Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Astana, Kazakhstan
March 25, 2011


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be back here in Kazakhstan. I was last here in December during the successful OSCE Summit. I’ve been here in Astana for the last two days to co-chair the 2nd Annual Bilateral Consultations which we held in Kazakhstan.

We started these consultations to discuss the full range of issues in our relations and focus our governments on practical ways to work together towards a lasting partnership. As evidence of the wide range of issues that we discussed, I led an interagency delegation of representatives from the Departments of State, Energy and Defense as well as the National Security Council.

I want to thank the Kazakhstani side and Deputy Foreign Minister Kayrat Umarov in particular for Kazakhstan’s hospitality and engagement. These consultations underscore the breadth and the depth of U.S. relations with Kazakhstan. For example, we discussed regional security and our joint efforts to assist the stabilization of Afghanistan. We discussed Kazakhstan’s initiative to address Afghanistan during its chairmanship of the Organization for Islamic Countries this year. The U.S. welcomed our successful cooperation on non-proliferation including the shutdown of the BN-350 reactor and the transfer of spent nuclear fuel to a safe location. We pledged to extend our non-proliferation cooperation into other areas.

I reiterated Secretary Clinton’s message during the OSCE Summit to enhance the human dimension and we look forward to the implementation of Kazakhstan’s National Human Rights Action Plan. We discussed the way forward on our science and technology cooperation. We also expect to advance our cooperation on clean energy, energy conservation and nuclear research as part of our energy partnership.

Finally, we discussed ways to build upon the already strong economic and trade partnership that we have by outlining ways that Kazakhstan might improve its business and investment climate.

These discussions showed that the United States relationship with Kazakhstan is perhaps the deepest and broadest in Central Asia, and it shows the progress that we’ve made in our relations over the last 20 years.

In addition to our government to government consultations, Deputy Foreign Minister Umarov and I had the opportunity to meet with civil society representatives who provided a frank assessment of the state of Kazakhstan’s human rights, democratic efforts and governance.

I was pleased that the Kazakhstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-hosted this meeting with civil society. This marked the first time since we have begun consultations with Central Asian states that any Ministry of Foreign Affairs has co-hosted a meeting with civil society.

I was also pleased to have the opportunity to speak today with students at Nazarbayev University, an ambitious project in higher education that I think can serve as a model for other Central Asian countries. Nazarbayev University has extensive ties with eight American universities, so I anticipate that our cooperation and engagement with that university will continue to grow.

Before concluding I want to thank Ambassador John Ordway and his excellent team here for the terrific work they are doing to advance the partnership between the United States and Kazakhstan.

With that, I’d be glad to take any questions that you have.

QUESTION: On the 3rd of April we will have early presidential elections. We would be interested in hearing your comments on that upcoming political event. Maybe it was a topic of your meeting today with the civil society, and we would be interested in what assessment they gave to this event and to the political aspect of Kazakhstan development in general.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think you know that ODIHR has been very involved in monitoring these elections and the run-up to these elections. They’ve provided several public comments about the elections. They’ve made some recommendations about how to amend the election law that they feel have not yet been properly implemented. I think they also feel that the media needs to be allowed to operate in a completely unrestricted environment. They’ve also talked about the importance of increasing the representation of opposition political parties in the Election Commission and the Regional Election Commissions. I think these are all important issues to address.

We did discuss the importance that we attach to free and fair elections and we hope that, and the government pledged to do its best to ensure free and fair elections. We think this is important in and of itself, but also very important as you prepare for next year’s parliamentary elections.

QUESTION: Has the topic of events in Libya been discussed during your meetings with the government? And have you learned the Kazakhstan government’s approach towards actions toward the coalition in that country?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We didn’t discuss Libya in the government to government meetings, but it did come up in our meeting with civil society.

QUESTION: Could you please give us more details on how and what was discussed during your meeting with the civil society?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: About Libya?

QUESTION: Yes.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: One person expressed concern about coalition activities and tried to make the point that coalition activities were targeting civilians. I responded that the no-fly zone was established and implemented at the request of the Arab League and following a vote to approve it by the UN Security Council under UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

I pointed out that in contrast to the militaries in Tunisia and Egypt which refused to fire on their own civilians, the government and the military of Libya has been responsible for hundreds if not thousands of civilian deaths in Libya, which is why the Arab League requested intervention.

Actions by the international coalition to implement the no-fly zone have been careful to target only Qadhafi’s air defense systems and not in any way to target civilians.

The mission of the international coalition is to protect civilians and we believe and the people of Libya believe that it has saved countless lives.

QUESTION: Both Kazakhstan and United States are concerned about Afghanistan, terrorism and drugs. What will be Kazakhstan’s role in that country after the troops leave from that country, particularly in the light of Kazakhstan’s OIC chairmanship?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Kazakhstan will have to speak for itself about what Kazakhstan’s role will be.

But let me say that we did discuss our mutual interest in helping the stabilization of Afghanistan. I described the very important process of transition that is underway to allow Afghan security forces to gradually assume responsibility for the security of Afghanistan. I explained that American and other international forces will remain in Afghanistan at least through the end of that transition which is scheduled for the end of 2014, and after that we are likely to remain in an advisory role and to continue with counter-terrorist efforts.

The United States and other members of the coalition appreciate very much the support that Kazakhstan has provided for the Northern Distribution Network through which a substantial portion of the supplies for our troops passes.

I also expressed the appreciation of the United States for the training that Kazakhstan is providing for many young Afghans.

QUESTION: You mentioned that during your consultations you discussed the alternative sources of energy and nuclear energy. What are the common interests between the two countries, what the two countries share in these areas?

And the second question is about sub-regional dialogue on Central Asia, that was on the 17th, 18th of March in Beijing that you attended. What are the common interests of the two great powers in Central Asia? And if possible if you could describe some painful topics or difficult issues that were discussed.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all on the energy side, we have a substantial partnership where we are engaged in a wide range of activities on the energy side. It’s too broad for me to really go into here because it would take many many minutes. But just to say that I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made in our energy partnership and this is really one of the significant areas of engagement between the United States and Kazakhstan.

With respect to our dialogue with China on Central Asia, this marked the very first time that the United States has had a dialogue with China on Central Asia. We discussed the many common interests that we have such as stopping terrorist flows through Central Asia from Afghanistan and Pakistan into China; stopping narcotics flows; and working to improve both the energy infrastructure in Central Asia and also economic growth in Central Asia.

I expressed the hope of the United States that China will provide more assistance to Afghanistan to help the stabilization in that important country similar to the kinds of assistance that it has provided to develop infrastructure here in Central Asia. Both the United States and China agreed that this exchange was a very valuable one and that we should continue it.

QUESTION: We all know that a high number of U.S. companies, American companies, operate in Kazakhstan. During these consultations did you discuss any specific issues, topics, in the oil sector?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We did. Encouraging more business and trade between the United States and Kazakhstan is an important priority for both of our countries. The United States is the second largest investor in Kazakhstan and most of those investments are in the oil and gas sector. So we discussed some of the ways that our companies here that are already invested would like to see the business climate improve for them, and we also discussed ways that we can further promote the non-oil and gas sector. Again, to help diversify the Kazakhstani economy.

QUESTION: Did you talk about any specific oil fields? Discuss any specific fields? As we know, for example, Conoco-Phillips has joined operations with the Arab Mubadala Company. They work on the Mubadala and Block N oil field.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, we didn’t discuss any specific companies. We talked more about the overall investment climate as it affects a lot of our companies. We have a whole separate energy dialogue that deals with more specific aspects of this.

I think I’ll take one more question.

QUESTION: Soon will be one year after Bakiyev left Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan I think is initiating a donor’s conference. Would the United States support that initiative?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. The United States has a strong interest in helping to support Kyrgyzstan right now. Kyrgyzstan had historic parliamentary elections last year that established a parliamentary democracy. But it also still faces a great many challenges. It is concerned about possible terrorism. It’s concerned about the flow of narcotics coming from Afghanistan. It’s concerned about organized crime. And a very high priority remains reconciliation between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz.

President Otunbayeva and the Prime Minister are also making efforts to help the Kyrgyz economy to recover, so the help of the government of Kazakhstan to organize a donor’s conference I think will be very welcome.

President Otunbayeva recently visited Washington and both President Obama and Secretary Clinton pledged the continued support of the United States for Kyrgyzstan.

Again, I have to run now but I want to thank all of you for coming tonight and it’s a pleasure to see many of you again. I look forward to seeing you again the next time I’m through here. Thanks again.

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