MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s call previewing Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming trip to Europe and Central Asia. For your reference purposes only and not for reporting, we are joined today by [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. From this point forward, they will be referred to as Senior State Department Official One and Senior State Department Official Two, respectively.
We are able to take a limited number of questions, so for purposes of efficiency we ask that you press 1 and then 0 now rather than at the end of the opening statements to queue up for questions. Again, this call is on background and the contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
I’ll now turn it over to our senior State Department officials who will begin our call with opening remarks, and after a brief pause we’ll move to your questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Moderator], and happy holidays to everyone. As noted, Secretary Pompeo will travel to Ukraine on January the 3rd and there he will meet with Ukrainian President Zelensky and other senior leaders to underscore the strong and unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression and also to discuss Ukraine’s progress in implementing the reforms necessary for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
The Secretary’s visit to Ukraine highlights our unshakable commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, and reaffirms the importance of our strategic partnership with Ukraine. As we made clear in our Crimea Declaration, Crimea is part of Ukraine and the United States will never recognize Russia’s attempt to annex it.
This important visit also reinforces our support to Ukraine as it counters Russian aggression and disinformation, and advances reform efforts to stamp out corruption. For example, since 2014 the United States has provided Ukraine with more than $3 billion in total assistance. That includes security and non-security assistance as well as the issuance of three $1 billion sovereign loan guarantees.
I’d also note that this will be the first anniversary of the announcement of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. That anniversary is approaching, and this visit will be an opportunity to recognize Metropolitan Epiphanius for his leadership in promoting tolerance and respect and ensuring the church is open to all Orthodox believers. As you know, the United States supports the rights of all people to worship freely in accordance with their faith.
Then, on January 4th, the Secretary will travel to Minsk, Belarus, and meet there with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and discuss the continuing normalization of bilateral relations and the exchange of our ambassadors, which many will recall Under Secretary of State Hale announced with the Belarusians during Under Secretary Hale’s visit there a couple of months ago.
The Secretary will also meet with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei to discuss human rights, economic cooperation, and information sharing on threats to regional and international security.
I’d note here that the U.S. has been a sustained supporter of Belarus as one of the first countries to recognize Belarus’s independence in 1991, and we remain committed to a sovereign, stable, prosperous, and independent Belarus, and we respect Belarus’s desire to pursue its own partnerships, to chart its own course, and to play a constructive role in the region. We continue to encourage Belarus to continue building on the human rights progress it’s made in recent years and recognize that advancing democratic principles will reinforce Belarusian sovereignty and independence, which, again, the United States unequivocally and firmly supports. And that will of course pave the way to enhanced bilateral ties.
I will skip ahead of the Secretary’s travel to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. My colleague can cover that. After those two stops, the Secretary will return to the EUR region and visit Nicosia, Cyprus. And while in Nicosia, he will meet with the president and foreign minister and reaffirm the robust U.S.-Republic of Cyprus relationship. He will also meet with Turkish Cypriot leader Akinci, and the Secretary will reaffirm to leaders of both communities continued U.S. support for the UN-facilitated, Cypriot-led efforts to reunify Cyprus as a bi-zonal, bicommunal federation in line with UN Security Council resolutions.
I’d just note that the Republic of Cyprus is a force for stability, democracy, and prosperity, and a valued U.S. partner in the important Eastern Mediterranean region. We work together with Cyprus on a wide range of issues, including combating money laundering, fighting terrorism, enhancing maritime and border security, and the United States is committed to engaging with our allies and partners in the Eastern Mediterranean – of course, including the Republic of Cyprus – to uphold stability and prosperity in the region.
We are also proud of a very long history of strong people-to-people ties with Cyprus. More than 6,000 business, political, and cultural leaders from both communities have studied in the United States since 1960. And Secretary Pompeo has worked to strengthen these ties, including by participating in a high-level engagement of the 3+1 group – that’s the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and the United States – to advance multilateral cooperation. So we’re looking forward to building on these successes as we continue to collaborate with the Republic of Cyprus on shared priorities.
And I’ll hand it over to my colleague to brief you on the other two stops.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Thank you, and thanks to those of you who are on the call this morning. I’m happy to have the opportunity to discuss the Secretary’s upcoming trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. First, though, let me express my condolences to those affected by the plane crash in Almaty on Friday. Over a dozen people lost their lives, and our condolences go out to them and their families.
Now to the business at hand, I want to start by giving you the 10,000-foot view of the United States’s longstanding partnership with the countries of Central Asia, and our commitment to their independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and then I’ll talk specifically about the Secretary’s itinerary.
Our relationships with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan date back to 1991. The United States was the first country to recognize the independence of Kazakhstan, and among the first to recognize Uzbekistan’s independence. And since then we have become close partners on a range of economic and security issues, including nonproliferation and efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan.
The United States is committed to improving Kazakhstan’s and Uzbekistan’s connections to the global economy so they do not become dependent on any one country for trade and development. We believe that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan should have the freedom to pursue their national interests, to choose from a variety of partners and to align themselves politically, economically, and militarily on their own terms.
This isn’t a message that’s specific to Central Asian nations, by the way; we convey that message consistently to our partners around the world.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have made strides in improving human rights and economic openness. We continue to take every opportunity to encourage further democratic reforms that will ensure the long-term stability and prosperity of both nations. And we support economic reforms that help make both countries more attractive for U.S. investment, supporting both American jobs as well as building local capacity.
The Trump administration recently completed a Central Asia strategy, which we will soon be rolling out publicly to highlight our deep commitment to this vital region.
Now to the Secretary’s specific itinerary. In Nur-Sultan, on January 4th and 5th, the Secretary will meet with Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, with first President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi to reaffirm our enhanced strategic partnership and discuss avenues to increase bilateral trade and investment. Kazakhstan completed its first major transition of power since its independence just this March, past March, 2019, when Nursultan Nazarbayev, first president and founder of modern Kazakhstan, stepped down. President Tokayev has made encouraging commitments to political and economic reform, and we look forward to implementation of those commitments.
During his stop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on January 5th, 6th, the Secretary will reinforce our support for President Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda. We have witnessed some significant changes since President Mirziyoyev assumed power in 2016, including the release of political prisoners, a freer media environment, and actions to address the Soviet legacy of child and forced labor, as well as steps to open Uzbekistan to global markets and foreign investment. We look forward to more progress in these and other areas.
The Secretary will also participate in a C5+1 ministerial with his Central Asian counterparts in Tashkent. This will be the second such meeting of the group in the past six months, as the Secretary also held a C5+1 ministerial at the United Nations General Assembly. He looks forward to building on those conversations.
For your background, the United States and the Central Asian countries created the C5+1 in 2015 as a platform for cooperation on economic connectivity and trade, to better link regional energy infrastructure, and address common transnational security threats, including terrorism. These issues have become all the more urgent given the defeat of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, and the need to repatriate individuals present in formerly ISIS-controlled territory to their home countries. We are proud of the accomplishments made under the C5+1 and see it as an example of the type of flexible multilateralism that the Trump administration champions.
That’s it for me. I’m looking forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Okay. At this time, we’ll take a few questions. Moderator, if you could open the line of Matt Lee for our first question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The line is now open.
QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi. We can hear you.
QUESTION: Great. Hey [Senior State Department Official One], so can you clear up this stuff about Bill Taylor’s departure once and for all, perhaps? Is the Secretary trying to avoid him? He doesn’t want his picture taken with him. What’s going on there?
And then secondly, is the trip to Kyiv – is there more than just kind of a symbolic nature to this? Are there any deliverables, particularly as it relates to defense aid? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Matt. The focus of the Secretary is Kyiv, Ukraine – our policy, our engagement there, our mission there – and so it’s much more than symbolic. I think it’s important timing, a new year. Again, just to reiterate how steadfast we remain in our support for a prosperous, democratic, free Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders and to underscore the importance of resilience against Russian aggression, opportunities for us to deepen our relationship.
The Secretary will meet President Zelensky, who has, of course, been in office some months now, has undertaken a tremendous number of reform efforts, has shown real leadership, some very positive developments. He’s participated in the Normandy Format summit earlier this month, is living up to his commitments and campaign promises in terms of trying to deal with individual Ukrainians. We saw that, I think just this weekend, with the exchange of an additional 200 detainees between Ukraine and Russian-backed forces.
The Secretary will also see, of course, the foreign minister there, Foreign Minister Prystaiko, a good opportunity there to touch base with his counterpart. They have, of course, spoken and met before. It’ll be a chance to meet with the defense minister, also to see civil society and business community folks.
So it’s a full visit, a great opportunity to start the new year with a full engagement to discuss a wide range of things and to underscore again that in – as Ukraine faces its challenges, but is showing tremendous energy in doing so, it has no greater supporter than the United States.
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, can you open the line of Carol Morello from The Washington Post?
OPERATOR: Thank you. The line is now open.
QUESTION: Hi. I have two questions. I’ll try to be quick. One, I’d like to repeat the question that Matt asked about Ambassador Taylor since the Secretary is arriving there shortly after he departs. What message does that send? He didn’t have to – his 210 days aren’t up and – for another couple weeks, so is he just trying to avoid being seen with him? Why is that happening?
Also, I’d like to know if the Secretary expects to talk with President Zelensky about the investigation into the Bidens and the 2016 election, which Secretary Pompeo’s own staff, own team, has called a conspiracy theory propagated by the Russians. Will that even come up?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Carol. Again, the focus is on our mission and our engagement with Ukraine. I don’t have any personnel announcements to make. Those would come in due course in terms of any announcements on nominations and changes. But again, the Secretary’s agenda is very much focused on what we’re doing with Ukraine, the aid and assistance, the coordination, helping Ukraine follow through with its reforms, strengthening rule of law, creating a healthier investment climate, reforms in the security sector institutions, and really taking the steps necessary to ensure realization of what those who stood on the Maidan in 2014 in the Revolution of Dignity were all about and who are continuing to defend Ukraine’s freedom in the east, where there continues to be Russian aggressive behavior.
So I can’t tell you every topic that’s going to come up in those bilateral meetings, but that’s really what we are focused on, that as Ukraine faces its challenges, the United States is with them. And the international community broadly – much of it with U.S. leadership – is strongly supporting Ukraine in the face of the ongoing Russian aggression. And having – those of you that have been in Ukraine in Kyiv recently will know there is an energy there. There is dynamism. Support for Zelensky and his efforts and reforms, according to polls, are sky high. The polls show an optimism in the country that, the country is in the right direction, and the United States is committed to continuing to help them in that direction.
MODERATOR: Okay, for our third question, can you open the line of Ostap Yarysh from Voice of America?
OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, as a quick reminder, to queue up for questions, you may press 1 followed by 0. And that line is now open. Thank you. And we did lose the line of Ostap Yarysh.
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s move to George Baumgarten from the UN Press Corps.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The line is now open.
QUESTION: Good morning, gentlemen. This is George Baumgarten, UN correspondent for the Astana Times in Nursultan. I was wondering if the gentleman who did the Central Asia briefing could tell me a little bit more about the Secretary’s proposed efforts in his meetings in Nur-Sultan with President Tokayev and ex-president Nazarbayev. Will there be talk of economic operation, military assistance of any kind, or economic cooperation in their mineral wealth and things like that and the other underpinnings of their economy? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, I’m happy to address that issue. The answer is yes, the Secretary expects, I think, to have a broad-ranging discussion about a number of aspects of our relationship, including political, military, as well as economic issues.
We are particularly pleased that Kazakhstan has made a number of steps recently, including in the last several weeks they’ve announced a major trade deal with Tyson Foods in the agricultural sector. So in addition to the sector that you’ve already mentioned, energy and minerals, we look forward to continuing to expand our economic partnership with Kazakhstan to other economic sectors as well.
MODERATOR: Excellent. For our next question, can we go to Ed Wong from The New York Times?
OPERATOR: Thank you. That line is now open.
QUESTION: Yeah. Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
QUESTION: Hello? Oh, okay. Hi, so a quick question for you. You talked – you said that the Ukraine agenda would include reform issues. I was wondering how that would encompass the issue of anti-corruption or corruption. And as we’ve seen during this whole impeachment inquiry, when the President and some of his aides have used the term corruption in relation to Ukraine, what he actually means is an investigation into the Biden family. I’m wondering if that will be encompassed in this reform agenda that you’re talking about, as relates to corruption.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think if you take a look at the kinds of assistance that we’ve been providing to Ukraine for some time now, considerable amounts over – I think around $3 billion since 2014 that is focused on rule of law reforms. All those, the reforms necessary to tighten up and deal with things like corruption, it’s – the Zelensky government itself has already taken significant steps towards implementing meaningful judicial reform. When I’ve been there and talked to officials and ministers, they have gone out of their way to praise the U.S. assistance in those areas. They don’t get a lot of attention in our media, but that’s exactly what we’ve been focused on, empowering and rebooting the key anti-corruption institutions that give teeth to the rule of law and other fundamental reforms.
They’ve passed legislation that has allowed genuine reform of the prosecutor general’s office, clarified jurisdiction of the – I think they call it the high anti-corruption court – so that it doesn’t get flooded with the low-level cases, revoked parliamentary immunity that had enabled corruption. They passed economic reform very quickly – the new government – and that was part of the IMF program. You’ll have seen the positive news from the IMF on that.
So that all goes hand in hand with reforms like reducing regulatory burdens and strengthening financial regulation. The National Bank of Ukraine has been an absolute hero and the efforts done there – incredibly professional – to improve financial regulation, to help Ukraine through the financial crisis that also accompanied the Russian attacks, and improving the infrastructure through a lot of public-private partnerships. There’s really a tremendous, dynamic number of types of reform – land reform, historic in nature, privatization, energy market reform. All of these things are going on, and I suspect all of those will be on the agenda for the Secretary and the leaders, including the president and foreign minister when they meet.
MODERATOR: All right. For the next question, can you open the line of Ardita Dunellari from Voice of America?
OPERATOR: That line is now open.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. I was wondering, [Senior State Department Official One], if you could give some details on who’s joining the Secretary of State in his delegation since major figures in the State Department who dealt with Ukraine have departed over the past month. And who’s been helping prepare for this trip?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, you’re talking to senior official number one, and I’ll be on the trip. Of course, our embassy team has been terrific. I was on the phone with them this morning. They’ve been working with advance teams, as usual on these trips, making preparations. It’s an incredibly dynamic team at Embassy Kyiv, full interagency presence to engage across all of these areas where we work with Ukraine on the reform agenda that they have set and that we’ve agreed for a long time is important for them.
These are not easy things to do, and I think we’ve already seen in the relatively short time of the Zelensky government real progress in dealing with some of the vested interests and oligarchs that are a challenge there. And democratic institutions are vulnerable. It takes time to build and develop these things. So the U.S. is going to continue to stand with Ukraine. I think the team here in Washington that has been focused on Ukraine in the European bureau is still very much intact. I’m not aware of anybody that’s left from my office. And so we’ll be along with the Secretary and the mission there, and charging into 2020 with 20/20 vision.
MODERATOR: Okay, I think we have time for two more quick questions. Let’s go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi from AFP.
OPERATOR: That line is now open.
QUESTION: Oh, yeah. Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
QUESTION: Yes, hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on Carol’s and add questions. To be very specific, will the Secretary reiterate to President Zelensky President Trump’s demands on inquiries on 2016 elections and on the Bidens? Will that be part of the discussion?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think I’ve used a lot of breath and a lot of time in explaining to you the focus of our discussions, and that’s where I’m going to leave it.
MODERATOR: Next question. Let’s move to Conor Finnegan from ABC News.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That line is now open.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for having the call. Kind of following up on that as well, I know you want to – don’t want to address whether or not those two things will come up, but are they still the conditions that the Zelensky administration has to meet in order for President Zelensky to get a White House meeting here in Washington? And what kind of message does it send that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had such a meeting right after the Paris Normandy meeting and President Zelensky still hasn’t had one? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s meeting was scheduled and was a useful opportunity to talk about the Normandy format summit. The foreign minister – that is, Lavrov – had come directly from that, and the Secretary was able to raise that and underscore our support for Ukraine, our continuing, unwavering support for their territorial integrity, their sovereignty, and, of course, the reforms across Ukraine that we are supporting, including in the energy sector. And so obviously, White House questions you’d need to direct to the White House, but the Secretary is very much looking forward to engaging on the whole range of issues that he has talked about in the past, that he’s discussed with these leaders in other fora, in meetings and phone calls, and that’s what we’ll be doing in Kyiv later this week.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll take one more question. Let’s go to the line of Owen Churchill from South China Morning Post.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. That line is now open.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks a lot for doing this. I just had one quick question. I know that the Secretary has spoken out before about his hopes of building like an international coalition of governments pushing back against Beijing regarding its building of mass internment camps for Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, so I was just curious about whether that would be on the agenda for the C5+1 meetings this time around, particularly given that Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, they’re – all three of those are among the countries who have expressed support for China’s actions in the region. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, I’ll be happy to take that one. The Secretary, I think, has been extremely consistent in raising the U.S. concerns about the human rights situation in China. We have raised these concerns, certainly, with all of these governments. It was a subject of the conversation that they had at the C5+1 meeting at the United Nations General Assembly. We expect the Secretary to be discussing this issue both in his bilateral relations during – bilateral meetings during this trip as well as it to come up as well at the C5+1 again.
So our concerns remain, I think, extremely present. We have not seen any kind of significant improvement in the situation there. We continue to raise it with our partners and allies and likeminded countries around the world, and it will certainly be a subject on this trip.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: If I could just make one closing comment. It didn’t come up in any of the questions, but I don’t want to miss the important significance of the Secretary’s visit to Minsk, Belarus. As I noted, the United States being one of the first countries to recognize Belarusian independence, this visit to Minsk will mark a historic and positive juncture in U.S.-Belarus relations. It’s been 25 years since a U.S. secretary of state visited Belarus. And so once again, the U.S. remains committed to a sovereign and independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and after 25 years, the Secretary looks forward to having this opportunity to visit and discuss the range of issues.
MODERATOR: All right. Thanks again, everybody, for joining the call, and thanks to our briefers for their insights and patience. And with that, the embargo on the contents of the call is lifted. A reminder this is on background. Thank you, everyone.