MS. FAILLACE: Good evening. This is Assistant Secretary Robert Blake, Jr., the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Bureau. He’s going to give you the readout of the Secretary’s bilateral with President of Turkmenistan Berdimuhamedow. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thanks, Karly. I see some new faces here, so I look forward to working with all of you.
As Karly said, the Secretary met with the Turkmen president this afternoon. Both sides agreed that we have good relations between our two countries, but that we want to do more to seize some opportunities. The Secretary described a new process that we’re putting in place of annual bilateral consultations that we will have in alternating capitals every year that will cover the full range of our bilateral issues, which the Turkmen welcomed. And so we’re going to have some follow-up meetings, probably at my level, to try to discuss the agendas and exactly what we want to get accomplished in those.
In terms of some of the big issues that we discussed today, I guess the top one on the agenda was Afghanistan. And the Secretary thanked the president for Turkmenistan’s assistance there. As many of you know, the Turkmen maintain a policy of what they call positive neutrality; that is that they’re trying to balance all the different powers in the region – Iran, Russia, the United States – and kind of keep them in rough balance, as I said.
So, in that context, we welcome the assistance that they have provided. They provide overflight clearance for a lot of our flights going into Afghanistan. They’ve been providing refueling for those flights. And they’ve also done some modest programs inside Afghanistan – build schools, build hospitals and things like that. So again, the Secretary appreciated the help they have provided.
Let’s see. On the energy front, the Secretary said that we want to see Turkmenistan really be a leader in terms of energy security and energy supply. As you know, we have a policy of encouraging multiple pipelines out of the Central Asian region. And so the Turkmen have an important role to play in that. They’re part of this pipeline, the Nabucco pipeline that would bring gas from Central Asia and also possibly from Iraq up into Europe. That’s still in the future. That’s, I think, going to start in 2011 or so. But Ambassador Morningstar was recently in Turkey as part of the announcements about that pipeline.
U.S. companies are already doing a lot of business in Turkmenistan, particularly offshore, and are interested, I think, in doing more work to develop some of the onshore hydrocarbon resources there. And so the Secretary conveyed that interest. The Turkmen president said that he’s going to be meeting – in fact, next – tomorrow – with a lot of the U.S. oil companies to, again, explore what more they can do in Turkmenistan. So that’s certainly a welcome development.
And then the last big issue on the agenda was to talk a little bit about education. We’ve always tried to do more in terms of education exchanges and so forth in Turkmenistan and the other Central Asian countries. There have been some recent restrictions in Turkmenistan governing Turkmen students who would like to go study at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, in Bishkek. And so the Secretary just expressed our interest in trying to resolve those, in allowing the students not only to go to that university, but also to go to American University in Bulgaria, and of course, to have more Turkmen students come to the United States. And again, there are no restrictions on that, but – the only restrictions just being distance.
And so again, I think there was some progress on that issue, but I need to follow up with Foreign Minister Meredow to kind of get the specifics on that, because we ran out of time just as we were getting into a more full discussion of that.
So those were, I think, the main highlights of the meeting today. I’m glad to take any questions. Sir.
QUESTION: Did the matter of human rights come up? You know, the previous president was quite (inaudible) and I just wonder if any – does that come up in the (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It does come up. It’s just in these bilats, we’ve got kind of – we’ve only got a certain amount of time, and so we touch on the most important things. And human rights is not as big an issue in Turkmenistan as it is in some of the other Central Asian countries.
QUESTION: Do they – do you – how much money do they get for the overflight clearances?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know the – I don’t have an answer for you.
QUESTION: They’re donating their airspace, isn’t it? I mean, we pay for --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, no, but they could still – they could – technically speaking, they could – I mean, they’ve provided a lot of help on that score, so that’s --
QUESTION: Right. I’m just curious as to how much that help has cost us.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know. It’s never come up, to be honest, so I’m not quite sure. Whatever it is, it’s a relatively modest figure, so --
QUESTION: Looking ahead --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You can certainly ask the Pentagon that question, but --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: -- I don’t know that off the top of my head.
QUESTION: Looking ahead, what are the highlights – Central Asian highlights for this week?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Do you have that schedule, Karly, off the top of your head? Let’s see, we got – we’re – she’s going to be seeing the Kazakh foreign minister on Saturday.
MS. FAILLACE: On Saturday. We have Tajik on Thursday.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Tajik president.
MS. FAILLACE: We have India on Friday.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: India’s not really a Central Asian state, but that’s okay. (Laughter.)
MS. FAILLACE: I’m sorry, you asked about – I was just thinking SCA.
QUESTION: Well, SCA. I mean --
MS. FAILLACE: Yes.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: And we’re trying to get a – I think we’re trying to get a bilat with – if possible, with the Uzbek foreign minister, Foreign Minister Norov.
QUESTION: When is the Indian?
MS. FAILLACE: India is Friday.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Friday.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Friday afternoon.
QUESTION: Is there any disappointment that Karzai decided not to come at the last minute? He was scheduled to come and then he changed his mind.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I’ve been so focused on my own priorities that – I don’t handle India – I don’t handle Pakistan and Afghanistan, so I’m not really up to speed on all the appointments there, so I’d rather let Holbrooke talk about that. That’s a whole separate panoply of issues.
QUESTION: Do you really – you’re – so basically, SCA now is just kind of – it’s not so much South except for Bangladesh and Nepal and Sri Lanka and the Maldives?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan.
MS. FAILLACE: Bhutan.
QUESTION: Bhutan. So really, they’ve been stripped – completely stripped, India and Pakistan, Afghan – and I’m sorry, not India?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, Pakistan and Afghanistan – no.
QUESTION: Pakistan and Afghanistan have been just completely stripped out of all the --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: More or less. I mean, obviously, we work pretty closely on a lot of those issues – India and Pakistan issues – and we support Ambassador Holbrooke a lot on various things. But he’s definitely in charge of *the policy*, no doubt about it.
QUESTION: Can I ask you one about Sri Lanka?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.
QUESTION: Obviously, the story’s died down, but I understand that a lot of people are still kind of interned by the government. Is that something you have discussed with them lately?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Oh, yeah. It’s something we discuss with them all the time. There are still – as you say, there are still issues involving freedom of movement, and we’ve expressed our interest, and I know a number of other countries have expressed their interest in the status of these IDPs. There are almost 300,000 that are in these camps still. They’ve been in there for more than three months now, and we’re particularly concerned now because the monsoons are starting at the end of September. So there’s still quite a severe problem of overcrowding in those camps.
The Secretary General just sent his head of the Department of Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, out there last week. I think he had a good visit as well, but raised these same issues. So I think there’s a lot of consensus within the international community to – again, to urge our friends in the – in Sri Lanka to move forward on these issues and to just underscore that this is an important part of the political reconciliation package as well. I mean, the longer you keep some of these IDPs in these kinds of conditions, it tends to build up – again, problems. So it’s important to release them.
And we understand that it’s not going to be possible to resettle all of them right away because still, a lot of demining needs to be done in the north. But even if that process can get started and at least the IDPs have the option, and maybe they might choose to go stay with relatives in the south somewhere, or they might just choose to stay in the camps, but we just think that it’s important that that principle of freedom of movement be honored as it is around the world.
QUESTION: The reason that 300,000 are still there is because, logistically, they haven’t been able to get them out yet, or they don’t want to go back?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, no. It’s two reasons. One is that the demining hasn’t been completed yet. There’s been some demining done. A lot of it – some of it’s supported by the United States.
But the Sri Lankans are also going through and screening the IDPs who are in the camps to try to see who among them might be still ex-combatants of the LTTE. And that process has been going on, really, ever since they arrived in the camps. And so – and certainly, that’s very important to try to figure that out. But our point only is that that – it just needs to be accelerated so that people aren’t held in these conditions.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: All right. Thanks a lot, everybody. Nice to see you all.