Question and Answer Session at University for World Economy and Diplomacy

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
April 25, 2013

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again I want to thank you all so much for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to taking your questions and having a good discussion. Thank you very much.

Question: Good afternoon, Your Excellency Mr. Blake. First of all thank you very much for your speech and [inaudible]. I would like to ask you one question. The President of Kyrgyzstan [inaudible] announces that after 2014 American military base in [inaudible] Bishkek will stop its [inaudible]. What is the position of the U.S. on the [inaudible]? And also I would like to know are there [inaudible]? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much for that important question. That is something that is very much on the minds of many people in Central Asia. Let me answer that by saying that we are still in the process of thinking through what our final military presence will be in Afghanistan after the end of the transition at the end of 2014. Once President Obama makes a decision about the number of troops and what functions they will perform in Afghanistan, and that decision will be made, obviously, in close coordination with the government of Afghanistan, we will then be able to be in a position to determine what facilities will be needed to support those troops.

We are very aware of President Atambayev’s desire to transform the Manas facility into more of a civilian function. And so we will be engaging in talks with our friends in the Kyrgyz government about how to achieve our mutual objectives. So at this point I really can’t say much more than that because those talks are still ongoing.

Question: First of all I would like to thank you for your eloquent speech, and now my question. When you work [inaudible] U.S. Congress by Special Inspector General for [inaudible] support for creating a new railway construction which would bind Central Asian States and [inaudible]. In your opinion, how will this work and [inaudible] railway projects with the fact that [inaudible]. Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you. That’s another excellent question.

As I said in my remarks, the United States believes strongly that it’s important to help Afghanistan to develop a trade base and a private sector-based economy in order to help Afghanistan prepare for the economic transition that takes place at the end of 2014. As the United States and other NATO allies pull out the majority of their troops, as I said, some will stay. There will be an economic impact to that pull out, so it’s very important that there be steps taken now to cushion the impact of that, and again, to strengthen the private sector in Afghanistan. We believe the best way to do that, because Afghanistan has a relatively small economy still, is to open up opportunities for greater trade and investment both in Afghanistan, but in the wider region as well. That’s why we’ve supported this New Silk Road vision, this idea of creating a network of rail lines, pipelines, electricity transmission lines, all of which can help embed Afghanistan into its regional neighborhood.

Another very important part of that will be the reform process. And that is to again ensure accession to the WTO so that there are open markets, but also to work on things like shortening border clearance procedures, reducing corruption so that truckers do not face obstacles, and things like that.

With specific respect to the rail system in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan was a real leader in developing the rail line from Uzbekistan, from its border at Hairatan, to Mazar-e-Sharif. Now there’s an interest in extending that line perhaps to Herat, perhaps to the Turkmenistan border as well, and then also in the other direction to Tajikistan.

So there are various efforts underway now to plan for those and to line up the international financing for that. Most of that is likely to come from the Asian Development Bank, but other multilateral development banks and even some countries may be willing to provide some financing for that. But I think all of those will be very important networks. We have an interest in helping those, and I think Uzbekistan does as well because Uzbekistan obviously is located at the heart of Central Asia and much of that trade will go through Central Asia and therefore potentially benefit your country quite a lot.

Question: Thank you for your speech. My question is, [inaudible] United States [inaudible], and [inaudible] to developing the investment of [inaudible].

Assistant Secretary Blake: Yes, there are plans. Over the last several years we have undertaken quite extensive efforts to encourage more business here in Uzbekistan. I personally have led several trade delegations and brought quite large investment delegations here to Uzbekistan as part of a business forum that we maintain.

More recently we’ve talked about establishing a more systematic dialogue between our two governments so that we can not only potentially seize new opportunities in areas such as energy, but also to address whatever impediments exist that now serve as barriers to greater trade and investment. I’m pleased that in fact trade and investment have increased, but there still are barriers. One of them here in this country is currency convertibility. That is the ability of companies here to convert their profits back into foreign currency and then repatriate some of those profits. That’s one obstacle that we continue to talk to the government about.

But again, I think the overall trend has been positive. We have some signature investments here such as General Motors which is not only producing a large number of cars for your own market but also helping your country to export to Russia and to Kazakhstan. So I think that’s a good example of an American company that has done well here and that is also helping your country to develop.

Question: First of all I would like to thank you for your information, for your lecture. My question concerns my business. In the beginning of your lecture you mentioned the [inaudible] situation. Does [inaudible] situation, what it means that this [inaudible] or great powers? They try to make balance or make [donors] in the region. And the [inaudible] means the cooperation and [inaudible] situation. In order to get the [inaudible] situation we should have the [inaudible] by the Central Asian countries. What do you think and how do you [inaudible] of the United States or the Russian [inaudible] or China in the region? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you. As you say, the theory was that somehow the United States and China and India and Russia were in competition for influence and for strategic gain in Central Asia. Again, what we’ve tried to stress is that that’s not the case. We are not seeking to pursue opportunities in Central Asia at the expense of Russia or China or any other country. In fact we see that there are very significant opportunities for all of us and also quite important opportunities for us to work together.

So for example the United States and Russia have important shared interests in things like counter-narcotics, to help stop the flow of narcotics that flows northward through Central Asia to Russia. We have important interests in things like development. Certainly we have important interests in the stability of Afghanistan.

So for that reason we’ve had a very good dialogue for many years with the Russians about Central Asia and how we can work together and how we can coordinate our policies. I think that’s been quite successful.

Likewise with China. We think China has a quite important role to play here in Central Asia, and he has been very helpful in developing infrastructure and pipelines and things like that that have benefited the countries of Central Asia, but have also I think helped to diversify sources of supply and sources of demand for the region’s energy resources.

Again, that’s something that we believe is in our interest to promote - diversification of energy supplies - and that’s one of the reasons we support strongly the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline.

Turkmenistan, for now, exports most of its gas to China. There are obviously very, very important markets in India and even Bangladesh that have expanding populations, have expanding economies, that very badly need new energy sources. So this is a very good win/win situation for which, again, I think there is good progress being made.

Again, this is not a great game. This is in fact a great gain and we always try to emphasize that.

Question: First of all, [inaudible] for your very [good] speech and thank you very much [inaudible]. I would like to ask a question [inaudible].

My question is what would you say about the many directions in your relations between the USA and Tajikistan? Thank you very much.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much.

As with Uzbekistan, the United States is looking to expand our relations with Tajikistan. We have a multi-faceted relationship. Tajikistan is in a much different situation from Uzbekistan in the sense that it’s one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. It also has an extensive border with Afghanistan. So it faces a number of challenges. For that reason we have first a quite important development program in Tajikistan where we have a large program from the Agency for International Development to help with things like health and education and basic human needs in Tajikistan.

We also have an extensive program of cooperation to help to increase border security and to help with counter-narcotics in particular, since much of that counter-narcotics trade that I talked about earlier goes through Tajikistan and then up through Kyrgyzstan and beyond.

And then of course we also have a very important dialogue on many of the human rights issues that I talked about earlier. Tajikistan has one of the few legal Islamic parties in Central Asia, but that party is sometimes at risk of having its ability to function curtailed in one way or another. So a very important part of our dialogue is to encourage greater freedom of worship in Tajikistan, precisely so that people have the opportunity to express their grievances openly and are not driven underground and perhaps into the arms of terrorists or radical movements of one sort of another.

These are all part of the relations that we have. We also have a regional dimension in the sense that of course we encourage greater sort of trade and so forth with Afghanistan as with Uzbekistan, but also very importantly, that we encourage improved relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

So one of the very sensitive issues on the agenda between your two countries is the question of water resources and particularly the question of whether Tajikistan will and should build the dam at Roghun. And so the United States strongly supports feasibility studies that are now underway by the World Bank to look at the technical, economic, environmental and other aspects of that project to determine both their feasibility but also their advisability. And whether there are alternatives. The World Bank has already produced some interesting studies that show that there are some quite interesting alternatives that, for example, smaller scale hydropower projects, projects that would take advantage of some of the coal reserves that Tajikistan has, as well as projects that would help perhaps to restore the grid, the old electricity grid between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

So there are alternatives, but we will await the outcome of these feasibility studies.

Those are some of the things that are on our bilateral agenda with Tajikistan.

Moderator: Thank you for your responses. Thank you for taking the time.