Background Briefing On Secretary Kerry's Central Asia Trip

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
London, United Kingdom
November 3, 2015

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I’ll give you a bit of a readout of the two meetings. I’ll do that on background.

So Tajikistan – well, the Secretary read out Tajikistan, so you can ask me whatever questions, but he gave the little statement where he basically read out all of the issues that he raised in the conversation. So I think you probably --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, it was pretty accurate (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. And so if you have questions on that I’m happy to give you more, but let me start with Turkmenistan and then we’ll go to your questions.

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s great.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So in Turkmenistan in the meeting with President Berdimuhamedow, the Secretary raised basically a set of economic, energy, security, and human rights, and people-to-people issues, and raised issues about the operations of our embassy and trying to make sure that we’re getting more flexibility from the government and how our embassy can also do its business better in terms of the ability for staff to travel around the country and things like that to make sure that we’re not getting overly bureaucratic on it. So the Secretary raised all of those issues and had good conversation and had good responses back from the government on wanting to work through some of those areas.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And might I just add in general it was a good give and take kind of – I mean, it was much more than some other meetings. It was much more of a give and take.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There was a lot more back and forth.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Back and forth is better, yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: A lot of taking turns, raising issues, and responding to them, and it was a good and candid – very candid conversation.

On the economic issues, the Secretary talked about how very much would like to see more U.S. investment go into Turkmenistan, but that we’ve been hearing concerns from American companies that they’re experiencing some delays in payments and that the Secretary noted that this is not going to engender a positive response from American business to increasing investments and that we need to figure out these issues.

He said we recognize that you’ve been experiencing a bit of an economic downturn and understand that, but on the other hand, businesses need to know that there is a transparent and predictable environment, particularly that they’re going to get paid for products and services that they provide. And I think the response there was that they were working through some of the short-term delays but that they hope to be able to resolve those issues. So we’ll look to keep engagement on that.

The Secretary also noted that the energy connectivity was an important issue for Turkmenistan but also for us, that we want to support that in the region, and that the TAPI project, one that is very important to Turkmenistan to connect a gas pipeline through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, is something that we would like to see move forward.

QUESTION: Which pipeline is that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s called TAPI, Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. It is something that we have long encouraged. One of the constraints has been that it is a massive undertaking and we do feel that it would be an undertaking that would benefit from the involvement of an international oil company. And Turkmenistan had been reluctant to give access to international oil companies to all of the data around their oil fields and gas fields, so this is an issue that the Secretary raised.

Turkmenistan is going to try to develop this project under the leadership of Turkmengaz and try to get subcontracting through international oil companies. We support and encourage that, but we do think that they’re going to need to accommodate the transparency requirements of international oil companies to provide data that would allow companies to actually make appropriate bids on the projects.

QUESTION: But this was in Turkmenistan, but you started with Tajikistan.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, I moved to Turkmenistan because I said the Secretary has already read out Tajikistan, so then I’m going to – so I didn’t – all of what I’ve been saying is with respect to Turkmenistan.

We also talked about other energy projects that Turkmenistan is doing, like TUTAP, which is the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan electricity grid, which is something that we are, again, supporting though the Asian Development Bank and others to try to create regional energy connectivity.

The Secretary appreciated all of the support that Turkmenistan has provided Afghanistan, including humanitarian overflights for the U.S. and provision of electricity and rail links to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan, and asked that Turkmenistan continue to provide that level of support as we move forward.

QUESTION: What did he say – how do they deal with the Afghan border issue, the security matters with Tajikistan – I mean with – let’s say Turkmenistan to begin with?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: He asked about the border security issues with Turkmenistan and --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) to Afghanistan.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: With respect to Afghanistan – and the president indicated their support for President Obama’s announcement of sustaining the troop levels and that that would help improve the security in the region. Turkmenistan restated, I think, that because of their positive neutrality that they maintain very good relations with Afghanistan and Iran with whom they share very long borders.

QUESTION: Did corruption come up? I think Transparency International has Turkmenistan as one of the, like, seven or eight worst countries in the world. Did the Secretary raise this when he talked about fostering a business environment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Secretary raised broadly the economic and enabling environment, the need for predictability and transparency, both with respect to payments for services rendered but also more broadly. He didn’t specifically use the word “corruption” but he did say that in order to attract investment you have to be able to have this environment that – business environment that is transparent and predictable.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I guess he mentioned the New Silk Road and all that, yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President Muhamedow – Berdimuhamedow said a number of times that the New Silk Road Initiative that the United States has supported over the years has been a key factor in their ability to pursue TAPI and to tap in these other connectivity projects and that they hope that that will continue. Secretary Kerry appreciated and said that this is an important initiative for the United States and that we’ll continue to keep pushing on that.

QUESTION: With the Turkmen president – with the Turkmen president, did he do the same kind of line that he did with – in Tajikistan about the need to, while pursuing the campaign and the anti-extremist campaign --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, let me get to that. Absolutely.

QUESTION: -- they have to respect rights and religious freedoms?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, absolutely. So as they talked about the security issues, the Secretary then said we want to work with you on countering extremism, countering terrorism, but we also feel like as we deal with these kinds of efforts that we need to make sure that we’re doing it in a way that’s respecting human rights, respecting religious freedom. The Secretary raised specifically prisoners of concern, that while we appreciated that eight Jehovah’s Witnesses had been released by the government, by the president, and that that was a positive move, that there continue to be 87, I believe is the (inaudible) number, prisoners of concerns and that we would like to work with them to try to resolve these cases and to try to see progress on that.

And he also talked about the fact that in the broader context of human rights, press freedom, we raised specifically with the president and the foreign minister the fact that we would like to see accreditation of our RFE/RL journalists who are not able to get accredited and that we would like to see that --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Turkmenistan or --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: These are journalists in Turkmenistan that cannot get accredited by the government and are having ability – difficulty in being able to have access and to maneuver or operate freely. And so we’re trying to get – support their effort to get accredited by the government so that they can have actually mobility and access that they need to do their jobs.

QUESTION: Did he hand him a list of the 87 names, or did he just speak more generally on that? Maybe you already had.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We – yeah, so we didn’t give them the specific list of names, but we raised with them the fact that there is concern about these individuals and that we’d like to see progress on resolving their cases.

QUESTION: Did he mention them by name, at least some of them?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ve raised the names with them in our other conversations. The Secretary didn’t go through names but referenced the fact that these are concerns that we have raised with them in the past and then they continue to be concerns. We raised with them that there are steps that we would like to see them take with respect to religious freedom, et cetera, that while the release of the Jehova’s Witnesses was an important step that there’s more that they need to do to be able to make progress in this arena.

The Secretary also discussed the C5 meeting in Samarkand --

QUESTION: I’m sorry. Before we go on, how did he respond – the president respond to those entreaties on human rights?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not really our zone. I mean, we’re giving your our characterization about what we said. I mean, anyway, if you want to answer it, but --


QUESTION: I mean, it’s just that we’ve asked that question all the time and you’ve given us an answer --


QUESTION: -- and now we’re not going to get one?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, listen, I think that these are difficult issues. President Muhamedow – Berdimuhamedow did acknowledge the question and had the discussion. I think what he said was, well, these are technical issues and that we need to have conversations with the experts to discuss the specifics of these cases and so we pledge to follow up to be able to have those conversations with all of the respective teams to be able to have a more technical conversation. He said he wasn’t prepared to get into the specifics of the cases in this instance.

QUESTION: Is that what you expected or was that disappointing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think the objective here was to be able to push the issue and to say this is something that is a priority for the Secretary; that while we, again, seek to deepen and strengthen our cooperation, that we need to see progress on these issues. And for the Secretary to be able to say that very specifically to the president and to his team and his foreign minister was very important, because we needed to show that this was something that was coming from the highest levels of our government.

QUESTION: Was there ever a “And then what part” of that sentence? In other words, you’ve talked about all these economic cooperation issues. Does the Secretary link the two such that the economic cooperation --


QUESTION: -- hinges on their (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So the way that the Secretary framed it and the way that we try to frame this is that there’s more that we would like to do with you and there is much more that we can do, but for that we also need to see you working with us on these areas. And so we continue to push on that and we continue to ask for more cooperation and more progress on human rights, on press freedom, on religious freedom, on the operating environment.

And the Secretary also – I forgot to mention – but also raised the need for civil society, the need for them to allow their people to be educated, to have skills, to have English language, and that for their economy to grow and for them to be able to experience the benefits of connectivity that they needed to invest in the education of their people and they needed to allow for a more vibrant civil society.

So he did raise all of this and he was quite – in painting both the broad frame and then also raising specific issues, he was quite pointed. And like I said, he actually had an opportunity to have much more of a back and forth on all of these issues.

QUESTION: Has their economic downturn made them more receptive to this message than they were a number of years ago when gas prices were a lot higher?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it remains to be seen. I think on the one hand, we see an opening that they want a deeper engagement with us. And we’d like to pursue that, and we have always said that for us to be able to do more we need to see them do more. On the other hand, what we’ve also seen in the region is that as there is more anxiety – both anxiety about the security and the extremism, but also anxiety about the economic, the reduction of the flow of remittances, the – that that has sometimes or oftentimes led to more restrictions. And so I think that there are two potentially competing dynamics here, and so --

QUESTION: You’re talking about Turkmenistan still here?


QUESTION: Because I understand there’s not – really don’t have that much in the way of guest workers. One of their embassy officials were saying that they don’t – unlike Tajikistan, they don’t send that many folks off to Russia and receive the remittances back (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The remit – sorry, so the remittance issue doesn’t apply as much to Turkmenistan, but they are experiencing a fairly significant economic, I think, downturn, even though you don’t necessarily hear that from the government in terms of their predictions or their projections of growth. But at least what we understand is that they are starting to feel the pinch on the energy crisis, which does affect them deeply. They are starting to feel the pinch on a couple of different fronts.

And so I think we see that the combination of the fears on security and the anxieties on the economic tend to create a move towards more restriction. Like I said, we’d like to see if the desire for a deeper engagement creates an opening for us to push on some of these issues.

QUESTION: It sounds like his message in Turkmenistan was very similar to what it had been in the previous stops as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that there’s a consistent theme here that the Secretary has sought to sound in each of these countries, which is that we do understand the desire for a deeper engagement. We do understand that there is concern about security and there is concern about the economic – the need for connectivity. We see the opportunity to try to foster greater cooperation amongst the Central Asian countries, which they want us to help bring about, but that for all of these things to happen we also need to have a partnership and progress on human rights.

And the Secretary has been quite clear in his conversations that we’re not expecting Central Asian societies to model America. We’re not – this is not about a – as the Secretary said, I’m not here to lecture you; we are a society that is itself seeking to perfect our own institutions, our own processes. But we do want to be able to have that conversation – and not just conversation, but we want to be able to see progress on this front. And he has said that consistently in every single meeting with every single head of state. He raised those issues in the meetings with the C5 foreign ministers, and so he’s basically underscored that this is part and parcel of any engagement with the United States.

QUESTION: Did he follow up on what David said? They are more receptive to that message than they were a few years ago, it sounds like.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We think so, we hope so, but time will tell. I’m not ready yet to pronounce a judgment on that.


QUESTION: So the message was consistent across the meetings. Was the response consistent with the five countries?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that the conversation was more or less dynamic in different meetings with different counterparts. And so we came away with a greater appreciation in some than in others about where we will potentially see progress.

QUESTION: In Tajikistan when Secretary Kerry made his comments, there were American and Tajik flags behind him, but there was no Tajik official (inaudible) the podium. Were you surprised at that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Heads of state generally don’t do joint press avails with ministers.

QUESTION: But the foreign minister was also there.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I think the foreign minister – it was his choice that he didn’t want to say anything, and that’s not for us to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It was pre-planned that way. It wasn’t a surprise. I mean, he didn’t – yeah.

QUESTION: Can I ask a couple of Tajikistan questions that didn’t really get fleshed out? One, was the subject of the opposition party, the Islamic --

QUESTION: Renaissance.

QUESTION: -- Renaissance Party – IRPT, I think – was that raised and what was the response?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It was discussed in the meeting, and the Secretary did talk about the need for greater freedom of expression, including political expression, religious expression. He talked about the fact that the lesson that we have learned in watching and working with so many counterparts around the world is that a restriction of political and religious freedoms will often lead to greater radicalization, and that he wants to engage with the Tajik president and the foreign minister on steps that they can take. He said, “I understand that you are worried about radicalization, but we think there’s a right way to do that and we’d like to be able to work with you doing that.”

QUESTION: Did Rahmon provide a justification of the action?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that they have their concerns and their reasons behind that. I’m not prepared to talk about those.


QUESTION: And then one more. Did they discuss – I think the Secretary very briefly mentioned it, but can you flesh it out – the border issues with Uzbekistan Tajikistan is having? It seems like an ongoing problem.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So the Secretary did discuss in a number of the bilateral conversations as well as in the conversations with the C5 foreign ministers that there are a number of issues, constraints that seem to be hampering regional cooperation, including border disputes, including transboundary water issues, including a lack of physical connectivity between these countries and a number of countries. The discussion was had that in the pre- and during the days of the Soviet Union, all the infrastructure connected to Russia, to Moscow, and didn’t necessarily connect within regions. So many countries are grappling with the fact that all of their physical infrastructure right now still leads in one direction and that they don’t have the physical connectivity within – between each other.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Between each other. Yeah, between each other.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That combined with the fact that there are these political issues to be worked out creates, therefore, a lot of constraints on cross-border trade, a lot of constraints on regional cooperation on issues of energy, environment, et cetera.

QUESTION: There was no specific mediation effort regarding the Tajik-Uzbek --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, there was no – there was no specific mediation effort. This was an initial trip where I think the Secretary was able to kind of create his own baseline of what some of the key issues are. The fact that the C5 met and seeks to meet again and seeks to have some --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- working groups and such that can take on some of these specific issues I think creates an opportunity for us to look at maybe we can do some conversations, regional conversations on borders, on water, on economic, et cetera. These are things that are still to be worked out, but we were encouraged by the fact that all five countries seem to want to get together and continue to engage on these issues. It’s an opportunity.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary get any specific commitments from these – either or both these governments to help to do more to stabilize Afghanistan, or did they – were they expressing their own concerns to him that the U.S. has to do more to stabilize Afghanistan? How did that work?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it was a good conversation in that we didn’t necessarily have a specific ask of them, but we had a good conversation about the kinds of things that can help create more stability and security and greater trust and confidence across borders. And so I think that that is something that we will look to explore, certainly with our colleagues on how we engage Afghanistan and create a little bit more trust and transparency and sharing across the Afghanistan/Central Asia borders.

QUESTION: But they’re worried about the taking of Kunduz, even though it was taken back. They’re worried about the north. And what are they asking the U.S. to do to make sure – to make sure that this doesn’t become a pandemic problem, with infiltration to their countries back and forth?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: They said that the fact that the United States had announced that it would be sustaining these troop levels was something that gave them a great deal of reassurance --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- and that as long as the United States is helping --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Just to add a little bit on that --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: -- I think they were quite clear that they could be much more positive about that in private than they could in public, I think. But across the board, that announcement was very positively received by all of the countries in the neighborhood, yes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Anything else that I’ve left out?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’ve only heard bits and pieces --

QUESTION: The Afghanistan --

QUESTION: Did they say what the restraining factor was, the reason they couldn’t be enthusiastic in public?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think it’s hard for countries, for a lot of countries, to be openly effusive about U.S. troop presence in places that are on their border or near them. But their desire for stability and security in Afghanistan far outweighs any concerns they would have about foreign troop presence, and they made that quite clear in private.


QUESTION: Sorry. Was it a successful trip, all fine?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I think it was a very good trip. It was a trip that increased our understandings of the region, both the individual, bilateral, and the collective issues. I think it increased their understanding of our interest and commitment to them, to the region, and to trying to strengthen the stability, the security, and the prosperity. So I think in that sense, it was a very successful trip. I think the Secretary came away pleased. And he hasn’t fired me, so I think he’s happy. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: So I just wanted to finish off Afghanistan, the Afghanistan piece. He was just (inaudible) right there on the border. Did the Secretary say things to reassure them of that besides, “We’re going to keep our troops there longer” to reassure them that this is --


QUESTION: -- something that he – that the U.S. is committed – that the U.S. is not abandoning them?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: He talked about the conversations that he has with Ghani, with Abdullah, to address the concerns and --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, it’s important to recognize our commitment to Afghanistan goes beyond our military commitment. We have a deep political commitment, diplomatic relationship with these countries. We’re very deeply involved in helping them come to the understanding that allowed them to form this government, which has held on despite heavy sort of centrifugal forces pulling at it at all times. And we’re going to continue to stay at this and work with them. And I think we were quite clear about that in these meetings as well.

QUESTION: Did you hear much about Putin? And is there a nervousness among these countries, just given in the past – since you’ve had last conversations with them, you’ve had both Ukraine and now (inaudible) in Syria.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So every one of these countries seeks to have a positive relationship with Russia, and we certainly encourage and want the same. I think that there is a degree of trying to balance the different relationships that each country undertakes in their own way and at their own interest and ability. And I think that the fact that you have great powers like China and Russia on these borders and you have the sustained and enduring interest and engagement of the United States is actually to the benefit of the region, because it allows them to not only have balance but also to maximize their own interest in all of these relationships.

QUESTION: And did any of them express any concern over the Iran nuclear deal?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Concern? No, I mean, I think, to the extent that it came up, it was positively received, because a lot of these countries either have already or want to have deeper economic relations with Iran, and to the extent that once the deal is implemented, that becomes easier, given that the sanctions and other things, I think they were pleased by it.

I just want to say one more thing on the Russian piece that [Senior State Department Official One] alluded to. And I think everything that [Senior State Department Official One] said is totally true about their desire to have positive relations with Russia and our total comfort and desire with that as well. And I think that’s part of why our message here is both resonant with them and important. It’s resonant because we’re not asking anything of them in terms of their relations with others, other than that we want to support them having positive relations with Russia, positive relations with China, including economic relations with both of these places. And it’s important because a lot of the messaging that we do on these issues of concern, these issues that you keep asking us about – press freedoms, about political space – they’re not going to get those messages from these other relationships they have with Russia and China and other outside countries. So – and because of that, I think we have both a message that they are open to and one that’s very important for them to hear.

QUESTION: Russia has talked about sending in more troops, more planes into Tajikistan, closer to the border because there was – they said they’re worried about infiltration from Afghanistan, the Islamic State, through those countries into Russia. So was – did they express their concerns with the Tajiks that --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No. I think the point that I think the Secretary made and the point that we continue to engage on is that we understand that there is interest in advancing security and stability in the region. This is an interest that all of the Central Asian states have. It is an interest that Russia has. It is an interest that China has. And we are committed to trying to make sure that all of us are able to discuss these issues and engage on these issues in ways that enhance security and stability. There are certain proposals that perhaps need to be discussed further to make sure that they don’t inadvertently undermine security and stability in the region. So I think it’s important for us to be able to have the space to have those conversations. I don’t know if there’s more to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: As much as these countries are sort of squeezed between and among larger powers, these are also fiercely independent places that resist any outside domination. And I think it’s quite clear that they are working to strike a balance between having positive relations with bigger, more powerful countries, and maintaining a degree of independence.

QUESTION: Kind of back to classic power balancing --


QUESTION: You’re back to sort of classic power-balancing relationships that we all learned about in school.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think we’re the ones doing the balancing. I think the balancing act is really on the part of these countries that have to sort of triangulate and maintain a degree of – while maintaining their own identity, which is critically important.