Interview With BBC Central Asia in London (via telephone)

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
June 8, 2011

QUESTION: Let me just start with really recalling a visit that you made shortly after these events almost a year ago. You went there not much after. How do you recall that visit? Obviously this was a country of strategic interest to the U.S., but also there was simply human tragedy. How do you recall that visit?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I traveled to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan immediately after the clashes last June, and then I went back to Kyrgyzstan a month later to visit both Bishkek and then Osh where a lot of the violence had occurred.

On the first visit, I remember meeting with many of the refugees that crossed into Uzbekistan at that time. Almost all of them were women, because many of the men had stayed behind to defend their property. And these women had really heart-rending stories of the violence that they and their loved ones had experienced.

About a month later when I went down to Osh, I was able to see first-hand the results of that violence. There were more than 400 people killed; many, many more injured; 400,000 people displaced; and so many of the homes and businesses in Osh and in Jalalabad were destroyed or very badly damaged.

So looking back now after a year, I’m encouraged by the steps that the people and the government of Kyrgyzstan have taken to rebuild and try to reunite their country. In the past year we’ve seen Kyrgyzstan hold a constitutional referendum, organize peaceful and competitive parliamentary elections, and most importantly perhaps, cooperate in an international investigation into the violence, and then allow that report to be publicized inside Kyrgyzstan. So that’s a real tribute to the people of Kyrgyzstan and to the leadership of President Otunbayeva and Prime Minister Atambayev. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to achieve reconciliation and accountability. We’re working very closely with our friends in Kyrgyzstan to help them do that.

QUESTION: Let me just pick up on the international report that you mentioned. You recommended the Kyrgyz authorities for, in the first case, I suppose, asking for it, then accepting its recommendation to a large extent. Having said that, it’s been really very severely criticized by many many Kyrgyz politicians in the country. So I just wanted to ask you whether the U.S. stands behind the very concrete conclusions and recommendations of the report. Because some of them are really quite controversial. For example, the enhanced status for Uzbek language, more representation of ethnic minorities, not just Uzbeks, in the police and army, et cetera.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: In general, we do stand behind the report and I don’t want to comment on all of the specific recommendations, but I think that the international inquiry did make a sincere effort to try and look at some of the underlying issues. The Kyrgyz government deserves a lot of credit, first of all, for cooperating with that inquiry; and then, as I said earlier, for allowing the results of that inquiry to be publicized inside Kyrgyzstan which is quite unusual under such circumstances.

I think the government is cognizant of the need to, for example, reorganize the judiciary, to improve the selection process for judges, and to look at a lot of the issues that were raised in that report.

We continue to have very strong concerns about the due process and some of the treatment of detainees, and we’ve raised those on a number of occasions with our friends in the government, and we’ve made the point that it’s really important that ongoing human rights abuses by law enforcement authorities need to stop and need to be investigated fully. So this continues to be an important part of our discussions.

We’re going to have high level talks later this week that I will host with the Kyrgyz Foreign Minister [Kazakbayev] for our first Annual Bilateral Consultations with Kyrgyzstan. So again, this will be an important part of what we have to discuss.

QUESTION: Just to stay with the report, are you concerned that shortly after the report came out, the international one, the parliament decided to make the author of the report, a Finnish diplomat, a persona non grata in the country? Are you concerned about this kind of what some observers have called nationalism in the country, could jeopardize the results?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We are concerned. I think Professor Kiljunen really made quite a sincere effort to take a serious look at all the issues and to be as fair-minded as he possibly could be. And he and the people that worked on this report are real experts in these matters. So I think it’s important for the government to take the report seriously, to take further steps to ensure both accountability and justice, but most of all, to promote reconciliation and prevent any recurrence of violence. As you say, we’re on the cusp of the anniversary of the worst violence that took place last June.

QUESTION: The U.S. has throughout made clear its commitment as elsewhere in the world, to help foster democracy in Kyrgyzstan. You mentioned the referendum and the parliamentary elections as steps forward.

The next step will be presidential elections. Mrs. Otunbayeva is someone that you described last year as a consensus builder, someone who’s got a lot of experience in the West. She will definitely be replaced. She’s not standing again. And the likelihood is that someone with a strong nationalist slant will come in.

Do you think that could cause a problem? Because Mrs. Otunbayeva is someone you can talk to.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ve had very good conversations with all of the leaders of the parties in Kyrgyzstan and I think we can work with all of them. It’s too early to say who in fact is going to run for these elections. They have not yet been announced. I understand it’s most likely that they will be held sometime in October.

The United States will be working very hard, as we did last year, to support a free and fair process and to provide technical and other assistance to support the election process.

As you say, President Otunbayeva has shown extraordinary leadership over the last year, and we hope that her successor will have a similar vision of building democracy and consensus and reconciliation and most of all hope for all of the people of Kyrgyzstan.

QUESTION: Finally, I’m just adding this because we just had an interview with President Otunbayeva, and in the interview she made a comparison between what happened last year and the reaction of the international community and what’s happening now in the Arab world in North Africa, saying that last year in comparison, really the international community, in her words, said nothing, even though she said things were quite similar when security forces were shooting at demonstrators and the opposition was struggling.

Would you agree the sense of double standards here as far as the international community is concerned, towards this Central Asian country?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think I would agree that we said nothing. The United States certainly expressed our serious concern about the killings that took place first of all in Bishkek itself, right after some of those initial disturbances that took place and I think 80 people were killed. We certainly made quite forthright statements expressing our concern about that.

But later, of course, we were more outspoken about the violence that took place in June. So if you go back and look at the record of what I personally said while I was in Uzbekistan and also while I was in Kyrgyzstan, we talked a lot about that.

But again, I don’t want to focus so much on that. I want to focus on the positive steps the government has taken, and it’s important to recognize that because these are difficult. This is a majority Kyrgyz state that has essentially admitted that a great many mistakes were made and that these need to be addressed. That’s a very very important step. That’s usual in cases like this. So it’s important to recognize the progress that has been made, but also to recognize that more work still has to be done. I think the Kyrgyz government has done that and is prepared to continue to work on this.

QUESTION: In one very brief word, what would your message be to the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Kyrgyzstan on the anniversary?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, just to do everything they can to work together and find common ground, ensure justice, and find a common way forward for the sake of all of the people of Kyrgyzstan. This is a country that has great promise and is Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy. So it’s an important example on so many different fronts, and that is why the United States is so committed to helping Kyrgyzstan.

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