QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for being here. I want to start by asking you about the current state of relations between the countries of Central Asia and the United States. Has anything changed in U.S. foreign policy toward the countries of the region in light of current developments in the international arena, especially after the war in Ukraine?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think we’ve had, first of all, longstanding relationships with each country going back to their independence, and the foundation of that relationship has been our strong support for the independence, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of each of the countries of Central Asia. But I think what you’ve seen in recent years is a deepening and strengthening of these relationships, of these partnerships across a number of areas, trying to create greater economic opportunity, working together to share challenges, including everything from climate to energy, building closer people-to-people ties between our countries, but also working to create greater integration and connectivity among the countries of Central Asia themselves.
This is one of the things that we’re doing through what we call the C5+1 partnership, and I took part in a meeting of that group just yesterday in Kazakhstan. So I think we’re seeing stronger partnerships. And for the United States, our hope is to be a good partner and a good partner in working on shared challenges, in bringing more investment to Central Asia, and also in helping our partners build the capacity of their own people. So we’re working in all of these areas together.
QUESTION: The Central Asian countries have long ties with Russia as the key trade partner, and it takes time to diversify the sources of investment and income. To address this issue, you said in Kazakhstan that partner countries of Russia that suffered economically as a result of the sanctions would receive certain compensations. Could you please elaborate a bit on that, what is in specific plan?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure. Well, first it’s important to understand that countries in Central Asia, people in Central Asia have suffered more than most from the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its aggression against Ukraine, starting with the fact that President Putin has used energy as a weapon and he’s used food as a weapon in denying energy to countries that opposed his aggression against Ukraine. That caused prices to go up for everyone, we’ve – including in Central Asia, despite the energy wealth of some countries. And we’ve worked very hard to make sure that there was enough energy on world markets to keep prices down so people wouldn’t be affected.
Second, food – Putin has also weaponized food. Ukraine is one of the major providers of grain to the world. The Russian invasion blocked Ukraine from exporting its own grain to the rest of the world because they seized the Port of Odessa and they blocked grain from going out. The United Nations – Türkiye came together to help establish a grain corridor, and now as a result of that, grain is getting out, and that means that prices are lower for everyone. So that’s benefited people here, but this is all the result of the Russian aggression.
We didn’t – with the sanctions, dozens of countries around the world are imposing sanctions on Russia because of its aggression, not because we decided one day, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to put sanctions on Russia, but because they invaded another country, they threatened its territorial integrity, its independence, and its sovereignty, and it was important for countries around the world to stand up against that. And I think in Central Asia, people understand deeply why it’s important to protect the principle of sovereignty, of independence, of territorial integrity. And one way that we stand up against it is by trying to impose some costs on Russia for the aggression in the hopes that it will get it to stop, to change its mind, to end the aggression, to end the war that it started.
So it’s also true that there are second- and third-order consequences for companies or countries that may be engaged in business with Russia that is now prohibited by the sanctions. And there, we’ve tried to work closely with countries, including in Central Asia, to help them understand exactly what’s required and what’s not required, to make sure that, precisely for the reasons you say – sometimes you have a longstanding business relationship and it takes time to end that relationship. So we’re giving time to companies to do that as necessary, what we call a wind down period. And there are some cases where we’re providing licenses to continue the business despite the sanctions.
QUESTION: How does the U.S. view the possibility of the Central Asian countries forming a separate economic union without external participants?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think these are sovereign decisions for countries to make, but we do believe strongly that the more integrated the countries of Central Asia are, the more connected they are, the more all of their people will benefit. It, for example, could create one larger market as opposed to five smaller ones, and that in turn may be a way to attract even more investment from different parts of the world. Facilitating connections, facilitating trade, facilitating investment within Central Asia also will, I think, create even more economic growth that people in all these countries will benefit from. Now, the decisions about how to do that, how to organize yourself to do that, those are decisions for the countries to make, not for any outside country to make.
QUESTION: The United States left Afghanistan, but certain security problems still persist there. Are you planning to establish any communication with the current government of Afghanistan? And what’s your view about Uzbekistan’s position regarding the country?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, of course, we do have contact with the Taliban, and we’ve had contact from – since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Other countries do as well. But what happened at that time was, among other things, the Taliban made certain commitments about how it would govern the country and engage with other countries. And at the same time, countries around the world made clear their expectations in a resolution at the United Nations Security Council what it expected of the Taliban, including on protecting human rights, especially the rights of women and girls, including on having an inclusive governance with everyone brought in, not just the Taliban; including on freedom of movement for people, to be able to go and come from Afghanistan as they wanted; and in acting against terrorism, against extremism, if it’s – wherever it’s taking root in Afghanistan.
And unfortunately, what we’ve seen ever since is movement in the opposite direction by the Taliban, not making good on any of those commitments. We have been the number one provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan because we don’t want the people to suffer; and they are, but we’ve worked very hard to make sure that food, medicine, basic supplies were made available to them. The Taliban has made that more difficult by prohibiting women’s participation in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
So in each of these areas, things have gotten worse, not better. If the Taliban expects to have more normal relations with other countries, including the United States, it knows what it has to do. It knows the expectations of the world. And I think countries like Uzbekistan, other Muslim-majority countries, do have a special role to play because their voice may be more meaningful, more important to the Taliban than ours or other countries. And so we appreciate and applaud the efforts that countries like Uzbekistan have made to communicate with the Taliban and to make clear what’s expected if they’re going to have a more normal relationship with other countries.
QUESTION: Are there any plans to expand cooperation between Uzbekistan and the USA in educational, humanitarian, and social areas? Can we expect the easing of the visa regime for citizens of Uzbekistan anytime soon?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We want to build up our people-to-people connections, and we’re working on that. And we’re already doing remarkable things – for example, when it comes to education. I visited while I was here a classroom where young Uzbeks were learning English, and it was remarkable to see because these young people have been, I think, working on this, studying in this class for just three or four months and already they were incredibly fluent in English. We are working with the government to help train English teachers. We have now trained more than 10,000 English teachers in Uzbekistan, heading to 15,000. We have English instruction in textbooks in more than 10,000 schools.
And the reason this is so important – it’s not just learning another language, which in and of itself is a good thing, but as it happens at this moment in history – and it was different in the past, and I’m sure at some point in the future it will be different, but in this moment that we’re living in, English has really become the international language. Businesses conduct business in English, much of the information on the internet is in English, a lot of culture, arts are in English, and our exchange programs, of course, benefit from people who speak English.
So this is a way of giving young people here some of the – one of the skills that they need to take advantage of all sorts of opportunities, economic opportunities, jobs, and to compete in what is really a global marketplace.
And so I’m very excited about that. I saw it in action, and we will do more and more of it, including in other areas.
QUESTION: How would you assess the changes made by the current government of Uzbekistan with regard to the openness policy, freedom of speech, and religious freedom?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think Uzbekistan has made very important strides, and the president’s vision for Uzbekistan, for a new Uzbekistan, as he calls it, that creates greater economic opportunity for all of its people, that supports and strengthens human rights, that protects the rule of law – I think we’ve seen some very important steps taken. But as the president will be the first to say, more work remains to be done. And so it’s the vision which is very important, and the implementation of that vision.
We talked today in our own conversation with the president about creating more space, for example, for media freedom, which is so important – including to push back against disinformation that comes from other countries. A strong place for civil society to make even more progress, and real progress has been made on protecting religious freedom. The extraordinary achievement already of eliminating forced and child labor in the cotton industry. That’s a historic achievement that other countries I think will look to and be inspired by.
So I think there’s a strong vision, and a strong path forward, and our hope is to be a good partner for Uzbekistan as it continues on that path.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Very good to be with you. Thank you so much.