Telephone Conference Call With Journalists in Central Asia

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
December 15, 2010

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much, Karly, and I’d like to extend a very warm good morning to all of our friends in Central Asia.  I think this is a very good mechanism to share information and have a good dialogue with our friends in the press, so if this is a success we might try to do more of this in the future.  I thought I would just take a few minutes to talk about some of our major efforts over the last year in Central Asia, and then I’ll be glad to take your questions.

In brief, the U.S. effort to intensify engagement with all five Central Asian countries on a wide range of issues has paid dividends over the last year. We launched a series of annual bilateral consultations with all but one of our partners in Central Asia. The one with Kyrgyzstan was planned but had to be postponed due to the replacement of the Bakiyev government with the then provisional government headed by President Roza Otunbayeva.  These consultations have given us the opportunity to consult and set targets for practical progress in every area of our bilateral relationship from security to economic and commercial relations to promoting respect for human rights. We also seek to have each of these consultations have parallel meetings with representatives of U.S. businesses as well as civil society members.

In terms of some of the specific areas of progress, we were pleased with the strategic support we received from our Central Asian partners to help coalition efforts in Afghanistan. This includes support that was received through the Northern Distribution Network including the recently concluded U.S.-Kazakhstan Air Transit Agreement, all of which helped to supply our troops.  The support also involves other efforts that receive less attention such as the scholarships for Afghan students that are being provided by the government of Kazakhstan; such as Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s supply of electricity for the people of Afghanistan; and Uzbekistan’s support for a new rail line from the railhead at Hairaton to Mazar-e-Sharif.

The United States also played an important role in supporting Kyrgyzstan’s transition to a parliamentary democracy which Secretary Clinton characterized as a “bold endeavor” during her trip to Kyrgyzstan earlier this month.  The United States has committed more than $100 million this year to help Kyrgyzstan and its people recover, help them to meet their humanitarian needs, promote reconciliation, and move Kyrgyzstan’s fragile democracy forward.

Lastly, Secretary Clinton led the U.S. delegation to the OSCE summit hosted by Kazakhstan in early December. Kazakhstan is the first post-Soviet, Eurasian, Muslim majority country to host an OSCE summit. The summit resulted in an important reaffirmation of the Helsinki Principles. Secretary Clinton also welcomed the continued leadership of Kazakhstan and its partnership with the United States on nonproliferation. The most recent example of that was that Kazakhstan safely shut down the BN-350 plutonium production reactor in Aktau, secured approximately 100 tons of weapons grade spent fuel, and transported that fuel to a new secure storage facility in Eastern Kazakhstan.  Secretary Clinton’s trip and our sustained high level engagement with Central Asia show the continuing United States commitment to our relations with our Central Asian partners, and I can assure you that that high level engagement will continue in 2011. With that I’d be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: [Almaty, Kazakhstan] [Through interpreter]. Question number one, at the press conference [in Astana on December 1] Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan [Saudabayev] and Secretary Clinton said that the WikiLeaks-published materials will not impact the relations between the two countries. What is your position? That was question number one. [Interpreter continues]: Question number two, I’m summarizing now what the journalist asked. [According to the question] there’s a little bit of a conspiracy theory that is now very popular in Central Asia and some other places regarding WikiLeaks release. There are opinions that this was basically an operation launched by the United States government to divide Central Asian countries and countries of the Middle East. Do you agree with the notion that this was a pre-planned operation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for those questions. First of all, I would just support what Foreign Minister Saudabayev and Secretary Clinton said which is while we regret the release of these cables, we do not expect them to have an impact on the very strong bilateral relations that exist between the United States and Kazakhstan. We have a very important partnership on a wide range of issues, many of which I just described, and we think that will continue without disruption. As to the second question, I can assure you that this was not any kind of pre-planned effort by the United States. On the contrary, we believe that the release of some of these purported Department of State cables by WikiLeaks has done damage to our bilateral relationships around the world and has made it more difficult in some cases for our diplomats to do their jobs. But we will continue to work through those difficulties and again, continue to try to conduct our normal work and advance our interests around the world with our friends such as Kazakhstan. Thank you.

QUESTION: [Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan] My question is, are you confident that the new fuel supply arrangement involving a Kyrgyz partner at the [Manas] Transit Center is transparent? What assurances do you see from the Kyrgyz government that they would be? And are you satisfied with the [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much. Secretary Clinton addressed this question during her press conference in Bishkek during her trip there in early December. She said that the United States remains fully committed to transparency in all of the fuel supply arrangements that we have in Kyrgyzstan. The award of the fuel supply contract to the Mina Corporation was done in an open tender, in a very transparent manner, and the Secretary noted that there is an investigation underway by the government of Kyrgyzstan and said that of course we will fully support whatever the results of that investigation are. But in the meantime, Mina Corporation will continue to supply fuel to Manas. The Secretary also talked about how we are working on a partnership with a Kyrgyz entity that could supply up to 50 percent of that fuel. So discussions are now continuing in Bishkek on establishing the mechanism for that Kyrgyzstan entity to stand up and be able to provide that fuel.

QUESTION: [Dushanbe, Tajikistan] [Through interpreter]. The Russian base located in Tajikistan has to be shut down in 2014. However, we see now that Russia increases its presence in Tajikistan. The pretext they are giving for this is that this is their support to the work that’s done in Afghanistan. However we are questioning that the border with Uzbekistan is much longer and much bigger than the one that is in Tajikistan, and they are not doing anything similar to that in Uzbekistan. The question is, will the U.S. make any counter-action to the Russian effort to increase its presence in Tajikistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for that question. I think one of the most important areas of progress in the last year has been the dialogue between the United States and Russia on Central Asia. With respect to the specific basing and other arrangements that you refer to, obviously you should talk to the Russians about that, I don’t want to really comment on that. But I would just say that the United States and Russia are working together increasingly closely both to help the coalition efforts in Afghanistan, but also to help to address many of the common concerns that we have in Central Asia, including in Tajikistan. I don’t have any particular concerns about any of the things that you raised. Again, I think we have good dialogue on the situation in Tajikistan. I think we both have some concerns there about the fragile economy, about some of the security challenges that the government has faced, and about the narrowing of the political space that we’ve seen there over the last several months and half year. So these are things that I think Tajikistan needs to address and that we will be working with our friends in Tajikistan to help overcome. I’d like to add that Secretary Clinton appreciated the opportunity to have a brief meeting with President Rahmon on the margins of the OSCE summit in Astana and she promised President Rahmon that she will try to visit Tajikistan next year. Again, to help think about ways that we can expand our cooperation with Tajikistan to help meet many of its challenges.

QUESTION: [Ashgabat, Turkmenistan] Is the United States satisfied with the pace of political reform in Turkmenistan and the process of opening its gas market to the west? And regarding the TAPI Pipeline, what measures can the U.S. offer for implementation of this project?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for that question. With respect to the pace of political reform, let me say that the United States has had good discussions with the Turkmen government in which we shared our view that Turkmenistan would benefit from a greater opening up in areas such as relaxing registration requirements for non-governmental organizations so that more can operate and help contribute to economic and political development in Turkmenistan in a variety of areas such as NGOs do in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. So we look forward to continuing that important dialogue that we have on human rights issues. With respect to the gas markets, the United States obviously considers Turkmenistan a very important partner and also an important market for American companies. Last year as many of you know as part of our first annual bilateral consultation I led a very large business component to Ashgabat and all of them appreciated the very productive talks that they had with President Berdymukhammedov and other members of the government. The United States thinks that last week’s intergovernmental agreement on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline marks an important step forward for this important project. This is a project that we have long supported in principle because we believe there is a great strategic logic to trying to link the oil and gas reserves of Turkmenistan with the large and growing energy markets of South Asia. This agreement of last week is an important first step but much work remains to be done, including determining the financing arrangements and the security arrangements and who is going to serve as kind of the lead on many of these issues. So these discussions are continuing. Ambassador Morningstar who is our Special Envoy for these matters was very pleased to be in Turkmenistan for these meetings and will carry forward United States efforts in these regards. Thank you.

QUESTION: [Tashkent, Uzbekistan] [Through interpreter]. This is a three part question. First of all there is an opinion in the region that the foreign policy of the United States in Central Asia depends only on its needs in Afghanistan at the detriment of the human rights situation in that country. The second part of that question was that Uzbekistan is a very difficult partner and do you foresee a possibility that Uzbekistan will not allow the transit of military materials through the territory of Uzbekistan to Afghanistan? The third part is what do you think about the proposal made by President Karimov in Bucharest about the 6+3 arrangement?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for those questions. Let me answer each of them in turn. First of all with respect to the foreign policy of the United States in Central Asia and also in Uzbekistan, as I said in my opening remarks, the United States is seeking to expand its engagement with all of the Central Asian countries on all of the issues of concern to us. That means not only our common interests in Afghanistan but also how to expand trade and investment, and also how to work to improve human rights and democracy throughout Central Asia. So in no way are we subordinating any one of those to any of the others. They all are equally important. We’ve said that we need to make progress on all of them. On your second question, I would not characterize Uzbekistan as a difficult partner. Those were your words. I think we are very pleased with the cooperation that we have received from President Karimov and the government of Uzbekistan with respect to transit of supplies through Uzbekistan. We appreciate very much that cooperation and we hope to continue that. I think Secretary Clinton had very good discussions with President Karimov during her trip there in early December. Thirdly, with respect to the 6+3 proposals that President Karimov has made, we certainly understand and appreciate his ideas. We have an international contact group that exists now that the late Ambassador Holbrooke helped to establish, and we have invited Uzbekistan and other countries to participate in that group if they wish. One of the concerns that we have about the 6+3 proposal is that it does not include Afghanistan itself. We believe that Afghanistan must be a central part of any talks about its own future. But again, I think we’ve had very good discussions with President Karimov and his team on the situation in Afghanistan. And let me just again, stress my thanks for Uzbekistan’s support.

QUESTION: [Astana, Kazakhstan] [Through interpreter]. I’ll just summarize the question because he was breaking up, I didn’t get all of it. But you’re probably familiar with the trial and the verdict that was given to the former advisor to the President of Kazakhstan Mr. James Giffen. So there are questions in Kazakhstan about the lenient sentence that this gentleman received. There is an opinion that there was some sort of a deal made. Here I didn’t quite make it out. The deal was that Kazakhstan would open its market or there will be new exploration of new oil fields, something like that. I didn’t quite all of the details of the question. But basically this was a question about this latest trial and sentence that Mr. James Giffen received.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me just respond by saying that there is no deal of any kind between the United States and Kazakhstan on this or any other legal matter. I think we have made known our concerns with some of the recent actions that Kazakhstan has taken that have somewhat undermined Kazakhstan’s commitment to the sanctity of contract. This is important because Kazakhstan has a well-founded reputation for providing an attractive investment climate for international companies and one of America’s goals is to try to expand our investment not only in the hydrocarbon sector but also in the non-hydrocarbon sector. So we will continue to work with our Kazakhstan partners to encourage them to put in place the most transparent and attractive investment climate, including on the question of sanctity of contracts, to enable them to attract even more American investment there. Thank you.

Let me just conclude by thanking all of you for participating. If you believe that this is a useful mechanism, I’d be glad to consider future tele-press conferences like this, either with individual countries or together like this for a group press conference. In the meantime let me wish you all a very happy holidays and a very successful and prosperous new year, in the year 2011. Thank you very much.

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