Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Moscow, Russia
September 2, 2010


QUESTION: What was your agenda of your trip to Tajikistan and now to Russia? Who did you meet and what were the topics under discussion?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to speak to you.

QUESTION: It’s actually me who should be thanking you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The agenda actually was quite different both for my trip to Tajikistan and to Moscow. In Dushanbe the principal purpose of my trip was to meet with the officials of the government of Tajikistan to conduct our first six-month review of our annual bilateral consultations that we have started with Tajikistan. We inaugurated those in the winter with Foreign Minister Zarifi coming to Washington, and to make sure that we’re really making progress on the full range of issues and priorities we decided to have a review to make sure that we’re in fact evaluating what we’re doing and what we need to do more of.

I also had the opportunity to meet with civil society representatives and members of international organizations and tell people that the United States wants to work with the government of Tajikistan to help Tajikistan become a more free, a more secure, a more prosperous country. Again, these consultations of ours are a way to have very detailed talks on how we can achieve our objectives and make progress on the full range of our goals there, not just how to improve security, but also how to build democracy and how to build prosperity.

In Russia, this is my first visit to Russia as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. We’ve been very pleased with the recent progress and cooperation that we have had with the government of Russia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan which has been a very high priority for both of our governments. We see that the cooperation that we have had at all levels of our government, from our two Presidents to people at my level, to our embassies has been really quite extraordinary, and we want to not only build on that progress with respect to our relations in Kyrgyzstan, but also look at other ways we can cooperate. So I must say I’m very pleased with the level of cooperation that we’ve had. I’ve had very good discussions today starting with Acting Foreign Minister Karasin, but with many other colleagues as well at the Foreign Ministry.

QUESTION: You met Maxim Peshkov, maybe, the head of the Department for Central --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: A lot of different people.

QUESTION: Who did you meet in Tajikistan, Dushanbe?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I met President Rahmon. Of course I met the Foreign Minister. I met a variety of other people. Again, we try to meet as many people as we can in as short a period of time as possible.

QUESTION: One of the United States’ goals in Tajikistan is to improve security and from what we’ve heard from the administration, the U.S. is planning to open a center, a training center for Tajik military personnel. So can you elaborate on these topics?

And you said lately that there is not a base, but sure like every Russian diplomat and military personnel, they think who are going to train these Tajik soldiers? Are these like guys from McDonalds? Is kind of like military officer.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for that question. I think it’s a very good opportunity for us to clarify this because there have been some questions.

First of all, let me say that we are not building a base in Tajikistan and we have no plans to do so. The center that you refer to is actually going to be a training center not for military personnel but for law enforcement people who are involved in the counternarcotics efforts.

Again, this is a very important shared objective of ours, of Russia’s and of the government of Tajikistan’s to interdict the flow of narcotics coming out of Afghanistan through Tajikistan and through other parts of Central Asia into Russia. So I think it’s very much in our interests to work together on that important objective.

QUESTION: So if you want to work together with the Russian side, can you like share intelligence from the center or invite some Russian specialists to train the Tajik military on this center?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here. We haven’t even built the center yet. So let’s start with that and then we’ll talk about how we can work with the Russians.

QUESTION: What is the timetable for this project? When it’s going to start and what is the amount of investment possible --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ll be working on this in the next several months. I don’t want to make any particular announcements right now. First we need to coordinate that with the government of Tajikistan.

QUESTION: Did you already select the region where this training center --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to get out in front of any -- I think I’ve said all I need to say about that particular training center.

QUESTION: How does the administration evaluate the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, and how the United States is going to establish relations with the new government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This is a very high priority for the United States. The situation in Kyrgyzstan has been very fragile since the terrible violence there earlier this year.

The United States has several priorities in Kyrgyzstan at the moment. First and foremost, we wanted to help the government respond to the immediate humanitarian needs of all those who were displaced by the violence. As you know, almost 400,000 people were displaced. 100,000 went to Uzbekistan and many more were displaced inside Kyrgyzstan. So the United States was at the forefront of efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and food and so forth to those. That effort is now nearing conclusion as more and more people return home. And the immediate humanitarian priority is to provide shelter and help mostly the ethnic Uzbeks whose homes were destroyed in Osh and in Jalalabad to rebuild their homes or at least partially rebuild their homes so that they have some place to live before the onset of winter.

We also attach a great deal of priority to helping to improve the security situation in Kyrgyzstan. We have supported the OSCE’s plan to deploy a Police Advisory Group to Kyrgyzstan to the south, and we think that can be a very valuable opportunity to both train and mentor some of the police forces there, but also to provide a measure of reassurance to the ethnic Uzbeks who live in the south who still live, I think, in some fear as the people who were responsible for that violence have not yet been identified or brought to justice.

That’s also why we support efforts both for a domestic and international investigation into the causes of the violence, so that those people may be brought to justice, and we support the efforts of Mr. Kiljunen whom President Otunbayeva has asked to form a commission of investigation, an international commission, and discussions are underway now with the government about how to proceed on that very important matter.

Lastly, we’ve very focused on helping the government of Kyrgyzstan to prepare for the October 10th parliamentary elections that will take place. We see this as a very significant opportunity to help Kyrgyzstan to organize what we hope will be free and fair elections held in a peaceful manner that will allow for wide participation by all members of the Kyrgyz people, and we think this is a significant opportunity to enhance democracy in Central Asia.

QUESTION: How do you actually evaluate the June referendum? Because it was accepted by the international community but from what we heard on the ground, and our correspondents were there as well, the government doesn’t seem to control the situation actually and nobody seems to vote, or they voted against --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. I think that given the enormous challenges that the government faced in organizing the elections, I think they deserve a lot of credit for the way that the referendum was conducted and the very high turnout that did take place. I think the referendum helped to establish some legitimate authority in Kyrgyzstan which was very very important and we support and are working very closely with President Otunbayeva now to help her to manage the many challenges which she faces.

QUESTION: Do you cooperate with Russia in Kyrgyzstan, and if yes, in what fields are these projects, joint projects of cooperation? Or you just discuss it broadly?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We don’t have so many joint projects in Kyrgyzstan, but I would just say that we’ve been coordinating very closely at all levels. As you know, President Medvedev and President Obama issued a joint statement about Kyrgyzstan, but we’ve also had very close coordination in Moscow, at our embassies in Bishkek, also in Washington and with Russia’s Special Envoy, Ambassador Rushailov. So I think that’s been very very helpful. We’ve also of course worked very closely with Kazakhstan, the current OSCE Chairman in Office, with the EU, and with other important players. So I think the international coordination on Kyrgyzstan has been quite good.

QUESTION: From what we’ve heard in Russian press, there was an event when the violence in Osh erupted. Moscow was considering about sending its troops under the umbrella of this collective treaty organization and so on, and we’ve heard about talks between Moscow and Washington when Washington was saying guys, get the troops there, stop the violence, and we’ll support it in the United Nations and keep this operation kind of United Nations mandate because it is the stance of the United States, of our alliance, and so on. Were these talks happening actually?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. We had a number of talks that took place throughout that period. And again, I think there’s been very close cooperation with Russia. I’ll let Russia speak to its own decisions about what it decided or may decide to do, but --

QUESTION: -- describe the course or the substance of these negotiations was as I was talking.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’ll leave it to Russia to characterize what decisions it made about how it decided to or didn’t decide to deploy forces, but I think one of the reasons that we attach some importance to this Police Advisory Group is precisely to provide some measure of reassurance to particularly the ethnic Uzbeks in the south and also, frankly, to deter whoever might have been responsible for the violence that did take place.

QUESTION: What will be the fate of International Transit Center in Manas? And did you already start discussions with the current government? Or will you start another discussion after the election is over?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We appreciate the support that the current government, President Otunbayeva and her colleagues are providing for the Manas Transit Center. This remains a very important center for us because many of our troops transit through there on their way to Afghanistan and on their way back. We appreciate very much the support that President Medvedev and the government of Russia have also expressed for Manas.

QUESTION: Oh, really? Did they?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think they have been supportive. And we obviously would like to continue there, but that will be a sovereign decision by the new government, and I don’t really want to try to predict what that will be. We’ll obviously enter into discussions, but I don’t want to overstate this. Our most important priority in Kyrgyzstan is first of all to support these elections that will take place on October 10th and to reestablish democracy in Central Asia. Also help the people there to manage many of the challenges they face on the security front, on the economic front. If we can also continue to have the transit center and have access to the transit center, that would be terrific. But we’re also prepared to look at other alternatives, if that would be --

QUESTION: Okay, and what are the other --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to speculate about that.

QUESTION: So when President Bakiyev decided to close down the International Transit Center in Manas, the U.S. seemed to raise the stakes, the payment level and so on. So is the administration ready to do the same thing now when a new round of negotiations will start?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to prejudge any negotiations. It’s too early to speculate about what will be needed. We have an existing agreement that we hope will continue under the new government, and again, we’re prepared to enter into discussions with the new government at a time that they judge appropriate.

QUESTION: When President Bakiyev was still in power, there were plans to open a training center operated by the United States as well in southern Kyrgyzstan. Are you still considering these plans? Are they still relevant?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This training center that you refer to is still under consideration, but we haven’t made any decisions about that. Again, I think that will be something that we’ll want to discuss with a new government when they come in.

QUESTION: But for the United States, you have still a desire to build the center.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, this is not a base of any kind. The purpose of it is to support the training of personnel of the government of Kyrgyzstan, so I think it’s only logical that we would want to wait for this new government to be formed so that we can get their opinion about where it should be located and what kind of training is needed and those kind of questions.

QUESTION: So Russia is considered to offer their second base, but also training center as well. So can you cooperate, or did you negotiate this issue actually during your talks in Foreign Ministry?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It didn’t come up today.

QUESTION: Did the Tajikistan issue come up today?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We had broad discussions on all of the Central Asian countries.

QUESTION: But I can imagine Russian diplomats asking questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think that there’s any daylight between the United States and Russia on this issue.

QUESTION: But you introduced the plan and the broad concept of it.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to get into the details of what we talked about. Again, I repeat what I said earlier. I don’t think there are any significant differences between Russia and the United States and Russia fully understand what we’re trying to accomplish.

QUESTION: Many Kyrgyz politicians are already arriving in Moscow and many Moscow diplomats and officials are kind of behind closed door negotiations with future politics and future ministers who maybe appear in the new government. Recently we had Omar [inaudible].

Do you see them, do you use these guys?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We had extensive contacts with all of them when they were part of the provisional government. We of course maintain contact with as many people as possible just to have as wide a range of information as we can, but we have no particular candidate that we are supporting. Our interest is in supporting a process, a free and fair process that will help to restore democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

QUESTION: So you have contacts with the so-called group of southern [Siloviki], let’s use the Russian word, or the generals who were like [inaudible] people?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I think we’ll want to have contact with all of the candidates, but we don’t have any particular candidate we’re trying to back. We want to ensure a fair process.

QUESTION: The U.S. used to support, at least under the Bush administration, and I was, I think it was kind of the Clinton administration policy as well, some pipelines which could bring the oil and gas from the region, and the region has vast resources, straight to the European and international market. And it appears that these pipeline projects are kind of bypassing Russia. I do remember that the United States State Department even gave a grant for feasibility study of this grand Caspian project.

So are the United States still supportive of this kind of project? And is this a priority in your policy toward the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We support multiple pipelines to transport and export hydrocarbon resources from Central Asia. The Trans-Caspian is one such idea. We support the idea in principle, but really in the final analysis it is up to the government of Turkmenistan and the government of Azerbaijan to make the final decisions about whether to proceed with that project.

QUESTION: Lately the European Union made a platform for them to communicate and discuss this issue. Are the United States participating or helping the countries to come together on this issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We have a special envoy, Ambassador Richard Morningstar who travels extensively in the region and meets frequently with not only European counterparts but all of the leaders in the region, so he is very much involved in all aspects of these negotiations. Again, I come back to our original point which is that we support the development of multiple export pipelines.

QUESTION: Do you support the TAPI [Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India] project which was like Turkmenistan and Afghanistan announced an agreement this week or something?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ve heard about that. We’ve heard about the Turkmenistan announcement. I don’t think we have any details so far about exactly what they want to do. I think this project is still very much in a preliminary stage. Many many details need to be worked out, not the least of which will be the exact route for such a pipeline, the security arrangements, and also whether they will be able to attract commercial financing for this project.

So I think the idea in principle is a good one, but again, it will be up to the governments themselves to make some decisions on these very important matters, and also to attract commercial financing.

QUESTION: Recently several U.S. firms won their bids in Turkmenistan. It was [inaudible] and several majors. So did the government provide any assistance to these companies? And do they probably consult the State Department because it’s usual practice? So where are they going to transport, and how are they going to transport their commodities they will produce in several years?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First, I don’t think that any final decisions have been made about offshore exploration by the government of Turkmenistan. But the United States certainly supports the efforts of our companies to do more business in Turkmenistan. We believe that they bring unparalleled expertise and experience to the task, both on-shore and off-shore. We fully support their efforts in that regard.

We have a very specific process in the United States whereby companies apply for advocacy by the United States and have to show whether there are other American competitors for whatever contract they may be competing for, and then the Department of Commerce makes a decision about whether we will advocate for one company or for both companies. That way we want to make sure that we don’t disadvantage any one American competitor and that everybody has a fair opportunity to gain whatever contract is at stake.

In this case we are supporting our American companies in these very important contracts, but no decisions have been made.

QUESTION: Recently Turkmen officials traveled to Washington and asked for U.S. support for some kind of legal framework for transporting the hydrocarbons across the borders -- and as far as I understand there were not too many details on this trip -- in accordance with the European Energy Charter. So can you elaborate more on that topic?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I can’t. They didn’t talk to me so I’m not exactly sure. You should probably address that to Ambassador Morningstar. He might have more details.

QUESTION: So “reboot” is actually a key word in U.S. and Russia relations. How about Central Asia? We had an idea that the region was kind of battleground for rivalry between Putin administration and Bush administration. Does it start to change under Obama and Medvedev?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think it does. I think we’ve been very pleased, first of all, with the reset of relations between the United States and Russia. But we also think that that has carried over into the very close coordination we have had on Central Asia. I mentioned earlier the very good coordination and cooperation we’ve had on Kyrgyzstan. We want to continue that and look at ways that we might cooperate together on joint projects. We also want to do more in terms of coordinating on other countries as well.

Again, I had very wide-ranging and productive talks with Acting Foreign Minister Karasin and with many of his other colleagues, so I think we share a very similar assessment of the opportunities and the challenges that exist in Central Asia, and we believe there are significant opportunities to work with our friends in the Russian government. So this is I think an area where you’ll see more and more U.S. and Russian cooperation.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I appreciate it.

[This is a mobile copy of Interview With Kommersant of Russia]