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Interview: Up To Kyrgyz To Decide How To Build Their Democracy, Obama Adviser Says

Michael McFaul speaks to the press in Bishkek.
Michael McFaul speaks to the press in Bishkek.
BISHKEK -- Michael McFaul, a top foreign-policy adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, arrived in Bishkek on May 4 and has held several meetings with members of Kyrgyzstan's interim government and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.

McFaul, who is also senior director for Russian and Central Asian affairs at the National Security Council, spoke with Gulaiym Ashakeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek about his visit to Central Asia.

RFE/RL: You have mentioned a "window of cooperation" during your visit to Bishkek. Could you just describe the possibilities, direction, and format of such cooperation?

Michael McFaul:
I believe and the Obama administration believes that what happened in your country in April was a terrible tragedy. Innocent lives were lost. There will be a time and a place for figuring out what happened there on all sides, and there needs to be accountability for that. But from that tragedy comes possibility as well.

What your people are doing -- and I deliberately use the word "people," not provisional government, but what your people are doing -- the possibilities here are real to establishing a real, democratic system of government in Kyrgyzstan. From the position of the Obama administration, we want to be helpful in whatever way we can to try to support that process.

It's a unique historical opportunity. It is a very challenging opportunity, many difficulties. Creating democracy is never easy, but it's a constant struggle.

What is happening now in Kyrgyzstan most certainly, first and foremost, has implications for Kyrgyzstan, but it could also be a model for other countries about how to establish democratic institutions. We want to be partners with the people of Kyrgyzstan, not any individual leader, not any individual party. That's your business, not our business. But to help establish the democratic rules of the game, we want to support that process as much as we can.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, will the strategy of "soft power" proposed by Obama's administration be effective for post-Soviet countries, including Kyrgyzstan?

The notion that through the power of our example, we can influence and have better relations with countries is something that President Obama firmly believes. He often times uses the words "mutual respect" in dealing with other countries and other peoples. He calls for engagement with governments and has been very active in seeking to re-engage the government of the United States in world diplomacy.

But at the same time, we seek direct engagement with the people of the world, including the people of Kyrgyzstan, not just mediated through the government, and in particular, to facilitate relations between our civil society and our people and Kyrgyz civil society and Kyrgyz people so that they can have a dual-track engagement. That's his strategy, that's our philosophy. It's a fundamentally new approach to foreign policy.

Taking Sides In Kyrgyzstan

RFE/RL: The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office has already launched a criminal investigation against companies supplying fuel to the transit center at Manas Airport. What kind of actions can we expect from the U.S. side?

We are seeking to be as transparent as possible with all the payments, all the money affiliated with the transit center and all of American governmental activities in Kyrgyzstan. We've done this already, but I think we can do more. And in the future, we want to have websites, we want to have information that goes directly to independent media and directly to the Kyrgyz people so that everybody knows who is getting paid what. We think that's good for us, that's good for the government of Kyrgyzstan, and for the people of Kyrgyzstan.

Regarding specific allegations of corruption during my trip here in meeting with the provisional government, I have handed over a list of various instruments, both American instruments and international instruments that we have at our disposal, for tracking assets and finding out where the money went and what happened. And we're fully prepared to cooperate with the provisional government, and once we hear responses from them, we'll cooperate with them in whatever way we can.

RFE/RL: In 2005, former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his allies accused the U.S. government of supporting the Tulip Revolution here. And now, the current provisional government is criticizing your government for not supporting democratic changes in Kyrgyzstan. What is the truth and what is the U.S. position in this regard?

The position of the United States and the Obama administration is very clear. We have a strategic priority to support the development of democratic institutions and we have a variety of programs, we have a variety of American organizations that work in Kyrgyzstan that do that. They are supported by the American taxpayers, they are American organizations that are independent, but their sources of funding are supported by the American government and ultimately, therefore, by the American taxpayers.

That has been a policy that we've had in Kyrgyzstan for a long time. We've been working for decades -- hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the name of that project.

Under the Obama administration, with this philosophy of dual-track engagement, we will continue to work with the government -- and right now the provisional government of Kyrgyzstan -- to advance democracy and to support democracy, but in parallel we're also going to engage directly with civil society, with independent media, with legal organizations to also help to advance and support the democratic process here in Kyrgyzstan. It has to be both tracks; it cannot be one or the other.

We don't support one individual or one political view and we most certainly don't support an American-style democracy. That's not our policy at all. There are lots of varieties of democracy around the world. There is no one truth, there is no one way to build democracy. Ultimately, it's the people of Kyrgyzstan that have to decide their fate, the way they want to build their democracy.

Security vs. Democracy

RFE/RL: Will regional security interest dominate human rights and democratic concerns in the U.S. policy toward Central Asian countries?

When people say you either have to support security or democracy, that is a false choice, both historically and I would say today. President Obama said that very explicitly in its speech when he received the Nobel [Peace] Prize. He said people push us into a corner and say we have to support out security interests or our values, and he disagrees with that. Fundamentally, he believes that support of our values is also support of our national security interests. When it comes to this region or any other region, we believe democratic governments are stable, long-term partners of the United States of America.

The goal in Afghanistan is also to nurture democratic institutions. Now, there are times when we also have to have another track, which is in Afghanistan -- military force -- right? And right now we are fighting forces in Afghanistan in a war. We are not trying to convince them to accept democracy.

But I want to underscore, that's not just an American interest. That's a Kyrgyz interest, that's a Russian interest. We have a common interest here in fighting extremist forces in Afghanistan. And the women and men that travel through [Kyrgyzstan] to then go on to fight in that war, they are fighting what we consider to be a common enemy of the American people, the Kyrgyz people, the Russian people, the Uzbek people. And we have to see it that way. President Obama has been very clear, he categorically rejects the notions of "sphere of influence," "the great game."

RFE/RL: The next stop in your Central Asian trip is Kazakhstan. What are the goals of your visit there?

One of the issues I'll be discussing there is relations between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and the United States. We want to facilitate relations, talking about the border -- these are things that we, the Obama administration, are already involved in. We see that as being very important to the development of stability here in Kyrgyzstan.