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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

SAIS CACI: Q&A Session

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
January 25, 2012


Question: Thank you very much for that great presentation. In particular I thought your last statement which wasn’t in your notes, but maybe was, on this great grand vision of Central Asia in Eurasia among the polls I think is absolutely right on.

My question is this, the vision I feel is very appropriate and helpful. My question though, the resources that you have at your disposal to implement the vision, are they adequate to actually achieve what you’re setting out? Particularly if you compare your resources with those of some of the neighbors, whether it’s China with its big financial investments, Russia with its trade and financial investments, Iran with its investments, particularly in Tajikistan and other places, and so on. So my question is on resources. What are the resources that you can bring to bear, and are they commensurate to implement the vision? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think I’d answer that in several ways. First of all, I would start by saying that a lot of the linkages that I talked about are already underway and the countries of the region have already started many of these. I mentioned the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. That was an initiative undertaken by President Berdimuhamedov but with the strong support of the three other countries. The Energy Ministers of both Pakistan and India yesterday again reaffirmed their intention to make forward progress on this. And there are countless other examples of how particularly the border states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are taking concrete measures on their own, without international financing, to get a lot of this stuff done.

The second point I would make is there are a number of other projects on the table now that would make a great deal of difference. One good example of that would be the CASA-1000 Electricity Transmission Project which would link Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and provide surplus power particularly from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the energy-hungry economies of Afghanistan and Pakistan and potentially India in the future as well. That’s going to be a very expensive project. That’s a $900 million project. But importantly, $500 million of that has already been pledged.

It shows that there’s quite a lot of active interest there. I think there are important opportunities for private sector involvement in many of these projects. I want to stress that this is not something we are undertaking ourselves. What we’re going to try to do is first identify what are the kind of key projects that would have an immediate impact, both on Afghanistan and on Central Asia and potentially South Asia, and try to really focus on those and make sure that every single one of those has attracted the proper financing. If it hasn’t, then to work with all of our partners in the region, but also all the multilateral development banks, the ADB, the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, the Aga Khan Development Network. There are many many others. Again, think about private sector opportunities as well. Then of course look further afield to partners like the Japanese, the EU and others. I think there’s a great willingness and a great understanding of the importance of this region and the importance of maintaining stability, particularly after the transition in Afghanistan in 2014.

The other point I would make is in all of our interactions with our partners in ISAF, in the International Security Assistance Force, we’ve talked a lot about how as countries draw down their military forces in Afghanistan, there’s going to be what we call a transition dividend. They’re going to have more resources that are saved from military expenditures they would have otherwise had to make. So we’re encouraging all of them to reinvest a portion of that back into Afghanistan and potentially into Central Asia to help with some of these projects.

Again, the United States has done a tremendous amount of work inside Afghanistan. We have invested a lot of our own treasure and blood to help develop some of the big infrastructure projects inside Afghanistan. But it’s also now time I think to look further afield at all these other networks that I’ve talked about in my speech.


Question: If I can follow-up Johannes Lynn’s question about TAPI, Juan Miranda of the Asia Development Bank from this podium in September said basically it’s not going to be built unless the U.S. really gets in behind it. So it’s not a matter, in his view, and I’ve heard the same thing in Ashgabat, of our encouraging others to step up, but concretely what is the United States prepared to do to make TAPI happen? And is this a strategic priority or is it just an economic possibility?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think it’s a strategic priority and we’d like to see it go forward. Again, I come back to what I said earlier. I think India has a huge interest in seeing this project proceed and has given its strong backing to this. The main challenge now is to, I think, find an international oil company that’s going to be willing to kind of take this project on and be its champion. To do that, of course they’re going to have to undertake a certain amount of risk, particularly in building a pipeline across Afghanistan and Pakistan. So they have to have some benefits of their own. That’s why there’s now a lot of conversations with the Turkmen in particular about how to structure that so that they’re also going to derive benefits.

Question: In the case of the BTC pipeline the U.S. handled the risk issue. Is the U.S. prepared to do the same for this?

Assistant Secretary Blake: It may come to that. We’re still in a relatively preliminary stage here and it may be that we might have to do that, but so far there hasn’t been such a request and we’ve wanted to let the countries in particular continue to be in the lead on this. So we’ll see. But again, I think India has got a very strong interest in particular and it’s going to be the country that’s going to be the key market for this gas, so we look to them in particular for their cues in addition to the Turkmen themselves.

Question: Katya Ratova, I’m from the Cohen Group. I would like to ask your thoughts on the progress of the NDN today as well as plans for the future.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think we’ve made tremendous progress over the last several years on the Northern Distribution Network. I think a lot of that has been because of the improved trust and confidence between us and all of our partners along the NDN. But it’s also because they see it as in their own interest to do. They have a great interest in the stabilization of Afghanistan and they very much want to see the transition that is now underway succeed, both the security transition that’s underway, but also the economic transition that’s underway that I talked about; from an aid-based economy in Afghanistan to a trade-based economy and one that’s going to provide jobs for young Afghans and opportunities for young Afghans. That’s why you see the Turkmen announcing that they’re going to quintuple their electricity exports. That’s not from any urging from us. This is something they are doing spontaneously because they see that it is in their own interest. That’s why you see the Uzbeks developing rail links and working very closely with the ADB to extend the rail link all the way to Mazar-e-Sharif so there is in fact this linkage now. That’s why you see the Tajiks doing a lot of very similar projects on their own. Of course they have fewer resources than the other countries, but still I think it’s very, very important to note that all of these countries are taking their own initiatives to help Afghanistan and I think that shows both the importance that they attach to helping Afghanistan see itself through this process, but also the importance that they see in establishing these regional linkages.

Again, if you’re a Tajikistan or an Uzbekistan, if you’re a land-locked country, you’re looking for how are you going to export? Many of them right now have to export back through the Baltics to get their exports out. It’s a very attractive option if the railroad and other networks can be developed south through Pakistan or India to dramatically cut the times for which their exports have to get to their key markets. So they’re very, very interested in developing these networks and again are taking their own steps to help.

Question: My name is Matthew Karoma, a second-year American foreign policy student here.

My question is about the other players in the region. Certainly, I’m sure everyone in the world shares hopes for a vision of prosperity in Central Asia, but sometimes our interests don’t overlap. Specifically I’d like you to address how we work with our partners in China and Russia to move things forward there.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you. That’s a very good question.

The answer is we, and I personally, have made a significant effort to work with the Chinese and to work with the Russians. I think part of the strategic opening that we had in Central Asia was based on the fact that President Obama made a real effort to first re-set relations with Russia. I think a lot of the countries in Central Asia kind of took their cue from Russia because Russia obviously has tremendous influence in Central Asia, and saw that this was also an opportunity for them to work more closely with the United States, and all of them wanted that. They welcome our presence, in part because they see it as a counterbalance to Russia and potentially to China as well. But also because they very much recognize the important role that the United States has to play in Afghanistan. So if anything, they want to see us stay longer in Afghanistan. Again, they’re a very strong supporter of what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan.

With Russia, we’ve sought to be as transparent as possible about what we’re trying to accomplish. We’ve told the Russians we’re not seeking long-term bases of any kind in Afghanistan. We have short-term needs in places like Manas in Kyrgyzstan through which most of our troops that go into Afghanistan transit. But we are not trying to in any way displace the Russians from Central Asia. Quite the contrary, we’re looking for ways that we can try to cooperate more with Russia. Counter-narcotics is a very good example where again, we’re working not only with Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia, but also importantly, with Russia. They are the main market for a lot of this narcotics trade and the main victim in many ways for this trade. So it’s important, and we think there are real terrific opportunities to work with them. Likewise on health cooperation in Central Asia. So we’re always looking for ways that we can do more and we spend a great deal of time just exchanging information, telling them what we’re doing, and I think that’s helped a lot. Russia’s in a very good position to block what we’re trying to do if they chose to.

China, again, we don’t have much background with the Chinese talking about Central Asia, so that’s been a bit more difficult to establish a dialogue, but I think now we’ve had several rounds of that dialogue, it becomes more candid and helpful every time we have one. I just had another round two weeks ago, maybe a week and a half ago now, where a very senior Chinese delegation came to Washington and we had six hours of talks. So we talked in great detail now about what we’re trying to accomplish. Again, the Chinese have very similar interests in Afghanistan, and to a certain extent in Pakistan as well, certainly on the counter-terrorism side. And they’re beginning to invest more in Afghanistan as well, which we welcome. We’d like to see them do even more in terms of helping with investment of infrastructure inside Afghanistan, similar to what they’re already doing on a huge scale in the countries of Central Asia, particularly with the energy infrastructure.

So again, I think we have a lot of common interests that form the basis for a very sound dialogue. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything, particularly on things like human rights, but that’s okay. We’ll work our way through that and certainly seize the opportunities that we do have.

Question: Thank you. My name is Jonas Vonstaff from Europe-Central Asia Monitoring. I’m based in Brussels. Thank you for your presentation. I have two questions, both concerning security.

You mentioned at the beginning of your presentation military cooperation. Does it involve security sector reform? If so, does it involve governance issues and reform?

Secondly, border control. You were quite extensive on that. There are many initiatives in Central Asia and also in Afghanistan on border control. The EU is doing work, the U.S. of course is very active. Russia is very active with advisors. China delivers material. [Inaudible]. So there are many donors active in border control. A lot of money has been invested. Is there any concrete result of the last few years? We see a lot of figures, but as you said yourself, corruption is a huge problem. And is there coordination between all these donors? Between even China that is delivering material, between old Russian advisors and how do you envisage this border control and integrated border control within the new vision of a New Silk Road? Thank you.

Question: Let me take the second question first.

In terms of coordination, there’s very good coordination that takes place. We rely on our Ambassadors to really perform that function and in almost every case there are groups of donors that meet on a very regular basis to coordinate what each other’s doing so that there’s not duplication of effort, but also to share information about what each other is doing and how we can work together and how we can work, of course, with the host government. So there’s a lot of I think quite good cooperation. I think as I said earlier, much remains to be done in terms of results, particularly on the counter-narcotics front. I just think there’s much more to be done on that front and I think a large portion of the reason that we haven’t been able to make more progress is because there is still quite significant corruption in many of these countries. They’re poor countries. There’s a very significant temptation. So this is something where I think we just have to be clear, because we have to make sure that our assistance is going to be used in a proper way and that we’re not just pouring money into an exercise that’s not going to achieve results. So we have a very results-oriented approach.

In terms of military assistance, first of all we don’t have a lot of military assistance in the region. It’s quite modest if you look at the figures. And to the extent that we do do training where it’s allowed, there’s always a governance and human rights component to it.

Question: My name is Thomas Grinley.

In the period between 1980 and 1990 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to what extent were the Central Asian republics willing partners? Do they carry any baggage from this intervention which would make it difficult for them to cooperate with Afghanistan?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think Fred’s a better person to answer that question. I wasn’t even in the State Department in the early part of the 1980s, so I really can’t answer that question, but I can tell you now in terms of the baggage question, I don’t think they carry baggage. Again, I think they have very clear-eyed interests in what they’re trying to accomplish and what they’re trying to get out of their relations with the United States, as do we. And so I think there has been, as I say, quite a good convergence on a lot of issues with the Russians and we’ll continue to try to find continued convergence because again, I think we do have common interests, particularly with respect to Afghanistan.

Moderator: It would be like asking did the United States have baggage with regard to Europeans because the British were fighting France in the 18th Century. The Central Asians were under imperial rule.

Question: That’s true, Fred.

Moderator: No, this was until 1991. So obviously this wasn’t their game. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not… I’m not aware of any vote in the republics of Central Asia on whether you want to do this or not. On the contrary, they first sent in troops from Central Asia and they were very quickly withdrawn because it was quite clear that they didn’t have their heart in it. So the answer I think is very clearly, no. The Central Asians are very credible in Afghanistan. Every single country.

Question: Thank you. I am Navbahor Imamova from the Voice of America. I have two questions.

One is specifically on Uzbekistan. What was the main reason behind the decision to provide assistance to Uzbekistan despite the congressional restrictions? Can you tell us more about that? What are the conditions? How is it going to work exactly? What kind of an aid are we talking about?

Secondly --

Assistant Secretary Blake: Let me answer that question first. My mind isn’t supple enough to remember too many questions at once!

First of all with respect to military assistance for Uzbekistan, we haven’t yet provided any military assistance in terms of new FMF or anything like that. We’re in the process now of exercising a waiver that would allow us to provide limited non-lethal assistance to Uzbekistan, but we need to consult very closely with Congress going forward on this. I think everybody understands this is in our interest to do because it is to support our troops. It’s a limited six month waiver and we have to again provide a report to Congress about not only what we’re doing, how we’re using the money; but also what we’re doing in other areas of our relations with Uzbekistan. But we’ve had a very extensive series of consultations with the Hill, both on the Senate side and on the House side, that I’ve led with colleagues from the Department of Defense and from our Political Military Affairs Bureau, and we’ll continue to do that. Again, I think we appreciate the support that Congress has provided for this initiative.

Question: One more question, if I could. Sometimes there seems to be more talk about regional integrity in Central Asia here in Washington than in the region itself. You did talk about the bilateral consultations with each country and what kind of issues you are discussing with them. Is there any effort from this administration to bring the countries of Central Asia, maybe the leaders around one table and hear what they have to say?

Assistant Secretary Blake: When you say regional integrity --

Moderator: Integration?

Question: Integration. Sorry.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Regional integrity, that’s a whole new initiative. That may be beyond my scope. [Laughter].

Regional integration. No, there’s no effort on our part to bring all the leaders together, but of course they come together frequently in the SCO context, in the CSTO context, in many other contexts. But we have very much encouraged regional integration. We have our own Regional Trade and Investment Framework Agreement discussions that take place at a regional level. But I have to say, those haven’t made much progress. So we’re also pursuing bilateral interests because our companies have a lot of interest, particularly in Kazakhstan and to a certain extent in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well. So obviously we want to work with them and help them to identify opportunities and support them as they work in those countries.

But again, I think there’s undeniable logic to moving ahead with regional integration. Central Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world and therefore there’s really quite substantial opportunities both for the peoples and the governments of the region to seize those.

So we’re doing a combination of advocacy, but also of working on the, sometimes painstaking, what I would call software of regional integration which is helping with customs clearance procedures, and how do you again reduce corruption and a lot of those other things. I think that’s an important part of our efforts going forward on the New Silk Road and again, the historical trade routes, is to again work with the countries to help them to reduce a lot of the kind of practical barriers that exist to enhance trade and integration between these countries.

Again, all of these countries have an interest in seeing greater opportunity for their people, particularly their young people, so I think we do have an opportunity to try to move ahead on that. But they tend to see those in terms of bilateral trade opportunities. Uzbekistan with Kazakhstan or Tajikistan with Kyrgyzstan as opposed to more of a regional approach. But we hope that over time the regional logic will better manifest itself and again, I think a lot of these projects that I refer to will help to sort of inculcate that regional thinking.

Question: My name is Wujin Tojif. I am a visiting scholar from the George Mason University. I have two questions, if I may.

Moderator: Just one.

Question: First, Tajikistan is struggling for construction of Roghun hydropower plant for many years and it believes that it can both provide the country’s needs internally and also provide surplus energy to other countries. What is the position of the United States towards the construction of this power plant?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Our position on Roghun is that the World Bank is now undertaking some quite important feasibility studies that are looking at the entire energy picture including Roghun, and what is the most effective way to improve Tajikistan’s energy future.

Obviously the government has a great interest, and President Rahmon has a great interest in the Roghun project itself, but I think there are a number of other projects as well that deserve a close look. I think the World Bank is doing that.

The World Bank has extensive experience working on water and energy issues including in the India-Pakistan context that I also work in. So I think they’re very well suited to do this. We expect those feasibility studies to be done sometime later this year. We’ve urged our friends in Tajikistan not to take any unilateral actions before those feasibility studies are completed because that could jeopardize international financing for some of these projects.

Question: Josh Kucera, freelance journalist. I have a single two-part question about the recent elections in Kazakhstan. [Laughter].

Moderator: Won’t do. [Laughter].

Question: On the Kazakhstan elections. The U.S. endorsed the OSCE statement saying there were significant problems. Since then the government of Kazakhstan has kind of tried to delegitimize the OSCE’s monitoring mission saying that there’s all these other monitors. The SCO and so on, CIS, who found no problems with it.

Are you troubled by this sort of rhetoric coming from Kazakhstan that they’re delegitimizing the OSCE results?

Secondly, right after that happened --

Assistant Secretary Blake: Let me just answer that question.

Moderator: We’re down to one.

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s an easy response, which is that we, again, strongly support the work of the OSCE not only in Kazakhstan but around Central Asia and beyond. And we indeed participated in the OSCE mission and had our own observers. So yes, we definitely endorsed what they said. But at the same time I think it’s important to note that there now is a multi-party system in Kazakhstan, so as our own statement indicated, we look forward to engaging with that new multi-party system and to, again, try to further encourage the development of democracy and human rights in Kazakhstan.

Question: Thank you very much. My name is Takiu, I’m a Japanese scholar at SAIS and specialize in South Asia.

Apart from Central Asia, but it’s related to your idea of regional integration. How do you appreciate the function of potentiality of SAARC as a regional integration driver? I know that U.S. supported the idea, but it has been relatively slow, very slow, in spite of that model. ASEAN countries integration. SAARC has very critical program that India is too big, so it’s very heavy, and Pakistan, no. The relation has also been reflected. So how is your idea?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I have the honor of being in charge of the two regions of the world that are probably the least integrated -- both Central Asia and South Asia, but also between Central and South Asia. So just as I said on the Central Asia side, there’s a huge amount of work to be done in South Asia as well, to promote regional integration.

Intraregional trade in South Asia is about five percent of total trade, which is a shame. Again, there are tremendous opportunities there.

In SAARC the problem is not that India’s too big. The problem has been that SAARC operates by consensus as almost all regional organizations do, and there’s been an absence of consensus between India and Pakistan which has held back the development of SAARC. But I think that recent progress between India and Pakistan, particularly over the last year, has really begun to change that dynamic in a very important way. Next month the Indian Commerce Secretary will be making a very important visit to the Wagah border between India and Pakistan to inaugurate new customs facilities there with his Pakistani counterpart, then taking a business delegation from India to Pakistan. I think that reflects the understanding that both these countries have that there are tremendous as yet unrealized opportunities to expand trade between India and Pakistan and that it would have tremendous benefits for both countries, particularly for Pakistan, which right now is facing a great many economic and energy and other challenges.

So we very much welcome this process and will do everything we can to encourage this process, but again, all credit to these two countries for moving forward on that.

I think I’ll just leave it at that. There’s a lot that’s still to be done but there’s a potential as a result of the progress that’s being made to probably double trade in a very short order and basically bring a lot of the trade that now goes informally via Dubai and other countries directly between the two countries and that’s going to be a substantial new benefit for the people of those two countries.

Moderator: Let me follow up on your very interesting and very important point about India and Pakistan cross-border trade which is enormous already. That really puts the focus on the Pakistan-Afghan border because the Afghan Central Asian borders and Iranian borders are functioning.

The U.S. took a very active role beginning in 2004, 2003, in bringing about the Afghan-Pakistan trade, the Transit Trade Agreement. An extremely important document. If that were actually in effect today then the great engine that you’ve talked about of continental trade -- not regional trade, something much bigger, continental trade -- would absolutely start rolling.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Correct.

Moderator: Are we going to be a well-wisher and passive observer of this? Or is there anything the U.S. can do to prioritize that issue and start the machine working?

Assistant Secretary Blake: The India-Pakistan one or --

Moderator: The implementation of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Trade and Transit Agreement.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Yes. Obviously we’re doing everything we can to try to encourage that and the implementation of the AFPAK Transit Trade Agreement. But I think even more important right now is furthering this progress with India and Pakistan. That’s really the main holdup right now. If the two countries, India and Pakistan, can finally agree to allow transit trade through their two countries so that an Indian trucker could send goods directly through Pakistan and Afghanistan and into Central Asia and beyond, that would be a huge change.

Right now an Indian exporter has to go either via China or via Iran. Both of those are complicated and it takes a long time. The Indians have a tremendous interest in doing more in Central Asia, so this is one factor that’s helping to move this forward. But I think likewise the Central Asians also see India as a real pole of opportunity for them. Don’t forget, India’s going to be the third largest economy in the world probably in the next 15 years or so, and is already expanding at seven percent a year, possibly more if economic reform measures can be taken.

Again, there’s a tremendous opportunity for the Central Asians to begin to export and expand their integration, but the India-Pakistan part of that equation is the one part of it that still needs to be sorted out.

Question: I’m Liz Wishnik from the Woodrow Wilson Center.

My question is about the CSTO and the SCO. What kind of role do you see them playing in the post-ISAF security environment?

Assistant Secretary Blake: It’s difficult to make predictions about the CSTO. We don’t have a role in CSTO so we don’t really have a great deal of insight into the operations of the CSTO. There have been opportunities for the CSTO to do more right after -- In the beginning of the problems in Kyrgyzstan last year there was an opportunity for CSTO to perhaps help out in modest ways. They declined the opportunity to do so.

I can’t really comment, you’d really have to ask them what they see as the future. But again, we’re going to continue to engage bilaterally with the members of the CSTO and so far that bilateral engagement has been good and we’re going to do everything we can to sustain that positive bilateral engagement.

Question: And the SCO?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Same thing. We’re not a member, we’re not an observer in SCO, but again we engage positively with every single one of the SCO members. Whether we should seek some sort of observer status of some sort is still under review in the administration.

Question: Mr. Ambassador, I represent Asia Plus News Agency from Tajikistan.

I heard that you just conducted roundtable, big discussion about role of Islam in the region, in Central Asia at Foreign Service Institute last week.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Right. That was off the record, but I guess it wasn’t that off the record, huh? [Laughter].

Question: How would you assess the role of Islam in our region in Central Asia? Do you think that it’s possible that potentially in future maybe one day political Islam can come to power? And do you think there is threat that this Islam could be radical? Do you consider this as a possible threat to the region or to the United States? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t believe that there is a serious radical Islamic threat inside many of these countries now, but I do think that all of the countries, it’s hard to generalize, but all of them are worried about what they see as growing Islamic influence. As I said in my remarks, all of them are reacting in a way that we disagree with. Our view is that it’s very, very important to distinguish between terrorists who want to use their religion and use violence to achieve their objectives, and those who want to exercise their right to peaceful worship. I think the vast majority of people in Central Asia fall into the latter category. They want to just be able to exercise their religious beliefs peacefully.

But many of the governments are suspicious of that and fear that that will provide an opportunity for more radical elements to organize against these governments. Again, it’s a very tricky question. But my view, and I think our view in the government is that if you do not allow peaceful worship, if you do not allow parties like the Islamic Revival Party in Tajikistan to operate, you simply drive people underground and you also take people who might otherwise be quite moderate and turn them into people who will become more radical. So it’s very, very important to provide these peaceful opportunities for worship and assembly and media and all the things that we talked about.

This is a continuing dialogue that we have with all of our friends in Central Asia, and I think it’s a really important question for them to consider. It’s one part of a larger question that they’re all grappling with which is they’ve followed carefully what’s going on in the Arab Spring. They have to I think take a hard look inward and see what the lessons of those are, and I think the lessons are that you have to be responsive to the needs and to the wishes of your people, and that you need to address things like corruption.

The example of Kyrgyzstan showed that a country like Kyrgyzstan and a regime like that of Bakiyev very quickly lost control of the situation, in a matter of days. The Kyrgyz, in fact, talk about how they in many ways were one of the first countries of the Arab Spring, and they were the progenitor of the Arab Spring. Maybe they were. But I think there is an important lesson there for all of the countries of Central Asia, is that they have to pay attention, they have to open up their societies, and they need to address some of these questions like corruption that are very, very important. And as I said in my remarks, they sap the confidence of people and their leaders.

Again, it’s important to be responsive. Again, this is something that we talk a lot about in our relations with our friends and of course with civil society.

Question: Thank you so much. My name is Elbek, I’m a visiting scholar from Uzbekistan at SAIS.

You have just mentioned about regional integration institutions in this region, and if we simply have a look on the region there is a bunch of different organizations on economic, political, military cooperation, tied up mostly with Russia. So now it is seasoned with another union called superior region or whatever. So from this perspective, does it have an impact on U.S. interests on the region? And does it make the picture a bit different, a future picture of the region a bit different from U.S. vision? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all, we’ll have to see what the Eurasian Economic Union is actually going to entail. There hasn’t been much in the way of real specifics yet about this. But I think we’ve said publicly and also privately to our friends including in Russia that we do not want to see the Eurasian Economic Union become a zone of exclusion. On the contrary, all of us are seeking to make Central Asia a zone of opportunity and a zone of free trade. That’s why we are strongly encouraging all the countries in the region to accede to the WTO and again, to take every step they can to try to open up opportunities and not in fact exclude either member states or countries that are further afield.

Again, I think we will continue to be strong advocates for open trade and expanding opportunities for the people of Central Asia as much as possible with as many trade partners as possible, and that includes China and Russia and the United States and the European Union and India and all the rest. That’s really how this region is going to benefit.

Moderator: If this discussion were taking place in a medieval university there would have been a guy sitting here, or where I am, whose title would be “advocatus diaboli.” The devil’s advocate.

Assistant Secretary Blake: So that’s you, huh?

Moderator: If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to play that role for a second. Simply for the same reason they had it in medieval scholastic debates.

Superficially, look, you have spoken very eloquently about enhanced engagement, and even if it’s not enhanced engagement to the degree that everyone might wish, just essential continuity which I hear a lot of, all the points that you made on the strategic side, have been made here at this forum since about 2003. It’s the same collection. That’s not to say it’s a wrong collection, but there is essential continuity.

So what has changed, I ask myself as advocatus diaboli? Well, we’re leaving Afghanistan, we’ve set a deadline and told everyone in the region we’re out of there. Beyond that, the funding for all the activities that you’ve described is diminishing. And in fact in meeting after meeting they say well, that’s a great idea, but it costs money and we don’t have it. Third, we have a new security doctrine that has been approved in the White House which basically says that what counts for us is East Asia and the Middle East. The implication, unstated, is that everything in between we want to get out of and get off our back as fast as possible.

Would someone in the region who concludes from that that the United States in a very polite and constructive way, is frankly disengaging? And to the extent that it’s not, it’s handing over its equities in the region to Russia and China in a way that is not particularly welcomed by us in the region. Would such a voice be wrong? If so, why?

Assistant Secretary Blake: It would be wrong. I appreciate your being the devil’s advocate, but let me address some of your suppositions.

First of all, we’re not leaving Afghanistan. We are withdrawing our military from Afghanistan and we are at the same time building up the Afghan National Security Forces so they themselves can take responsibility for their own security. That process is going well so far, but there’s still a lot more to be done before the end of 2014, so we’ll continue to be very focused on that portion of it.

At the same time we have bilateral negotiations going on with Afghanistan about what our residual presence will be in Afghanistan. We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes that we made in the early part of this decade where we took our eyes off the ball and focused on Iraq and allowed the Taliban to kind of reconstitute themselves.

So I think the President has been very clear that we’re going to continue to have a very strong economic relationship with Afghanistan going forward and continue to provide substantial assistance to the Afghan people. And I think we’ll continue to have some military presence. I don’t yet know what that will be because that’s subject to negotiations, but obviously we want to continue to be able to prevent the reemergence of al-Qaeda and others in this region, so that will be an abiding interest of ours. That’s the first point.

On the question of resources diminishing, again, I would challenge that. In fact maybe the military resources are diminishing, but our hope is that in fact there will be increased economic resources to help these countries. That’s certainly what we’re encouraging and what all of the NATO and ISAF partners are encouraging. That will be I think a focus of a very important conference that the Japanese will be hosting in Tokyo this summer, again, to talk about the economic future of Afghanistan and how everybody can help.

So all of us are very, very focused on that and I think there will continue to be very strong support not just by the United States but by other partners to continue to support Afghanistan, to continue to help Afghanistan to develop its own private sector and to stand on its own feet economically. That’s why I think we’re putting such an emphasis on this historical trade routes vision because we do see that this is going to be such an important part of linking Afghanistan with Central Asia, India and with other markets further afield.

Again, I think we will have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan, and because of that commitment we will also have an enduring commitment to the Central Asians because the Central Asians are in the process now of knitting themselves more closely with Afghanistan and again, share a very strong interest in all of the things that I just talked about.

Question: Kathy Cosman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

While I certainly agree with your comments about the fears of the Central Asian governments vis-à-vis Islam, I think it’s probably also true that within the last two years or so, and in some cases before two years, the laws on religion and the policies towards religious groups in general, particularly Islam but other religious groups as well, has worsened throughout Central Asia.

So while I’m sure this is an important topic in your ABCs, I don’t know if it’s very successful, and I also finally since we’re using ABCs, I wanted to raise the question of CPC, namely that Uzbekistan was named a country of particular concern and yet a few weeks after that at an international meeting, namely an OSCE meeting, it was very difficult in the official U.S. speech to even have a mention of the fact that Uzbekistan had just been named a CPC. So I’m wondering what is the use of CPC if it’s not even a rhetorical device? I rest my case, such as it is.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I agree with you, that there have been setbacks to religious freedom across Central Asia but these countries are acting in what they see as their own interest. It just reinforces the importance of us working with them and talking to them and trying to explain to them how we see things.

Now they happen to disagree with us on these things. They think often that we’re naïve and that by creating an opportunity for let’s say greater freedom of worship you actually are giving an opportunity for people to organize. We just have a difference on that.

But we have a coordinator, a person who works full-time on this and who is going to be I think spending more time now, Suzan Johnson Cook, who is going to be spending more time in Central Asia and I very much have encouraged that. Again, I think it’s only through direct, patient, constructive dialogue that we’re going to hopefully work and persuade thee countries to do things, and to persuade them that it’s in their own interest to do these things. I think that’s the key. So far we’ve been unable to do that. On the contrary, they see it as in their own interest now to curb in many cases religious rights precisely because they see a threat to expanding those rights.

This will continue, as I said earlier, to be a very important focus of what we’re trying to do in Central Asia.

Moderator: I see Tim McGraw and other business people here in the audience. Let me put a question in their behalf because they seem strangely timid today. [Laughter]. You hardly mentioned American investment in this part of the world. You did mention the TIFAs, even though it’s something I followed with some interest that these Central Asians themselves were pushing for it and we were the ones that didn’t follow it. What’s going on? Is there a serious prospect for investment other than the big ticket items? If so, how are we going to pave the way for that?

Assistant Secretary Blake: This has been a pretty important effort that we’ve made with many of these countries. In Kazakhstan, frankly, we don’t need to do very much in the way of business promotion because there’s already a tremendous amount of American investment there. The challenge to Kazakhstan is really more to help diversify the economy and I think we will see more progress in that regard. Certainly we’re doing everything we can to encourage that.

In some of the other countries of the region, frankly the business climate is still very tough for American or any other international business partners. It’s incumbent on all of these countries to understand that they’re competing with the rest of the world to attract American and other international investment, and therefore it’s in their own interest to provide the best possible investment climate for American companies. I think American companies would very much like to do more in all of the Central Asian states, but I think particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where there’s a lot of unrealized opportunities. Again, we’ve worked hard with both of those countries to try to have a real dialogue. We have very helpful chambers here through which we work as well, composed of the main American companies that are already doing business or are interested in doing business in both of those countries. I personally have led trade delegations to both of those countries.

I think there is interest but it’s also important for the countries, again, to continue to do everything they can to open up the investment climate, to allow for things like currency convertibility, to reduce very simple things like the length of time it takes to get a business visa to go to some of these countries. And so there’s still I think quite a long way to go. Again, American business can be such an important partner for these countries in terms of bringing in new entrepreneurship and new innovation and new ways of doing things. It’s just a terrific partnership opportunity for them. We’ve done everything we can to try to bring the two sides together and now we hope to kind of frankly reap some of the benefits of that and see some new investment and see some new contracts emerge from all of that effort.

Question: Vince Noshary from OSCE, [inaudible] Kyrgyzstan.

I was hoping you could give us some insights on what importance you place on the potential for localized conflict in remote areas in Kyrgyzstan such as Batken Province, given its remoteness from the seat of power, and a very ethnically mixed population which has been fluctuating through [inaudible] work, and very emotive subjects such as land ownership and water rights.

Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all I want to thank the OSCE for a lot of the tremendous work that they did in Kyrgyzstan last year and continue to do. There’s a very important community security initiative that is still underway in Osh, and I think that’s had quite an important impact.

To address your question, I think our assessment is there’s still quite a lot of tension, ethnic tension, in southern Kyrgyzstan for a variety of reasons. First, a lot of the problems that were surfaced in the Kiljunen Report have not been addressed, particularly on the question of justice. Most of the people who have been brought to justice for all of the various violations and crimes and murders that occurred last year have been ethnic Uzbeks, even though ethnic Uzbeks were the main victims, but not the only victims. I think that must continue to be a very important priority. There have been some very high profile cases like that of Mr. Ashkarov that have I think sent a very disturbing message to the Uzbek community about whether they can expect justice from Kyrgyzstan.

I think the more positive news is that President Atambayev and his team very much recognize the work that needs to be done to address reconciliation and to improve relations between the communities. He himself has talked about that in his early days and in his meetings with us and others. So I’m encouraged to hear that and I think it’s one of the highest priorities now, is to make real progress on reconciliation and bring these communities together so that a more lasting stability can be achieved in southern Kyrgyzstan in particular.

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re all indebted to Assistant Secretary Blake for really a very candid discussion and no less important, more important perhaps, his very forthright formal statement that you delivered at the beginning of the program. It seems to me that you’ve offered a very healthy balance between activities that are in effect damage control and which are on the other hand implementation of a vision for the future and one that we do share with the countries involved.

What does the success of failure of this depend on? Probably on three different factors. One is is the U.S. going to be really clear about its priorities? It can’t do all these things, obviously. The energy is limited. Identify just a very few things that really are the keys, as you’ve suggested. If we’re able to do that, we’ll succeed.

Second is the transition dividend that you’ve referred to several times. That is an expression of hope on your part which we respect and welcome. It sure isn’t in any budget that I’ve seen. [Laughter]. And no one in the region thinks it’s going to be. So that’s the second concern.

The third is our will. Is this region going to continue in the American mind to be a source of problems, or is it potentially an area where a dramatic turn-around in the case of Afghanistan and progress in the case of all the other countries is possible, and in a way that is not against anyone but benefits everyone?

The question of will has to remain open. We’re waiting to see. Will the Secretary speak about these matters? Will the President speak about these matters? Will they defend them before Congress? Will they defend them before the American public? And what kind of signals will we give to the countries involved? These are all very important issues. They’re direct between us and them. They’re not between us and China, us and Russia, even us and [inaudible], it’s between us and them. What kind of signals will they get?

And since you’re one of the key signal givers, I think everyone in this room wants to wish you all success.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you.

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