Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently visited Uzbekistan, where he met with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and senior officials to discuss reforms and encourage the system to take steps to uphold its international obligations on freedom of religion or belief. VOA Uzbek talked to Ambassador Brownback about his trip to Tashkent as well as the ongoing dialogue with Mirziyoyev administration and the human rights advocates.
U.S. State Department, October 2, 2018
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you for joining us, Ambassador Brownback.
Ambassador Brownback: Sure, happy to do it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's a wonderful afternoon in Washington.
Ambassador Brownback: Yes...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We believe you had a very productive visit to Uzbekistan. Your talks with President Mirziyoyev went well, we are told. What was the centerpiece of his message to you and to Washington?
Ambassador Brownback: Uzbekistan is changing. They're opening up. They want to see outside investment coming in. They're changing their position on human rights. They wanna be one of the leading countries in the region on human rights and they wanna hold themselves to a global standard. That takes time. They're working through their issues, but they are in the process of opening up and changing. I believe what you're seeing is that religious freedom is coming to Uzbekistan and Central Asia.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You know, for the longest time, Washington and Tashkent did not share the same view on what is religious freedom. You know this from your years as a senator. To what extent do you think that Washington and Tashkent are in sync now when it comes to religious freedom?
Uzbekistan is changing. They're opening up. They want to see outside investment coming in. They're changing their position on human rights. They wanna be one of the leading countries in the region on human rights and they wanna hold themselves to a global standard.
Ambassador Brownback: I think we're getting much closer to agreeing with how you move forward to do this. I think the leadership in Uzbekistan is saying clearly we want to do this. But it has to be a process and we've got to move it forward. And what you see now in Washington is a lot of people here in the leadership saying, "We agree. It's a process. You got to move that on forward."
It's never perfect, but they've made several pretty substantial moves. They've let a lot of people out of jail, they've registered churches, they're letting people go back to mosque. There's still limitations, substantial limitations, but they've made some pretty major moves forward and the leadership is saying, "We want to continue that. We want to continue to move forward." And we want them too.
So we're working closely with them. We had the UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom over, wrote a detailed proposal about how to move it forward. They endorsed it, embraced it, and now we're in that process of moving it on forward.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You also met several officials who are responsible to implement reforms in Uzbekistan. Do you feel like they share the same vision with President Mirziyoyev, let's say when he talks to you about religious freedom and what reforms should mean in this sphere?
Ambassador Brownback: They do. Now, there'd be others around the government that aren't as excited about this.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you know that, right?
Ambassador Brownback: And we know that. They would say, look, in any government, there's a tension within it. There's people that want to do things, there's people that don't want to do things. They wanna do it this way, they don't wanna do it this way. And so there is that that's going on internally, but the president of the country sets the pace and President Mirziyoyev is setting a strong pace. He had a saying that he used a couple times in our meeting where he said, "I believe in measuring ten times and cutting once."
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There is an Uzbek proverb about that.
President Mirziyoyev is setting a strong pace. He had a saying that he used a couple times in our meeting where he said, "I believe in measuring ten times and cutting once."
Ambassador Brownback: Is there? Well the U.S. one is measure twice, cut once. So when he says ten times, I'm going, well that's a lot of measuring. But, it is also an indication that we're willing to do this. We wanna really be careful and we want the progress to be sustainable. The foreign minister used that term about sustainable progress, which we do too. We want it to be that way as well. So I think there's a good understanding that we know where we want to get to, they know where they want to get to. We want to work with them on the process, they want to work with us on the process. And then long-term, really what they want is for things to improve for their country. They want their economy to improve, they want people's livelihoods and freedoms to improve, and that's what we want. So I think there's a good coming together of where we want to get to and then a process by which you get to that.
In the United States, we're gonna always be pushing for more. We just so strongly believe in human rights and religious freedom. We believe that's a God given right for everybody around the world, in Uzbekistan or wherever they are. So we are gonna be a constant pusher on this, but we also hope to be a partner on implementing these changes in a sustainable way to move it forward.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Did President Mirziyoyev ask for any specific help from you or from the State Department?
Ambassador Brownback: We talked mostly about the road map forward. They have passed a resolution in their legislature to, here's the road map, and it's basically what the UN Special Rapporteur put forward.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: A set of recommendations?
In the United States, we're gonna always be pushing for more. We just so strongly believe in human rights and religious freedom.
Ambassador Brownback: Yes. And they said, "Okay. We endorse this." But it's resolutions, so now you gotta implement it into the law and the regulation in the country, and that's what they're moving forward on now. They asked for help on how do you move these things on forward, but mostly it's them doing it in a sustainable fashion. They've made substantial changes on several of their other human rights agenda issues. I met with some people that have been let out of jail recently. So they're making these steps. We want them to be faster, but it's moving.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, religious freedom, human rights in general have been a friction point in U.S.-Uzbek relations for a long time. So when you meet religious freedom advocates for example in Tashkent, you know, special U.S. Ambassador is meeting with these people, the critics of the regime, and there are many people who are still not happy with the changes. They think that the pace is too slow and that President is promising too much, but the government isn't really delivering much. You hear that kind of criticism across the country and also from Uzbeks outside of Uzbekistan. There are millions of Uzbeks who live abroad now, migrants for example.
Do you see common ground when you listen to the critics of the regime and when you listen to President and the reform team in Tashkent, as an outsider, obviously.
We want them to be faster, but it's moving.
Ambassador Brownback: I see common ground in what people want to get to. The issue is the pace and continuous movement, because there's some movement forward and there's some backsliding. When you start getting things moving forward and then you slide back, you're going, "Well, wait a minute. Are you guys committed to this or not?"
I think that's really where everybody really is challenged to agree. They're saying, "Yes. We want to get to religious freedom." But then, people say, "Well, you're not doing it here. You've backslid some there. Yes, you let people out of jail, but then these people are still being harassed."
There's still issues, there's substantial issues going on. I think, to me as the United States, what we wanna do is be a long-term partner in moving this forward and recognizing that these changes don't happen often as quick as we'd like or others do, but we want to have a constant tension just pulling it forward. Part of that's having a solid relationship so that while we hope their economy grows, we hope that there's investment that comes in from outside, particularly from the West.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Particularly from the United States?
Ambassador Brownback: Particularly from the United States, but they're in the region with China and China has a big strategy for investment in that region. Well we wanna see Western investment because often with Western investment will come Western ideals too, saying our companies will operate under a series of human rights beliefs, and so they'll do that in the country. Whether the government requires it or not, this is what our ethic is and that's the way we're gonna operate. Well, we wanna see that. A lot of times the Chinese companies, that's not part of their ethic at all. It's just this is an economic issue and it's gonna be all about economics.
Well, we believe economics is critically important, but it also should be a part of a human rights strategy, and we've been emphasizing this with them. If you want more security, if you want more economic growth, religious freedom is a piece of it. This is how you grow. Just having this diversity of thought and freedom for people to be able to express and do what they see fit. These are important growth-oriented concepts.
If you want more security, if you want more economic growth, religious freedom is a piece of it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Uzbekistan's approach in terms of fighting extremism and radicalism has been based on close monitoring and control over the religious organizations and religiosity in general. Whereas Washington, for a long time, has been urging to use a softer hand, arguing that letting people to practice their religion freely will discourage extremism. So these are two different approaches. There are some similarities, but in general, the approaches have been different.
Ambassador Brownback: That's right.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you see those two different approaches changing?
Ambassador Brownback: I do, and I see the Uzbeks as saying, "Okay. We see your strategy here, and we're willing to move it your way." Plus we've got data too that will show people, if you want less terrorism, give more religious freedom. That doesn't mean if somebody is a radical militant, and willing to blow up buildings or kill people, you arrest them. You try them. We do that all the time. We're not saying you just let a person off scot-free, saying, "Well my religion says that I should do this." You're out killing people. No, we don't agree with that.
I think the key is here is that they used this really very broad based approach. We're gonna just control it all. And we say, no. Go after your bad actors. There are bad actors in every country in the world. If they want to blow a building up or they're trying to kill people, you arrest them and you try them under the law, but you don't just say, "We're gonna shut down all these mosques here because we've seen some bad actors come out of here."
Let them practice their faith.
No, there are a lot of good, peaceful Muslims, people of other faiths that are practicing in this country. Let them practice their faith. If you do arrest them, if you do shut down the place, you're gonna make more of them mad, and they're gonna become more radicalize-able if you don't let them practice their faith. Let them practice their faith.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Now, what if some Uzbek officials, security officials, will tell you that, "Our way has worked." We haven't had any terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan for a long time. But in the United States, you have had some, including some events that involved Uzbek immigrants, as you know several Uzbek immigrants here have either been accused, arrested, and in some cases, sentenced now, on charges of terrorism. About a year ago, for example, in New York, an Uzbek immigrant committed attacks. So did you have conversations about that too? I just, I'm curious about how candid those conversations are between American and Uzbek officials because these are real stories, real issues, right?
Ambassador Brownback: They are real, and as a governor of Kansas, we had terrorists, that there were plots that came forward. And I told them we did. And they were Muslims that had self-radicalized. But I said we didn't go and shut down the mosque because you had two guys that self-radicalized, and we even went to the mosque and asked for help in dealing with the issue and they helped us. So the route isn't to shut the whole, the religion. Most people, a vast majority are very peaceful practitioners. And this can be a very big asset in releasing spiritual capital in your country, which it does in the United States. Religious groups do all sorts of good things in the United States. But you do have people that will radicalize, and that does happen, but you don't shut the faith down for it. You go after the individual, and you work with the people in the faith that are of honest and good will, to help you deal with the people, the very small group that have radicalized. That's the route to go.
It has a young population and if they don't grow, they're gonna leave. A number of people have, and they don't want that.
Plus, if you're gonna grow your economy, if Uzbekistan wants to grow its economy, and it does. It has a young population and if they don't grow, they're gonna leave. A number of people have, and they don't want that. If you're gonna do that, you're gonna really have to open up the space for people to be able to think and to act. The United States has a very growing economy, but you don't limit anybody's thought here. If you're gonna be violent, you're gonna get limited, but you let people think and be free.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So assuming that the Uzbek government is sincere when it talks about reforms, how long do you think it would take to deliver some tangible results, specifically in this sphere?
Ambassador Brownback: Yeah, I mean, they're coming now. People have been released, there have been churches registered, but not near as many as we had hoped. There have been people let to go back into mosque, but there's still limitations. Things have happened within the last year or so. The problem of it is there has been some backsliding and it's not fully open. So I think it's gonna take some time, but there have been concrete steps that have taken place.
We want more. It's not just about Uzbekistan. It's all Central Asia. The entire region has really been very Soviet-oriented in its mentality, just you gotta control...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Towards religion?
Uzbek opening up is really something that we hope to build for in the whole region about here's a route to do this.
Ambassador Brownback: Yeah. It's just you gotta control it all, and you gotta control it all the time, or it'll get outta hand. And you're just going, you're not gonna grow that way, and you're gonna have more security problems in the long-term that way, 'cause you will build a more radicalized population. So Uzbek opening up is really something that we hope to build for in the whole region about here's a route to do this.
Ambassador Brownback: What they don't wanna do is just blow it all open and then say, "Okay. Now we gotta shut things back down 'cause we had this happen and that happened." There's likely to be things that will happen. That's just the nature of human society and free societies. But still, you need to stay committed to opening up the entire society, and it will be much better for your country in the long-term. Much better.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So we hear a lot about incremental progress in Uzbekistan when we talk to U.S. officials. Do you plan to reward that progress, or do you think it's necessary to reward that kind of progress, to help the country move forward?
Ambassador Brownback: I think it's important to recognize it. We tend to be pretty puritanical on human rights, religious freedom issues, where we're just going, you got to do it all. That's the right state to be in, and there's reasons for that, 'cause we just so strongly believe in the right, that this is just foundational to you and it's foundational to a country.
I think really what we should do is we should recognize what's taken place, we should push about things that haven't taken place, and then we should maintain this constant tension to do the next steps to move it on forward.
But when you're working with a country that's not used to that and they've got systems in place that have gone contrary to that, it does take some transition time for those things to successfully work. So I think really what we should do is we should recognize what's taken place, we should push about things that haven't taken place, and then we should maintain this constant tension to do the next steps to move it on forward. And that we want the progress to be sustainable over a period of time, and we want it to be a model for other countries to be able to do and see that they can move from a controlled society to an open society and have a functioning government and country that supports and works with its people.
Ambassador Brownback: These are processes that need to be worked, just really on a constant basis. There's probably not a road map for every one size fits all, where you can do it in this country and then we do it this way in that same country or another country. You gotta figure your own terrain out probably.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Uzbek officials are very open about the fact that there will be, they say there will be a lot of setbacks and we want America's support when we fail too, not just when we're succeeding in our forums and hey, this is good and here is a reward, but they also want your support when they're struggling. When they are facing these challenges, and as you said earlier in this interview, finding the balance between security and freedom is very difficult.
Ambassador Brownback: It is when you're used to being a total lockdown country. But that's why we want to work with them on okay, let's keep the steps going. Let's keep the steps going. Let's keep the commitment, even if you get setbacks to it, 'cause there are gonna be setbacks that will take place. But then let's stay committed to you too to work with us. That's part of relationships. People aren't, nobody's perfect and in a relationship, you say, "Look. I'm committed to you. Let's work this on forward." But it's not gonna be easy and it may be difficult at different times along the way. I just think that's why it's important to really build the relationships and then I hope we also can talk with a number of younger Uzbeks officials, to bring them along and talk to them about just the mentality of freedom and what this looks like, and the commitment to freedom and hopefully ingrain this.
Let's keep the commitment, even if you get setbacks to it, 'cause there are gonna be setbacks that will take place. But then let's stay committed to you too to work with us.
I saw this in Georgia when they first really moved out of the Soviet sphere in a more controlled atmosphere to an open one. The leader at that time, Edward Shevardnadze, brought in a bunch of younger men and women to run the government that were 20-30 years younger than him. They were just more open to yeah, that's the right way to do it and they were committed to it. I think in a lot of these countries, they really need to have that younger group really come in earlier rather than later to take over much of the operation because their mentality would be more open to staying with the freedom approach.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There are many young people in the Uzbek government and more are joining. They're still very cautious. They're still very nervous about what kind of steps to take next, and they still try to figure out what reforms really mean in general. It's good, they say, that we've made our minds to reform ourselves, but how to is the big question for many Uzbeks. When we talk to them, you know what they say - they say that America used sticks a lot toward us, we hope that they use more carrots now.
That's what you hear, because many of them, even the younger ones, grew up seeing how America emposing various kind of restrictions, putting Uzbekistan on various kinds of blacklists, whether it's about forced labor or child labor or religious freedom, for example. Uzbekistan has been a country of particular concern for a while even though it's been waived, but that label itself has hurt the egos of many Uzbeks. So what kind of a period is this now? Is the U.S. going to use more carrots and fewer sticks and hope maybe that'll produce maybe a positive result?
Ambassador Brownback: I think so, particularly since the Uzbeks have indicated sincerely that they're doing this and have taken sincere steps. The thing that I've talked to them, is I think they need to come here regularly and tell the press. So they've held press conferences, the National Press Club. I think they oughta go to New York and I told them, you keep making these moves. I'll go with you and say, "Look, they are changing on this." Going into the capital markets and saying we think this type of entity or another type should invest in Uzbekistan. I said you keep making these moves and I'll go with you to tell them, "Look, they are making sincere progress in this area and this would be a good area for you to invest."
I don't know if that'll get them resources, but I do know a number of Western companies. They're gonna look at how the country is rated on forced labor, religious freedom, press freedoms. That's gonna be part of their analysis on whether or not they invest in the nation. Uzbekistan's making the right moves to get themselves in a position where companies would say, "That's a place we could invest."
ow, you open this country up and I think they can get at the front of the list instead of at the back of the list making the transformations. There I think is where you'll see your real carrots coming in.
The other thing that really looking forward is they're centrally located in Central Asia, so there can easily be a transportation distribution hub within the region as it opens up. They've got a lot of nice agricultural resources and development possibilities and natural resources that are there, and then they've got a young population, which a lot of places around the world, companies are looking for where can the people come from that'll work. So I think the potential is really there. Now, you open this country up and I think they can get at the front of the list instead of at the back of the list making the transformations. There I think is where you'll see your real carrots coming in.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: My last question is more personal. I interviewed you before when you were Senator Brownback, when you were dealing with Uzbekistan, with Central Asia, specifically with Islam Karimov's regime, and those were different times.
Ambassador Brownback: They were.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That was a different period and you're in a different role. This is a very different role now, you are a diplomat, and I'm sure you're looking at the region, at Uzbekistan from a different vantage point. Has your views about the country changed significantly?
Ambassador Brownback: Honestly, no. I always thought that the place had just really great potential.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Even then?
Ambassador Brownback: I did, and I was there 20 years ago and it was a far different place Tashkent was then than it is now. I lay my head down in the hotel room at night this trip, and just thinking, what a gift to be invested in a place. 20 years ago, I proposed a Silk Road Strategy Act then to link the country on an East-West basis, and hoping to really reignite the economic and the mental sphere of this is a region that can work together. And it has to work together for it to really have the economic viability and lift that it needs to have, and it needs to be open and not controlled by Russia or fall into a radical Islamic sphere. And I hope not pulled all the way into China, either. I was hoping to be more related this way. And I think it still exists.
I think that potential is still there, just now is really the time for it to happen. It needs to move now. We got the bill passed, the Silk Road Strategy Act. It was an idea that came to me while I was in Jerusalem. I told the president that because he's, I think probably puzzled why is a middle of the United States senator interested in Uzbekistan? But I think it's still, now it needs to happen. Then it was a dream, then it was a vision, now it really needs to have legs under it so that the average person in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, any of the region, can start to see, I've got opportunity. I've got a life here. I can invest and grow here. And Uzbekistan needs to be really one of the key gateways for that to happen in the region.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Did you ever meet Islam Karimov, previous Uzbek leader? You met him right?
Ambassador Brownback: Oh yeah, I worked with him in the past. He had a different vision and a different mentality for how to deal with things. So I really think the new leadership has gotta-
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, you see President Mirziyoyev as a different leader?
Ambassador Brownback: I do. I do. He worked in the prior government.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: He was the Prime Minister.
Ambassador Brownback: Senator Safoyev was a gentleman I knew here as Ambassador. But no, I think they've got a good vision moving forward and I think we'd be wise to work with them.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Give them a chance?
... give them a hand in it instead of us just telling them this is bad, that's bad.
Ambassador Brownback: Yeah, and give them a hand in it instead of us just telling them this is bad, that's bad. Just okay, you've changed that and we've got a ways to go here, but let's start working together. Let's start doing together.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How interested is Washington in what's happening in Uzbekistan? How interested are people in learning what you learned in Tashkent?
Ambassador Brownback: They're interested because Central Asia is just a very-
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I mean, the other parts of the U.S. government.
Ambassador Brownback: Yeah, people are interested because Central Asia is just, it's this place that can go one of a couple different ways. It could go back into the Russian sphere, it could be in the China sphere, it could be radicalized Islamic. Difficulties, when you've got multiple difficulties in this region and the best route for them is to be really an open, free society that governs themselves. So that's why people here are interested in it 'cause they know the potential exists for multiple bad outcomes, and the potential exists for a good outcome too.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much, Ambassador Brownback.
Ambassador Brownback: Thank you.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's a pleasure to talk to you.
Ambassador Brownback: Mine too.