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Central Asia: Q&A With U.S. Assistant Secretary Of State Daniel Fried

  • Robert McMahon --> Daniel Fried (file photo) In this interview, RFE/RL speaks with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried about U.S. Policy toward Central Asia. Fried recently made a tour of Central Asia. During the tour he gave voice to increasing U.S. impatience with the refusal of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to permit an international investigation into the May violence in Andijon, and addressed other regional concerns. He spoke with RFE/RL on 5 October in Washington.

RFE/RL: There has been an unfolding series of high-level visits to the region. Is this a rediscovery of Central Asia or an especially important time in its transition?

Daniel Fried: A rediscovery suggests we lost it. We didn’t have that kind of a moment. You’re quite right to notice there’s a lot of attention paid to the region. There are two factors at play here. One is the set of problems we’ve had in Uzbekistan that have been developing not just because of Andijon but over the last couple of years, which have been accumulating mainly as a result of Karimov’s lack of economic and political reforms, which we thought we had his agreement to pursue back in 2002 when he visited the United States. The fact that he’s not pursued the reforms, the fact that the country seems to have stagnated or gone backward on the reformist scale is one factor which is troubling, of course, because of Uzbekistan’s importance.

The other factor is that Kyrgyzstan experienced what the people there call the March events. Some people call it the Tulip Revolution but nobody in Kyrgzystan called it that to me, but it was March events as a result of which an authoritarian president was overthrown because of widespread revulsion at perceived massive corruption and other factors. There followed elections which were just about the freest the region had seen and you have a reformist leadership trying to move the country ahead and trying to get it on its feet.
"I would think that it would be in Russia’s interests to have in Central Asia secure, reformist, and thus stable neighbors as opposed to authoritarian countries which do not reform and are therefore unstable."

The third factor is the slow emergence of Kazakhstan as an increasingly important country because of not only the oil money coming in but the way President Nazarbaev has managed the money which has been to build up the economy beyond just the energy sector.

So you have all of these factors -- trouble in one place because of lack of reform, a newly reformist government and a sense throughout the region that this 10-year period of really minimal reform again with the partial exception of Kazakhstan is coming to an end, that things are accelerating again. That really was the basis for my trip and the secretary’s trip [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She is due to travel to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan on 10-13 October). [U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security] Bob Joseph can speak for himself but a major, one of his major purposes is to discuss a non- and counter-proliferation agenda with these countries, something we share and to discuss what we can do in a practical way so he has a very particular agenda which has relevance for Central Asia, obviously, and the secretary [Rice] is going out there to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, just emerging from a civil war and Kazakhstan. She’s not going to Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: Nor Turkmenistan?

Fried: No, that’s right.

RFE/RL: [U.S. State Department spokesman] Sean McCormack was talking yesterday in terms of an important time for all of these countries as well.

Fried: I wanted to give you some context as to the meaning of important time. Important time is a phrase, behind that is an actual thought -- one country is moving backward, one country moving ahead quickly but somewhat uncertainly and Kazakhstan moving quite steadily ahead on the economic side with a presidential election, which is a fascinating moment.

RFE/RL: Looking at Kazakhstan for a moment, taking one of the three, yesterday [there was] a sign of the difficulty political opposition may face. There was a police raid of a pro-democracy youth group. Analysts of the region have pointed to a chill that has gone through the country since the March events in Kyrgyzstan and in other countries in the region. Everybody refers to the colored revolutions, which have become sort of a metaphor for the overthrow of existing regimes and have become sort of a trouble spot. How does the U.S. counter that or try to deal with that issue?

Fried: There are real issues in Kazakhstan of democracy and elections, that’s what I said when I was there. That was an issue of high importance for us. President Nazarbaev has said several times he wants good elections on 4 December, we take him at his word but we also tell him pretty clearly that we take this seriously, this is important. Elections and democratic reforms matter to us. If we wanted to have a one-dimensional security relationship without reference to political reform and steps to democracy we could have a very cozy relationship with Karimov but that’s not the deal. I understand what you say about a chill after the March events through the region. The fact is that repression does not lead to stability. It is reform that leads to stability particularly when that reform is led by strong leaders who want to move their country forward. There’s no contradiction between having a strong leader who’s also a reformer. That can happen and it needs to happen in Central Asia whether Nazarbaev sees it that way, that’s his issue but we are very clear about the importance of democracy and I’m aware of the issue of the raid and when I was in Kazakhstan I met with the opposition, I met with civil society [representatives], I raised the issue of free elections and space for the opposition. Free elections are not just counting the votes, free elections are the atmosphere, the access to the media, an atmosphere free of intimidation, we raised these issues and these are important to us.

RFE/RL: The group in Kazakhstan known as Kahar the government alleged accepted “foreign financing” for its efforts. This is something that comes up repeatedly as you know. How does this affect the way the U.S. tries to promote democracy in the region? Obviously, the U.S. is supportive of pro-democracy groups and NGOs and so on and yet there are these accusations that come out about foreign financing trying to undermine sovereign efforts to reach their own path to democracy.

Fried: I’m always a little suspicious of ‘one’s own path to democracy’ because one’s own path turns out to be anything but a path to democracy. We don’t get involved in partisanship and in partisan support. That’s not our business. But we do support and I’m proud of our support for civil society groups in efforts to make elections free and fair. We’ve done that. We don’t hide it. It’s a good thing. And it’s something that goes on around the world. We take this seriously. The argument that support for democracy is interference in internal affairs is an argument which was rather discredited at some point in the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviets used that argument and, well, history bears out they lost the debate about that one. At the same time, we have to be respectful of countries that are trying to reform and respect the fact that democracy can look different in different countries, but there are certain things common to every democracy -- freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize politically. Democracy has certain things in common even though cultural differences may give it a different look or a different feel depending on the country.

RFE/RL: On the Uzbek problem you cited, Russia has moved fairly quickly to support Karimov and said it did not support an international, independent investigation, seeming to undermine U.S. and EU efforts to press for that and they continue to press for that. Commentators in Moscow say it is responding directly to threats to its near abroad or what it sees as geopolitical threats to its near abroad. Can you comment on how recent Russian moves have complicated U.S. democracy efforts in the region?

Fried: I’m not going to comment about Russian motives. You can ask the Russians what their motives are. I would think that it would be in Russia’s interests to have in Central Asia secure, reformist, and thus stable neighbors as opposed to authoritarian countries which do not reform and are therefore unstable. Stability ultimately is derived from legitimacy and legitimacy comes through democracy. It doesn’t come through one-man rule, somebody who inherited rule over a country because of the Soviet period. Stability comes ultimately from the legitimacy which is derived from democracy. If the Russians want stability -- and it certainly would seem to be in their interest -- they ought to support reform but again I’m not going to speak of Russian priorities. They can do that themselves.

RFE/RL: They have, along with China, used the Shanghai Co-operation Organization seemingly as a vehicle to try to wind down the U.S. military presence in the region and [U.S. State Department spokesman] Sean McCormack yesterday mentioned the July communique [The Shanghai Cooperation Organization on 5 July said the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan should provide a final deadline for the use of facilities and deployment of military contingents in the region. The SCO groups all Central Asian republics except Turkmenistan with Russia and China]. Afghanistan was not part of that and part of the equation. Was this [issue] part of some of the talks you held as well as what Secretary Rice will be discussing, trying to shore up support for that effort?

Fried: The Uzbeks asked us to leave the base at Karshi-Khanabad and we are going to do that. Period. I didn’t go there to try to talk them out of it and we’re leaving. It is a curious and in fact unsupportable argument that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization made out that things in Afghanistan are fine. Therefore there’s no need for the base, therefore we should get out. Some of the same countries who made that argument then turned around and criticized us in other fora for the lack of progress in Afghanistan and obviously the two arguments are completely inconsistent. They’re both wrong. Both arguments are wrong. There is progress being made, A, and, B, the struggle is obviously not over. Therefore, C, there are good reasons to have these bases in the region which are supporting the efforts in Afghanistan, which surely serve the interests of the countries themselves and, if you think about it, serve Russian interests because the Russians also face a problem. But again, the Russians have to speak for themselves.

RFE/RL: On Uzbekistan, what next in terms of U.S. policy to try to improve the situation there? What other levers are left at this point?

Fried: We gave Karimov a very clear message: we have to see how he responds. There’s a lot of concern in Europe, there’s a lot of concern in the United States about the direction Karimov is leading Uzbekistan, leading his country. That is the Uzbeks need to think about this and we will see what they do. I don’t want to speculate about what we will do in response to their actions because they haven’t taken them yet.

See also:

RFE/RL Special: Central Asia In Focus

More RFE/RL Interviews