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Interview With Chris Chivers, New York Times

Evan A. Feigenbaum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
June 8, 2007

QUESTION: I wanted to catch up to our last discussion. I remember talking to you and several other diplomats in different countries, organizations, around election time and immediately after there was a sense that people wanted to see how it would go; and engage sort of delicately and encourage the baby steps and try to bring the administration along, if you will. I wanted to see how you assess things now that it’s gone on for a few months and people have had better visibility on this administration.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Look, Rome wasn’t built in a day and we don’t expect that Turkmenistan is going to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy by next Thursday. But having said that, I think what we think is important is to measure the kind of trajectory that they’re on.

You used the word baby steps. I think what we’re looking to see is, in a whole series of areas, openness to trade, openness to travel, openness to information, openness to citizens organizing in different spheres of life including potentially political life. What kind of trajectory are they on? We don’t have an expectation that everything will change in a day, or in a week, or in a month, but the trajectory is important. I think the picture is an interesting one.

We see some things that have begun to change. We see other things that are changing more slowly. But I think by and large we see the trajectory as a positive one.

QUESTION: Can you give me some examples, I saw there was some internet but it appears to be only three cafés, and I’ve seen other projects that look unusual, like adding lanes to highways in a place where there really aren’t very many cars. The sort of public humiliation of the Interior Ministry, which just seemed odd, even though maybe the guy was a crook that should have been fired. I don’t dispute that possibility, but it just all seems to be handled still in quite a centralized way.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: As I said, things aren’t going to change in a week or a month, but we think by and large the trajectory is an interesting one, and in some areas a good one.

Part of what we’ve tried to do is to say to them look, Turkmenistan is a country that has powerful opportunities with the United States and with the world, including with the world market, that it’s well positioned to seize. In the past, this is a country that isolated itself through its own policy choices in many ways from the opportunities that are available to it including in the global economy. So we’ve had a very systematic and intensive conversation with them, to try to show them the opportunities that are available. Those are in sectors like education, trade, energy, and so on. And, what we’ve heard from them is that they’re very interested in making some changes, for instance, in the education sector. Indeed, they’d welcome American assistance in trying to make some changes in their education sector. That’s something that not only are we prepared to do, but we think is going to be very important to do.

I think everybody in Turkmenistan, at every level, just like in the international community that watches Turkmenistan, recognizes that education is one of those areas that can really make a difference in terms of the long term political and economic trajectory there; that their policies in the past were really self-limiting. So that’s an area that’s important where we’re beginning to see some changes.

Another area is openness to international investment, which we think is important. It’s important not just for the companies. It’s important for change in Turkmenistan. It will begin, we think, to bring them into line with international business practices. It’ll create a more transparent and open economic and investment environment. It will ultimately produce better opportunities for Turkmen citizens, in terms of business. And as you’ve said, we’re still watching things like the internet cafés. A lot of promises have been made. We think those things are very important and encouraging, so we’re going to continue to watch to see if it goes beyond three cafés, but also beyond Ashgabat itself, out into the country at large.

QUESTION: What about political prisoners, press freedoms, the opportunity for the rights of public assembly or public discourse?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, these are areas that are tremendously important to the United States, and we don’t shy away from telling the Turkmen government how important they are. They’re important not because the United States has some sort of template. We don’t expect Turkmenistan to look just like the United States and certainly, as I said, not in a week or a month. But again, we’re looking to establish and then press them to be on a positive trajectory in those areas.

I think we’re realistic. We know that change in those areas may come slower than in other areas, but we’ve heard a lot of good declaratory commitments from the Turkmen Government about wanting to make some changes in those areas, so we’re looking to them to do those things. We think it’s important that they’ve made those commitments.

QUESTION: Have you had a chance to assess the leadership now? He was not entirely an unknown, but certainly there were a lot of questions about his style, his competence, his performance. Do you have anything on that?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I think he’s somebody that we think we can work with, that we want to work with. In some respects he clearly has a different style than President Niyazov did. Niyazov had a unique style, as you and everyone know, and I think in some areas we’ve begun to see some interesting changes. For instance, changes to the Presidential flag, changes to the newspaper, changes to the national slogan. It’s clear that the cult of personality that was around President Niyazov has begun --

QUESTION: Sorry, you blinked out for a minute. I heard something about cult of personality, and then there was a blank.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, the role that President Niyazov played as a symbol in that society clearly is different than it was when he was alive. And it seems to us that Turkmenistan would do well to move toward a more technocratic government. The Turkmen people are very, very talented. There are a lot of very talented officials in that government, and I think we’ve begun to see some changes along those lines.

QUESTION: This is helpful. It gives me the overview. Just to come back to the beginning, it sounds like you’re proceeding on the course that you described for me several months ago which his you want to see where this is going to head. And, I haven’t heard a lot of criticism compared to the criticisms that go to other states, so I gather that you’re trying to use a little more carrots here?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: As I said, we think this is a country with enormous potential. And it’s a country, as I said, that has powerful opportunities available to it should it choose to engage with the United States and with the world. We think it’s encouraging that Turkmenistan has shown some interest in that kind of engagement, and so we’re proceeding basically from the assumption that there are possibilities that simply didn’t exist --

QUESTION: I didn’t hear that last part. We’re proceeding --

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: We’re proceeding from the assumption that there are possibilities for Turkmenistan and for U.S.-Turkmen relations that simply did not exist several months ago.

Ultimately, Turkmenistan has to make some choices. And, when we last spoke I said to you that our basic message to Turkmenistan from December had been that the United States is ready to turn a page in our relations, if Turkmenistan, too, is ready to turn a page. That means some things need to change in our relationship and in the way our relationship has been conducted.

But, um, you know, we think that, ah, what we’ve seen to date is encouraging, is interesting. Again, we don’t think it will come by next Tuesday, but we think that the trajectory is what’s important. While there are some areas, of course, of difference between our two countries -- and there will continue to be those areas of difference and we’ll be frank about them, part of our focus has to be on persuading Turkmenistan to take advantage of those opportunities that it now has.

QUESTION: Part of our focus has to be on persuading --

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Turkmenistan to take advantage of the opportunities that we think it now has.

QUESTION: Okay. This is very helpful. Thank you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Good. Thanks, Chris; always happy to talk.

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