AMBASSADOR GROSS: Good afternoon everybody, and thank you very much for coming here this afternoon. We realize it’s a beautiful day and it’s hard to get you away from other things, but we have a special guest here today. Assistant Secretary Robert Blake has been here along with a delegation for the last two days to talk to our counterparts in the Tajik government.
Assistant Secretary Blake is in charge of our bureau that covers South and Central Asia. He’s here, as I said, for talks with the Tajik government. Now I’ll turn the podium over to him. He’ll tell you a little bit about our visit and be glad to take your questions.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be back here in Dushanbe since my last visit in August. As Ambassador Gross said, I’m here in Tajikistan to lead the U.S. delegation for the 2nd Annual Bilateral Consultations. We started these consultations to discuss the broad range of issues on our bilateral agenda, and to discuss practical ways to work together towards a lasting partnership.
I led an interagency delegation that included representatives from the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. I want to thank President Rahmon, Foreign Minister Zarifi, and their government colleagues for their hospitality and for their constructive engagement. The United States attaches great importance to our relations with Tajikistan. Our discussions touched on a wide range of areas.
We discussed our cooperation in securing Tajikistan’s borders and fighting violent extremists as well as Tajikistan’s assistance in the stabilization of Afghanistan. I outlined steps that the Tajik government could take to attract U.S. business, including simplifying the tax code and reducing corruption. I brought up the importance of religious freedom, media freedom, and our support for a multi-party system including Central Asia’s only legal Islamic party, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan. I expressed appreciation for the government’s significant efforts to combat trafficking in persons, and we discussed how United States assistance can shore up food security and health in Tajikistan.
In addition to the government meetings I met with energetic young Tajiks who have participated in several of our exchange programs. I met today with members of the American Chamber of Commerce, most of whom are Tajik businesses. We discussed how Tajikistan can attract more investment from U.S. firms. I also met with representatives from Tajikistan’s political parties including the Islamic Revival Party. We noted the upcoming May 15th special election and the importance of improving the polling process along the lines of the recommendations from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Finally, just before this press conference I had the opportunity to have a roundtable with several media editors. I told them that the United States would continue to urge the government to protect media freedom.
I would like to conclude by reiterating what President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said concerning the burning of the Holy Quran a few weeks ago in Florida. The desecration of any holy text is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry and we reject religious intolerance in any form.
In conclusion, the United States seeks a peaceful, free and prosperous future for Tajikistan and its people, and we continue to assist in that effort. I’d be happy to take a few questions.
QUESTION: Mr. Blake, this is your first visit to Tajikistan after recent developments in Northern Africa. Among the reasons of development were first a very long term of office of one and the same person, a single person in power. The second, a lack, the absence of democracy. And your latest human rights report that has been published confirms, the human rights report that has been published recently confirms these facts. Have you discussed this issue at your meeting with the President? And are there any chances that such events may occur in Central Asian republics? And what would be the consequences if they happen here in Central Asia?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The lesson of the events that have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere is that governments need to be responsive to the needs and the desires of their people. People everywhere want to be able to provide for their families and to ensure that their families have proper education, proper livelihoods, and people everywhere want to have basic democratic freedoms. I think that leaders everywhere, not just here in Tajikistan, need to be mindful of those lessons and do everything that they can to respond to the needs and the desires of their people.
QUESTION: How do you think, how do you assess the situation with the protection of democratic rights here in Tajikistan? And particularly what would you say about the case of journalist who was attacked?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Our most recent human rights report for Tajikistan has documented a decline in democratic freedoms here in Tajikistan. As I said earlier, it’s important that Tajikistan and all other governments provide political space for parties to operate freely, for the media to operate freely, and for people to be able to peacefully worship.
With respect to the assault on Mr. Sayfullozoda, our embassy here issued a statement expressing the United States government’s concern about that.
QUESTION: Recently [inaudible] President demanded withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan after they wound the village where he was born. As we know, President Obama promised withdrawal of all coalition forces from Afghanistan this year. What can you say about this statement of [inaudible] President? And when do you think the withdrawal of forces will start in Afghanistan?
The second question is, to what extent the political and economic situation in Afghanistan is dangerous to Central Asia and Tajikistan included?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all let me clarify one part of your question which was incorrect. President Obama did not say that we will withdraw all troops this year. He said we would begin the withdrawal of troops. The United States, like all of the NATO Alliance, remains committed to the transition process that was agreed to at the NATO Summit in Lisbon last fall.
Our intention is to train the Afghan National Security Forces so they can gradually assume control for the security of Afghanistan. Our goal is to complete that process by the end of 2015. But even after that we will remain committed to the security and prosperity of Afghanistan.
With respect to your second question, we think that the security and economic trends in Afghanistan are slowly moving in the right direction but are still fragile and could be reversed. That’s why we attach great importance to the help that Tajikistan and other Central Asian nations are providing to assist with the stabilization effort in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: As far as I know several groups have appeared in Afghanistan [inaudible], one of them is the movement for protection of the Quran. The second is higher council [inaudible]. What would be your assessment? Will they create a danger or any destabilization?
You mentioned about attack on United Nations officials in Afghanistan. Don’t you think that such attacks will turn into a tendency?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, I’m not familiar with the groups that you mentioned so I can’t really comment on those.
As I said earlier, it is the assessment of the United States and of General Petraeus that we are making slow progress on the security front in Afghanistan, and it’s very important that the Afghan people themselves believe that progress is being made. Six out of ten Afghans in recent polls have said that the country is moving in the right direction; and six out of ten Afghans also support the presence of international troops in Afghanistan to help the security situation.
I understand that I’m out of time, so I’m afraid that has to be the last question, but again I want to thank you all for coming and I look forward to seeing you the next time.
# # # #