In connection with the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, the neighboring countries of Central Asia have moved up in recent years on Washington's list of foreign policy priorities.
Now, with the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. troops on the horizon, governments of the region are wondering how that departure will affect them, as well as American interest in Central Asia.
RFE/RL Washington correspondent Richard Solash spoke to Robert Blake, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, about this and other issues, ranging from human rights in the region to Russian plans for a "Eurasian Union."
RFE/RL: Some critics have said that Central Asia's new strategic importance has trumped U.S. concern over its troubling human rights standards. Speaking at Johns Hopkins University on January 25, you responded, "We do not see our engagement with Central Asia as an either-or choice between developing security relationships at the expense of core values like human rights. Progress on one issue can help reinforce, or create incentives for, progress on other issues.” Has increased security cooperation led to human rights progress?
I would say that our increased cooperation with Central Asia across the board -- not just on security measures and on the Northern Distribution Network -- has really helped to increase the level of trust and confidence between the United States and all of the Central Asian countries. In some cases, there has been some limited human rights progress, but I don't want to overstate that.
I think all of the Central Asian states, to a varying degree, are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and very much have their eye on whether there are levels of growing Islamic influence in their region -- and for those reasons, they're not really moving very quickly to open up their systems as fast as we hope they would.
But nonetheless, the fact that we have this intensified engagement now with all the Central Asian governments has led to much better dialogue on these issues, where we talk very, very openly, and frankly, speak openly with our partners about why we think it's in their interest to, for example, allow greater religious freedom or to allow greater press freedom, and how we think that it's actually detrimental to their stability to now allow more of these human liberties.
One of the things we've been working really hard on is trafficking in persons. There has been quite a lot of progress in places like Tajikistan, where we actually moved them off of what [the U.S. State Department] calls the Tier 2 watch list onto the Tier 2 of cooperating countries. We've been engaging with all of the countries of Central Asia a lot on that particular issue. I think there's been some release of dissidents in places like Uzbekistan. These are people that we've talked quietly to the government about.
I don't want to overstate this. There hasn't been huge progress on human rights. On the contrary, there has been in many cases a deterioration of rights. So this remains a very important part of our agenda with all of these countries.
So there have been some examples like that. But I don't want to overstate this. There hasn't been huge progress on human rights. On the contrary, there has been in many cases a deterioration of rights. So this remains a very important part of our agenda with all of these countries.
RFE/RL: Many in Central Asia now are wondering how U.S. involvement in the region will change after Washington withdraws its troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Can you look into the future a bit to address that question?
It's always a little bit hazardous to talk about relations two years hence, but I think it's safe to say that the United States will continue to attach great importance to our relations with Central Asia, well beyond 2014, just as we will attach great importance to our relations with Afghanistan.
There's a misimpression in many parts of the region that, just because most of the American troops in Afghanistan will be pulling out as a result of the transition at the end of 2014, that somehow the United States is going to abandon Afghanistan. Nothing could be further from the truth. The United States is going to have a long-term partnership with Afghanistan, particularly on the economic side. We will continue to have some residual military presence there as well, at least to provide training [and] to engage in counterterrorism efforts. The exact nature of that is under negotiation with the Afghan government.
Likewise, we will continue to have a very strong engagement with all of the Central Asian countries, because it's very, very important to us that this be a region of stability and that this be a region of economic opportunity and that this region help to really lead the process of regional integration. And we think that there's a really important opportunity now, and we're really just starting on that process. That's going to continue well beyond 2014.
RFE/RL: What will be the biggest threat facing Central Asia after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan? Are the region's countries prepared to deal with that threat?
Again, I don't want to get into trying to predict what the situation's going to be like after 2014. We don't know. But we're certainly making every effort we can now to, again, support this very important security transition that's taking place in Afghanistan, but then equally important, to build up the private sector in Afghanistan by establishing these regional linkages that I talked about earlier -- and then working closely with our friends in Central Asia, who believe strongly in this regional vision and want to contribute to the stability of Afghanistan."
RFE/RL: Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has said that there should be no foreign troop presence at the country's Manas air base by mid-2014, when the current U.S. lease expires. Is that your understanding? Will that complicate withdrawal plans and future shipments of supplies to Afghanistan?
Well, first of all, let me express our appreciation to the government of Kyrgyzstan for their continued hosting of the Manas transit center. This remains a very important part of the overall effort in Afghanistan because it's a vital logistics hub. It's the center through which all of our troops pass before they go into Afghanistan. So we very much appreciate the hosting of this by the government of Kyrgyzstan.
We're just really beginning the conversation now with the government about what the future of the Manas transit center is going to be. As you know, we've had some initial conversations with [Atambaev] and with members of his team. I think we've going to have more technical-level discussions at some point about the future of that and I don't want to try to anticipate what those are going to be like.
Again, we see this as something that's very much in our interest but also in the interests of Kyrgyzstan, and we very much want to listen to the ideas that President Atambaev and his team have about the future. We'll do our best to work in a very cooperative fashion to find a way forward that's going to be to the satisfaction of us and to Kyrgyzstan and not be of any concern to important allies like Russia.
RFE/RL: So it still remains to be seen whether the U.S. presence at Manas will continue post-2014, correct?
That's right. All of that is going to be under discussion.
RFE/RL: To continue on Kyrgyzstan, in a few months we will be at the two-year anniversary of citizens' approving a new constitution, which paved the way for the creation of Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy. Reflecting on what has happened since then, how do you assess the speed and quality of progress?
Kyrgyzstan has gone through an enormous transition over the last two years. I think that they've faced challenges that would have been much more difficult for many other countries that didn't have the kind of democratic system that they've had. I think it's a real tribute, both to the democratic system that they're developing, but also to the leadership of [former] President [Roza] Otunbaeva and now President Atambaev, that they've been able to overcome many of the difficulties that they've faced.
Kyrgyzstan has gone through an enormous transition over the last two years. I think that they've faced challenges that would have been much more difficult for many other countries that didn't have the kind of democratic system that they've had.
At the same time, I think President Atambaev would be the first to say that his country still faces many challenges. As you know, during his inaugural address, he talked very openly about how they need to do more on things like reconciliation [and] things like corruption. And that's a good thing; that shows that he's listening to the concerns of his people and that those are very much at the forefront of his agenda. That's the value of a democratic system: It provides feedback to the leaders and the leaders can then act on those very important issues.
So I think that they are taking steps, but there's quite a lot to be done, particularly on the reconciliation side. I think tensions remain high in southern Kyrgyzstan, so it's very, very important for Kyrgyzstan to address those, to try to bring the communities together, to provide economic opportunity for everyone in that important region, and to work closely with countries like Uzbekistan as well, that can help provide some of that economic opportunity by opening up the borders and trade routes.
RFE/RL: There has been talk in the Russian press, and some conflicting reports, about Central Asia providing an exit route for U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan. Will troops and cargo leave the region through Uzbekistan, as some reports say? The related possibility being mentioned is that the U.S. will leave some of its weaponry in Uzbekistan. Some consider that an alarming prospect, given the repressive nature of the government. Is that true?
I don't want to comment on any specific routes or the specific logistics patterns, for obvious security reasons. But let me say that as American units begin to rotate out of Afghanistan, or continue to rotate out of Afghanistan, they also take their equipment, and that's standard operating procedure everywhere. Some equipment will be left in Afghanistan, but obviously Afghanistan doesn't need all of the equipment that is now there. So some of that equipment will be rotated out [and] some of that will rotate out through the Northern Distribution Network.
It is possible that some of that might be made available through what's called 'excess defense articles,' but that's a very detailed process that goes on between the Pentagon and these countries. Those would be subject to the same restrictions that we have that govern normal arms transfers to Uzbekistan or any other country.
I don't want your listeners or anybody to think that there will be some sort of exceptional process here governing excess defense articles. Those will be done in the normal way, and thus far, we have not been willing to transfer any kind of lethal weapons to Uzbekistan.
The majority of the assistance that we've been providing as a result of the waver has been protective equipment and non-lethal assistance to help them to defend themselves against potential retribution for the support that they're providing to the United States.
RFE/RL: On Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was reelected in February with 97 percent of the vote. The OSCE decided not to monitor it, saying in a statement that "the deployment of an election observation mission, even of a limited nature, would add value at this point in time." What is the U.S. reaction to the election and do you see any chance for political plurality in Turkmenistan in the future?
Well, I think it was good that at least there were some other candidates that did run, but I don't think that there was any adversarial effort. Almost all the candidates, to my knowledge, endorsed the president himself, so I don't consider that that was a serious, democratic effort. But we are encouraging Turkmenistan and all of the other countries in Central Asia to move toward more competitive, democratic practices, including in their presidential elections.
We saw a little bit of that in Kazakhstan where, for example, now they have some new parties that are represented in the Kazakh parliament, and that's certainly welcome. But even in Kazakhstan there were a lot of questions that the OSCE raised about the parliamentary elections as well.
I can't say that this [Turkmen election] marked significant new progress, no.
This is going to be a gradual process, but we think it's very, very important to show progress and for the governments to show their own people that there's going to be progress. But [for Turkmenistan], I can't say that this [election] marked significant new progress, no.
RFE/RL: Finally, a question about newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin's vision of creating a "Eurasian Union." In the newspaper "Izvestiya," he wrote that, not unlike the Soviet Union, it should have "a developed system of regional production specialization and a common space of language, science and culture." Many are reading this plan as a move to consolidate Russian influence. Your thoughts?
Blake: First of all, we haven't seen much practical progress towards this Eurasian Union, so it's very difficult to assess how seriously Russia is pursuing this. Our main interest is in ensuring that whatever is intended, they don't try to establish a zone of exclusion. We think that, on the contrary, what is needed is to encourage economic integration and regional economic integration in particular, and that therefore, what's needed is to open up the trade routes, to open up greater opportunities for trade, both within Central Asia but also between Central Asia and all of its regional partners, particularly its partners to the South -- to India, which is going to be the largest market for all of these countries over the next 50 years.
Many of the economies of the region and the leaders of the region see that this is going to be a real pole of opportunity, and therefore it's not in any of their interests to see any of these regional trade opportunities get locked in a Eurasian Union. On the contrary, we need to keep these trade routes open and these trade opportunities open. That's certainly the message that we're conveying to our friends in Russia and to everybody else in the region.