Interview
Fatema Z. Sumar
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Almaty, Kazakhstan
June 12, 2014


Question: [Through Interpreter]. Can you tell us the true purpose of your visit? And did you have any plans to visit any [inaudible] in Kazakhstan?

DAS Sumar: I’m delighted, first, to be back here in Kazakhstan and Almaty, and just really had a very good set of visits as part of a regional tour that I’ve been on in different countries here in Central Asia. I was in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, here in Kazakhstan today, tomorrow in Tajikistan and then off to South Asia. So it’s a multi-country tour.

The purpose of my visit is to meet with different officials, civil society, business leaders throughout the region, to get a better sense of areas where we can work on regional cooperation, on areas where we can strengthen economic partnerships, and on areas where we can further look for different types of collaboration. So it’s been a very productive visit so far. I’m always happy to be back here in Almaty.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. Can you tell us the [inaudible] like maybe companies [inaudible] in terms of civil society, or business leaders who you already met before here in Kazakhstan?

DAS Sumar: Sure. I don’t want to go into specific names because I don’t think this would be appropriate for this, but I do want to say that we spend a lot of our time not just with the government officials, obviously, but here with civil society, with business leaders, with the private sector in particular here in Kazakhstan and throughout the region. Also with U.S. companies here in the region and back in the United States.

Maybe I can just give a little bit of context of why we do that. One of the areas we’re very focused on is strengthening regional economic cooperation and partnerships. There are concrete areas we’re looking at where businesses want to be engaged. For instance, we’re looking at expanding market access and linking businesses across the region. So we’ve been working with Kazakh businesses, linking them with Afghan businesses, linking them with Pakistani businesses, linking them throughout the region. We’ve been talking to Kazakh businesses to see how they can get their goods and export and create different export markets for their goods in different parts of the region, including exporting down into Uzbekistan, into Afghanistan, into Pakistan, into the Indian market as well.

But as part of this conversation, because the trade routes have historically been very difficult, because the barriers to trade are high, we are trying to learn better what are the obstacles, and how to collectively work to overcome the obstacles so that we can do two real things here in the private sector.

The first is how you reduce the time of crossing borders so that your trucks or your rail cargo can move more efficiently across these borders in less amount of time.

The second piece which saves money is how do you bring the overall cost of doing business down. So, how many customs forms do you need to fill out to cross borders? How many officials do you need to talk to across each single border? Where do your goods get stuck? These are the types of conversations we’re having here, so that we can help support efforts that are already ongoing here in the region to expand market access and expand trade opportunities.

I don’t want to get into the details of who we’re talking to, but there’s a wide range of partners, both at the government levels in the region, civil society, the business sector. And I think what’s driving a lot of these conversations is really looking at what is the potential for greater market access and strengthening economic options here in Kazakhstan and economic diversification.

Question: -- for agricultural or also wood products?

DAS Sumar: There are different markets right now. So for instance, on previous trips that I’ve made to here in Kazakhstan I met with companies that were looking to export sunflower oil, looking to export agricultural products, manufacturing products. So in some cases we’re looking at plywood, lumber, hardware pieces, construction materials to support ongoing efforts in Afghanistan, for instance. These are the different types of products that we have been looking at.

There are other markets we think that are potentially there as a way to really think about how do you create more economic base so that you can have trade routes that not only are East/West which are very important connections here for Kazakhstan, but also to create new North/South linkages that can complement existing East/West linkages here in the region.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. Do you think that these kinds of meetings and negotiations is one of the steps to pull Kazakhstan from trade relations with Russia?

DAS Sumar: The United States is a strong supporter all around the world of free trade and global free trade mechanisms, and we think there are multiple ways to provide countries with trade options. It’s too early to say right now what different implications, for instance the Eurasian Economic Union, will have here on Kyrgyzstan. We are a strong believer in Kazakhstan’s economic and political independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity in supporting those concepts.

One of the key ways to do that is very much through economic diversification, because we know and we’ve seen this throughout many parts of the world, at the end of the day having a wide economic base of options is one of the best ways to support your own territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence. So we have been working in collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan on what we call the New Silk Road effort, which will help provide different trade routes for Kazakhstan that again can complement existing East/West connections that they have with their current trading partners.

Can I give you two specific examples on that? For instance, we have been a strong supporter of Kazakhstan’s accession to the WTO, to the World Trade Organization, and we think that this is a very important step for Kazakhstan’s economy, for its businesses, for expanding market access to different parts of the globe, and we would hope that they could stay on track for accessions so that they can be part of a global trading community.

As you know, we don’t take a position on different trade unions or different trade forums as long as they do not discriminate against U.S. companies and U.S. companies have equal access. That is part of our commitment and belief of joining a global trading community, global trading norms.

The second example is we’ve been working in very close collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan on TIFA talks, which is the Trade Investment Framework Agreement, that we do with all five Central Asian countries including the Kazakhs. This week right now in Washington, D.C. the TIFA talks are being held between the United States and Central Asian countries. There’s a high level Kazakh delegation in town for that. It’s an ongoing conversation we have regularly with the Central Asian countries, either in Washington or here in the region. The last one was in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan in November, I believe, where we sit down and we talk about how to further strengthen trade reforms, market access reform, and how to further strengthen opportunities for U.S. businesses to work in this region. So there’s a lot of different pieces of our economic relationship to build on, there’s a very strong foundation ,and we continue to work with the government of Kazakhstan and with civil society, business leaders, the private sector, to find different ways to strengthen market access.

Interpreter: [Inaudible]

DAS Sumar: It’s happening right now. It’s June 9-12, I believe. TIFA. Trade Investment Framework Agreement. It’s between the United States and Central Asia, all five Central Asian countries.

Question: What countries?

DAS Sumar: All five. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. What’s your opinion regarding the EEU at the moment for a union? Do you think it’s a more economic union or a political union?

DAS Sumar: I think it’s too early to tell. We’ll have to see how the developments play out, what steps the union decides to take and how it impacts Kazakhstan’s economy and Kazakhstan’s businesses. I think right now it’s too early to tell.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. The question concerning the sanctions applied by the U.S. and EU towards Russia. Do you think they could relate to Kazakhstan as well in regards with the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union? In the government, in Kazakhstani government is kind of hope already [inaudible] people mention the kind of things they do.

DAS Sumar: Sure. I know there’s a lot of interest here in what the sanctions package looks like and I want to be very clear for your readership and for your audience: the sanctions are targeted against specific individuals in Russia. They are not currently broad-based sector sanctions. They’re targeted specifically against specific individuals in Russia. Sanctions are not our first choice of action and we continue to work and look for a diplomatic solution to the situation in Ukraine, and we are hopeful that our conversation with President Putin and other Russian officials will lead to a good diplomatic outcome and solution to the crisis because we want to see economic prosperity for Kazakhstan and for all in the region. Our ultimate goal is to strengthen the economic outlook here in Kazakhstan and in the region.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. I have two questions. This is regarding the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and President Obama has promised with withdraw by 2016, I believe. And I think they have already started moving out from Manas military place here. How these events can affect security for the whole region?

DAS Sumar: President Obama has been very clear for a long time now that the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is going to be changing, and it will be evolving from a military relationship to a much more broad-based political and economic relationship here in the region.

To honor that commitment he is drawing down U.S. forces, as he announced, to 9800 troops until 2016. They will serve mostly in a train and assist advising mission for the Afghan National Security Forces. In the meantime he has reiterated and recommitted his commitment to long term partnerships here in the region and our enduring presence here in Afghanistan and the broader Central Asia region.

The Afghan National Security Forces have made great strides in providing security for its people in recent months and years. And I think a good example of that is the security that is provided around the elections where we had a very successful first round.

I think for Kazakhstan and others here in the region what’s important is that there’s a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and here in the region, and that that commitment will help us work together to make sure that we are providing adequate security on the borders, making sure that we are working together to promote stronger economic ties which will help promote broader political and regional stability. And that we are not threatening instability here in Kazakhstan or elsewhere. Our goal is a stable region, a prosperous region and a secure region. Both in Afghanistan but also here in Kazakhstan and the broader Central Asia region.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. And in regards to Manas, if U.S. troops leave Manas, does it affect, will it affect the region?

DAS Sumar: The United States in collaboration and partnership with the government of Kyrgyzstan has announced our departure from the Manas Transit Center. With that we are closing our military presence here in Central Asia. We do not have plans for future military bases in Kyrgyzstan, in Kazakhstan or elsewhere in the Central Asia region. We think we have strong partnerships with the different governments in the region including here in Kazakhstan to help make sure that the borders here are secure, that we’re promoting stability and security for the people of Kazakhstan and the greater Central Asia region.

Press Officer: One note on timing. I would discourage you from linking the closure of the Transit Center at Manas to the President’s announcement on troop numbers. The closure of the Transit Center has been planned for a long time. We announced the date I think almost a year ago. I think the timing of the two things are coincidental. Of course they’re both related to the broader transition that Fatema has spoken about, but I would not want your readers to think that there’s a link between the two.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. You have been working actively on the law, on developing the partnership with Pakistan, and it helps to increase three times the support, U.S. support on civil society in Pakistan. Will there be any like civil help or support in Kazakhstan? And if there will be, in which regard?

DAS Sumar: I won’t talk about Pakistan, I’ll just focus on Kazakhstan. Since independence here in Kazakhstan the United States has been a strong supporter of the people of Kazakhstan and working very much in partnership to strengthen their independence, to bring prosperity to the region, and we have a number of different collaborations with both the government of Kazakhstan but also civil society here. And USAID, which is our development partner here in Kazakhstan has been working with universities, with NGOs, with women’s organizations, with youth and with private sector and other actors to help strengthen voices here in Kazakhstan, strengthen the capacity of people to be able to connect to other people, whether that’s creating new economic opportunities, whether that’s introducing new technological innovations and linking people with access to technology, whether that’s creating new networks of youth and opportunity for study here in Kazakhstan or abroad in the United States or elsewhere. We’ve been a very strong supporter of civil society here in Kazakhstan and we will continue to be a strong partner in this regard, either through development assistance or other types of partnerships that we have with the government of Pakistan.

Question: Thank you.

DAS Sumar: Thank you so much.

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