Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Central Asia

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Vienna, Austria
October 30, 2015


MODERATOR: Very happy to have with us today [Senior State Department Official] and will henceforth be known as a senior State Department official for this purpose of this backgrounder, and [Senior State Department Official] is here to talk about the historic visit of Secretary of State Kerry to all five countries in Central Asia at one time. I think that’s the hook there, right? That’s what makes it historic. And also in Samarkand, of course, he’ll meet with – or he’ll participate in the joint meeting of all five countries with his fellow foreign ministers.

That, I think, exhausts my knowledge of Central Asia, so without further ado I’ll hand it over to you, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thanks, [Moderator]. We’re very excited about this trip. Not only is it historic in that no other secretary of state has, in one visit, gone to all five countries; it’s also very timely because this is a region that – and the Central Asian states individually as well as collectively are looking at all of the different trends and dynamics in the region. And our ability to go in at very senior levels with the Secretary of State and to be able to talk to them about the different changes that are being experienced in the region, whether you’re looking at the transition in Afghanistan which has gotten some of the Central Asian states nervous about what that means for their own security along their borders, whether you’re looking at the economic trends in the region as the Russian economy has experienced a downturn, the Central Asian states have experienced the impact perhaps most significantly, especially because so many of them have diaspora who are working in Russia and who send remittances back to their homes – hometowns.

So it’s a particularly important time to go. The Secretary’s visit, which will kick off with a visit to Kyrgyz Republic, where he will not only help inaugurate the new campus of the American University Central Asia; he will also visit our new embassy compound with our ambassador, Ambassador Gwaltney, and then have bilateral discussions with President Atambaev and Foreign Minister Abdyldaev. The Kyrgyz Republic, the only parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, is one that we have particularly sought to support and strengthen their democratic institutions. And so we will have further conversations with the Kyrgyz about their recent parliamentary elections, which were very robust and competitive. I think eight political parties will now have seats in the parliament.

We will then go to Samarkand, where we will have bilateral engagement with President Karimov, but also all five Central Asian foreign ministers will gather in Samarkand to meet with the Secretary for a regional discussion about those very trends, about the need for economic connectivity. Because as we look at these Asian economies that are starting to drive global growth, the historic trade routes that connected Asia to Europe all went through Central Asia. But all of those have fallen into dysfunction, and less than 5 percent of the trade in Central Asia is actually amongst and within the region; all of it goes out. And for Central Asia to be a viable hub and trade and transit corridor, they need to address the barriers that exist between their ability to trade with each other.

So that will be one aspect of the conversations that the Secretary and the five foreign ministers will discuss in Samarkand. They’ll discuss environmental challenges, climate change, glacial melting, the Aral Sea, water, et cetera. They will, of course, have conversations about security, about the transition in Afghanistan, the security situation there and what the troop decision announcement that the President made – the impact of that. And we think that that, obviously, has been very well received by the Central Asians and has gone a long ways towards reassuring them of our continuing presence and support for Afghan security and stability.

But they also have concerns about things like the growing reach of ISIL. There have been some pretty high-profile recruitments by ISIL from within Central Asia, which has, I think, gotten many of the countries here nervous. And so we will have conversations about that. And we will have conversations about the ways – the best practices, I guess, that we are trying to compile on countering violent extremism. We do have concerns that in Central Asia some of the responses to these kinds of anxieties has been to crack down on religious expression. And so we believe that’s counterproductive and will actually exacerbate the challenge of extremism. So I think the Secretary will have, both in his bilateral and in the regional, conversation on these kinds of issues.

We will, of course, also have conversations on human rights, on governance, on religious freedom, civil society space, et cetera, both in the bilateral meetings and in Samarkand. All five foreign ministers are very eager to see that the C5 format, which this is the first time that the United States has engaged at a ministerial level in a C5+1 format with the Central Asians – all five Central Asian ministers have expressed their desire that this become an ongoing mechanism for dialogue with the United States.

After Samarkand, the Secretary will go to Kazakhstan to the capital, Astana, which will be the coldest destination on this trip, so I hope everybody has some warm clothes. And in Astana, in addition to the Strategic Partnership Dialogue, which the United States – which the Secretary hosts – holds with his counterpart, Minister Idrisov, he will have meetings with President Nazarbayev. He’ll visit a GE locomotive factory plant in Astana which is putting out energy-efficient green locomotives, as we like to call them, which are helping to create not only important capacity and transportation, but with an eye towards environmental sustainability.

He will, I think, open his time in Astana with a meeting with the U.S.-Kazakh Chamber of Commerce, where he’ll meet with some of the key CEOs of American companies that are doing business in Kazakhstan. He will give a very important speech at Nazarbayev University, which will be, I think, the kind of big regional address where he will talk about U.S. policy but also about the region, about Central Asia, and how Central Asia is impacted by some of the global issues and can, in turn, drive and influence some of those issues. So we’re looking forward to that opportunity. And he’ll also visit a mosque in Astana, one that has been working with us on countering violent extremism, and the grand mufti and the imam there have been part of an overall effort on countering violent extremism.

The next day, we will make stops in both Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, where he will in both countries meet with the head of state and foreign minister, and will have bilateral discussions on economic and security issues as well as some of the, again, concerns we have on human rights and religious freedom, which will be part of those conversations as well.

So that’s kind of the contours of the trip. It’s an opportunity, again, to reassure the Central Asians that as we look at a transition in Afghanistan, that we do have an enduring interest in the region, in the bilateral relationships with the Central Asian states, and that much of the path forward and the role that Central Asia can play is going to depend on some of the choices that they make. And I think the Secretary is in a good position to be able to talk about that.

With that, I think I should just stop and maybe answer any questions.

QUESTION: I have a practical question and then a more serious question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I forgot my razor at home. Is it still the case that beards are illegal in Tajikistan? (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think you’ll be fine.

QUESTION: Okay. Then more --

QUESTION: They are illegal in Tajikistan.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it’s – what we have seen is that men with long beards have faced particular persecution. And so that expressions of faith, essentially, what the Tajiks, because of their extreme concern about ISIL and about radicalism and extremism, they’ve taken, we believe, the extreme approach of therefore denying an expression of faith, not allowing children to go to madrasas, not allowing women to go to mosques, things like that. So this is part of the conversations we try to have with them about things like that.

QUESTION: That leads into – so thank you for a substantial answer to a not necessarily substantial question. It leads into my second question. When you talk about the rise of ISIL, how serious do you see it? Do you see them with numbers and capacities at this point to pose a serious security threat, or is it more the growth of ideology and sympathy among individuals in these countries?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What we’ve seen is that ISIL has been able to recruit from within Central Asia. Frankly, more of the recruitment is of Central Asians who perhaps might be working in Russia than actually Central Asians from within Central Asia. But Central Asians are showing up in Syria. The most high-profile case was of the head of Tajik special police, the OMON – I probably won’t remember what OMON stands for – but Khalimov, who defected to ISIL and then has put out several messages extorting other Tajiks and Central Asians to pledge allegiance to ISIL. That has really shaken not just the Tajiks but all of the region.

QUESTION: Khalimov was trained by Americans, wasn’t he?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He had undergone some of our training, and so I think it was a shock to everyone that he had been radicalized and recruited by ISIL, certainly. And we have not seen any real indication of ISIL activity in Central Asia, but like I said, the recruitment is something that is worrisome and that we watch.

I think that the anxiety levels in the region are probably higher than what the actual level of activity would warrant, but it gives you a sense of the nervousness that they feel. And certainly, I think that there’s probably some playing up of those anxieties by some corners, and that’s something that --

QUESTION: Is there any --

QUESTION: For example, they’ve banned the opposition party, more or less, the Tajikistan Movement.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The IRPT, the Islamic Renaissance something Party, in Tajikistan was banned. I don’t know how much, frankly, that was because of a fear and a threat and how much it was a consolidation of power. I mean, I think we are assessing exactly what is going on there and where the Tajiks – where Rahmon is moving with this. And again, I think the Secretary’s visit gives him an opportunity to be able to kind of have those conversations as well.

QUESTION: Is there any indication --

QUESTION: Can you talk a bit about the Russian factor here? I mean, because the Russians have --

QUESTION: Before – before we go to the Russians, can I just follow up on that? Is there any indication that the – that people in Tajikistan or elsewhere in the region are responding to his call to come and join ISIL, that they’re responding in greater numbers than they were before?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think we have seen any uptick. I think, though, that it’s hard to know exactly where – what things are transpiring below the surface. It’s not like we are able to see internet activity or – these are fairly closed society. The networks are familial networks. They’re – to the extent to which people have cell phones and are passing text messages, or – so we don’t have a real deep lens into how communication works between, say, ISIL through these different networks of diaspora of different groups.

And so I don’t know that we can say with a definitive clarity whether there has been an impact. But it is something that certainly has caused a high level of anxiety in the government, and they are worried about it. And I think some of the crackdowns that you’ve seen in recent months have been a response to Khalimov more than anything. And like I said, we continue to urge them to not take such a heavy-handed approach, that we think that that will backfire.

QUESTION: What do you consider the most heavy-handed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the fact that they’ve banned the IRPT. I think the fact that they continue to really put restrictions on religious expression. We worry that those kinds of strictures will actually drive people underground and force them into more radical and more extremist networks than perhaps just allowing the simple expression of faith.

QUESTION: And this is all related to Tajikistan in this case?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This is related to Tajikistan. I think it’s most critically on display there. There’s obviously different degrees. I mean, Kyrgyz Republic is a much more open society. Kazakhstan, I think, is also more open, more tolerant of religious expression of various kinds. Less likely to see in Turkmenistan and in Uzbekistan more tolerant behaviors.

QUESTION: Now, the Russians have also indicated their anxiety about the Central Asian Islamist threat of sorts, or the growth of that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.

QUESTION: And to what extent, if any, is this trip kind of meant to kind of also kind of push back against potential Russian intervention in – as they’ve done it elsewhere? There’s been talk that these countries are getting a little bit anxious about – that Russia might want to take – want to use kind of military action to impose – to sort of show its own concerns. And in general, I mean, there’s economic issue with Russia here that – where they are – they’re hooked to them as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I’m going to unpack your question a little bit. First of all, I think we’ve always said, the Secretary has always said, that in terms of security in Afghanistan and in the broader Central Asian region, that we do understand that Russia is going to have an interest and a stake in ensuring that there is security and stability in the region, and that we’ve always valued and encouraged constructive participation by Russia into those conversations.

On the other hand, I think there is an exaggerated sense of insecurity that our Russian friends and sometimes as a result of their statements our Central Asian friends seem to have. Part of the Secretary’s intent, I think, is to be able to have those conversations, to get a better sense of what their perspectives are from the Central Asian side of the equation, to say, “What are you seeing and perceiving in terms of security along your borders? What are your concerns? Let us share with you our analysis of where things are, the conversations that we’re having with the Afghans and where we see the state of play.” I think part of this is to try to debunk some of the overhyped sense of insecurity, and at the same time to be able to strengthen the relationships and allow them to be able to make better calculations, better decisions about how they are going to strengthen their security along their border.

Hi, how are you?

QUESTION: I’m sorry to be late. David Sanger. Good to see you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, it’s good to see you.

QUESTION: So there’s a message here in this trip to Russia as well?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, insofar as that the United States has a ongoing interest in the stability and the prosperity of this region, and that we have an ongoing interest in deepening our partnerships with all of these countries. I think that that’s a message that we want to send to all the countries in the region, including the Central Asian states and the neighboring countries. But we don’t see this in any way as a zero-sum or a Great Game. We have said to all of the Central Asians that we recognize that they have an important relationship with Russia and with China, and that we are not asking them to make any kind of false choices. This is not the Great Game. This is about all of us helping these countries weather some turbulent times and prepare for a future that requires greater connectivity in all directions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Great Game. We were waiting for that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yes, but now (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s out there, the meme is out there, but I don’t think it’s accurate.

QUESTION: But the Kazakhs say they prefer to think of “the Great Gain.”

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, that’s Idrisov’s line. He’s got two chestnuts that he likes to roll out. One, he says that he wants to turn the Great Game into the Great Gain, and the other is that he wants the Central Asians going from islands of isolation to – oh, no, from landlocked to land-linked. That’s what he says.

QUESTION: But the Russians have made some kind of threatening noises --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, who said --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Idrisov, the Kazakh foreign minister.

QUESTION: The Russians have made some kind of threatening or ominous sounding noises towards some of the Central Asian countries. For example, with – on Kazakhstan, Putin said recently, “Not sure that that even deserved to be a country,” that they really were a – had historically even deserved to exist, and that was taken pretty badly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think he has a propensity of statements and overreaches that kind of create a great deal of anxiety in many different places. And as I said, we have, over the past 24 years, been very consistent in our support for the sovereignty and the independence and the territorial integrity of these Central Asian states. We were the first country in almost every instance to recognize their independence. And we have sustained that support --

QUESTION: But that was about breaking with the Soviet Union, that wasn’t because of any great love for the Kazakh people.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve recognized that as the Soviet Union broke up, that we have these independent states and that they will here for after be these independent states. And we recognize their independence, we recognize their sovereignty, and we recognize the territorial boundaries that they inhabit. So we’ve stood in support of that, of those principles since their independence.

QUESTION: But there is a sense of neglect in these countries toward – that the United States has not really paid a lot of attention to them in – for quite a long time.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t say that. I think what they have expressed to me is more a concern that our attention perhaps was driven more by their geographic proximity to Afghanistan and that their worry has been that as we transition and draw down in Afghanistan, that we will lose interest in them. And what we have sought to reassure them is that we are interested in Central Asia for Central Asia, and not just because – I mean, the – obviously, proximity to Afghanistan is a very important factor, and for there to be stability in Afghanistan it actually also needs a stable neighborhood. But that we also recognize that Central Asia is important in its own right, and I think the Secretary’s visit and the fact that he’s going to all five is a strong indication.

QUESTION: To what extent can you deal with them as all five go? Do they all have their own issues as well?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They absolutely do, and that’s why we are doing bilateral visits and bilateral meetings with each, but there are clearly some regional issues and dynamics. And it is, I think, productive to be able to have a regional conversation – to talk about, for example, on the economic side, trade and transit, that it takes so long to get goods to go across these Central Asian states, and it’s so expensive that it’s cost-prohibitive. And as we look at these Asian economies starting to be the big drivers, they will find much more cost-effective routes. And Central Asia stands to be bypassed if they don’t address that.

So I think that those are collective conversations. If they don’t address issues like trans-boundary water; if they don’t address things like cooperating on border security. So there are some issues that merit a collective conversation, but obviously in each instance we will have led these specific bilateral conversations.

QUESTION: What do you tell the Kyrgyz when you explain to them that you’re not going to lose interest as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan? I mean, they’re going to lose a lot of money when that absurdly huge base disappears into the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the base is already closed.

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And we’ve already transitioned out of Manas, and that difficult set of conversations has already been had. The question now for the Kyrgyz is that they see the United States as an important partner to reinforce and support their democratic aspirations. What the Kyrgyz will say to us is we recognize that we get far more economic investment or security support from Russia and China, but those countries aren’t going to care about our democracy. They’re not going to invest in our parliamentary institutions. And the United States has invested quite a lot in strengthening democratic systems in the Kyrgyz Republic.

All of these countries recognize that their leverage with Russia, with China, their ability to get more favorable terms for the economic relationship and have greater political leverage, if they also have a very strong relationship with the United States. They’re very, very wily and smart to that fact, and we recognize that as well, that this is not about asking them to choose one versus another, but it is that by having that relationship with us, they will also be able to make sure that their relationships and their transactions with Russia and China are more favorable to them.

QUESTION: Can – you mentioned the base before and I think back to the example of the Philippines when we had a very similar discussion – closed a big base, they saw disaster coming. It’s now one of the biggest FedEx hubs in the world. Has there been an equal ability in any way to help any of these states take the facilities that we used for Afghanistan and actually put them to solving the problem that you just referred to?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s a great point because when our military was using what we called the Northern Distribution Network to the supply lines kind of as an alternative to the GLOC with Pakistan, one of the things we tried to do is use the logistics corridors that we establish to also try to build some business capacity. So the military did put some effort into getting supplies from the Central Asians that they needed for the – whether it’s toilet paper or local produce or goods that they could procure locally through Central Asia to support our mission in Afghanistan; and vice versa, how they could therefore also support a little bit of trade between the Central Asians and Afghanistan – the Afghan consumers, for example.

So over the past few years, that has helped in creating some local businesses. Obviously, there’s anxiety that as the military footprint draws down, then the economic impact of that obviously, first and foremost, will be in Afghanistan, but will be felt by the entire region. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re pushing so hard on these issues of economic connectivity.

QUESTION: I guess my question was: Do we have any success stories like Clark Air Field Base, we – that sort of point to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We don’t have --

QUESTION: -- how that has – how that has – because we’ve been – we closed that base, what, three years now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Manas --

QUESTION: Two?

QUESTION: 2013?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Two.

QUESTION: Last year?

QUESTION: Two years ago.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It was about two years.

QUESTION: One.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Actually, we – the agreement to close started about two years ago, but the actual U.S. withdrawal from Manas was just in the past year. It was last summer or last fall, I think, that we had that.

QUESTION: Do you have an option to restart it if Afghanistan gets worse?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think we’re looking to restart it. I think that the military has firmly come up with other alternatives and is no longer seeking.

QUESTION: So in that year, is there anything you can point to that would suggest that what you were putting in place has been lasting? We don’t have time to get out to Manas, but if we did, would we see any real activity?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So not on Manas, because Manas essentially – when we handed over Manas to the Kyrgyz, I mean, we’ve – we’re continuing to do some runway repair and tower repair with them. But Manas is under Kyrgyz ownership and they are working with a Russian company in creating kind of the private facility there. So we’re not putting in the kind of investment on Manas that you’re talking about at Clark in terms of a logistics hub. Those are a result of Kyrgyz choices in terms of how they wanted to go with Manas.

I think it’s fairly clear that they were under some pressure from the Russians in terms of what our ongoing support from Manas would be, and we respect their choices. We’ve said all along that we were extremely grateful for how long we had access to that base and the critical logistics hub that it played, but that we’re also done with our need for Manas. We’ve moved our requirement and we respect their choice as a sovereign government to move to conclude that arrangement.

We do think that the Kyrgyz now have an opportunity to really think about how they’re going to open up their economy. And this is part of the problem for all five of these countries, is they cannot attract the kind of investment that they need if they don’t take steps to reform their economies. So the kinds of things that we’ve been able to do in other countries, until we see them really putting the kind of effort that they need to in reforming their economies, it’s going to be hard to drive the investment. It’s a lot easier if the barriers between the countries are eased to then look at a regional market. None of these markets will stand on their own merits.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about some of the human rights issues you expect the Secretary to raise? I’m wondering if he’s going to raise issues of free press, for example, and maybe the forced labor in the cotton fields in a couple of countries, and maybe even bring up names of some individuals who have been imprisoned in the country who human rights groups have highlighted.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we have raised those issues in every engagement. We have annual bilateral consultations with the Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz, the Turkmen, and the Tajiks. We have the Strategic Partnership Dialogue with the Kazakhs. And those are between the ministers and myself with the exception of Kazakhstan, where it’s Idrisov and Kerry. We always talk about all of the issues, including on specific cases of prisoners of concern, on specific cases on religious freedom, on labor – on forced labor, on child labor, on the whole range of issues.

And the Secretary will have conversations in his bilateral meetings in each country and will raise these issues with them. And we will have a collective conversation about – we have been very upfront and candid with all of these countries that part of engaging with the United States means having conversations not just where our interests converge, but also, and most importantly, where we have areas of divergence, areas of concern, including on human rights, human dimension, as they frame the broad conversation.

QUESTION: But haven’t there been calculation that they can’t afford to have that conversation if they don’t actually change their behavior?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So what I would say on that is you have to – do we continue to see problematic behavior? Yes. In every single country, I would say we continue to see problematic behavior. Have we seen them take steps at our urging? I mean, Turkmenistan – last year, we declared them a country of particular concern on religious freedom. We saw them release all the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the subsequent months, right. I’m not saying that that has changed the overall dynamic in Turkmenistan on religious freedom, on civil society space, but are we able to see movements on specific issues when we engage and when we press them? We have seen some of that, right? In Uzbekistan, after we put a tremendous amount of pressure, we have seen them take steps to ban child labor.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, which country?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Uzbekistan. We have seen them take steps to allow monitoring, to allow ILO, World Bank, the U.S. to monitor the harvest. Are they still mobilizing workers? Yes. Do we still have concerns? Yes. But are we seeing them take steps at our urging to change the situation? It’s going to take a long time for Uzbekistan to move off of its – because it has a systemic problem on how it manages the cotton harvest. It’s a very, very labor-intensive, economically unviable, unsustainable model that they’re going to have to move away from. And it’s going to take time, it’s going to take continued pressure from us, but it’s also going to take continued engagement.

QUESTION: Thank you.