if not foundations laid. I don’t think even the top priority construction teams in Osh can get high-rise apartments up in eight weeks, but they can certainly do enough foundation-laying to make it very, very difficult to resettle people.
I mean, what kind of mechanisms – what kind of international mechanisms, what kind of U.S. policy initiatives can be done both to monitor the situation and try to pressure the various sides? I mean, we – there’s national reconciliation between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, but there’s also a national reconciliation between the various leaders in Kyrgyzstan, southern politicians and northern politicians, politicians who were – may have been members of Bakiyev’s party, but were not intimate or family members of the Bakiyev team. It seems like there’s a whole lot of other reconciliation that needs to be done. Some can be done maybe through the auspices of the OSCE.
So I would really appreciate, and I’m sure a lot of people would appreciate – those of us here that spend a lot of time on Kyrgyzstan, what thoughts you have about future U.S. roles that could be played, or what the U.S. might want to see other international institutions do to help build bridges in this very difficult time. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, those are – Martha, those are all, you know, very good questions, and I don’t think anybody has any good answers to them, to be honest. I mean, I think it – your very good questions underline how delicate the situation is right now and what a difficult challenge President Otunbayeva and her team face in trying to assert their authority over the situation in the south.
I’m encouraged by – I actually asked that question of somebody in Kyrgyzstan while I was there, and they said that President Otunbayeva actually has one important advantage right now, which is that there’s a – something of a vacuum because all of the senior, previous ministers who were in the original provisional government that was formed after the events in April, all of them have now resigned because they’re going to run for office in the parliamentary elections.
So she and – and she has a certain measure of legitimacy as a result of this referendum that took place. So she now has the popular support, through this referendum, to be the president and the interim president for the next year and a half. So she does have a measure of legitimacy. And I think she also has the support of key individuals, like the minister of interior and others, who are committed to helping her and are committed to, I think, helping to assert their authority over the situation in the south.
But I think they themselves would also be the first to acknowledge this is not going to be an easy thing for them to do and so they will need our support. And I think institutions like the Police Advisory Group can help, but I think also, more importantly, it’ll just be very, very important for the United States and Kazakhstan and Russia and other friends to just to continue to work very closely together with groups like the EU and the U.N. to make sure that we try to work in a balanced way to support President Otunbayeva, to make clear that we’re not trying to mediate between any of these different groups who want to support reconciliation between all of the communities.
But, again, I think we are all very conscious of the delicacy of the task ahead and the importance of moving quickly, but also moving carefully, so that we don’t, kind of, upset some of these very difficult situations there. And nobody underestimates the possibility for new violence, which is why these investigations are so important – to understand what was originally the cause of that violence.
And I think it also underlines why having even a relatively small Police Advisory Group on the ground in Osh and in Jalalabad will help not only to kind of discourage potential future violence, but also help to assure, I think, some of the citizens on the ground there about the role of the international community. But, again, I don’t want to underestimate the very difficult challenges that lie ahead. So we just leave it at that. (Chuckles.)
MS. OLCOTT: Thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. (Applause.)