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Telephonic Press Briefing

Press Availability
Daniel Rosenblum
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Brussels, Belgium
February 10, 2015

Moderator: Thank you so much, and thank you for your patience everybody as we get started a few minutes late this morning. Welcome to all of you who have joined in Bishkek, Tashkent and Astana. We're very happy that you've joined us this morning. I'm also being joined by an interpreter here on the line, Malik, so I'll turn it over to you, if you just want to welcome the guests.

Today we're very pleased to be joined here in Brussels by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum. Many of you know him well already so I won't give a long introduction, but Mr. Rosenblum oversees U.S. policy and diplomatic relations with five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

We're going to begin today's call with brief remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum, and then we're going to take your questions.

As a reminder, today's call is on the record and we're going to try to get to as many of your questions as possible during the time that we have.

With that I will turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Thank you, and thanks to the Brussels Media Hub for arranging this press event today. And thanks to all the journalists and welcome to you who have phoned in to participate. I'd actually much prefer to be seeing your faces and doing this in a face to face way, but I recognize that this is an efficient way to reach a lot of people at one time.

I'm taking advantage of the fact that I'm here in Brussels right now after having just completed the fifth of five country visits that I've made since assuming the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary last July.

I'm not a stranger to the region of Central Asia. As some of you may know, I spent the previous 17 years working on U.S. foreign aid programs in Central Asia and also a number of other countries, so I've visited all the five before. But I wanted to visit each of the five countries in my new capacity where, as Mireille said, I'm responsible for our policy and also maintaining good bilateral relations with the five countries.

Now after having made these visits I feel that I can start to draw some general conclusions and I thought, again, that this opportunity of being here in Brussels, it made sense to share some of those perspectives with the media. So I would say first of all that everywhere I visited in the region over the past six months, what I heard were several messages. The first message that I heard very clearly was that we want stability and we want predictability. I heard this message, by the way, and all of the things I'm going to say not only from government officials, because in each country I made a point of visiting with people from the non-governmental sector, from business, from non-governmental organizations as well. I also heard very clearly some anxiety, some anxiousness about events in the region, including Afghanistan, some anxiety about potential threats after the drawdown of the ISAF mission. And also anxiety about what was happening in Ukraine, about the crisis in Ukraine, and what it might mean for each of the Central Asian countries.

I also heard a message that there's a strong desire to maintain independence and sovereignty, to maintain the freedom of choice for each country. The Central Asian countries are proud of their independence and don't want it to be infringed, to be interfered with.

Finally, I heard a strong desire on the part of each of the countries for deeper and broader engagement with the United States, engagement that covers a number of different areas, and an expansion of our relationship in many directions. That includes security cooperation -- cooperation in the security sphere, economic cooperation through trade, and also what I would call people to people linkages and cooperation. So my response to my colleagues, my counterparts in Central Asia was that we share the same interests that you have. We care deeply about stability in Central Asia. It matters to us in terms of our national security interests.

We've explained to Central Asian countries, and I had opportunities to talk about this on my visits, that because of the location of Central Asian countries at a crossroads between Asia and Europe, because it borders on many large countries with whom the United States has important and complicated relationships, we have an interest in this region. We care. I explained that we don't want to see the Central Asian countries become safe havens for terrorist groups. So we want to expand our security cooperation to meet threats that we share, transnational threats, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and we also talked about the emergence of ISIL, the organization of ISIL. I also said we want to expand our economic engagement, to have more bilateral trade, more investment opportunities, but also to help build more connectivity within the region, more connections between countries. I also emphasized that we want to expand and also address our concerns regarding what we call usually the human dimension, supporting efforts to institute reforms, supporting human rights, that that was part of our relationship with each of these countries.

Finally, I emphasized that we will support in any way possible the independence and sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Central Asian countries and will do so based on a mutually beneficial relationship that's not going to be an exclusive one. So I just want to emphasize this last point is that we don't demand exclusivity. We don't demand that any of the Central Asian countries only have positive relations with us and nobody else. So with that I'll stop talking and wait for your questions. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Moderator: Thank you so much, sir, and thank you for setting the stage for us. We're now going to begin the question and answer portion of today's call and we will just go around from embassy to embassy and we'll start with two questions at each location, and then we'll circle back around to get to as many questions as we can. So why don't we go ahead and start with our friends in Bishkek. And I would just ask that if you could please state your name and outlet before you ask your question. With that, Tanya, if I could ask you to go ahead and open up the line for Kyrgyzstan.

Question: My question is as following. So taking into account the current situation with withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and also taking account that they have withdrew from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan as well as taking into account that the Kyrgyzstan nowadays has a closer relations with Russia as well as the Eurasian Economic Union. My question is as following. What kind of relations do you expect between the United States and Kyrgyzstan? In what areas of cooperation? Thank you.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Thanks for that question. It's very important right now. I would first say that our relationship with Kyrgyzstan should develop, as I said earlier, in all the directions, in all the areas that I mentioned, both in terms of security cooperation, economic relations, and working on the human dimension. I think we have plans this spring to have the next in our series of annual bilateral consultations or ABCs, and that will be an opportunity for us and the government of Kyrgyzstan to set the stage for the expansion of our relations in 2015. We haven't set the date for these annual consultations yet, although we're very close to agreeing on a date. But as I said, I expect it to be this spring. I would also note there's a particular area of our relationship that's been extremely productive and I expect to continue to be an important element, and that is democratic development. The development of democratic institutions. We've worked very closely with the government, with the parliament and with civil society in Kyrgyzstan especially over these past five years since 2010 to help strengthen those institutions. And I know that Kyrgyzstan is very proud of its democratic accomplishments and has sought that close relationship with us on those issues. So we're glad to continue developing that.

Question: My question is as following. How important was your meeting in DC, in Washington, DC with the Kyrgyz opposition?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Thanks for your question. We met with a group of members of parliament and members of civil society organizations in Washington, I think it was, I want to say about two weeks ago now, and it was a very interesting meeting. We routinely meet with visitors in Washington from all spheres and all those involved in the political life of Kyrgyzstan and other countries. So I viewed it as a routine meeting and an opportunity to hear a variety of points of view about the situation in Kyrgyzstan. It's helpful for us to hear perspectives on the situation in countries like Kyrgyzstan and so in that particular meeting we were listening, we were hearing their points of view, and basically restating U.S. policy on engagement with Kyrgyzstan which is essentially what I just said in response to the first question. So that was, I would say that was what I can say about that meeting.

Moderator: Thank you. Thank you so much. Why don't we move over for a couple of questions over to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and we'll take two questions from there.

Question: I'm from Central Asia News Agency. In your interview recently to Voice of America you spoke about the delivery of military equipment to the Ministry of Defense of Uzbekistan as part of the agreement. You said that they were 380 MRAPS. Could you please clarify what other equipment you are going to provide to Uzbekistan apart from these 380 MRAPs, and in what stage is the EDA, Excess Defense Articles, supplied to Uzbekistan from Afghanistan? Because in your interview you said that those MRAPS, they were not from Afghanistan, but as far I know they are probably from the United States.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Good, thanks for the question. I did, as you noted, give an interview where I talked about the delivery of the MRAPs which is the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. I don't know how you're going to translate that, but you probably have an idea of how to do it. And I would say that that particular delivery of the MRAPs was something that we had been working on with the government of Uzbekistan for quite some time. It's very complicated to deliver a large number of vehicles like this. And so it was in the works for well over a year before the delivery began.

At the moment we are in discussions about other potential equipment, but I can't announce anything else here today. I also want to clarify that I think, I don't know whether this was a translation issue, but just to be clear, the number of these MRAPs is 308, not 380. Also, part of the delivery involves 20 what are called MRAP Recovery Vehicles which are used essentially to repair the MRAPs that break down if they have problems.

Regarding the question about where supplies are coming from, you're correct that the MRAPs that are being delivered to Uzbekistan are not coming from Afghanistan. They are coming from various locations around the world. Some from the United States itself. And that decision, the decision about where the equipment comes from, is made by our Defense Department and the part of the Defense Department that's responsible for disposal of excess equipment. And to be perfectly honest I'm not an expert on how those decisions are made but I do know that in this case they determined that the best sources were not from Afghanistan.

Question: I am going to refer to your words about the interests of the United States in Central Asia regarding the situation here. Are the interests of the United States in Central Asia are the same today as they were when they were beginning the operation in Afghanistan? So also I'd like to ask about the interest of the United States in Uzbekistan. You mentioned that you don't want the Central Asian countries to become the safe havens for terrorists. Could you tell us what concretely, what specifically Uzbekistan should do in order to prevent such a situation to become the safe haven for terrorism? And also, right now we are seeing in what complex and what difficult situation Ukraine is when it needs the armaments and the weapons from the United States, but it's really difficult for it to get. And in this regard I'd like to ask if Uzbekistan would be in a position when it would need the weapons from the United States. Would it be solved through democratically?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: I'm not quite sure I understood the last question, about would it be solved democratically. You mean the question of --

Question: Would it be such a long process to deliver the weapons to Uzbekistan.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Oh, okay. Bureaucratically, not democratically. Okay. I understand. Okay, so there are a couple of different questions in there. First of all, in terms of the interest the U.S. has in Uzbekistan, again in my opening, I think I laid out what I thought were, what we've identified as our interests in the region, why Central Asia is important, and I think all of those things certainly apply to Uzbekistan. We want Uzbekistan to be stable, to prosper economically, and to be a country with whom we can work. We also have a regular dialogue with Uzbekistan on issues regarding the human dimension, human rights, because we want to see Uzbekistan develop more democratically and with more respect for human rights. Those things are connected.

All the things that I just mentioned are connected and this is something we always emphasize. That for the long term we strongly believe that the best guarantee of stability and stable development is a more democratic, more open society that has greater respect for human rights. So we don't think those are contradictory in any way. They're actually reinforcing.

On the question regarding sales of military equipment or provision of military aid, I would say that we have a dialogue ongoing with all countries of the region about security cooperation. That sometimes involves equipment, although more often it involves training and joint exercises. And I can't respond on a hypothetical situation, something in the future that might happen in Uzbekistan, but I would say that we consider Uzbekistan a partner. We would talk to them. We would see what needs they had and whether we could fulfill those needs. The last thing I would say is that any time we provide military equipment to another country, there are both legal and policy considerations. There are certain restrictions on what kinds of equipment we can provide that are in our laws and involve our Congress, and then we have to decide what makes the most policy sense in a situation and the Ukraine crisis is a good example of the latter.

Question: If I understood correctly, did you say that Uzbekistan is already respecting the human rights? Or did you mean that when it will respect human rights.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: I wasn't listening closely enough to the translation, although I understand some Russian, to hear exactly where the confusion might have come in. So let me just say generally, as a general statement, that we have concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan that we talk about very frankly with our friends in Tashkent, that are reflected in our human rights reports that are issued annually, and our reports on religious freedom as well as trafficking in persons. So it's part of our mutual dialogue. We discussed this in December in our annual consultations where we raised specific cases of prisoners. It's also part of our regular diplomatic dialogue through our embassy in Tashkent. So I think that's what I'll say on that matter.

Moderator: Thank you so much to our colleagues in Tashkent. We're going to go ahead and move over to Astana. We're showing that we have two lines dialed in for Kazakhstan so we want to make sure we get the line to the group. So we're going to open the line of Dimitri Solovios. Is that the correct line?

Question: Yes, do you hear me?

Moderator: Yes, we can hear you. Go ahead.

Question: Unfortunately, we have no correspondent permanently accredited to Uzbekistan at the moment because Western media, as you may well know, have been banished from the country following the Andijan massacre back in May 2005. So I would like to ask one or two brief questions about the situation in Uzbekistan if possible. Also, as you may well know, some human rights organizations in particular Human Rights Watch recently have criticized the U.S. government for maintaining strategic ties with the Uzbek government at a time when the country's human rights record remains an appalling one. How would you comment on that? And to finish this brief set of questions is the following one. President Karimov is now looking, is now seeking reelection in an election set for the end of March which in fact is going to be his fourth election, while the constitution allows only two presidential terms. How would you comment on that? Thank you very much.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Thank you for the questions. First of all on your question about some of the criticism from human rights groups internationally and in the United States following the transfer of the MRAPS. I would say that, as I mentioned in responding to the previous question. We do have concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan which we raise frankly and directly with the government and also publicly through our human rights reports, and we'll continue to do so. We would like to see progress on these issues. The reason we'd like to see progress is two-fold. One is that it will, it's part of our legislation and our policy to promote respect for human rights all over the world. But also in terms of our bilateral relationship with Uzbekistan, we think we can't realize the full potential of that relationship until there's more progress made on these issues.

Regarding the second question about the presidential election, we know that the ODIHR, the Office of Democracy and Human Rights of the OSCE, is participating in observation for that election. Normally we would, we definitely support that effort to observe and will look for what their conclusions are after the election about both the pre-election campaign and the activity on election day, and almost always we associate ourselves with the statements made by the OSCE on that regard and I don't think this one will be any different.

Moderator: Thank you very much, and thanks Dimitri from Reuters for your questions. We're now going to turn over to the journalists who are at Embassy Astana.

Question: My question is regarding Ukraine. About the planned supply of weapons to Ukraine, do you think that it will solve the situation? And are there military solutions for the crisis in Ukraine? Also, do you plan sending peacemakers to, via UN probably to Ukraine? Also are there some disagreements within U.S. itself regarding the Crimea issue?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Good questions. I first of all want to mention that just yesterday President Obama did a press conference together with Chancellor Merkel in Washington where he spoke to this issue, which kind of lays out where we stand on the question of providing weapons, defensive weapons to Ukraine. I won't go into any more detail than the President did, but only to say that we're looking at all the options right now. That's what the President's asked for his national security team to do. The possibility of providing lethal defensive weapons is one of the options that's being examined, but the President hasn't made a decision on that yet. So it's one of the options on the table, but there's no plan to provide such equipment that has been made. No decision has been taken yet.

On the other parts of your question, I think you asked about the possibility of sending peacekeepers or the U.S. participating in a peacekeeping mission, if I understood correctly. And I would say on that, first of all, we already support strongly and participate in the special monitoring mission of the OSCE which has been on the ground since I guess last spring in eastern Ukraine. In terms of some future variance of peacekeeping, it's too soon to say, but what I can say is that the U.S. will continue to be strongly engaged in finding a diplomatic solution and a peaceful resolution to the terrible conflict that's happening in Ukraine right now.

I think the last part of your question, again I hope I got this right, was about disagreement. If there's any disagreement or debate in the United States about what the policy should be. I guess my blanket answer is yes, there's always debate and disagreement in the U.S.. That's part of our democracy and our democratic system. The one thing I don't think there's any debate about is the strong support of the American people and the American Congress and the executive branch for Ukraine's independence and sovereignty and territorial integrity which has been violated. So on that, I think Republicans and Democrats agree, and the only debates concern exactly what policy responses should be taken.

Moderator: We're going to have time for one more question from Astana if there's a final question.

Question: Some experts saying that none of the U.S. presidents have visited Central Asia probably because the interest of the United States has dwindled in that regard. And in this regard I'd like to ask you whether in future can we expect the visit of the President of the United States to come to Kazakhstan where he could meet with top officials of Kazakhstan?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum: Thanks for that question. It's one that we discuss a lot internally as well in terms of planning visits and engagement. We hope for more visits at higher levels to Central Asia including Kazakhstan in the future. I can say that the fact that there hasn't been a presidential visit does not signify weak interest or a lessening of interest in the region for all the reasons that I outlined earlier. Our presidents always have, as you know, many demands on their time and it can be difficult to arrange such things. But we hope, as I said, that there will be more such engagement either in the region or in Washington or New York in future months, including this year, but I'm afraid I don't have anything to announce today in terms of upcoming visits.

I will just add one other thing which I think you know which is that President Obama and President Nazarbayev have had a couple of opportunities to meet. Not in Astana but in other places and I believe most recently at the Nuclear Security Summit in, was it in The Hague? And I think your foreign minister who was in Washington in December also had meetings at a very high level where we were able to discuss developing our bilateral relations with Kazakhstan in great detail with Secretary Kerry and the National Security Advisor. So I think we'll take every opportunity we get, wherever it is, for such engagement.

Moderator: Well, with that I'm afraid that our time has run out with all of you today. I want to sincerely thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum for joining us. And I would especially like to thank Malik for his fantastic interpretation for this last hour. And of course I'd like to thank all of you for participating and for asking such great questions. We are going to be preparing a transcript of today's call and we will make a digital recording of this conversation available for the next 24 hours. I will share that information with your hosts so that they can pass that along to you.

With that I will just say that we look forward to doing this again with all of you.

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