Opening Remarks at the Uzbekistan-U.S. Business Forum

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
February 18, 2011

Minister Saidova, First Deputy Minister Kamilov, Chairman of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce Carolyn Lamm, members of the U.S. business delegation, ladies and gentlemen, I very much appreciate the opportunity to today’s Uzbekistan-United States Business Forum. I would like to extend my gratitude to the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce for organizing the business delegation and for sponsoring this business forum. An important strategic priority for the United States is to broaden our bilateral engagement with Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. The United States has intensified our high level interactions with Uzbekistan to achieve that goal. Secretary Clinton, Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg, CENTCOM Commander Mattis, and General Petraeus all have visited Tashkent over the last year.

We have signed a Science and Technology Agreement, expanded contacts between our Congress and Uzbekistan’s Parliament, and we have deepened our consultations and cooperation on Afghanistan. Today’s forum will build on this range of cooperation and momentum.

I want to thank the members of the private sector U.S. delegation for your presence here today and for your commitment to help strengthen the business ties between the U.S. and Uzbekistan. With world class companies such as Boeing, Case New Holland, ExxonMobil, FMN Logistics, General Electric, Honeywell, Nukem, Sikorsky, White & Case, Zeppelin, General Motors, Microsoft, and Nobel, you represent the best of American technology, customer service and commitment to quality.

The Obama Administration places a high priority on building economic partnerships in Uzbekistan and throughout Central Asia so this region once again can be a crossroads for trade and ideas. This effort includes working with Uzbekistan to improve the business environment in order to enhance investment opportunities for U.S. companies, which will in turn benefit economic growth in Uzbekistan.

Since our inaugural Annual Bilateral Consultations in December 2009, the United States and Uzbekistan have sought to increase economic cooperation and further trade and investment as a top priority for our two countries. At last July’s American-Uzbekistan Business Forum in Washington, high level business delegations from both countries engaged in frank discussions on a wide range of new investment and business opportunities.

Uzbekistan is rich in natural resources and has shown promise in developing its own technological capabilities within the manufacturing sector. Uzbekistan continues to experience impressive growth of approximately 8 percent per year – a growth rate that has held throughout the economic downturn.

In addition to its natural resources, the Uzbek people themselves area a resource that should not be overlooked. Uzbekistan puts great value in education and science to prepare its young people for success in many endeavors, including business. Uzbekistan has a large population of young energetic people who offer great potential to those looking to do business here. During our ABC discussions, we discussed ways to increase opportunities for education exchanges between our two countries. Education is an investment in the future that should be of interest to everyone here today, and we are looking for ways to expand cooperation in this area.

We also discussed the fact that Uzbekistan is competing with countries around the world to attract investment from the United States and other partners. The U.S> suggested that investors must know that their investment will be secure, that they will have access to hard currency for the import of inputs and that they can repatriate profits. We also noted impediments such as the requirement for exit visas for foreign citizens residing in Uzbekistan.

We agreed that the U.S. government will work with the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce to develop a list of suggestions of practical steps that the Government of Uzbekistan could take to improve its business climate.

We also reviewed the progress the U.S. government has made in our efforts to increase local purchases in Uzbekistan in support of our mission in Afghanistan. We spent more than $23 million in our 2010 fiscal year, and have already purchased an additional $5 million in October-November 2010 – on track to far exceed our 2010 total. In construction materials alone, we have already purchased almost as much in the last two months as in the previous year combined, although pre-payment continues to be an issue that limits potential purchases. Increased access to credit and foreign currency would help Uzbek companies compete for a greater variety of international contracts, not only those with U.S. government purchasers. We also affirmed our intention to build on our progress this year.

Uzbekistan plays a critical role in international efforts to confront violent extremists in Afghanistan through its economic activities and cooperation with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan supplies much-needed electricity to Kabul. It supports infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, including the construction of a critical rail line from Hairaton to Mazar-e-Sharif. And finally, Uzbekistan plays a critical role in the transport of non-lethal supplies via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) into Afghanistan. The NDN has the potential to improve transportation infrastructure and stimulate trade routes connecting Central Asia to the growing markets of South Asia. These efforts will have lasting economic benefits for the region.

Uzbekistan could benefit from strengthened trade ties in the region. For example, the ports of Pakistan could provide Uzbekistan’s closes access to international shipping lanes for its exports. With implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, licit trade will flow more freely in the region. Uzbekistan’s historic role as a bridge between East and West, North and South, as it was during the times of the Silk Road, also gives us a vision of its potential for the future.

To further strengthen cooperation with Uzbekistan, we will be inviting an Uzbek delegation to the Central Asia and Afghanistan Women’s Economic Empowerment Conference, likely to be held this summer in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Women make up a significant part of the labor market of any country. Expanding their involvement in an economy leads to growth. We hope to encourage this concept by addressing several topics designed to help women entrepreneurs in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Today’s forum will provide you the opportunity to discuss potential business opportunities in diverse sectors. My wish is this forum will highlight Uzbekistan’s potential, and result in concrete new partnerships between our two business communities. I also hope that we can openly and constructively discuss ideas on how to make Uzbekistan a more attractive destination for business. Increasing our engagement and cooperation with Uzbekistan helps advance peace, democracy, economic stability, and sustainable growth across the region.

I wish all of you success in your talks and pledge my government’s continued strong support for your efforts.