Remarks on Bilateral and Regional Cooperation

Press Conference
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Astana, Kazakhstan
April 23, 2013

Assistant Secretary Blake: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me tell you what a pleasure it is to be back here in Astana.

I’d like to begin by thanking our Kazakh hosts today for their warm hospitality. I appreciated the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Akhmetov, with State Secretary Tazhin, and Presidential Administration Head Massimov. I thanked them for Kazakhstan’s strong support of stabilization and economic integration efforts in Afghanistan, and for Kazakhstan’s hosting of the "Heart of Asia" Ministerial that will take place in Almaty later this week.

I won’t get ahead of the action in Almaty, but will note that in all of my bilateral meetings over the last day I assured our Kazakh friends that the United States has an enduring commitment to our strategic partnership with Afghanistan and with the people of Afghanistan.

The United States strongly supports efforts by Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Kazakhstan, to embed Afghanistan in the economic neighborhood in accordance with the New Silk Road vision of economic integration.

I was pleased to hear that Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan plan to inaugurate a new rail link in mid-May, which in turn will be linked to Afghanistan’s rail system.

We had a chance to talk about our strategic partnership between the United States and Kazakhstan, and opportunities not only to expand trade and investment between our two countries but also to expand cooperation in energy and climate change.

I also discussed with our friends in the Kazakhstani government the importance of providing operating space for non-governmental organizations, journalists and other members of civil society to operate freely.

I also had a separate, productive meeting with a range of civil society organizations.

I was especially pleased to spend some time today with students at Nazarbayev University, where I spoke about regional economic cooperation. I was very happy to see that Kazakhstan’s next generation of leaders are thinking regionally and globally.

Finally, in conclusion, I’d like to thank Ambassador Fairfax for the great job that he is doing representing the United States here in Kazakhstan, and as well to thank his great team for all of their wonderful efforts.

With that, I’d be glad to take a few questions.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. My question, I am from Reuters. My question is about your expectations from Istanbul Process in Almaty. What do you expect? And maybe some documents will be signed?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think I’ll let the governments of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan preview the conference. They’re in charge of this. But I’ll tell you that our delegation is being led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and I will join him along with our Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, David Pearce.

But let me again express the appreciation of the United States to the government of Kazakhstan for hosting this important conference at this important juncture in the process of preparing for Afghanistan’s transition.

Question: [Inaudible]. You mentioned regional integration. I wonder if you can expand on whether you see progress in closing links between Central Asia and Afghanistan in any particular areas.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think I would say that we’ve seen quite a lot of progress on this idea of regional integration. First of all, we’ve emphasized repeatedly the importance of accession by all of these countries to the WTO. As all of you know, Tajikistan recently acceded and we expect Kazakhstan and hopefully Afghanistan to accede sometime later this year.

We also see important progress in the development of rail infrastructure. I mentioned the link between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but Turkmenistan is also developing a link to Afghanistan and then through Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

We’re also seeing important progress in projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline.

I think all of these show that the region is committed to regional integration, and taking practical steps to demonstrate ownership of this. I expect that we will hear more at the conclusion of the conference later this week.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. The question is, I’m from Kaz Energy Magazine. My question is after the withdrawal of international troops for Afghanistan in 2014, are you going to keep some transition centers or military bases in Central Asian countries? If so, in which countries?

Also any negotiations with Central Asian countries about the future of Afghanistan and what to do with the situation in Afghanistan in the future?

Also, which one is your most important partner, with whom among the Central Asian states you have the closest ties?

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s a multi-part question that would take quite a long time to answer.

Let me just say that President Obama has not made any final decisions about the number of troops that will remain in Afghanistan after the transition. Once he does so, we will then be in a better position to decide what kind of facilities will be needed in the region and the greater region to support that troop presence.

But I want to stress that we will have a presence after 2014 and that we have an enduring commitment to the security, stability and prosperity not only of Afghanistan but of the wider region.

I don’t want to try to get in the business of comparing our relations with one country and the other, but let me say that with respect to Kazakhstan that we are very pleased with the progress that we have made to broaden and deepen our relations with that country. Not only are we making good progress to expand in areas like trade and investment, energy cooperation, military cooperation, but we’re also very pleased with the leadership role that Kazakhstan has played in regional organizations such as the OSCE, the OIC, and now the Istanbul Process.

As I said earlier, an important part of our dialogue is our effort to expand consultations on political and human dimension issues. Again, I urged our Kazakhstani hosts to ensure that the pace of political reforms keep up with the pace of economic progress here in this country.

The broad scope of our cooperation on all these issues, including on non-proliferation, explains why we decided to establish a Strategic Partnership Dialogue last year.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. Astana TV Channel. Can you say which concrete practical steps are going to be taken to prevent the destabilization of the situation in the region after the withdrawal of the international troops?

Assistant Secretary Blake: The primary responsibility for that lies with the countries themselves, in the sense that it’s very important for them to have good law enforcement cooperation, good military cooperation with each other and with Afghanistan. But it’s also important that they have open societies and responsive governments so that they will not give extremists the opportunities to organize inside each of these countries. But I want to stress that the United States will be a strong partner in all of these endeavors. We intend to continue to support efforts on border security, on counter-narcotics, on counter-terrorism, and on developing civil society.

Question: [Through Interpreter]. Recently you said that the leaders of Central Asia, the governments of Central Asia should learn the lessons of Arab Spring. What did you mean by that?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think one of the lessons of the Arab Spring was, first of all, the need for, as I said earlier, responsive government. Both to ensure that the government is listening to the needs of the people, is providing economic opportunity for their people, and also taking steps to address corruption. Corruption and the very large disparity in standards of living between the rulers of countries like Tunisia and Egypt and those of the mass of the people in those countries was one of the reasons that you saw some of the unrest that you did. So I think there are some important lessons there for the countries of Central Asia.

Again, thank you all very much for taking the time to come today. It’s nice to see all of you again. Maybe I’ll see some of you in Almaty. Thank you very much.