I’d like to welcome everybody here to our briefing today, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce Robert Blake, Jr., a career diplomat and current Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. He’s a Foreign Service officer and has served in the American embassies in Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria, and Egypt. He has also held a number of positions in the State Department in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. from Harvard University and an M.A. from the International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Without further ado, let me bring up Assistant Secretary Bob Blake. Thank you. ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Thank you very much, Mark, and I must say it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve had a chance to do a lot of Foreign Press Center briefings down in Washington, but never up here, and I’m very impressed with the new facilities here and I congratulate you, Mark. You must be very happy. I want to thank you all for coming out today. This is a briefing we actually tried to arrange last week, and for various reasons, were not able to do that. So again, I thank you for coming.
As you know, the United States has been very actively engaged in Central Asia. I have been a very frequent flier to the region this summer with visits to each of the five Central Asian countries. And this week, American officials are meeting with their Central Asian counterparts, really at all levels, but particularly including an important meeting that President Obama will have with Kyrgyz President Otunbayeva on Friday.
Today, I’d like to speak to you about U.S. policy in Central Asia in general, about our efforts in Kyrgyzstan, and our cooperation with Russia in the region. When I started as Assistant Secretary about 15 months ago, we determined that we really had a good opportunity to expand America’s engagement with Central Asia, with a view to making progress on the full range of priorities on our bilateral agenda, from counterterrorism to religious freedom, to energy, human rights, and trade.
Over the past year, we have held annual bilateral consultations with four of the five Central Asian countries, the fifth being Kyrgyzstan. And they’ve provided a good mechanism to engage constructively on some of the most difficult issues that we face. After holding several midyear reviews over the summer, we now look forward to embarking on the second round of these ABCs this coming winter. And again, the ABC process acknowledges the important role that each Central Asian country plays in the crossroads between Asia and Europe.
Our ability to engage these Central Asian countries has partly been facilitated by the improved cooperation with Russia since President Obama and Secretary Clinton reset U.S. relations with Russia last year. During my recent visit to Russia, I had very good discussions with Deputy Foreign Minister Karasin and with many other colleagues in the Russian Foreign Ministry. Among other issues, we discussed international coordination in Kyrgyzstan. And from our standpoint, we’ve been very pleased with the recent progress and cooperation that we’ve had with the Government of Russia, particularly on Kyrgyzstan, which has been a very high priority for both of our governments.
We see that the cooperation that we’ve had at all levels of our government, from our two presidents to people at my level, to our embassies, has really been quite extraordinary. And we want to not only build on that progress with respect to our relations in Kyrgyzstan, but also to look at other ways that the United States and Russia can cooperate in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, the United States has several priorities at the moment. First, the United States is focused on helping the Government of Kyrgyzstan to prepare for the October 10th
parliamentary elections. We see these as a very significant opportunity to establish the very first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia. Twenty-nine parties are contesting 120 seats in the new Kyrgyz parliament. The United States has allocated $5 million to help Kyrgyzstan organize what we hope will be free and fair elections held in a peaceful manner that will allow for wide participation by all of the Kyrgyz people.
Second, we want to help the government respond to the humanitarian needs of all those who were displaced by the June violence and provide shelter and help, mostly to the ethnic Uzbeks whose homes were destroyed in Osh and Jalalabad, so that these homes can be rebuilt before the onset of winter.
We also attach a great deal of importance to improving the security situation in Kyrgyzstan, and we have supported the OSCE’s plan to deploy a police advisory group, which we think provides a very valuable opportunity to both train and mentor some of the police forces in Kyrgyzstan. The police advisory group also can bring a measure of reassurance to the ethnic Uzbeks who still live in some fear as the people who are responsible for the June violence have not been identified or brought to justice.
That’s also why we support efforts both for a domestic and international investigation into the causes of the violence so that those people may be brought to justice, and we support efforts to form a commission of investigation, an international commission, and discussions are now underway with the government on how to proceed with that very important endeavor.
So let me stop there with my opening comments, and I’d be glad to take any questions on any of those subjects. Thank you again for coming.MODERATOR:
And before we start, when you ask your questions, please identify yourself and your news organization. Thank you. ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Andy Quinn from Reuters. On the Kyrgyz elections, I’m wondering if you can tell us what the U.S. assessment is of how likely they are to be free and fair, what needs to be done. Is this a done deal already or are they facing some problems? And what is going to be the message from President Obama to President Otunbayeva on Friday? Why are they meeting? What’s that all about?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Well, let me take the second one first, and that is that I think President Obama wants to meet with President Otunbayeva first to show support to the Kyrgyz people and to the Kyrgyz Government, who have been through a lot in the last six months or so, and again, to reaffirm the important opportunity that now exists for the Kyrgyz people to establish the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia. So I think that the President looks forward to a very full discussion on all of those issues when he sees the president.
With respect to your second question about free and fair elections, an intensive amount of work is now being done in Bishkek and elsewhere by the United States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and many, many other organizations, including many nongovernmental organizations, to help Kyrgyzstan prepare for these elections. As I said earlier, the United States has provided $5 million in assistance for this to complement much of the assistance that many of the other organizations have been providing. And that’s going to be for things like helping to build up the election commission there, to help provide for observers, to help civil society to organize for this, and countless other technical preparations that need to be made.
And I think the assessment from our team on the ground is that preparations are going well for those elections. But all of that work needs to continue. I think President Otunbayeva and her team also are very focused on ensuring free and fair elections, providing appropriate security so that people from all regions of the country will feel safe and not intimidated so that they can exercise their right to vote. So this will be just a very, very high priority for all of us in the next month. And again, we hope for a very positive outcome.
Peter Fedynsky, Voice of America. After the unrest in April in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. ambassador to that country was accused by some of supposedly turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan for pragmatic reasons, among them the Manas transit center. And I believe it was David Kramer who wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post
over the weekend alleging that the Obama Administration is also sort of selling principles short for the sake of pragmatism.
Are there any considerations as the State Department balances pragmatism with principle in terms of human rights, and do you think that the American accent on human rights has changed since its heyday in the Carter Administration?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
I don’t think there’s any basis to the charge that the Obama Administration has relegated human rights to a secondary level of importance. We have made a point of working with all of our friends in Central Asia on these annual bilateral consultations and we have consistently stressed that we need to see progress across the board on the full range of issues on our important agenda. And that’s not just with respect to things like cooperation on Afghanistan, cooperation on border security, and improving trade and investment, but particularly on human rights, where, frankly, there are – there’s great room for improvement still in most of Central Asia. And so this has been a very important part of our dialogue and I think that if you speak to the ministers and others with whom I deal with and with whom my colleagues at the NSC deal, they will tell you that this is a very consistent and important part of every conversation that we have with every Central Asian official.
We have an important – in addition to these elections that are coming up in Kyrgyzstan, we have a very important summit, OSCE summit, that Kazakhstan will be hosting in early December. And there too, there will be an important civil society component to that to, again, underline the importance that we and other – both the Central Asians and we attach to progress in this area.
(Inaudible) ITAR-TASS. Would you please say to what extent the recent Islamist attacks in Tajikistan could negatively influence American-Russian cooperation on supply routes to Afghanistan? Does it have any negative potential in this regard?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
So far, it has had no impact whatsoever on the northern distribution network, as we broadly define the network of routes that come down through Central Asia to help supply our troops in Afghanistan. But it’s certainly something that we watch very, very closely, and it’s one of the reasons that we have important efforts underway with most of the Central Asian countries to improve border security and to, again, make sure that we have good efforts underway to cooperate on things like counternarcotics and counterterrorism, because this is something that we need to pay close attention to. It’s possible that because of their support for the northern distribution networks, many of these countries could face retribution from some of the groups that are based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it’s very important that we, again, work closely with these countries and with Russia to help them face this threat.QUESTION:
I’m Matt Lee with AP. I’m over here. (Laughter.)ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Oh, sorry. I’m looking to monitors.QUESTION:
Can you just say what is the status of Manas right now, and is that going to be – is that going to figure largely in the President’s conversation with the president?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
I don’t expect Manas to be a significant part of the conversation for the President. I think the President is going to focus mostly on, again, the democratic possibilities that are now before us in Kyrgyzstan. And that’s certainly our highest priority there.
As far as your question on Manas itself, the transit center remains open and the current government is supportive. We will have to see after the elections. There will be a new government in place. And when and if they would like to discuss this further, we’re certainly open to those – to that conversation. But for now, we’re very pleased with the cooperation that we have.
Hi, Lachlan Carmichael from AFP. ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Hi. Yeah, I just wanted to ask you if the – if there’s any risk that the elections would not go ahead. Do you see any scenarios in which they might be canceled? And then on human rights, you’ve said – ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Let me answer that question first. I think President Otunbayeva has spoken about that and said that if there were, for example, significant outbreaks of violence, that she reserves the right to postpone the elections. I must say I have not seen any signs of that to date. On the contrary, I think that almost all of the parties recognize that this is a significant opportunity for them, so there is really quite an energetic campaign underway since the campaign opened on September 10th
. And it, again, reflects, I think, that they all see this as a significant opportunity for them to, if not lead the new government, at least have a share in a coalition government. So for now, I think that’s had a very salutary effect on discouraging any violence.QUESTION:
And just a point on the human rights. You say it’s not been relegated by the Obama Administration.ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
What about the case of Azimzhan Askarov? Human Rights Watch said that his conviction should be thrown out. I mean, do you agree with them?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Well, yes. We have expressed our concerns to the Government of Kyrgyzstan about the Askarov case. We had concerns, first, about due process and how the case was handled. We also felt that where the trial actually took place led to a certain amount of intimidation. We also want to be sure that it’s not simply ethnic Uzbeks who are prosecuted for whatever violence took place and that there is balance in these proceedings and that all those who may have been responsible for the violence are brought to justice. Again, that underlines the importance of this commission of inquiry that I talked about earlier.
In terms of how to go forward, we think that there will be an appeals process and we’ve urged that this be free and fair and that the government, particularly President Otunbayeva’s team, pay particular attention to this case so that this really can be a free and fair appeals process and can be conducted in an atmosphere without intimidation. QUESTION:
(Inaudible) With Turkey resetting its attention from Europe to Asia – east, north, whatever – do you see any kind of future interaction if Turkey becomes involved in Central Asia?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Well, Turkey already is, as you know, heavily involved in Afghanistan. I think it’s been a very valuable partner in that regard. And Ambassador Holbrooke very much values the good interaction and cooperation that Turkey has provided in that regard.
We haven’t had as much contact as – from the United States perspective about their role in Central Asia, but I know that Turkey just hosted a number of the Central Asian leaders in Turkey, and so they certainly value the role that Turkey has to play. And we respect that. We believe that Turkey and many, many other countries have a very important role to play in helping to stabilize the region and provide assistance and provide trade and investment. And so we welcome that, that role by Turkey.
Just one more. It’s slightly off your current topic – ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
-- but I think it’s one that’s close to your heart, which is Sri Lanka. I know the Department put out a statement a couple weeks ago which was quite critical of the 16th
amendment?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
amendment that was put through. I’m wondering what – and also asking for sort of demonstrable actions on the part of the Sri Lankan Government to show that they’re still committed to democracy and so on. I’m just wondering what the follow-on has been on that. How would you characterize U.S.-Sri Lankan relations? Are we – is there anything that we can do to promote what you hope to see as far as their political process? And what’s the current state of play with the – on the U.S. position regarding the UN investigative commission? ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Let me see if I can remember all those questions. But in terms of the 18th
amendment, we have had follow-on discussions both in Colombo but also here. I met at – had an opportunity to meet with the foreign minister earlier this week. And the point I made was that it’s very important now for the government to get on with the process of reconciliation and devolution of power to help to ensure that the Tamils in the north, particularly those recent IDPs who have been recently resettled, feel like they have a hope of – a future of hope and a future of opportunity. And the president now has an extraordinary majority, has a two-thirds majority of parliament, and is now embarked on a second term. So he really has an unparalleled opportunity, in our view, to now bring the country together and take these important steps. So we hope that he will make that a priority. And indeed, I think the foreign minister assured me that they do intend to make that a priority. So, again, we’ll be following that very, very closely.
What was your second question? I’m sorry.QUESTION:
I mean, just maybe clarifying your point on the statement that (inaudible) what – how can we move forward under that (inaudible)?ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Well, I think they are a democracy, but the statement referred to the various independent commissions and the process for appointing members to that commission. And for those of you who follow Sri Lankan politics somewhat closely, there’s been a long standoff for many, many years under which, because of the failure of the government to implement the 17th
amendment, the previous amendment, which had provided for a constitutional council that would have appointed the members of these independent commissions, there was never an agreement on how that council would be constituted and who would be the membership of that council. And so in that vacuum, the president went ahead and made appointments. And the commissions in that case really didn’t exercise much of an independent role because they were really beholden to the president.
So our point was that it’s important now that independent members be appointed to these commissions so that they really can act and exercise an independent role, as they do in all democracies. And so I think that’s the point we were trying to make with our friends, and I think they understand that.
Other questions? (No response.) I’ve completely overwhelmed you with facts. QUESTION:
Thank you.ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:
Well, thank you again. And we’re always open to more interactions with you down in Washington whenever you – whenever there’s a need and an interest. Thanks again for your (inaudible).