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U.S.-Central Asia: New strategy? How does Washington see Uzbekistan's Mirziyoyev now?


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells talking to Navbahor Imamova, VOA, in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA, September 23, 2019

On September 22, 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held the first meeting of his tenure with the five foreign ministers from Central Asia. The "C5+1” group, which was established under his predecessors, has evolved into a joint platform for Washington to engage all five countries simultaneously on regional issues. American diplomats insist that the C5+1 has been an important vehicle for the U.S. to make its own contribution to solving these challenges. VOA's Navbahor Imamova talked to the top American official for the region and the mover behind Washington’s current C5+1 initiatives, Acting Assistant Secretary, Ambassador Alice Wells. Wells oversees the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. In this exclusive interview, Imamova and Wells explore current U.S. policy toward the region, but also discuss how the Trump Administration views Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who, Wells argues, "gave a punch" to regional connectivity efforts in Central Asia.

US sees Uzbekistan's Mirziyoyev as a modernizer
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Below is the full transcript of VOA's interview with Ambassador Wells

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much, Ambassador Wells, for joining us.

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Good to see you at UNGA. Thank you for being here.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you. It's great to be here, actually, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. It's going to open tomorrow, but for Central Asia, it already started with yesterday's event, when Secretary Mike Pompeo met the foreign ministers of all five countries. We believe, at least all five were represented, right?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Yes, actually... This was Secretary Pompeo's first meeting...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Right.

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: It was a great kick off and it came just a few weeks after we had what we'd call a C5 meeting in the region with Under Secretary Hale. And so, the first thing I would point to is the fact that we're meeting so frequently. And at such a high level in this format really shows the utility and the depth of the relations that we're building. Not just bilaterally between the United States and Uzbekistan, but more broadly within the region, which is good for the region and good for us.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How long was the meeting?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: The meeting was an hour. So, it was very lively. They were terrific conversations that touched on foreign terrorist fighters, on economic connectivity, on border security. Obviously, the situation in Afghanistan came up as it factors into security as well as opportunity on the economic side. I've attended these meetings before and I would say that over the last two years we have so much work that we've built on. We're holding seminars in the region, working groups. We're meeting at lower levels, at higher levels on really practical issues that affect the lives of our citizens and that's always positive to see as a diplomat.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: C5+1 has now been around for about five years and ...

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: It started in 2015. I think we've very much promoted it because we thought that after 25 years or so of independence it was the right time for the individual countries of Central Asia to also think about their collective identity and how to work together as a region. Congress supported us. We received about $15 million dollars just to do some seed programs, seminars, projects, looking again at economic connectivities, soft barriers to trade, countering violent extremism. Very practical subjects that both of our countries are very interested in. And then it just gained momentum and I think it's gained momentum as we're also trying very hard to bring Afghanistan back into the neighborhood in a productive and safe way. So, I think intense interest on all sides.

... what makes it very effective are the reforms that President Mirziyoyev has undertaken in Uzbekistan.


Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, when the governments in the region discuss or talk about C5+1. They refer to the fact that the United States has this powerful convening power. So, U.S. brings everyone to the table. Of course, they see that they're talking to each other bilaterally, but they like to sit around the same table with the United States and talk about common interests. You have always argued that this is an effective format. What specifically makes it substantive?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Well, what makes it very effective are the reforms that President Mirziyoyev has undertaken in Uzbekistan. I mean really it took the opening up of Uzbekistan. It took sort of the good neighbor policy of President Mirziyoyev to resolve whether it was border differences or trade differences. To welcome the kind of connectivity, to welcome the opportunity of connecting the region, whether it's south through Afghanistan, but also more broadly recreating the Silk Road and raison d'etre for Central Asia...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, he gave it a push?

... there's a power to a regional identity. And when you look at something that's practical like trade, Central Asian countries travel or trade very very little amongst one another, it's among the lowest in the world.


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: He gave it a punch and it was a great punch. And so, we've seen tremendous progress since President Mirziyoyev brought this very fresh attitude. I also think it was time again, the countries of the region had created these very separate distinct sovereign entities. And then there's a power to a regional identity. And when you look at something that's practical like trade, Central Asian countries travel or trade very very little amongst one another, it's among the lowest in the world. And so, what are the practical steps that can be taken to ease those trade flows so that all the countries prosper from increased economic activity.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, some argue that Central Asians need to create a bloc, a union perhaps, to make these attempts to integrate, as a region, more effective. Would U.S. support anything like that if they wanted to form a bloc?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: A bloc sounds very formal and it sounds like you're excluding people. And I think that the Central Asian countries, like all countries have many different identities. Some of the Central Asian countries are ... I think all are members of the Shanghai group or some have partnership programs with NATO. Some are part of CSTO. Some are part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Intense bilateral relations with us, with European Union. So, no one's trying to say there's only one Central Asian identity. But I think what's important is that it's not just the United States that's meeting with the C5. It's the EU, it's the Japanese, it's I think the South Koreans because it's frankly, a very pragmatic platform to discuss issues that are of mutual interest to the region.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, we watched your recent testimony in the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and you talked at length about Trump Administration's Afghanistan policy. As you know, the region watches the situation in Afghanistan very closely and we've been watching Uzbekistan revamping its diplomacy towards Afghanistan. They've been talking to all the parties, including the Taliban. They are hedging obviously. They want to make sure that there are no tensions. They are friends with all the relevant parties in the neighborhood. Does that line up with your interests? Were you concerned? Let me just say, were you concerned when Uzbeks were seen as cozying up with the Taliban recently or ...?

I think there's a very important role for the countries of the region and certainly for Uzbekistan to again be that honest broker.


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: There's no concern about "cozying up." I think what we've seen from President Mirziyoyev and his hosting of the Tashkent Peace Conference is a real active effort by the government of is Uzbekistan to support peace. And to support whether it's President Ghani who rolled out a cobbled peace plan that then your government amplified. Whether it's the work of Foreign Minister Kamilov and Ambassador Irgashev your special envoy for Afghanistan to really try to do the nuts and bolts diplomacy to make sure that Uzbekistan's able to deliver the right messages and encouragement to the Taliban to do the right thing.

And in this instance, as you heard me testify before our Congress, the right thing is to lower violence, the kind of violence that we've seen in the last couple of weeks against civilians really has given the wrong message. It was a message of intimidation rather than a message of moving forward into a peace framework. And so, I think there's a very important role for the countries of the region and certainly for Uzbekistan to again be that honest broker. And what's going to make the region come together to be stable and at peace.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's clear that Uzbekistan doesn't want the United States to leave Afghanistan. They make it very clear. I'm sure they mentioned that in your conversations. I'm sure you talked about this yesterday too. We hear that the Trump administration is working on a new strategy for Central Asia. Is that something really happening?

Because our interests are enduring and we're in Central Asia, we're in great partnerships in Central Asia and we don't want to leave Central Asia.


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Yes we've long had, I think, I would say we've had strategies before with Central Asia. The Trump administration is going to be putting out an unclassified version of a strategy towards Central Asia. Other friends of yours like the European Union have also put out strategies and I think what you'll notice when the strategy does come out is the degree of continuity and our objectives. I mean first and foremost, we support your country and the countries of Central Asia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. And we were the first to recognize the independence of the Central Asian States and we will continue to be an advocate for your country's development as an independent and sovereign nation. And as a nation that is democratizing and modernizing. As a nation that is seeking to grow its economy, including through increased trade with the United States and U.S. companies.

As countries that seek to counter violent extremism, counter terrorism and to ensure that the, this scourge of nuclear proliferation doesn't affect the region. And so, I think there are going to be many currents that will be very familiar to you. Because our interests are enduring and we're in Central Asia, we're in great partnerships in Central Asia and we don't want to leave Central Asia.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, listening to you, I'm thinking that you definitely see President Mirziyoyev as a reliable partner, with whom you renewed your strategic partnership with Uzbekistan last year when he came to Washington. And about a year ago when we talked at State Department, you told me that you see him as a reformer, as someone who's leading his country in a different path. Is he delivering? Do you see him as an effective reformer so far?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Well, I think we do see President Mirziyoyev as a modernizer, as somebody who's looking to bring Uzbekistan into a new era. I think it's ultimately Uzbeks who are going to decide whether he's an effective reformer. What we have seen is words followed by action. And so, if you look at our relationship and how it's evolving we... assuming Congress does the approval and the allocation will be providing you up to $20 million in additional military assistance. We're bringing in $30 million dollars to help support educational reform programs. We're looking at how we can support the government's support for less advantage schools...

... we do see President Mirziyoyev as a modernizer, as somebody who's looking to bring Uzbekistan into a new era. I think it's ultimately Uzbeks who are going to decide whether he's an effective reformer.


Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: This is for 2020?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Right. For school feeding programs. We're trying to respond to all of the signals that we're receiving. The technical assistance as your government navigates World Trade Organization membership. Detailed conversations on freedom of religion and trafficking in persons. Trying to support some of the bold steps your government is taking to eliminate child's and forced labor in the workplace. And we welcome and respect that partnership.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Any challenges do you see?

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Sure. I remember reading one of President Mirziyoyev's speeches and I think it was pages and pages, right?

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Long speeches. He gives like three to four hours long speeches.

There'll be setbacks. We're going to continue to speak quite candidly about what we see. We write human rights reports and we write trafficking and persons reports and counter-terrorism, economic reform.


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: It's a big, bold vision. And so, attacking everything is a challenge. And so, I think we want to be helpful. We want to provide the technical assistance. We want to work with other partners, whether it's you, the UN, the World Bank, other countries of the region to make sure that we're providing the kind of support that allows Uzbekistan to make this transition. But we recognize it's a difficult one. There'll be setbacks. We're going to continue to speak quite candidly about what we see. We write human rights reports and we write trafficking and persons reports and counter-terrorism, economic reform. We will always be I think a very straight-shooting kind of partner. But we do it in a real spirit of partnership and the desire to collaborate.

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells talking to Navbahor Imamova, VOA, New York, September 23, 2019
Assistant Secretary Alice Wells talking to Navbahor Imamova, VOA, New York, September 23, 2019

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, we have seen some changes in Uzbekistan. We have seen some changes in Kazakhstan, specifically, for the last one year. And your interest as you just described remain the same, but how are you setting your priorities? What are your priorities? Are they changing based on the changes on the ground?

... the region remains a stable place where business can be done, investment can be made. Reforms can be done in an atmosphere where everybody benefits. And so that's very important signal that's being sent to the international community.


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Well I think it's important to see leadership transitions that are stable, that create new opportunities obviously. But that the region remains a stable place where business can be done, investment can be made. Reforms can be done in an atmosphere where everybody benefits. And so that's very important signal that's being sent to the international community. I hear in New York, I'm having the opportunity to participate in a variety of business council meetings with countries. There is significant interest among the business community. Secretary Ross led a certified trade delegation to Uzbekistan following President Mirziyoyev's meeting with the President. We're looking at ways to give our companies the right information, but also to make sure that the levers that we have to promote trade. Whether it's our development finance institutions, our trade and development agency... Private Investment Corporation. All of these organizations are working in harmony so that we can assist, taking advantage of what is the historic opening in the region.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Going back to yesterday's conversation between Secretary of Pompeo and the foreign ministers of Central Asia... Big headline that came out of that meeting was that Pompeo asked Central Asian governments to resist China's requests to extradite Uighurs. How accurate is that? Because we weren't there. We just want to know how much time was spent on the Uighur issue in yesterday's conversation?

... we do urge all of the countries of the region to respect the fact that Uighurs are being oppressed and often at great danger in the treatment they're receiving at the hands of their government.


Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Well, I think you saw in the public comments that Secretary Pompeo was very blunt, that the issue involving the Uighurs is not an issue of terrorism. I mean this is a human rights issue. And so, we do urge all of the countries of the region to respect the fact that Uighurs are being oppressed and often at great danger in the treatment they're receiving at the hands of their government. But the meeting was of a very broad meeting. I think I would say one of the headlines that came out of that meeting was the fact that the Central Asian States are really at the forefront of grappling with the foreign terrorist fighters, the return of fighters and family members and children. How to responsibly re-integrate as well as do the responsible level of prosecution for those who are guilty of crimes. And we are all going to be looking to and learning from the Central Asian countries as they grapple with this challenge.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And what was the response from the Central Asians because they don't really talk much about Uighurs.

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: I think that they listened carefully to what Secretary Pompeo had to say, and we appreciate that.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Ambassador Wells, thank you so much for this conversation...

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Thank you!

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So glad to see you in New York.

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: It’s great to see you here in New York on the margins of the General Assembly.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much and see you in Washington.

Assistant Secretary Alice Wells: Inshallah!

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