Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Via Telephone Call
Washington, DC
March 11, 2011


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d like to extend a very warm welcome to all of the journalist friends in Kyrgyzstan. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.

I thought I would take a few minutes to give you some of the highlights of President Otunbayeva’s visit this week and touch briefly on our country’s shared interests after which I’d be pleased to take your questions.

The United States thinks that President Otunbayeva had a constructive visit to Washington, accomplishing a lot in a short time, and we were very pleased that she could come.

President Obama joined President Otunbayeva’s meeting with National Security Adviser Donilon. President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy.

He thanked President Otunbayeva for Kyrgyzstan’s support for the Transit Center at Manas [International Airport] and said that the United States has taken steps to improve transparency about the Transit Center and the payments connected to it, and he pledged to maximize the benefits for the Kyrgyz people.

President Obama and President Otunbayeva emphasized that building democracy is a daily struggle and noted that Kyrgyzstan has taken positive steps so far to establish a parliamentary democracy and hold free and fair elections.

President Otunbayeva also had a very productive and warm meeting with Secretary Clinton. They discussed ways to strengthen democracy, economic opportunities for the people of Kyrgyzstan, the rule of law, and security cooperation and Secretary Clinton reaffirmed that Kyrgyzstan remains a very high priority for the United States.

We were pleased President Otunbayeva also had the opportunity to meet with leaders from the United States Senate and House of Representatives and with other senior government officials.

Another highlight of President Otunbayeva’s visit was her acceptance of the International Women of Courage Award from Secretary Clinton. President Otunbayeva was recognized for her visionary leadership and tenacity to end the conflict and to keep her country intact, and to empower all of her citizens through meaningful elections and democratic progress.

The President’s visit reaffirmed our firm view that the United States and Kyrgyzstan have shared interests and a genuine partnership in seeking a stable, secure region, not just in support of international efforts in Afghanistan, but also rooted in improving the quality of life of people throughout Central Asia.

Today Kyrgyzstan leads Central Asia with a new constitution and a new government chosen by its citizens and the government is working to become increasingly responsive to its citizens. The United States commends President Otunbayeva’s leadership of Kyrgyzstan through the tumultuous transition of the past year that set Kyrgyzstan on a democratic path.

As Secretary Clinton said, the United States also commends President Otunbayeva for her decision to step down once presidential elections are held later this year.

With that I’d be very pleased to take your questions.

QUESTION: Thank you for your introduction. You have mentioned that Barack Obama has pledged support to the people of Kyrgyzstan. The support in the development and furtherment of democratic processes. Can you tell us what kind of support was implied? Was it physical support? Was it financial support?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for your question.

The President referred to both financial and to political support of the steps that Kyrgyzstan is taking on the democratic path. The President had numerous discussions with the President, with Secretary Clinton and other senior officials in which we described ways that we can help Kyrgyzstan to combat corruption, to establish judicial reforms and legal reforms as well as to strengthen counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the scope of the security assistance the U.S. is offering to Kyrgyzstan, what details are available at this stage?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. This year for what we call fiscal year 2011, which is the current year, we are providing $2,400,000 for what we call Foreign Military Financing. So that is money that Kyrgyzstan can use to buy equipment to deal with its various security challenges.

The other major piece of that is what we call International Military Education and Training, IMET. We have set aside $1 million in IMET for Kyrgyzstan. Typically those are for programs to bring members of the Kyrgyz security forces to the United States for various kinds of training and one of our most important programs that we have here.

QUESTION: Good morning, Assistant Secretary Blake. I would like to invite you to comment on the situation that has evolved around the Transit Center and particularly about the decision to introduce the excise duty on imported jet fuel.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure. First of all let me just say that we very much appreciate the continued support of the government of Kyrgyzstan for our use of the Manas Transit Center. President Otunbayeva reaffirmed the government’s continued support for the agreement that was signed in 2009.

Under that agreement that was signed between the United States and the government of the Kyrgyz Republic, the United States is not subject to any taxes, customs duties or similar charges in the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic.

This is the standard practice around the world. The United States government has many similar agreements with many of our other partners, and in all cases fuel deliveries are delivered free of duties and taxes.

QUESTION: A follow-up to the previous questions. My question has to do with the timeframe of the operation of the Transit Center at Manas [International Airport] in Kyrgyzstan. Was that discussed? I heard that among the experts the deadline is identified as 2014.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. The timeline of the Manas Transit Center did not come up during President Otunbayeva’s talks, but I can tell you we have a five year agreement that was established in 2009. So yes, that would be from 2009 to 2014.

QUESTION: I have a clarification to follow up my question, please.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.

QUESTION: Does it mean that sometime close to 2014 or maybe even in 2014 Kyrgyzstan and the United States will extend or renew their agreement?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to try to speculate what’s going to happen in 2014. A lot will depend on the situation in Afghanistan at that time and we’ll make a decision there in very close cooperation with our friends in Kyrgyzstan. Let me just leave it at that.

QUESTION: I have the following question. In the south of Kyrgyzstan right now there are quite a few trials that are evolving that’s a follow-up of the massive unrest that was happening in the republic this year. What is your personal opinion? What is your personal assessment of some of the sentences that are passed in the course of those trials? Do you view them as fair decisions? In view of the fact that all of the people, practically all of the people who are involved in those trials are Uzbeks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for that important question. This is a subject that was discussed several times during the course of President Otunbayeva’s visit. The United States has followed the trials that have been taking place in the south very closely, and we are troubled by reports that local authorities have allowed intimidation and abuse of the defendants and their families and their attorneys to take place sometimes even in the courtroom itself.

The United States has called on the government of Kyrgyzstan to investigate fully reports that defendants were abused and tortured while in police custody. We’ve also urged the government of the Kyrgyz Republic to investigate reports of failure to give the defendants their right to a fair legal process and we’ve expressed concern about courtroom intimidation that took place against the defendants. We’ve asked that the government make sure that these kinds of things do not happen again in the future.

Part of the rule of law and judicial cooperation that were discussed with President Otunbayeva will involve helping to improve the independence of the judiciary and the professionalism of the judiciary in order to help prevent these kinds of trials in the future.

I think I might have time for one more question, then I’m going to have to run off to another commitment.

QUESTION: I have a question that probably is not completely polite or appropriate, but nevertheless I would like to go ahead and ask it. When President Otunbayeva was receiving her Women in Courage award from Secretary Clinton, it became known to legal rights activists from Uzbekistan who was previously awarded the same award. She sort of protested by returning this award back to the State Department. As far as we know this was the first time when it happened. What’s your opinion on that? What’s your assessment? What do you think does it indicate?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would just say that first of all we respect very much the decision of the Uzbek human rights activist to return her award, although of course we wish she hadn’t done so. We stand by the decision that we made to present this award to President Otunbayeva because we believe that she demonstrated great courage during the events of last April and last June, both in holding the country together, but also in encouraging ethnic reconciliation including on several visits that she herself took to Osh. Since then I think she’s been a leader in encouraging not only reconciliation but also accountability for the injustices that were done during that time. The United States intends to continue to work very closely to ensure that justice is done for the victims, all the victims, of the violence in April and June of last year.

In closing I’d like to again thank all of our journalist friends in Kyrgyzstan for this opportunity to speak with you and tell you that I look forward very much to coming out to Bishkek as soon as possible to see you in person. Thank you very much.