ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Good afternoon everyone and thank you for coming here today for this press conference. I am very pleased to be back in Dushanbe on what is my second visit as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. The purpose of my trip was to come to conduct our first six-month review of our Annual Bi-lateral Consultations after our first round was held in the winter six months ago in Washington D.C. I was very pleased to conduct the review yesterday with Foreign Minister Zarifi and Deputy Foreign Minister Rahmanova.
Today I appreciated the opportunity to meet with his Excellency President Rahmon. I told the President that we value very much our partnership with the government of Tajikistan. I told him that the United States wants to work with the government of Tajikistan to help build a secure, free, and prosperous Tajikistan for the citizens of Tajikistan. I also told him that we value the mechanism of our Annual Bi-lateral Consultations as a good way to expand America’s engagement with Tajikistan and make progress on the full range of priorities on our bi-lateral agenda.
In addition to my government meetings I had a very wide range of other meetings with non-governmental representatives. Yesterday I had the opportunity to join a training program that was hosted by the International Organization for Migration on trafficking in persons. Stopping trafficking in persons is a very high priority for the United States, not only in Tajikistan but in many countries around the world including our own country. The United States is pleased that the government of Tajikistan is making progress to stop the trafficking of women and children and we hope to see similar progress by the government to implement President Rahmon’s directive to stop the use of children in the cotton harvest and stop taking them out of school for that purpose.
This morning I was very pleased to visit an elementary school that receives technical assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development. This is part of our 65 million dollar program this year to provide assistance from the people of the United States to the people of Tajikistan.
Today I had good meetings as well with representatives of international organizations as well as representatives of civil society. I told them that the United States fully supports the need for political space for free media, for non-governmental organizations, as well as for institutions such as the Institute for Innovative Technologies and Communication. I also expressed our concerns about some restrictions on religious groups and religious expression in Tajikistan, as well as our hope that while the government does all it can to combat violent extremism that it also be careful not to target peaceful religious activity.
Finally, I have just come from a meeting with the Chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, Mr. Kabiri. This was my first meeting with him and I appreciated the opportunity to talk to him as leader of one of the few, legal Islamic parties in Central Asia. I was pleased to hear that he disavows and renounces any ties with any violent extremists and his party intends to be a peaceful party in Tajikistan.
Let me stop there, and once again I thank you for coming today. I’d be glad to take a few questions.
QUESTION: [Through Interpreter] How do you evaluate the general political situation in Central Asia? What future do you see for the situation in Tajikistan? And especially in light of the latest 25 prisoners escaped from the [inaudible]?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for that important question.
As I said in my opening remarks, I think it’s incumbent upon all governments to protect their societies and their people from the threats posed by violent extremism. The United States works with the government of Tajikistan and with many other governments here in the Central Asian region to help them to meet and combat those threats.
At the same time we believe it is very important for all governments to allow democratic institutions to function and to provide political space for legitimate opposition that does not espouse any kind of violence or terrorism. That’s why we are very strong supporters of democratic institutions such as non-governmental organizations, free media, and that’s why we also take a very strong stand on such matters as religious freedom. We believe that by protecting such values one strengthens one’s society and one’s nation. Thank you.
QUESTION: [Through Interpreter] She has two questions. The first one concerns Kyrgyzstan. She says there are rumors that soon there might be new troubles in Kyrgyzstan. What can you say about this?
The second question is about the ongoing dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on the blockade of rail cars. Does the United States play any role in facilitating the solution of this ongoing dispute?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all with respect to the situation in Kyrgyzstan, I don’t want to speculate about any possible future events that might happen. From our perspective the most important upcoming event are the parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place on October 10th.
With regard to the situation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of these countries are friends and partners of the United States, so we would like to see them resolve their differences as soon as possible. We believe that many of the issues that divide them are interrelated. Uzbekistan has some concerns about the construction of the dam at Roghun and how it might affect water supplies in Uzbekistan. Tajikistan has its own concerns about the blockade. And the United States supports efforts, first of all by the two countries to resolve these issues bilaterally, but we also support efforts by the UN, the United Nations, to help bridge the differences. We have also talked bilaterally with each of these countries to urge them to listen to each other’s concerns and to try to resolve these important matters because, again, I think these are legitimate concerns on both sides and it’s important that these be resolved for the benefit of the people of the two countries.
QUESTION: [Through Interpreter] The issue concerns the CASA-1000 Project. We know that the World Bank is working closely on this project but they say that the project is not well substantiated unless the Roghun hydropower station is constructed. Unless it is constructed it has no future. This is their main idea.
But we know that CASA-1000 is beneficial for the United States of America. How would you evaluate that struggle between two super powers like Russia and the United States of America in this energy dispute? This is the first question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, I deny that there’s any kind of fight between the United States and Russia on this issue. There is a feasibility study that is now underway to look at the feasibility of the CASA-1000 project and the United States will then take a position once we’ve seen the results of that feasibility study. So I don’t want to comment on the CASA-1000 project before we see the results of that study.
With respect to Roghun, the World Bank is also undertaking feasibility studies on that project to look at such matters as seismic conditions and matters such as the environmental impact. Again, I think it is very important that those feasibility studies be undertaken as well and we’ll look forward to hearing the results of that independent assessment.
QUESTION: There are more than 2215 NGOs in Tajikistan who specialize in democracy, human rights, et cetera, and seven parties. Why did you meet just with [inaudible] of the Islamic party?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As you say, there are a large number of NGOs here and I appreciated the chance to meet with an important cross-section of the non-governmental organizations that are active here in Tajikistan, and I appreciated learning about the conditions under which they operate.
I decided to meet with Mr. Kabiri because his party received, after the government party, one of the highest levels of votes in the recent elections. Again, I think there needs to be political space for parties that willingly renounce violence and willingly renounce ties to religious and other extremists. I made that point to Mr. Kabiri himself, that it’s very important that his party be very clear that they do not espouse violence and that they do not have any ties whatsoever with extremist groups.
QUESTION: [Through Interpreter] The Taraf newspaper journalist is interested whether there is real independence of the CASA-1000 project on the construction of the Roghun hydropower station. If yes, what is the attitude of the United States of America towards the construction of this hydropower station?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY Blake: Again, I don’t want to comment on these individual projects until we’ve seen the results of these feasibility studies. I think that would be, the issue that you mention I’m sure will be one of the questions that I’m sure will be looked at in the feasibility study so I don’t want to try to prejudge what they might say on that subject.
QUESTION: [Trough Interpreter] You assure that the United States of America stands for the freedom of media, but recently about five Tajik newspapers have been taken to court, there are lawsuits against these newspapers. So if you are for the freedom of media, what actions are you going to take in this case? What’s our attitude in this issue?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for that question. As you say, we do support freedom of the media, both here in Tajikistan and around the world. And the matter that you have raised regarding the five newspapers here has been a matter of discussion between the United States and the government of Tajikistan. So I think I’ll just leave it there. But to say that as a whole we want to see, as a rule, as much freedom of the media, all kinds of media, as possible. Not only here in Tajikistan, but in other parts of Central Asia and around the world.
QUESTION: [Through Interpreter] She has the Information Agency [inaudible]. Two questions.
The first question is that we heard your President’s statement about the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Does America have any plans about the withdrawal or about the growth of American presence in Afghanistan?
The second question is a high level American official stated about the growing cooperation between America and Tajikistan, and not in the humanitarian sphere but in the economic development. If that’s true, are there any real projects and programs that the United States are going to implement in this economic sphere?
And in terms of this spirit of growing cooperation, are you going to build a new bridge over the Pyanj River?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all with respect to the question about American troops in Afghanistan. As many of you know, the United States has almost tripled the number of American troops that are on the ground in Afghanistan. We have approximately 100,000 American troops that are there now. And our President has announced that beginning in the summer of 2011 we will begin to draw down the number of our troops in Afghanistan. But he and General Petraeus have also been very clear that the pace and the scope of the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan will depend very much on conditions on the ground. For example, it will depend on the success of ISAF in training the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can assume responsibility for security. Afghan forces already have responsibility in some areas of Afghanistan for security. And we’re hoping to transition to allow them greater responsibility as well over the coming year. So no final decisions have been made about how long American troops will be in there.
President Obama will be conducting a very comprehensive review of our policies in Afghanistan in December, and I think we should all wait and see the outcome of that review.
With respect to your question about economic assistance, the United States has a very large assistance program here in Tajikistan because of the priority that we attach to Tajikistan’s development. The total budget that we have allocated for this year, for FY2010 is approximately $65 million. As part of that we have important development programs in areas such as health, education and agriculture.
In agriculture, which is a very important part of the Tajik economy we are assisting with programs such as helping farmers to diversify the crops that they grow. We’re also helping to rehabilitate the irrigation system here in order to improve the productivity of agriculture, and we’re also helping with food processing. I think these are all very concrete areas that we hope will benefit the people of Tajikistan.
Sorry, I forgot to answer your question about the bridge. We don’t presently have plans to build another bridge, but I must say that we’re very encouraged by the increased Tajikistan’s trade that has resulted from the bridge over Nizhnyi Pyanj. Since the bridge opened in 2007 trade has increased three-fold, three times during that period between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It also I think has benefited the region of both countries by cutting the distance between Dushanbe and seaports almost in half, which again I think helps to improve the competitiveness of Tajikistan products and exports.
QUESTION: I am Professor [inaudible]. Last year I got Fulbright Fellowship and spent a year in research [inaudible]. I appreciate your presentation here.
My question is about energy project of Tajikistan. You very well know that Russia has [inaudible] participate and actually realize this intention, and also Iran has the same intention to take part in Tajikistan’s energy project. Does the U.S. administration have any intention, any plan to take part of any construction [inaudible]? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. I would answer that question just by saying that we haven’t made any decisions on that important matter, but we are very well aware of the great importance of hydroelectricity exports for the economy of Tajikistan and we will evaluate what we might be able to do once the feasibility studies, particularly on the CASA-1000 project are completed. We want to help diversify Tajikistan’s economy and provide new sources of income so that it does not rely so much on remittances as it does now. And to provide a more solid base for sustainable growth in the future.
I would also point out that the most likely financing for many of these projects comes from the multilateral development banks, the Asian Development Bank and others, and of course the United States is the largest shareholder and largest donor of those banks. So in any case, we’ll be providing a very substantial portion of the financing, but whether we also provide bilateral financing will I think be evaluated once we see the results of these feasibility studies.
I’m sorry, I have to run off to another event so I’m going to have to stop here, but I want to take the opportunity to thank all of you for coming and tell you how much I value the opportunity to interact with all of you. I hope I can come back to Dushanbe in the very near future. Thank you.
QUESTION: [Through Interpreter] A very short question. A question from a [inaudible] correspondent.
She asks that some time ago the U.S. Ambassador announced the beginning of the construction of the National Training Center in the west of the country. Are there any plans about the date of the construction, beginning of the construction? Any specific information about it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t really have much more to add to what our Ambassador’s already said, but the United States remains committed to that project which we see as a very important way to increase counter-narcotics training for the services here in Tajikistan. And let me just say we value very much the cooperation that we have with the government of Tajikistan on this important matter.
Thank you all very much.