Good afternoon. First let me apologize for being a few minutes late and keeping you waiting. I'm delighted to be back here in Ashgabat for what is now my third visit to Turkmenistan. I’m here with a delegation of senior officials from Washington. They represent not only the State Department, but the White House and the Department of Energy. In addition there is a delegation of American businesspeople who are here this week under the auspices of the U.S.-Turkmenistan Business Council.
Today I had very productive and constructive talks with Foreign Minister Meredov as part of a mid-year review of the Annual Bilateral Consultations that we began last June in Ashgabat. This joint effort is a process to systematically discuss the full range of issues on our bilateral agenda and identify specific and practical areas to make progress.
We discussed our common interests in the stability of Afghanistan and what more both of us can do contribute to progress there. In particular, I welcomed the leadership of President Berdimuhamdov in advancing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project. This project, if realized, would benefit not only Turkmenistan but would provide a new source of revenue and jobs for Afghanistan at a critical time and would link neighbors together in economic growth and prosperity.
We talked about opportunities for further cooperation in the areas of commercial and energy development, including efforts to expand U.S. trade and investment here in Turkmenistan and to support economic development here.
We talked about joint efforts to combat the spread of narcotics and terrorism.
We talked about cooperation in humanitarian affairs including educational and cultural ties as well as human rights.
In closing I want to thank the Government of Turkmenistan for a very productive day of consultations and thank them and the people of Turkmenistan for their warm hospitality. And with that I’d be glad to take your questions.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
QUESTION: So you mentioned in your remarks that you had a discussion on the area of human rights. Could you please tell us what was the Turkmen Government’s reaction to this actual topic nowadays in Turkmenistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well I would say we had a very good and frank discussion about human rights. We did speak about the problems that journalists from RFE/RL, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, are experiencing here in Turkmenistan. And I expressed our hope that those restrictions can be removed so that they and other independent journalists can operate freely here in Turkmenistan.
QUESTION: You mentioned that one of the main topics was the TAPI project in your meeting with the Minister Meredov. Could you please tell what is the interest of the United States in supporting the
project compared to the Nabucco project? Is there a conflict of interests? If the project is realized, what is Turkmenistan’s position on U.S. businesses, companies participating in the construction of the TAPI project?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, in general the United States supports the diversification of export routes for Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbons, but I wouldn’t try to draw a link between Nabucco and TAPI. The United States would very much welcome a decision by Turkmenistan to provide gas to the Nabucco project. Likewise we have welcomed the leadership that President Berdimuhamedov has demonstrated to advance the TAPI pipeline project. As I said in my opening remarks, we think that this project would not only benefit Turkmenistan but would have very important benefits for Afghanistan and would serve all of our larger interests in promoting greater regional integration between Central Asia and South Asia.
QUESTION: Will American companies take part in building the TAPI project?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, those discussions are still underway. We’re still in very early stage in the process. I’ll just leave it at that.
QUESTION: I’d like to follow up and ask a question related to the TAPI project and the issue of security in Afghanistan. Because the Afghan security stands to be an issue at this point, would that somehow have an effect on the security of the pipeline and would that lead for the American troops to stay longer to protect the security of the pipeline as well in Afghanistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well there are two separate questions here. First of all with respect to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, as you know NATO leaders at the NATO Summit last year in Lisbon agreed with President Karzai and his government on a plan for transition under which by the end of 2014 we hope that Afghan forces will be in a position to take over responsibilities for security throughout Afghanistan. Security is one of the several issues that remain to be discussed as talks go forward on the TAPI project. I know an equally important one is how to arrange commercial financing for such a project. So again these are on the table now. We think that good progress has been made, but certainly many difficult issues remain to be solved and the United States is committed to doing what we can to encourage this project and to facilitate discussions with our own companies and perhaps others to help this project to come to fruition.
QUESTION: I’d like to address to you a question regarding the issue of refueling American airplanes in Turkmenistan. As we are aware, there have been several difficult raised with the Manas airbase? How is the United States considering Turkmenistan to become a centralized place for refueling and assisting coalition efforts in Afghanistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well first of all I wouldn’t say that there are difficulties in Manas now. We are very pleased that the government in Kyrgyzstan has reaffirmed its support for the continued operation of the Manas transit center. As you say we are working through negotiations now on fuel arrangements for the transit center. But I think those are proceeding in a satisfactory manner and we look to conclude those as soon as possible. So it doesn’t really have an effect on Turkmenistan in that respect.
QUESTION: So just to follow up, have you raised any issues about supporting refueling, providing landing space for the cargo planes in Turkmenistan? Have you raised any subject like that?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Let me just say that we are very pleased with the support that we have received from the Government of Turkmenistan. The government of Turkmenistan as you know maintains a policy of positive neutrality and has been very helpful in the provision of electricity, in the provision of schools and hospitals for Afghanistan, and now most recently in its proposal to advance the TAPI pipeline. So all of these are very welcome initiatives. I think we’ll have time for one more question.
QUESTION: Do you consider perhaps the events happening in Central Asian countries, that we’ve recently seen in Egypt and Arabic countries and Tunis, and other related countries, do you see…
Assistant Secretary Blake: What are the implications you mean?
QUESTION: That that kind of thing could happen here in Central Asia?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, I think it’s always difficult to try to make comparisons between one region and another. But I do think that it’s important for leaders in relatively closed societies to heed the lessons, to listen to the lessons of what’s happened in Tunisia and in Egypt. And specifically I think it is very important for leaders to provide more economic and political space to respond to the aspirations of their young people and to address their concerns, so again I think it points again to the importance of a civil society and to a free media and other such mechanisms to allow youth to express themselves and it points to the importance of a free market economy so that it can create jobs for young people and allow them to achieve their dreams, and again it just points to the importance of all governments being responsive to the needs of their citizens.
Let me conclude by thanking you all for coming. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet with you and hear from you and I want to assure you that we continue to support the importance of a free press not only here in Turkmenistan but around the world, and that will continue to be an important part of our agenda here in Turkmenistan. Thank you very much.