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U.S. Looks To Kyrgyz Elections To Produce 'A Powerful Model' For Central Asia

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake at a news conference with interim President Roza Otunbayeva in Bishkek, April 2010

Robert O. Blake Jr., the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher about how the United States has helped Kyrgyzstan prepare for the October 10 elections and Washington's hopes for the country’s future.

RFE/RL: These elections are arguably Kyrgyzstan’s most important since independence and will determine much about the country's future. Interim President Roza Otunbaeva is hoping for a result that will bestow credibility and authority on a new government so it can effectively address the country’s problems. What is the United States hoping for?

Robert Blake: I think I would go even further than what you said. I think the significance of these elections is that, first, it’s the first free parliamentary elections ever in Central Asia. And we think that the peaceful transfer of power through democratic means would really be a very powerful potential model for the region. So we [have] done quite a lot to support this election and help the various parties to get ready for it. And we’re very pleased with the way the campaigning has taken place so far. It’s been very, very active and largely peaceful.

RFE/RL: Can you give me some examples of what the United States has done to help the country prepare for the elections?

Blake: Certainly. First of all, there have been a number of debates that have been scheduled -- as [happens] here in the United States -- and we’ve provided support for, I think, nine of these 90-minute televised debates that have taken place between the candidates. We also helped to fund a nationwide information campaign to encourage the participation of young people, because that is such an important part of the electorate in Kyrgyzstan.

We’ve also provided some support and training for judges and attorneys on potential complaints and appeals that might take place, so that that can be done in an orderly manner. And then we’ve also provided some training to the police in various parts of Kyrgyzstan, so that they can help to maintain security at the polling places and better use nonlethal forms of crowd control so that, again, these elections can take place in an orderly manner.

RFE/RL: The violence that broke out last spring and early summer following the ouster of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev has largely stopped, but the political and ethnic tensions that fueled it remain. There was a flash of violence just a few days ago, on October 6, involving an angry crowd storming the Bishkek offices of one of the political parties vying for seats in parliament. How concerned is the United States that more violence could break out?

Blake: I think what’s been notable since the actual campaigning began on September 10 has been the almost total lack of violence. There was one incident that you referred to, involving Ata-Jurt a few days earlier. But other than that there’s been no violence whatsoever. And I think that really shows that the parties themselves and that the people believe they really have a stake in this process and they believe that the outcome is going to be very consequential for them, so they’re putting all their energies into competing and trying to win seats in this parliament.

RFE/RL: Is the U.S. satisfied with how the interim government has handled the aftermath of the ethnic violence, in terms of conducting a transparent investigation and holding the right people accountable? For example, the government’s prosecution of mainly ethnic Uzbeks has been criticized.

Blake: I think that what we’ve focused on in the United States, and with a lot of our partners in the OSCE and the EU and elsewhere, has been the importance of ensuring that there is justice and that there’s a credible investigation that takes place of the violence that took place, particularly in June.

So we have been very clear in our support for not only a domestic investigation but also an international investigation, and I think we’re very pleased that President Otunbaeva has expressed her support for this international investigation and that the modalities for that are now being worked out so that the investigation can take place very soon.

RFE/RL: What if pro-Bakiev parties dominate the elections and the hoped-for outcome doesn’t materialize?

I think that the polling that I have seen thus far shows that it’s not at all clear who’s going to win and that there are between five and seven parties that are within about 11 and 15 percent of the overall vote. And so it’s very clear that there’s going to have to be a coalition government that takes place. This will be a new thing for Kyrgyzstan in terms of forming such a coalition government and obviously the positions that such a coalition government will take are very difficult to ascertain at this stage, since we don’t know who would be the members of that coalition.

But what’s important to us is really the process itself and that democracy will have taken place, the will of the people will have been reflected, and we’ll just go from there. I think we’ll be pleased to work with whatever coalition government emerges and we continue to have very good relations with President Otunbaeva.

RFE/RL: Moscow has been following the election campaigning very closely and several political party leaders have met with Russian officials. How concerned is the U.S. about Russia’s role and influence in Kyrgyzstan going forward? Is there a struggle for influence between Washington and Moscow and are you looking to gain an edge over Russia?

Blake: We don’t see that in zero-sum terms. On the contrary, we have been very pleased with the cooperation that we’ve had with Russia. As you know, [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev and [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama issued a statement about Kyrgyzstan and we’ve been working very productively at all levels with our Russian counterparts.

I recently had a very productive meeting in Moscow with the deputy foreign minister, Mr. [Grigory] Karasin, and I think we have a very similar assessment of the situation and a very similar assessment of the way forward. So we believe that, actually, Kyrgyzstan is something of a model for Russian and American cooperation and we hope that we can expand that cooperation in other parts of Central Asia.

RFE/RL: You talked about what the U.S. has done to help Kyrgyzstan recover from the turmoil that surrounded Bakiev’s ouster and the help it has provided to prepare for elections. How is Washington planning to help going forward, postelection?

Already the United States has been one of the most important bilateral donors. We’ve provided over $100 million in assistance this year to help Kyrgyzstan with humanitarian and other challenges that it’s been facing.

And President Obama, when he met recently on the margins of the UN General Assembly with President Otunbaeva, made it very clear to President Otunbaeva that the United States will continue to provide support to Kyrgyzstan, particularly if these elections go well, because, again, we have such an important stake in advancing democracy in this important part of the world for us.

RFE/RL: Do you have any plans to travel to the region soon?

I don’t have any immediate plans to travel there, but once a government has been formed I hope to get out there as quickly as possible thereafter to begin working with that government.