Interview with Radio Azattyk

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
July 17, 2011

Radio Azattyk: What is the main purpose of this Women’s Economic Symposium: Strategies for Success which will be held in coming days in Bishkek?

Assistant Secretary Blake: The main purpose of this conference is to bring together women from all over Central Asia and from Afghanistan to share experiences and to learn from the experience of international institutions such as the OSCE, the Asian Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the UN Women Organization, and to again, share information andcreate networks so that they know who each other are. And also to compare information between the private sector, between women’s government leaders, and also non-governmental leaders. So we think there are wonderful opportunities for synergies between all these and wonderful opportunities to learn from each other, and I must say I’m very pleased that Ambassador Melanne Verveer who is Secretary Clinton’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, is co-sponsoring the conference with my bureau. So again, we are very excited about this and we’re so pleased we can host it in Kyrgyzstan where I think there’s been quite a lot of progress for women.

Women represent I think 27 out of 120 members of parliament. Of course, you have a very well-known president who is a woman. Also, I think Kyrgyzstan is known around Central Asia as a country where women owned businesses have done quite well, better than in other countries.

For all of those reasons, we’re very excited about this conference.

Radio Azattyk: The U.S. announced already formally that it gradually withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Does it mean that once U.S. troops and coalition troops leave Afghanistan the Transit Center in Bishkek will be closed down?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We’ve always been clear that the American use of the Transit Center is temporary. We don’t have ambitions for long-term basing here of any kind. Right now the current contract that we have with the government of Kyrgyzstan extends through 2014 which is exactly in line with the transition process that NATO has laid out with the agreement of the Afghanistan government.

So I don’t really want to speculate about the future of Manas and the Transit Center. A lot of that will very much depend on how things go during this process of transition, how things go with the process of reconciliation that will be gathering steam and momentum over the next several years, and I’d just like to say how much we do appreciate the government of Kyrgyzstan hosting this important Transit Center. I also want to say that I think it’s been of some benefit to Kyrgyzstan as well.

We’re very proud that, the Center contributed in one way or another $130 million to the economy of Kyrgyzstan during a very important time and a very fragile period for the government of Kyrgyzstan, and it also employs 700 Kyrgyz nationals. Again, they make a very important effort to be good neighbors, as we say, and to work very closely with the people and to organize various kinds of humanitarian assistance projects. So we’re very proud of the role that they play, and again, we’re very grateful for the government’s hosting of the center.

Radio Azattyk: Besides all these benefits you counted, Mr. Blake, the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan are considered a little less of a security concern for Kyrgyzstan itself. In this regard, we are expecting presidential elections in October and still security concerns are very high. [The concern is whether] we will keep going on a democratic path or not. As you know, there are lots of concerns about foreign manipulation which happened before, during national parliamentary elections, et cetera. How can the U.S. help Kyrgyzstan keep this democratic path in the future?

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s a very important question and one of our highest strategic priorities in Central Asia is to support the democracy that has emerged here in Kyrgyzstan. We played a very important role last year in supporting the presidential elections that took place, and we intend to play a similar role this year to support the elections that will take place in October.

We will do similar things to what we did last year. We will, for example, be providing assistance for election monitoring and for training of regional and local officials in elections management. We will sponsor candidate debates on television. We will also be providing training for police in proper techniques to manage civil disorder, so that should there be any kind of violence the police can use non-lethal means to hopefully deal with those contingencies that might arise. So we’re providing that kind of assistance, and we’re also providing quite a lot of assistance to the government of Kyrgyzstan with regard to border security. Because this is an important priority for the government of Kyrgyzstan and it’s an important priority for us.

As you alluded, there are terrorists and there are organized criminals, there are drug traffickers and many others who exploit the borders particularly between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. So, we’ve been undertaking quite a lot of important efforts to help the government of Kyrgyzstan to strengthen its border, but also to deal with the flows of narcotics that come from Afghanistan, through Tajikistan, through Kyrgyzstan and up to Kazakhstan and Russia.

Our Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Ambassador William Brownfield, was recently in Kyrgyzstan and met with officials and discussed ways that we can work with Kyrgyzstan, and with other countries like Kazakhstan and Russia, to improve counter-narcotics efforts. I think those will have a very helpful effort on stopping some of the terrorist flows, as well as stopping organized crime which potentially could be a disruptive influence in the elections.

Radio Azattyk: There is speculation among people in Kyrgyzstan that even though Kyrgyzstan showed great aspiration for democracy and freedom, still this country didn’t receive as much support from the U.S. as Georgia did. Why do believe people think so?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I never want to try to compare one country with another, but I would say the United States was very proud to be one of the very largest bilateral donors to Kyrgyzstan last year. As I said earlier, we’ve provided $140 million in assistance to support the democratic process, but also to support things like jobs for young people and to support the reconciliation that needed to take place in the south. That kind of support will continue because we think it’s so important to support the democratic opening that is taking place here.

We also provide a lot of assistance that’s separate through [the] Manas [Transit Center]. As I mentioned we have a contract to provide $60 million a year in recognition of the support that the government is providing to the United States for the use of the Transit Center. So, there are quite a large number of ways in which the United States is supporting Kyrgyzstan. We’re also encouraging Kyrgyzstan to speak with the World Bank and to speak with the IMF, the International Monetary Fund. Those are the international financial institutions that governments normally go to in times of financial stress.

You’ve seen how the governments of, for example, Greece or the governments of Portugal and others, the lender of first resort is always the International Monetary Fund. So it’s very important that the government of Kyrgyzstan work productively with it and with the World Bank, which they are doing.

Radio Azattyk: As I mentioned before, there are lots of security concerns ahead of presidential election. One of them is based on situation in the south in Kyrgyzstan. After inter-ethnic clashes last year you traveled to Osh and to Uzbekistan. What would you offer to Kyrgyz government to do in terms of to bring real reconciliation and to make people believe that they can have peaceful life in southern Kyrgyzstan?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think that’s in many ways quite a complicated question. First, I want to commend the government of Kyrgyzstan for allowing a very free and objective report to be done by the international community, by Mr. Kiljunen. That’s a very rare thing for a government to allow an international commission of investigation to come into a country and to examine all that went wrong, and then to allow the findings of such a commission to be published inside the country. So again, I think that’s a very strong sign of the strength of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy, that it has the resilience to allow this kind of quite controversial report to be publicized.

So I think in the first instance it’s important to study and implement many of the recommendations that were made by the Kiljunen commission. I think it’s important for the government, both at the national level but at the regional level as well, to make an active effort to reach out to particularly the ethnic Uzbek community, to allow the Uzbek media to come back on-line, and most of all to make sure that there is equal access to justice for all of the communities.

I think there’s a perception in the Uzbek community in particular that ethnic Uzbeks have been the ones who have been brought to trial the most so far, even though the majority of the victims of the violence in June of last year were the Uzbeks. So again, I think it’s very important that there be equal access and that the trials that do take place take place in a very fair and transparent manner, and that all of the people that are brought to trial receive due process.

There have been a number of concerns about, for example, the trial of Mr. Askarov I hope the government of Kyrgyzstan will, again, ensure due process because that itself can help to bring closure. If people know that those who are responsible for this violence will be brought to justice, and that the government is seeking other ways to encourage this reconciliation process, then that has to take place. But again, I think the government has taken quite a lot of important steps and deserves some credit.

Radio Azattyk: Southern Kyrgyzstan is a part of this very complicated Ferghana Valley region which connects three countries - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This inter-ethnic clash happened because there are lots of historic, economic and other complicated issues there. So, does the U.S. have some plans to help to strengthen security in the Ferghana Valley which goes directly to Afghanistan? I heard the latest information that U.S. was planning to open some training center in Tajikistan. Is it true?

Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all, let me say that the primary responsibility for domestic security always rests with the host government, so the government of Kyrgyzstan will be of course primarily responsible for its own security, and of course the government of Tajikistan and other neighboring governments as well.

As I said earlier, the United States has a very wide range of efforts underway to support border security and efforts to stop narcotics flows that are coming through and also to help the government deal with things like organized crime. So we’ll continue to do all of those things, and also to be as responsive as we can to whatever other requests that the government makes of us.

With respect to Tajikistan, we’re also engaged in very similar efforts, because there are quite similar challenges. So we’re talking again about counter-narcotics cooperation, even more about border security there because Tajikistan has such a very long, 1,400 kilometer border with Afghanistan, and then again, a lot of efforts on things like corruption and so forth because that’s such an important part of dealing with some of these security problems.

We will continue to work very closely with all of these countries, and we also encourage all of these countries to develop regional cooperation so that they work better with each other. I think that’s a very important aspect of the problem and frankly there needs to be more progress on that. Most of the progress that’s taken place is sort of bilateral progress and I think there needs to be greater attention focused on regional cooperation and getting, for example, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to work more closely together.

You have some institutions now that can help to develop such cooperation. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime, for example, is working very actively on the narcotics front. We have the new center called CAREC up in Kazakhstan which can be a very valuable platform for exchanging information among all the different countries about many of these challenges.

So I think there are quite a number of opportunities, and there’s important scope to do more between the countries of Central Asia to deal with some of these problems. That’s certainly something that we always try to encourage ourselves with our programs.

Radio Azattyk: Thank you very much.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you.