Duane Butcher, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It’s my distinct pleasure this afternoon to welcome you to the United States Embassy and to our conversation with the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Mr. Robert Blake.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure for me to be back here in Tashkent.
I’m leading the U.S. delegation to our second Annual Bilateral Consultations with the Government of Uzbekistan. My visit to Uzbekistan reflects the U.S. determination to strengthen ties with Uzbekistan across the full range of issues on our bilateral agenda.
Over the past two days, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to meet with a number of people here in Tashkent. These included First Deputy Foreign Minister Kamilov, many other government officials, civil society representatives, and business leaders.
In our meetings with government officials we discussed ways that the United States and Uzbekistan can strengthen our ties across a wide range of areas. These include security cooperation, trade and development, science and technology, counter-narcotics, civil society development, and human rights.
I noted that the Unites States highly values Uzbekistan’s support for international efforts in Afghanistan, including allowing the transit of non-lethal supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan, the provision of electricity to Afghanistan, and the construction of a railway line from Hairaton to Mazar-e Sharif.
I was delighted that the American Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce was able to organize the visit of a delegation of ten top American businesses as part of this year’s consultations. I was pleased to take part in the Uzbek-American Business Forum this morning during which our two sides discussed ways to strengthen U.S. trade and investment ties with Uzbekistan.
After this press conference I will have the opportunity to meet with civil society representatives. The protection of human rights and the development of civil society are key priorities of the United States in our bilateral engagements worldwide.
I also look forward to meeting with a group of young Uzbeks later this afternoon as part of our Embassy’s efforts and regular series of what they call Chai Chats with young Uzbeks.
And with that I would be glad to take a few questions.
Question: After the events in Kyrgyzstan there was some menace against the Uzbek population in Kyrgyzstan. When they held these trials, people were upset with these trials. They turned everything upside-down and now they are accusing the Uzbek population in Kyrgyzstan. So the question is what do you think about this - what is your opinion?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States has followed the trials that are taking place in Kyrgyzstan very closely. We have expressed our concerns that some of the trials have taken place in an atmosphere of intimidation. That means that the trials have not been up to international standards. We believe that accountability will be a very important part of the reconciliation that must take place between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Kyrgyzstan.
Question: You said a couple of words about U.S. and Uzbek cooperation in relation to Afghanistan. So the question is - in Uzbekistan there is an opinion that it is not possible to resolve the situation in Afghanistan with just the armed forces. What do you think about this? What’s your personal opinion about this? And the second part of the question is - how long will there be coalition forces in Afghanistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States has always said that we believe that there will have to be a political solution to the current conflict in Afghanistan. With respect to your question about the troops - at the NATO summit last November in Lisbon our NATO partners and the Government of Afghanistan committed to a plan of transition whereby Afghan National Security Forces will gradually assume responsibility for the security of Afghanistan, and NATO forces will transition to the point that by the end of 2014 we hope that the Afghan troops will be able to assume full control for the security of Afghanistan.
Question: Are you looking at the possibility of transporting military supplies through Uzbekistan?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The supplies that are transiting through Uzbek territory are all non-lethal supplies. Once again I would like to express the appreciation of the United States for the Government of Uzbekistan’s support in this regard.
Question: You mentioned that you participated in the ABCs this year. Can you please tell us in a nutshell - what are the main conclusions, what are the main results of this round of consultations?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The main purpose of the consultations that we have each year with Uzbekistan and with other Central Asian countries is to develop specific ideas and practical suggestions on ways that we can broaden and deepen our cooperation. Our talks with Uzbekistan were conducted in a very constructive and friendly atmosphere in which we agreed on a very detailed program of follow-up that will constitute our plan of action for the coming year. We will be expanding cooperation in each of the areas of our bilateral interests from security cooperation to economic strengthening, and from the development of science and technology cooperation to the development of human rights cooperation.
Question: What is the opinion of the U.S. government on this natural gas transportation project – the so-called TAPI project which includes Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States very much welcomes the progress that has been made under President Berdimuhamedov’s leadership to advance the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. The inter-governmental agreement that was signed last December in Ashgabat marks an important step forward for that project.
I was pleased to be able to have the opportunity to discuss with President Berdimuhamedov two days ago ways that the United States can support that project as it moves forward. If the project is realized we believe that it would represent a very important step forward in integrating the Central Asian region with the South Asian region.
Question: What can you say about the Northern Distribution Network? And do you have any statistics on how many containers, how many tons of cargo have moved through Uzbekistan? And another question is - how much is the government of Uzbekistan paid for the transit of one container?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I’m afraid this is a bit too detailed for a non-specialist like me. I suggest you contact the Central Command. They might be able to provide some of that information. But I’m flattered that you think I might know that.
Question: You mentioned that human rights issues were on the agenda of this year’s ABCs. I would like to get more specific information. What did the U.S. delegation ask? What did the Government of Uzbekistan answer? And was the issue of imprisonment of journalists and media activists discussed?
Assistant Secretary Blake: We don’t get into the details of our diplomatic discussions with any of our friends. But let me just say that we had a very wide-ranging, detailed discussion on human rights matters. In particular we discussed President Karimov’s November 12 speech, in which he expressed his desire to strengthen civil society, the media, and the rule of law here in Uzbekistan.
We also discussed important issues such as religious freedom and trafficking in persons. And the United States expressed our willingness to offer technical assistance in many of these areas, and we will explore these possibilities in the coming months.
Question: What is your personal opinion of so-called people’s diplomacy? Did you talk about this in your consultations?
Assistant Secretary Blake: If what you’re referring to is people-to-people diplomacy we think that it is one of the most important parts of diplomacy, and it underlies the strengthening of ties with countries everywhere. We attach a great deal of importance to expanding our educational ties and our exchanges and our dialogue, particularly with Uzbekistan’s young people.
Thank you all so much for coming. I look forward to seeing you again the next time I visit Uzbekistan.