Press Roundtable in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Ambassador Robert E. Patterson: Thanks everybody for coming. We’re lucky today to have Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Robert Blake here. Ambassador Blake is no stranger to Turkmenistan, he’s been here many, many times in the four years he’s been an Assistant Secretary. Today’s trip was in order to get back to consultations with the government of Turkmenistan on a full range of issues, and Assistant Secretary Blake will talk to you a little about that. Today’s meetings were in the Foreign Ministry with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Meredov, and there was also a meeting with the President. And with that, Assistant Secretary Blake.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, thank you very much Ambassador, and good afternoon to everybody. Thank you very much for joining us today. As Ambassador Patterson said, I’m very happy to be here to first meet with President Berdimuhamedov this morning, but also to have a more extensive consultation with Foreign Minister Meredov to review our bilateral relations as part of our Annual Bilateral Consultations review.
These consultations have been taking place since 2009 and have been an excellent opportunity for both of us to review our cooperation on regional issues, but also to think how we can expand our cooperation on bilateral issues such as trade, human dimension and human rights issues, energy, education, science and technology, and border security.
And today we had productive discussions on the security, economic, and political transitions that are taking place in Afghanistan as well as their impact on Turkmenistan and Central Asia.
I expressed the appreciation of the United States for the important support that Turkmenistan is providing to Afghanistan and to broader regional efforts to forge regional integration through projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
We also discussed how the United States and Turkmenistan can continue to expand trade between our two countries and expressed satisfaction with the progress that we’ve made recently.
As I said earlier, we had a good discussion on human rights issues, some of the new laws that have been passed here in Turkmenistan, as well as on educational and exchange programs that are of great importance.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Ambassador Patterson and his great team for all of the superb work that they are doing to advance American interests here in this important country for the United States.
So with that I’d be glad to take any questions that any of you have.
Question: You last visited Turkmenistan in 2011 as part of a regional tour of Central Asia as well as Azerbaijan. During your last visit you criticized the very slow speed and tempo of reform and democratization in the region, and in Turkmenistan in particular. So what has changed?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, in all of my meetings today I just expressed the view of the United States that political development needs to keep pace with economic development, and that it’s very important for any society to have a vigorous civil society to help ensure popular support for the programs of the government.
So we talked about the new law on mass media as well as the law on national security agencies and, again, I urged progress on all the fundamental freedoms, not only because those are important in their own right, but because those will help to ensure a stable, democratic, and prosperous future for Turkmenistan.
Question: Can you provide more specifics?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I think I’ve been pretty specific.
Question: Most of the heads of state in Central Asia have a very pessimistic view of the region’s future after U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan. In particular, [Uzbekistan President Islam] Karimov says that the region will explode without the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. So what does the U.S. government think? Do they share this view?
Assistant Secretary Blake: No, we don’t share that view. As you know, [Afghan] President Karzai just paid a very important visit to Washington last week. And, in his press conference with President Karzai, President Obama made several important points.
First he made the point that most cities in Afghanistan and most Afghans are today more secure, and the insurgents continue to lose territory. At the same time, the Afghan National Security Forces continue to grow stronger and now lead 80 percent of the security operations that are being conducted in Afghanistan. And, by February, they’ll be in control of security in areas where 90 percent of the population lives.
And I think importantly for Central Asians, the President announced that we will be announcing a responsible drawdown of our forces from Afghanistan that protects the gains that we and Afghanistan have made over the last several years. After 2014, U.S. security forces will be focused on continuing to train and assist Afghan forces, but also continuing the very important counterterrorism mission. The exact number of U.S. troops is the subject of negotiations that are now going on between the United States and Afghanistan.
But a very important part of helping Afghanistan to ensure its own future will be to help ensure a proper economic transition, and again I want to thank Turkmenistan for the important role that it is playing to support regional integration efforts, and also to provide electricity to our friends in Afghanistan. As I said earlier, the TAPI project is one of the most important regional integration projects, because it will provide Turkmen gas for the growing Indian market, but it will also provide very substantial transit revenues for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Question: We know that in this TAPI pipeline there will be a consortium of various companies. So first of all, is there any intent on the part of American companies to be part of this consortium and is there any idea as to how to finance it? Also, our President mentioned that it is in his plans that U.S. companies will be part of this consortium, and it was said that after the sales agreement was signed, which was already last year, that they’d be looking into building and establishing this consortium. So during your meeting today with the President did he raise this in some capacity, or did you propose U.S. companies to be part of it?
Assistant Secretary Blake: As you say, important progress has been made on the TAPI pipeline already by virtue of the gas sales purchase agreements and the road show that took place last September. The next step will be for a consortium to be formed and the details of that, of course, are still being worked out. I leave it to the government of Turkmenistan to provide any updates on that, because this will be their decision about who should form such a consortium and who should lead it. But this was an active topic of conversation today.
Question: You said that today during your meetings you talked about the TAPI project and how that’s the most important project for you. What about the Nabucco project? Did you bring it up, did you talk about it, or does it mean that Nabucco now fades into history?
Assistant Secretary Blake: No, Nabucco was not a main topic of conversation today, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. We continue to support the development of multiple pipelines out of Turkmenistan, and we’ll continue to work towards that goal.
Question: In the past, the President talked about opening a branch of Columbia University in Turkmenistan. Is there anything that has been done in this regard?
Assistant Secretary Blake: There are no new developments in that regard. But I do want to say that we continue to do what we can to promote greater educational and exchange cooperation, and that is a very high priority for the United States.
Question: Can you give your view on the reduced number of exchange programs in Turkmenistan and also the closure of the Peace Corps?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well again, we want to do everything we can to try to promote more people-to-people contacts between, not only the United States and Turkmenistan, but also between the United States and all the rest of the countries of Central Asia. Educational cooperation is one way to do that, exchanges are another, and there are many other ways as well. We have been disappointed at the lower number of exchanges that have taken place and we continue to urge our friends in the government of Turkmenistan to raise those. So we agreed that we should try to find a way to work on that to increase the level of exchanges between our countries.
Question: Did you talk about the transit issue and using the territory of Turkmenistan for transiting humanitarian and military items during the withdraw from Afghanistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: As I said earlier, we talked about the important role that Turkmenistan is playing in regional integration efforts and the very important role that Turkmenistan is playing to provide electricity, to help build a rail line that will link Afghanistan to the Caspian and beyond, and the overall priority of helping the economic, political, and security transitions that are taking place in Afghanistan.
Again, I’d like to thank you all for your time and say what a pleasure it’s been to see you all again.