Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
March 9, 2012

Q: My first question is actually a follow-up on some remarks that you made on January 25. Due to the campaign in Afghanistan, Central Asia has moved up in the United States’ list of foreign policy priorities. On January 25 at Johns Hopkins you said “we do not see our engagement with Central Asia as an either-or choice between developing security relationships at the expense of core values like human rights. Progress on one issue can help reinforce or create incentives for progress on other issues.” I want to ask you, has it done so? Has increased security cooperation led to any human rights progress?

A: I would say that our increased cooperation with Central Asia across the board, not just on security measures and the Northern Distribution Network, has really helped to increase to the level of trust between the United States and all of the Central Asian countries. In some cases it has led to some limited human rights progress, but I don’t want to overstate that. I think all of the Central Asian states, to varying degrees, are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and, to varying degrees, very much have their eyes on whether there are growing levels of Islamic influence in their region. And for that reason they are not really moving very quickly to open up their systems as fast as we hoped they would. But nonetheless, I think the fact that we have these intensified engagements with Central Asian countries has led to a much better dialogue, and to frankly speak with our partners about why it is in their interest to allow, say, greater religious freedom or greater press freedom, and how we think it’s actually detrimental to their stability to not allow more of the human liberties.

Q: And when you say that there have been some increased gains based on this increased cooperation with the United States, can you cite some specifics?

A: One of the things we’ve been working really hard on is trafficking in persons. There has been quite a lot of progress in places like Tajikistan, where they have actually moved off what we call the Tier 2 Watch List onto the Tier 2 of cooperating countries. And we’ve been engaging with all the countries of Central Asia a lot on that particular issue. I think there have been some releases of dissidents in places like Uzbekistan-- these are people that we’ve talked quietly to the government about. So there have been some examples like that, but I don’t want to overstate them. Again, there hasn’t been huge progress on human rights. On the contrary, there have been cases of deterioration in human rights in some places. And so this remains a very important part of our agenda with all of these countries.

Q: Many countries in Central Asia are wondering how their relations with the United States will change after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. I know this is of great concern to our listeners who write in and send us messages. Can you look a little bit into the future to address that question? How will the U.S. relationship with that region change after 2014?

A: Well, it’s always a little bit hazardous to talk about relations two years hence. But I think it’s safe to say the United States will continue to attach great importance to our relations with Central Asia well beyond 2014, just as we attach great importance to our relations with Afghanistan. There’s a misimpression in many parts of the region that just because most of the American troops in Afghanistan will be pulling out as a result of the security transition in 2014 that somehow the United States is going to abandon Afghanistan. And nothing could be further from the truth. The United States is going to have a long-term partnership with Afghanistan, particularly on the economic side. We will continue to have some residual military presence there as well, at least to provide training, to engage in counterterrorism efforts. The exact nature of that is still under negotiation with the Afghan government. And likewise we will continue to have a very strong engagement with all the Central Asian countries, because it’s very important to us that this be a region of stability and economic opportunity, that this region help to lead this process of regional integration that we’ve been talking about recently, to allow greater prosperity for the people of Afghanistan, for the people of Central Asia, but also the people of South Asia. So we think there is a really important opportunity there, and we’re just starting on that process. And that’s going to continue well beyond 2014.

Q: Having said that though, I wonder what you think the biggest threat facing Central Asia will be after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. And a follow-up to that, do you think the region’s countries are prepared to deal with that?

A: Again, I don’t want to get into trying to predict what the situation is going to be like after 2014. We don’t know. But we’re certainly making every effort we can to support this very important security transition that’s taking place in Afghanistan, and equally importantly, to build up the private sector of Afghanistan by establishing these regional linkages that I talked about earlier and working closely with our friends in Central Asia who believe strongly in this vision and want to contribute to the stability of Afghanistan.

Q: And if I could just zoom in on one country in particular?

A: Please.

Q: Kyrgyzstan – President Atambayev has reiterated that there should be no foreign troop presence at Manas by 2014, when the current U.S. lease expires. Is that your understanding of things, and will that complicate withdrawal and future shipment of supplies to Afghanistan?

A: First of all, let me express our appreciation to the Government of Kyrgyzstan for their continued hosting of the Manas Transit Center. This remains a very important part of the overall effort in Afghanistan because it’s a vital logistics hub; it’s the center through which all of our troops pass before the go into Afghanistan. So we very much appreciate the hosting of this by the Government of Kyrgyzstan. We’re just really beginning the conversation now with their government about what the future of Manas Transit Center is going to be. As you know, we’ve had some initial conversations with the President and with members of his team. I think we’re going to have more technical level discussions about the future and I don’t want to anticipate what those are going to be like. But again, we see this as something that is very much in our interest but also the interest of Kyrgyzstan, and we very much want to listen to the ideas that President Atambayev and his team have about the future, and we’ll do our best to work in a cooperative fashion to find a way forward to the satisfaction of us and of Kyrgyzstan and not be of concern to important allies like Russia.

Q: So it remains to be seen whether there will be continuing troop presence there past 2014?

A: Right, all of that is going to be under discussion.

Q: Another question on Kyrgyzstan, if I may. In a few months we will be at the two-year anniversary of voters approving the new constitution, which paved the way for the creation of the region’s first parliamentary democracy. The U.S. has greatly welcomed that development. Could you reflect a bit on what’s happened in those two years? How would the U.S. assess the speed and quality of progress the country has made since then?

A: Kyrgyzstan has gone through an enormous transition over the last two years, and I think that they’ve faced challenges that would have been much more difficult for other countries that didn’t have the kind of democratic system that they have. I think it’s a real tribute both to the democratic system they are developing, and to the leadership of President Otunbayeva and now President Atambayev that they’ve been able to overcome many of the difficulties they’ve faced. At the same, I think President Atambayev would be the first to say that his country faces many challenges. As you know, during his opening address he talked about how they need to do more on reconciliation, about things like corruption. So that’s a good thing; he’s listening to the concerns of his people, and those are very much at the forefront of his agenda. And I think that’s the value of a democratic system; it provides feedback to the leaders, and the leaders can then act on those very important issues. So I think that they are taking steps but there is quite a lot to be done, especially on the reconciliation side. I think tensions remain high in southern Kyrgyzstan, so it’s important for Kyrgyzstan to try to address those, to try to bring the communities together to provide economic opportunity for everyone in that important region, and to work closely with countries like Uzbekistan, for example, who can provide some of that economic opportunity by opening up the borders and trade routes and so forth.

Q: Another Afghan question if I may, but this one is in relation to Uzbekistan. There’s been some talk in the Russian press and some conflicting reports as well about Central Asia perhaps providing an exit route for U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan. One, I wanted to ask will U.S. troops and cargo leave Afghanistan via through Uzbekistan, as some reports say? And the related possibility that’s being mentioned is that the U.S. could leave some weaponry in Uzbekistan for the government’s use, which some have considered an alarming prospect. Is that true?

A: I don’t want to comment on any specific routes or logistics patters for obvious security reasons. But let me say that as American units continue to rotate out of Afghanistan, they also take their equipment. That’s a standard operating procedure everywhere. Some equipment will be left in Afghanistan, but obviously they don’t need all the equipment that is now there. So, some of that will rotate out through the Northern Distribution Network. It is possible that some of that might be made available through what is called “Excess Defense Articles,” but that’s a very detailed process that goes on between the Pentagon and these countries. And those would be subject to the same restrictions that govern normal arms transfers to Uzbekistan or any other country. So I don’t want your listeners to think we’re going to be making exceptions. Thus far we have not been willing to transfer any lethal weapons to Uzbekistan. The majority of the assistance that we have provided as a result of the waiver has been protective equipment and nonlethal assistance to help them defend themselves against potential retribution for the support that they’re providing to the United States.

Q: I have a question from our Turkmen service. As you know, President Berdimuhamedov was re-elected in February with 97 percent of the vote and the OSCE decided to not monitor that vote. They said in a statement that they “do not consider that the deployment of an election observer team would add even a limited value at this point in time.” What is the U.S. reaction to the election, and do you see any chance for political plurality there?

A: It was good that there were some other candidates that did run, but I don’t think that there was any real adversarial effort. All of the candidates, to my knowledge, endorsed the President himself, so I don’t consider that that was a real, serious democratic effort. But we are encouraging Turkmenistan and all the countries of Central Asia to move towards competitive democratic practices, including in their presidential elections. We saw a little bit of that in Kazakhstan where now they have some new parties that are represented in the Kazakh Parliament, and that’s certainly welcome. But even in Kazakhstan there were a lot of questions that the OSCE raised about the parliamentary elections, as well. So this is going to be a gradual process, but we think it’s very important to show progress and for the governments to show their own people that there is going to be progress, that there will be a gradual relaxation of the controls that now exist, and there will be greater opportunities for people that would like to compete and serve at all levels, be it presidential, parliamentary, or at the local or municipal levels.

Q: Do you feel that there was any progress shown in this election?

A: I couldn’t say that this marked significant new progress, no.

Q: Just a couple more. One is about the new Russian President, Vladimir Putin. One his first foreign policy intentions he announced with a so-called Eurasia Union. And in a Russian newspaper he wrote that a Eurasia Union, not unlike the Soviet Union, would have “a developed system of regional production specialization and a common space of language, science, and culture.” A lot of people are reading this as a move to consolidate Russian influence in Central Asia. What are your thoughts?

A: First of all, we haven’t seen much practical progress towards this Eurasia Union, so it’s very difficult to really assess how seriously Russia is pursuing this. But our main interest is ensuring that whatever is intended, that they don’t try to establish a zone of exclusion. On the contrary, we think that what is needed is to encourage economic integration and regional economic integration in particular, and therefore what is needed is to open up trade routes, open up greater opportunities for trade both within Central Asia, but also between Central Asia and all of its regional partners, particularly its partners to the south. India is going to be the largest market for all of these countries over the next 50 years. As you know, India is going to be in the next 15 or 20 years, depending on which statistics you look at, the third largest economy in the world. So many of the leaders of the region see that this is going to be a really pole of opportunity and therefore it is not in any of their interests to see these regional trade opportunities get locked up in a Eurasia Union or any of those kinds of things. On the contrary, we need to keep these trade routes and these trade opportunities open. That’s certainly the message that we’re conveying to our friends in Russia and to everyone else in the region.

Q: In general, is the U.S. concerned about rising Chinese or Iranian influence in the Central Asia?

A: We have a very good dialogue and, in most cases, our interests match. We want to see economic opportunity in the region, we want to see stability, and we want to work together on challenges like terrorism and narcotics trafficking. We don’t always see eye to eye on human rights issues, of course. They have a quite different model and that’s okay, we talk about that very openly with the Chinese. So we don’t see this as a zero sum game. On the contrary, we want to look for ways to work with China, and we think that China can play quite an important role in helping to provide economic opportunity in the region, and particularly to help in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Obviously we don’t have any diplomatic contacts with Iran because of our bilateral tensions, but nonetheless, Iran is an important player in the region. We understand that countries like India need to continue to work with Iran as they get, for example, equipment into Afghanistan. Since the direct transit through Pakistan is not available to them they must come via Iran, and we understand that. And we understand that Iran has important interests in things like narcotics. But for the moment, it’s not really possible for us to work directly with Iranians on these issues, for reasons that are well-known.

Q: Thank you very much for your time.