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U.S. - Uzbek Relationship

Evan A. Feigenbaum, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
March 2, 2007

AMBASSADOR JON R. PURNELL: I will just start with a few quick words of introduction. It is a great pleasure to welcome Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Evan Feigenbaum to Tashkent. As I have been telling our various Uzbek hosts, Mr. Feigenbaum is the most senior person in the Department of State who deals exclusively with Central Asia. So, it is a great pleasure to welcome him to his first visit here in Tashkent. Evan, good to have you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming out today. I have been Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia for about seven months. And, as the Ambassador said, this is my first visit to Tashkent, my first visit to Uzbekistan. I have just come to the end of three very interesting days. I met with a very wide range of people: members of civil society, alumni of American programs, including exchange programs, members of the business community, including the American business community here, and, of course, a wide range of government officials. I have just come from a meeting with Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov. I also met with several other senior Uzbek officials, including National Security Advisor Murod Atayev, Minister of Defense Ruslan Mirzaev, Deputy Prime Minister and General Director of the Agency of Communication and Informatization Abdulla Aripov, Minister of Public Education Turobjon Juraev, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Higher and Secondary Special Education Rustam Kasymov, the State Advisor on Religious Affairs Bahrom Abduhalimov, and Human Rights Ombudsman Sayyora Rashidova.

What I can tell you about the meetings is that we had very candid discussions about next steps in the U.S.-Uzbek relationship. And this is a very important time to have these discussions because this year is the fifteenth anniversary of the American presence in Uzbekistan. From our perspective, this anniversary is important because it demonstrates the core American commitment in Central Asia to the sovereignty and independence of the countries of this region, including Uzbekistan. This is the basis for our involvement in this part of the world. We are not here to play games with other countries. The five sovereign, independent countries of Central Asia are not the objects of our struggle with other countries - they are the focus of our policy. Although the U.S.-Uzbek relationship has had its ups and downs over the years, this has always been our commitment and on the basis of this commitment we have built a record of real success together in many areas of cooperation.

We have also had some serious differences and the last 20 months have not always been easy. But recently we have heard from our Uzbek colleagues that they are interested in improving the relationship, and we have always been committed to a strong bilateral relationship. So this seemed like a good time for me to make my first visit to Tashkent.

We face three challenges in the relationship. The first is that both sides - the American and the Uzbek - have stated their commitment to cooperation. Our challenge, individually and jointly, is to turn these declaratory statements of commitment into concrete actions that transform the relationship.

Our second challenge is to do this in a multidimensional way. There are many aspects of American policy in Central Asia: security, trade and economics, political development, democracy and human rights, energy, terrorism, transnational issues, and regional issues. We do not have a one- or two-dimensional policy and so we cannot have one- or two-dimensional relationships. We want full, multidimensional, productive relationships with every country in the region. We believe that there is a basis for such a relationship with Uzbekistan and we will continue to try to find it.

In fact, we do not have to look very far to find a vision for that relationship: the 2002 Strategic Framework Agreement between our two countries. This is the fifth anniversary of the Framework Agreement. This multidimensional agreement includes cooperation on security, on trade, on political development, on all of these issues. What we want to do here is to build on our track record of success because we are very proud of our successful cooperation and we hope that our Uzbek colleagues are proud of it too.

We want to take areas of the relationship that have a great deal of potential and where we have begun to cooperate but have not yet realized that full potential. These areas include education and trade - we have made a good start but we have not yet realized the full potential of our relations. We hope to remove obstacles and thus to do more cooperatively in these areas.

And third, we want to address our differences in a spirit of mutual respect. We continue to have some differences. But we do not want these differences to prevent cooperation in the areas where we agree. So that is why I am here - to explore a way forward in our bilateral relationship.

It has been a very interesting and useful three days. I would be happy to take a few questions.

QUESTION: How do you assess U.S.-Uzbek cooperation in terms of preventing drug trafficking and drug control? You may be aware that 2006 was a record year for the amount of opium produced in Afghanistan. This happened despite the presence of coalition forces in that country.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I am very glad you asked that question because counter-narcotics is a genuine and common interest between our two countries. It is one of those areas where we have had successes in the past and we hope to do more in the future. But there have been a few bureaucratic obstacles to doing more and that is one subject I discussed with my counterparts in the Uzbek government. I made a few concrete suggestions and I hope we will be able to move forward.

As you said, narcotics remain a problem in Afghanistan . It is also a problem globally. Since I know it is a challenge in Uzbekistan, I want to reassure people here that we are working diligently with our partners and with the Afghan government to deal with the problem in Afghanistan. We are working to promote alternative crops and alternative livelihoods for farmers. We are working with the Afghan government to build law-enforcement capacity. We are working with international partners, including those in Central Asia. Indeed, I would argue that counter-narcotics has been among the most fruitful areas for cooperation in the Central Asian region. We recognize the problem; we are working hard to fight it. We are doing so with partners and we hope that Uzbekistan will be one of these partners.

QUESTION: In the recent past, Uzbek-American military cooperation was very productive. You had a chance to meet with the Uzbek Minister of Defense. Could you share your thoughts about the prospects for developments in Uzbek-American military cooperation?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: It has been one area of success in the past and it continues to have much potential, especially for things like military exchanges and military education. We have also cooperated productively in the areas of non-proliferation and border security. Yet, as in many areas of our relationship, levels of cooperation have gone up and down. Regardless, there is a sound basis of common interest and we will continue to try to find ways to pursue that common interest. I thought it was a very good conversation with the Minister of Defense.

Turkish TV TRT: My first question is about the scope of the U.S.-Uzbek economic relationship. For example, what was the volume of trade in 2006? My second question is that after the events in Andijon, the Uzbek government closed many American companies, while the Russians returned to Central Asia (for example, LUKoil and Gazprom invested in the Uzbek oil and gas sectors and Moscow State University opened a branch in Tashkent last year). What do you think about the possibility of such integration between the United States and Uzbekistan ?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: You asked two very important and related questions. The first question is about the size of American investment and the second is about the future of American business and American institutions.

With respect to the size of American investments, I confess I do not know the exact number. We can get it for you, but I believe I read that over the years there has been about $500 million in U.S. investment in Uzbekistan. Although that is a respectable figure, it is a much smaller one than the trade figures for some of the other countries in the region. This points back to one of the core statements I made in the beginning: there are areas of the relationship that have enormous potential but where we have not lived up to that full potential. In fact, not only is that trade number not as big as the one for some other countries in the region, I believe American investment here is declining year after year while at the same time it is rising in some of the other Central Asian countries. These numbers concern me because I feel very strongly about the potential for American-Uzbek business cooperation.

You are right that some of the American businesses here have had problems. American businesses face a lot of high hurdles. These include import barriers, licensing issues, tax issues and legal issues. I think the challenge is to try to remove some of the obstacles because this is an area of great potential. I do not want to get into specific cases, however.

The power of American investment lies in the private sector. For instance, we have a trade relationship with China that now involves more than $200 billion in two-way trade. This is not government investment, it is private sector trade. This is important because unlike some other countries that trade in this region, the basis of American investment and economic involvement is our private sector. What we hope to do is to remove some of these barriers because we think there is great potential for American investment here and throughout this region. So while I think developments with individual companies are important to watch, there is a more important point which is the general environment for business and investment. This necessarily formed a large part of my discussion with Deputy Prime Minister Aripov and others because we think it is an area of great potential.

QUESTION: Currently there is tension between the United States and Iran . To what extent will diplomatic negotiations be successful, or will the United States ultimately have to use military force to resolve this crisis?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I am not directly responsible for policy toward Iran. The American position on Iran is very well known. The entire international community has very deep concerns about the trajectory of nuclear developments in Iran and they have spoken about this in the past. The President of the United States has said that we are seeking a diplomatic solution. And, as you know, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and other interested parties are talking and coordinating frequently on the issue. The United States has said that we are willing to join a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, but we have an expectation that Iran will suspend its nuclear program during that period. Our concerns in this and other areas are very well known and I would refer you to what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said on this issue, including her very recent testimony on Capitol Hill.

QUESTION: You mentioned that the Uzbek authorities have expressed a willingness to reestablish cooperative ties with the United States . From what level of the Uzbek government have you received this expression of willingness or hint that they are ready to reestablish cooperation? Also, many Uzbek officials ask how can the government of Uzbekistan reestablish a cooperative relationship with a country that allows organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is a religious extremist organization, to freely operate. How would you answer them?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Thank you for the questions. As to the first question, I began by telling you who I had spoken with here. These included officials at the levels of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister. Every single one of them expressed an interest and a commitment to cooperate with the United States. Of course, I was very encouraged to hear that, but as I said at the beginning, the challenge, our mutual challenge, will be to turn these declaratory statements into concrete actions that demonstrate our cooperation. I offered a few, very specific ideas and suggestions and they offered a few ideas and suggestions as well. Now we will go to work. We will try to explore what is possible. It may be difficult, but we must determine how to remove the obstacles and truly follow up on the conversations so that we can cooperate in concrete ways.

As to the question of terrorism, this has been a great concern to the United States and globally, particularly since September 11, 2001. Both the United States government and the United Nations have institutionalized processes for looking at various allegations that groups have engaged in terrorist activities. We weigh the evidence carefully, openly and honestly. Working through our U.S. government process and through the international process, we have listed as terrorist organizations a large number of groups. That is the process for making such determinations.

The point I want to make is that terrorism - by which I mean acts of violence against innocent individuals - is of great concern to the United States . This is no secret, especially given our experiences since "9/11." We are looking to cooperate in counterterrorism activities with a variety of governments around the world.

QUESTION: The Central Asian countries have not had much success in achieving real economic cooperation since independence. How are you going to achieve success in this area?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I am very glad you asked this question because I just gave a speech in Washington on this very subject. Our basic interest in Central Asia is that we want to see stable, strong, sovereign, independent states cooperating with one another, with the United States, with our partners, in order to build a more stable and prosperous and democratic region. Part of the challenge we see is to promote several kinds or levels of regional integration. The first, as you said, is economic integration among the Central Asian countries themselves. This is a great challenge, but the United States has worked for more than 15 years in partnership with Central Asian governments to promote such integration. For example, in the area of water management, our United States Agency for International Development, which is our cooperation agency, has spent almost $40 million over the years on transboundary water projects.

Some of our most successful programs in Central Asia are in areas like borders and customs, which are intimately connected to regional cooperation. This comes back to my point about a multidimensional relationship. Are secure borders and modern customs a security issue or a trade issue? The answer is that they are both. We know there have been problems of terrorism in Central Asia and terrorist groups have penetrated across borders. So secure borders are good for security. But you cannot promote trade without modern customs and the ability of traders to cross borders. Thus a big part of what we are doing to promote regional integration is to build capacity in areas such as borders and customs that bridge the boundaries between different sectors such as security, economics, political development and so on.

We are promoting other kinds of integration too; for instance integration into the world market by supporting WTO memberships for all five Central Asian states, although so far, Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian member. We hope Uzbekistan will some day be a WTO member as well.

We are also promoting regional integration between the Central Asian countries and their neighbors in every direction on the compass: north, west, east and south. For the last 200 years, Central Asia has been oriented toward the north and west. We respect that and we acknowledge it. But the most dynamic economies in the world today are to the east and south of Central Asia, in the Pacific Rim and in the areas around India. One thing we hope to do is to help create economic opportunity by working with Central Asian countries to forge links to the global economy, including South Asia . You may know that we reorganized our bureaucracy in the Department of State to help promote these linkages - not in one direction at the expense of any other direction, but in all four directions on the compass. We are doing a lot in this area. And I hope you will take a look at my speech because I gave a few very concrete examples.

QUESTION: As you know, President Karimov has ruled the country since 1989 and his second official term of office expired in late January. There is a legal loophole that allows him to stay until the end of December, but there is a bit of controversy about the legitimacy of his rule. What does the State Department think about this issue?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, I am not a lawyer so I cannot comment on American law, much less on Uzbek law. I will leave it to my Uzbek colleagues to interpret Uzbek law.

QUESTION: Are you visiting only Uzbekistan or are you going to other countries during this tour?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I try to visit Central Asia often. I have been to every country in the region. When I visit, I try not just to visit the capitals, but to visit other cities as well. For instance, last year I visited Kyrgyzstan and I went to Osh . It is not easy, however, to visit multiple countries on every trip. On this trip, I am visiting only Uzbekistan, but I will be back in Central Asia fairly soon.

QUESTION: My second question is whether, during the course of your visits, you have heard any concerns from the governments of the Central Asian states, particularly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, that cooperating with the United States may hurt their relationships with Russia . My third question relates to our current understanding that the United States is trying to establish military bases in the Czech Republic and Poland . Maybe your visit to Uzbekistan also includes the goal of establishing a military base here? I may be speaking rubbish, but, then again, we never thought that we would have an American air base in Uzbekistan and that it would leave so quickly. Given the fact that the Central Asian states are closer to Iran than either the Czech Republic or Poland, how would you respond?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: First, I will make a very direct statement: I did not discuss the issue of bases here in Uzbekistan . Second, I am glad you asked the question about U.S. and Russian relations in Central Asia . Eighty percent of the articles I read in the newspapers about Central Asia talk of a "great game" among the major powers in this region - a great geo-strategic competition among the United States, Russia, China, and others. This characterization is completely inaccurate and I will tell you why.

One, it is insulting to Central Asians. It reduces them to being passive receptacles of the strategies brought to bear on them by outside powers as if they themselves had no interests, no goals, no policies. I said it at the beginning and I will say it again: the Central Asian countries are not objects of our struggle with others. They are not anybody's pawns on a chessboard. We see them as independent players and independent partners with international responsibilities. Working with them, not outsiders, is the basis of our approach to this part of the world.

Two, the major world powers actually have pretty good relations with one another. If you look at the last 300 years of international history, it is largely a history of war and conflict. We are living at a moment in international history when relations among big countries - the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and Europe - are comparatively peaceful and war is almost unthinkable. So despite all this talk about confrontation in Central Asia, the major powers actually have very productive relations at a global level. Of course, we do not agree on everything. And we are not na´ve - there is some competition. That is natural. But competition does not mean confrontation, which leads to my third point.

The United States and Russia should have many common interests in Central Asia . Why would we not both want stable, prosperous democratic states that are integrated into the world economy? We certainly do, and I would think Russia does too. I suppose that is why we have had consultations with our Russian colleagues over the years. As recently as a week ago, the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, [Gregory] Karasin, was in Washington to meet with Under Secretary [of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas] Burns and others. I was in a meeting with him and Assistant Secretary [of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard] Boucher, to talk about Central Asia. I do not think that Central Asian countries should have to choose one or another partner. They should seek partnerships with everyone. That is what we are promoting. We are not anti-anyone. We are just anti-monopoly. We think more links to more partners is a good thing. More choices mean more independence. As I said, the core of American policy is to be partners with independent countries in the region. So I appreciate your question, but I think every American official would reject the premise. We do not think countries should have to choose.

QUESTION: You noted that U.S.-Uzbek relations are improving and it is great to hear that. Your visit to Uzbekistan is proof of this improvement. Perhaps you are like the swallow that announces spring. But, I think that real improvement will start only if there is an exchange between the two countries' leaders.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I do not see the prospect of such visits at the moment, although the Uzbek president visited the United States in the past. As I said, the last 20 months have been a bit difficult and I have clearly outlined what I think the challenges are for both sides. I do not think my visit in itself symbolizes anything. We should be talking to our colleagues all the time. What I want you to take away from this is that both sides have said that they are committed to cooperation and the challenge we both now have is to turn these words into concrete actions, while, at the same time, to continue being frank about our differences.

QUESTION: I did not mean just presidents. I also meant prime ministers, heads of parliaments or other high-level or high-ranking officials.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: We are not discussing anything specific right now. We are trying to improve our relationship.

QUESTION: The Islamic Organization on Islamic Education and Culture announced that for 2007, Tashkent is the capital of Islamic culture. To what extent does this designation contradict the State Department's statement that Uzbekistan puts pressure on Islamic believers who practice their religion?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Uzbekistan has had a great history as a locus for Islamic culture. I look at the great cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, at Ulughbek and other famous figures in Islamic history. Everyone in the United States would say that this is a great center of Islamic culture and Islamic learning throughout the ages of history.

You are right that the United States Department of State designated Uzbekistan as a country of particular concern. We are committed to religious freedom in every country around the world. That is our mechanism to express our concerns as we see them. It certainly does not mean that there is no religious practice in Uzbekistan . Of course there is, but there are some areas where the Department of State has expressed concern. Ambassador John Hanford, who is the State Department's representative in this area, has spoken in public about some of these issues. We think this would be a very good area for dialogue between the United States and Uzbekistan and I have tried to encourage that dialogue while I have been here. I hope this will be a subject of conversation as we go forward.

QUESTION: I have two questions. First, in Uzbek we have a saying "if Muhammed does not go to the mountain, the mountain comes to Muhammed." How should we view your visit: as Muhammed going to the mountain or the mountain coming to Muhammed? Second, what do you think about the Uzbek opposition? Does it exist? As far as I know, there are a number of so-called political parties that try to position themselves as opposition parties and that certain leaders of the Uzbek opposition reside in the United States or in Europe . But, to my knowledge, there is no real opposition in either Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I am not sure I fully understand your first question. So I will just tell you how I see my visit and hope you see my visit the same way. I see my visit as an opportunity to explore a way forward in U.S.-Uzbek relations after a very difficult period. And I do not want to pretend that it will be easy, because we do have differences. But we believe that over the last 15 years, we have demonstrated that there are many common interests between the two countries. We have seen in the past that there is a common basis. We believe we should continue to try to find one and we are committed to finding it. We hope that our Uzbek colleagues are too. And that is why I came to Tashkent.

As to your second question on what the United States seeks in the realm of political development, the answer is fairly simple. As Assistant Secretary Boucher has often said, we hope to see greater openness in every sphere of life. Openness to trade, openness to travel, openness to educational exchanges and yes, openness to participation in political life. That is why democratic development is part of our policy - not just in this part of the world, but in every part of the world. We do not expect that every country is going to look like a carbon copy of the United States. Every country has its own history, culture and traditions. But we believe that history has shown that democratic development makes sense all around the world. It cannot be imposed from outside. But we have seen democratic development in countries that are very different: from Botswana in Africa to Korea in Asia to Argentina in Latin America. Every country is unique, but we hope to see greater openness in every sphere in all countries around the world. That is why I said that our core goal in this part of the world is to see stable, prosperous, democratic states integrated into the world economy, cooperating with each other, with the United States and with our partners to support regional security and stability.

Thank you very much for coming. It is my first visit here but I hope it will not be my last and I hope to see you all again.

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