By Daniil Kislov
In recent months and years the political and economic cooperation between the USA and Uzbekistan has been developing actively. This arouses lively interest and even some worry in other countries’ governments, and is a subject of discussion in the press and a reason for rumours amongst experts. Fergana interviewed US Ambassador to Uzbekistan George Krol. An experienced diplomat, Mr Krol avoided answering almost every question, moving away from the topic or swapping answers for quotations from press releases from the State Department. However, the ambassador of any country is not going to be the person to say exactly what he is thinking. He gives voice to the official position of the country whhich he represents. This position differs widely from the one that people who connect America to hopes of a swift democratic change in Uzbekistan want to hear.
– Your Excellency, thank you for answering our questions. Relations between USA and Uzbekistan were activated recently. I’ll ask you directly – are the USA and NATO ready to open a military base or another military object in Uzbekistan?
– Thank you for your invitation to answer your questions. The bilateral relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan has become more active, growing in diversity and substance and scope. Both countries realize that we have strong, shared interests in a stable Afghanistan, and in a stable and secure Central Asian region. We also share common ground in our desire for greater economic and social development in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and the region as a whole. The United States sees a stable, prosperous Uzbekistan in a stable region as critical for our own security and that of the broader region. We also believe social tolerance, economic prosperity and respect for rights of citizens can guarantee long-term durable stability. We have been successful in finding multiple areas for cooperation between our countries, not just in the security field but in the fields of trade and economics and in relations between our societies and legislatures. The United States has no plans to open a military base in Uzbekistan. There have been no discussions on this question with Uzbek authorities.
– There are rumours that US army and NATO planes are actively using the airport in the Uzbek town of Navoiy as a springboard while transporting cargo to and from Afghanistan. Are they true?
– The U.S. military is not using the airfield at Navoi nor any other airfield in Uzbekistan for transit of cargo by air to or from Afghanistan.
– According to statements made by senior US officials, your government is going to support countries in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, in their defence against instability in Afghanistan after the International Coalition withdraws its troops. If Afghanistan remains unstable after ISAAF leaves, then why leave it?
– The United States seeks to increase regional economic and security cooperation, and the integration of Afghanistan in the region as the foundation for long term stability. We signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan which defines the relationship between “two sovereign and equal countries” on the basis mutually shared interests of peace and stability. This document defines our relationship for the next twelve years, and addresses not only security cooperation, but also social and economic development, and the rule of law. Simultaneously, Afghanistan is assuming a greater share of responsibility for its security, with the ongoing support of U.S. And NATO, even past 2014. The United States is not abandoning Afghanistan or the Central Asia region. We are in fact strengthening our diplomatic, social and economic engagement as our military engagement changes in size and scope of activities.
– How much money does Uzbekistan get from the US for providing ground and air transit via the Northern Distribution Network to supply needs in Afghanistan (an a monthly or annual basis)?
– The United States Government contracts with commercial shippers to transport cargo through the Northern Distribution Network. The U.S. Government pays these American companies, which I understand pay subcontractors as well as customs fees and charges as mandated by Uzbek law. The United States Government does not pay the Government of Uzbekistan or any Uzbek entity directly for any service.
– A delegation of American businessmen visited Uzbekistan a few days ago. Are you personally aware of the issues surrounding the rights of foreign investors in Uzbekistan, including Newmont Mining,Wimm-Bill-Dann, Oxus Golt and Mobile TeleSystems? Given this background, how are you going to attract foreign investors to a country which violates its own legal system, as well as the international one?
– The American Uzbek Chamber of Commerce Business Forum drew over fifty representatives of U.S. business. Two major U.S. companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, signed substantial agreements. This is encouraging. There is great potential for American business in Uzbekistan. The U.S. government works to develop opportunities for American businesses, and welcomes decisions by U.S. companies to explore Uzbekistan for investment. . When problems arise with businesses, we address them through candid discussions with government counterparts. At the Business Forum, Assistant Secretary of State Blake raised issues such currency convertibility and contract sanctity that are often cited as limiting foreign investment. . In the end, each company will make its own decision to invest based on its own assessment of the business climate. The Embassy works closely with U.S. companies, with the American Uzbek Chamber of Commerce, with the Tashkent-based American Chamber of Commerce in Uzbekistan, and with numerous Uzbek ministries and organizations to encourage mutually beneficial trade and investment and to address business related issues and problems that arise.
– There is an obvious PR campaign linked to the activation of US-Uzbek political and economic contacts which is aimed at creating a “cloudless sky” image of the relations between the two countries. It seems that there is little time and space left for criticism of human rights abuses. What is your personal evaluation of today’s human rights situation in Uzbekistan?
– Human rights have been, are and remain a very important part of our bilateral engagement and dialogue. We engage with both civil society and with the government constantly on these issues. They are a critical part of our bilateral relations with every country. We seek a constructive approach. We do not dictate but encourage steps to fulfill international obligations and meet international standards on human rights. We amply document the human rights situation in our annual human rights report. We continue to discuss this report with our counterparts in the Government of Uzbekistan and with civil
society. We pursue many issues with the authorities quietly and behind the scenes but constantly and consistently. In our recent annual bilateral consultations in Tashkent, we discussed these sensitive issues at great length, and will continue to do so.
– In autumn last year, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton said that “Uzbekistan is showing signs of improvement in human rights and increasing political freedom.” Do you also see these signs? Which ones in particular?
– As part of our recent annual bilateral consultations, together with the Uzbek government for the first time we co-hosted a forum with civil society representatives to discuss ways civil society can help parliament and how parliament can help civil society. It was a very open and frank discussion. We welcome civil society and government authorities sitting down like this and discussing mutual concerns constructively. We encourage further such steps to expand the dialogue between civil society and government at all levels in Uzbekistan and covering more topics. I see especially in the regions, growing activity of non governmental bodies working with local authorities on issues such as rights of Uzbek migrant workers abroad, trafficking in persons and health care. We can only encourage more of these activities and hope they can expand into other areas of civil life.
– What do you think about the persecution of Muslims in Uzbekistan?
– The United States is committed to encouraging governments the world over to respect the rights of individuals to profess their faiths freely or to profess no faith at all. The Religious Freedom Report the United States issues every year like the annual human rights report describes the situation in Uzbekistan and points out areas of our continued concern. We address these issues constantly and consistently in our bilateral dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan. This was also a topic discussed during our recent bilateral consultations.
– Robert Blake, the State Secretary’s assistant said that he was not aware of the accreditation problems faced by foreign journalists in Uzbekistan? Are you personally aware of the difficulties faced by journalists in Uzbekistan? About the precursory censorship of the media? What about the criminal proceedings against independent journalists, including the Tashkent correspondents of our publication like Elena Bondar?
– The challenges journalists face in Uzbekistan are well known and documented in our annual human rights report. We engage the Government of Uzbekistan constantly on freedom of speech and media issues and the cases of individual journalists. We do so bilaterally in Tashkent and multilaterally in other fora such as the OSCE.
– In recent years, politicians in Europe and the US have been trying not to recall the Andijan events – the shootings of hundreds of unarmed people in 2005. Has your personal attitude to these events also changed?
– The Andijan tragedy is unforgettable. The Unites States encourages dialogue, reconciliation, and accountability as the best ways to overcome the pain of such events and to ensure they are not repeated.
– How do you evaluate political activity in Uzbekistan? Previously the US often demanded that the Uzbek authorities register opposition political parties. Is this question still on the agenda today?
– As Uzbekistan develops its democratic institutions, we hope and encourage the development of an active party system with parties that reflect the diversity of opinions in Uzbek society. While often appearing messy and inefficient, the democratic system broadly speaking is nevertheless one of most stable forms of government. It usually reflects the culture of the country. The United States has a great interest in the democratic development of Uzbekistan as one of the key elements of ensuring durable stability in the country and the region. We discuss these issues with Uzbek partners and through our programs seek to increase exchanges and activities with Uzbekistan. We’d like to expose more Uzbeks to how democracy works in America although we recognize democracy may develop and look differently in Uzbekistan. We are also hoping to develop parliamentary exchanges and greater contacts between our legislative bodies at all levels. We support increased dialogue between the government of Uzbekistan and its people as Uzbekistan develops its democratic institutions. At the civil society forum, Uzbek senators spoke of increasing the review of bill drafts by non-governmental actors before they are voted on. We heard from various people in government how they attempt to address people’s concerns through establishment of hotlines where people can share complaints directly with responsible parties. There is much to be done, but each step that makes government more attentive to the needs of its citizens lays another stone on the foundation for long-term political stability and prosperity. For a government, any government whether in the U.S. or elsewhere to be successful, it has to address the legitimate concerns of those it represents, and I think that every step governments take down that road is a welcome one.
– Are you aware of the fact that Islam Karimov has already held on to his post for more than twenty years, and that half of that term is obviously illegitimate? Could the US influence its new strategic partner in the region for its president to give up his power voluntarily?
– The position of the United States is that the leadership of any country is a matter for the people of that country to decide, ideally through peaceful, free and fair elections.