Daniel Rosenblum, the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan, spent years working on America's Central Asia policy before his assignment to Tashkent but from the vantage point of a Washington official. What has he learned in his first few months as America's top diplomat in Uzbekistan? How best to pursue U.S. interests? Ambassador Rosenblum talks exclusively to VOA's Navbahor Imamova.
Transcript, September 25, 2019
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Hello. It's great to see you in Washington!
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Hello! It's great to be here.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: ... on this sunny beautiful day.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes. Yeah, it's a gorgeous day in Washington today.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There is a reason why we chose this location, honestly, Ambassador Rosenblum, because you're new in Tashkent. You've been there since May, right? And you are always out and about - you've been traveling across Uzbekistan. And it's great to catch you during your very short trip. I said, hey, let's talk between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and of course, the Capitol Hill, where you're telling me you will be spending some time talking to U.S. lawmakers. You were based here for a long time as a policymaker. You handled the relations with Central Asia, specifically with Uzbekistan from Washington. But you are now there as an ambassador. How does it feel? What's the difference like?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Well, it's a big difference on a personal level because I am starting a new life with a new home. I've unfortunately had to have my family stay behind because my daughter's finishing school here. But it's an adjustment on a personal level, but on a professional level it's opened up such great opportunities and horizons to me.
I'm struck by how they always emphasize the good first. They say life is better. There's more hope, there's more optimism, but we have these problems, we have these complaints and they're still the vestiges of things that we're trying to deal with.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So you see more now?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: I see more now. I mean, I used to visit the region as you said, including Uzbekistan pretty frequently, maybe several times a year. But being there day in and day out is a very different kind of life. It's completely different.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And especially when you're traveling through the regions, talking to the people, you seem to be really, really enjoying the experience.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Have you been surprised? What have you learned so far that, for example, you could never imagine before about the country?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Well, it's hard to say there's something that I'd never imagined, but I think it's just much more real when you're experiencing it face to face. One thing that I knew, at least in theory, was the reputation for hospitality of Uzbekistan and its people. And I've just been overwhelmed by the welcome that I've received everywhere I go. It's very warm, it's very genuine and it's incredible. I mean food and time and attention and wanting to show me everything, it's been heartwarming to me.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It must be overwhelming though, to talk to so many people from so many different walks of life... And I have talked to many people who have approached you, in Fergana and in other regions, who told you their stories, shared their ideas, their issues with you. Do you feel like Uzbeks are opening up? Because you just said that people are very hospitable, and most of the time it's very hard to go beyond that hospitality. We want to tell you all the wonderful things when we meet you, but we could really be wanting to share something very special. Do you feel like you're connecting so far?
... they're telling you exactly what they're thinking or feeling because they may have an agenda, right? They're meeting with the US ambassador. But that said, my sense is that people are not afraid to speak out.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: I do. I do. It's always hard to know when you're hearing from people face to face, whether they're telling you everything or they're telling you exactly what they're thinking or feeling because they may have an agenda, right? They're meeting with the U.S. ambassador. But that said, my sense is that people are not afraid to speak out. And I think that's a change in Uzbekistan, and they tell me that. They say that the fear of saying anything or being critical is not there anymore. And so that includes their conversations with me. So people have been very open about telling me the good and the bad about their lives. And I would just say that overall, I'm struck by how they always emphasize the good first. They say life is better. There's more hope, there's more optimism, but we have these problems, we have these complaints and they're still the vestiges of things that we're trying to deal with.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Interestingly, that's something that I too hear a lot and I'm sure other journalists too, who visit Uzbekistan. People are very straightforward in telling you that they are learning to be candid. They are learning to actually share the painful parts of life or their professional experiences. There is more drive towards justice, rights and freedom. There is obviously, as you know, a lot of hope around Uzbek reforms. But some feel like things have slowed down now... that the basic trajectory is there, but the momentum has dissipated a little bit. Is that your sense? Where are the reforms right now, as you see them?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Well, there's so many different reforms. It kind of depends to some extent what you're talking about. Take foreign policy for example, I think that the change, the shift in foreign policy is still very much there. That it was established early on that making the relations with the immediate neighbors better was going to be a priority. And then I think the president and his team set out to do that, and it's really made a difference not just in terms of trade flows and the movements of people, but I think in the quality of life. And when I visited the border areas, I was in Andijan, and went to a border crossing. I was at the border in Termez, the Afghan order. And when I talk to people, they can cite very specific reasons why their life easier now being able to cross the border.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: They tell you exactly what changed, right?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah. In fact, I remember one story that really stuck with me of a young man who I think he's the head librarian at the national library in Fergana, Fergana City. And he is from Sokh, from the Sokh region, which I think I you visited recently.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Right. Yes, Uzbek exclaves.
... it's very difficult to change a system that's so established in a short period of time. People have certain habits and ways of doing business. There are people who have vested interest in the way it used to be.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah, the exclave... And he remembers vividly as a child traveling from Sokh to Uzbekistan proper and how difficult it was and how people were made to feel like they were under suspicion all the time. And now he goes back to visit his family all the time. Very easy. And he remarked on what a difference psychologically that made. So I hear stories like this all over the place. So on foreign policy, I think no one's questioning the reform very much or seeing it slow down. But on some of the domestic reforms, you do get that sense. And I think the problem that they're encountering on economic reform, on some of the social sector reforms is that it's very difficult to change a system that's so established in a short period of time. People have certain habits and ways of doing business. There are people who have vested interest in the way it used to be.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Exactly.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: And so when it gets down to the hard work of changing institutions, changing the way they operate, it's proving to be very difficult.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That's something that we hear very often too. Basically they say that the government is focused on low hanging fruit. It's doing what is possible now, whereas it may be time now to tackle some of the harder reforms. But that's where then the vested interests may collide with what you want to do to make as a real change. And that's when many in the Uzbek society and in the system look at the United States and hope that maybe we can learn something from them. How do Americans do it? How did they get to where they are today? What kind of technical assistance or what kind of practical assistance we can get from them. So I'm sure you have started conversations about those things.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: We have, and some of them have gone beyond conversations into starting to do the technical assistance. We've got, I would say five areas that we're really focused on in supporting the reforms. Some of them are things we were doing even before that we've now expanded and some are newer. So the first is agriculture, where we've got a pretty extensive USAID project, and that's helping farmers find new ways to market their crops or to turn them into higher value added commodities that can be sold either domestically or exported. Second is health where we're doing a lot of work specifically on tuberculosis but also broader healthcare reform, changing the system of healthcare financing and so on. A third one is education and that's going to be a real growth area for us the next couple of years. We got some good new resources coming in, and education is about training teachers to be better English teachers, especially a lot of focus on English, but also broader curriculum reform.
The fourth area is rule of law, where we're working on judicial independence, we're working on helping the law schools and the defense bar to develop further. And then the fifth area is sort of broader economic reform, macro economic reform. And you mentioned advisors and technical assistance, our treasury department is actually now set to provide some advisors to the ministry of finance, the agency for capital market development. And I think one or two others in the very near future. So we're ramping up in all five of those areas and we really want the reforms to succeed, to help them succeed.
... in my meetings in the parliament I have sensed that they feel a new sense of responsibility to play a different role than they have in the past.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And for those reforms and for these projects to succeed, systemic changes need to be taking place, right? Do you feel like at its fundamentals, there are political reforms taking place in the country, that the political system is actually changing?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes, I do. But it's an interesting sort of change because as most of the reforms have been, so the political reform is very top-down. President Mirziyoyev himself is committed to this project of transforming the country and many of the ideas are coming from him or from the presidential administration, and then they have to be implemented. And sometimes it makes the political reform harder to see. But I for example, in my meetings in the parliament I have sensed that they feel a new sense of responsibility to play a different role than they have in the past.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Very interesting times as the parliamentary elections approach.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We see a more proactive lawmaking body now.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So you are engaged with them?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: ... and so you see their new ways of doing things.
President Mirziyoyev himself is committed to this project of transforming the country and many of the ideas are coming from him or from the presidential administration, and then they have to be implemented. And sometimes it makes the political reform harder to see.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah. I mean holding hearings, oversight hearings on executive grants of the ministries, looking at the budget. Now, it's kind of at this stage still learning how to do these things for the first time and wondering how far that authority will go. I think there's still a question of how much of a role the legislative branch can have. I know we've heard the president talk about what he would like it to be, as a real legislature that serves as kind of part of checks and balances. But it's a new approach.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So in our recent conversations with Senator Safayev, who you know well, and recently in New York at the UNGA, we talked to the head of the Uzbek Environmental Party, Boriy Alikhanov, and both of them argue that this is the best they can do now. That all this criticism about the lack of opposition, real opposition in the country, lack of really active parties, maybe partisanship, even some says, isn't there because it hasn't come to Uzbekistan yet. In general, they say that you need to know more about the political mentality of the country. Do you hear those kinds of arguments too? What do you think of that kind of an argument, defending the system?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah, I do hear those arguments and I think there's some validity to it. I mean you, every country has to find its own path of development towards democracy, towards free markets... But we hope it's moving towards in that direction in Uzbekistan. And there are lots of different models and ways of getting there. We've been an independent country for 240 years. Our institutions evolved over a long period. We had a different legacy that we were inheriting from the British empire. I mean, it's really hard to draw analogies and to expect other countries to look the same. We don't expect other countries to look the same as us.
So I do give some weight to those arguments. I also think though, and I think people I talk to in the government recognize this too, that the important thing is that the trend continues in the right direction, and that the trajectory towards a more open society, towards more democratic governments, more responsive governance continues.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Pluralism.
I talk to in the government recognize this too, that the important thing is that the trend continues in the right direction, and that the trajectory towards a more open society, towards more democratic government, more responsive governance continues.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah. The pace at which it goes will vary, and it may not be satisfying to everyone looking at it from outside, but the direction needs to be the same. And so with the parliament, for example, a good example of this is I've talked to a couple of younger people who are running for the first time for seats and they may or may not win seats in this election. But when I talk to them, I sense that they really understand that their job is to represent a district and a constituency, and it is to advocate for the people who they represent.
And that in itself, regardless of what the institution as a whole is able to do at the beginning, and it may not be as partisan or as competitive as our political system, in fact, it probably won't be, that is a step in the right direction that the legislators start to conceive their role as representing voters and fighting for their interests. So yeah, it's a very complicated process, but I think so far, in my short time there in four months and talking to lots of people, I do feel that the movement is in the right direction and it's important that it continue that way.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And then U.S. will assist Uzbek political parties if they want to get training, if they are seeking assistance?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: We will. If we're requested, we absolutely will. I spoke to the speaker of the Majlis maybe two months ago...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The Oliy Majilis?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: The Oliy Majilis. I also spoke to the chairman of the Senate, Madam Narbaeva.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Tanzila Narbaeva.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: And in both of those meetings I made it clear that if they want after the election, after there's new deputies coming in, if they would like some interaction, some assistance, some kind of exchanges with the U.S. Congress or with organizations that we have in the United States, that we are ready to provide it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So it seems like everything is going really well for the U.S.-Uzbek relations, on the surface at least. It's a challenging job. You pursue U.S. interests. What are some of the main obstacles for you now, and for the Trump administration, as you pursue those interests in Uzbekistan?
There's an expectations management issue internally with the population that I know the president is well aware of.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Well, one obstacle or one challenge, let's put it that way, is expectations management. And this goes to some of the questions you were asking before about the pace of the reform and are things slowing down. There's an expectations management issue internally with the population that I know [President Mirziyoyev] is well aware of. They want to deliver results and improve people's lives...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah, he says that a lot.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Or else people start to get impatient. But similarly in the United States, the people that I answer to in Washington and in the State Department, the Congress and so on, they want to see further progress and movement in a good direction from the standpoint of reform and opening up. And one of the things that I've learned over the years with any country that's trying to reform is the more you do, the more is expected of you.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Of course, yeah.
And one of the things that I've learned over the years with any country that's trying to reform is the more you do, the more is expected of you.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Which is, you know... It doesn't seem fair to those who are in the country that's being focused on. But in fact that's the way, that's the dynamic of it. And so I think a challenge for me and for the administration is how do we continue to provide the support we want to, but also manage those expectations so that we don't lose patience. And so that's a challenge. Another one I would say is our businesses have expressed a growing interest in investing in Uzbekistan, which again is something I know the president and the whole government very much want. But new investment projects take time and they take patience, and because the system is still evolving, some will fail. And that's just a reality.
And so again, the challenge there is to manage the expectations of the business community and of the Uzbek government for a new U.S. investment. And what we really need, I think is a few success stories. We need a few successful new investments to show that it can be done. We're working on those, but we don't have them yet.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah. And for a long time GM was a success story.
And so again, the challenge there is to manage the expectations of the business community and of the Uzbek government for a new U.S. investment.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Although, actually, GM isn't out. It's interesting...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, they have some experts still working in the company, right?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: They do. And they actually, because I just happen to know something about this because I visited the GM plant in Asaka.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, please tell us about it... Which is now UzAuto by the way.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Right. It's called UzAuto, but what GM now talks about is they have an alliance relationship. So they do not have equity in the company anymore, they've sold their equity shares. But they provide licensing for all the products, the Chevrolet brand. They provide engineering services, and a lot of the cars that are coming in are what they call kits that are disassembled and then they get assembled in the plant there, but they're coming from GM plants, parts manufacturers elsewhere.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So there's a legacy there?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: There's a legacy and they feel like these have a stake. So even though the GM name isn't on the plants anymore, GM is still very much here. Or not here, in Uzbekistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Afghanistan... We just talked to Ambassador Wells [Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Affairs] who talked to us at length about C5+1 and recent talks in New York. And what's in general happening to the Trump administration's Afghanistan policy. But you're watching the whole dynamics from the ground, from Tashkent. And Tashkent has become quite active when it comes to its own Afghanistan diplomacy... They want to be friends with everybody, including the Taliban, in a way that they don't want to have any issues with any relevant parties in the region. But also it seemed that they were cozying up a little bit with the Taliban recently when they hosted a group, some members of which came all the way from Doha, while talks were taking place there. So that caused a lot of questions. And my question to you is, do you feel like Tashkent and Washington are in sync on Afghanistan, on where things stand?
It was total transparency in both directions. And that's key to having that trust that you want in a partner.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes, I do. And I should say that throughout this period of the negotiations that Ambassador Khalilzad was leading, we felt that Uzbekistan was being a very trusting partner throughout. And they were having meetings with various different parties of the conflict from Afghanistan. And that was helpful. I mean they were opening up avenues of dialogue. What was most important throughout was that the government, the foreign ministry was keeping us informed. It was total transparency in both directions. And that's key to having that trust that you want in a partner.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What do they want ultimately? They obviously want peace in Afghanistan, but what would be the victory or a success for the Mirziyoyev administration out of this?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Well, you know, the peace and stability in Afghanistan is so key to the security of Uzbekistan. So that's number one, that's job one. But I also think that President Mirziyoyev and his whole team see a open and stable Afghanistan as a key to Uzbekistan's trade links and its energy links and its own opening to the outside world. That was one of the first things I learned when I had this assignment, I probably should've known it earlier, was that Uzbekistan is a double landlocked country, one of only two in the world as I understand it.
And given that geography and the need for access to markets and to the sea and to shipping goods, Afghanistan is at the center of that opening that Uzbekistan needs to have. So I think that Afghanistan is now seen as much as an opportunity, as a threat. The threat of instability spilling over has always been of a concern. It was a concern in the days of President Karimov. It's still a concern today. But I think one of the significant things President Mirziyoyev has done through his foreign policy changes is to try to turn that threat into an opportunity.
So I do think in terms of trade trade routes, in terms of selling its energy to the east and to the south, in terms of transportation. For all those reasons, Uzbekistan rightly so, views Afghanistan as a great opportunity for its own future.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The U.S. continues to provide border security assistance, right? That's why you were there recently.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes. Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And it's a short border compared to other borders. Uzbekistan has 155 kilometers [with Afghanistan] only, but it is such a key part of the region.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: We went on the Friendship Bridge. We walked all the way to the... As far as you could go before you crossed into Afghanistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah, before you cross into Balkh.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Halfway across the bridge. And then we went on the river on river boats that had been donated by the U.S. government, some of them five or six years ago, on a patrol. They do these daily patrols and we went on patrol boat and we saw the flow. The, the day we were there, there weren't a huge number of cars and trucks, but there were some going across.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: They tell us about 250 Afghans, average, enter and leave Uzbekistan every day. But it's amazing how many Afghans are in Termez. They actually see it as a future business hub.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah, we met with some of them. In fact we met with the Afghan consul and the consulate there in Termez... Yes. But also he brought with him some Afghan business people who we had lunch with them. And they were doing their best to create opportunities. I mean it's slow and, but it's happening.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We hear a lot about opportunities from you, from other relevant U.S. officials and also from the Uzbek officials themselves. They see challenges as opportunities and that's quite a new narrative for Uzbekistan, because they didn't like the word challenge before. So that is a big major change for Tashkent as far as we're concerned. And you know, obviously, you want to turn many, many of the U.S. aspirations in the region into projects there, right? You talked about those five goals that you had as you were leaving for Uzbekistan when you testified in the U.S. Senate. What are some of the signature or hallmark goals you have or projects you have in mind that you absolutely want to achieve in Uzbekistan? Things that we could be checking with you time to time and see what the progress is.
One of [my goals] is definitely to see an increase in U.S. trade and investment, U.S. exports, but also foreign direct investment from the United States.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah. Well, some of them... Actually all of them are things that I've mentioned already and I guess I always go back as a touchstone to the goals that I laid out in that speech that you referred to at the swearing in. One of them is definitely to see an increase in U.S. trade and investment, U.S. exports, but also foreign direct investment from the United States.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Where do they stand now?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: The bilateral trade last year was, I think, I want to say it was about 200 million, which is not very high compared to other countries.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But higher than before?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: But higher. It was a big increase. Actually, I think it was over 300 million. It was a big increase over the previous year, although that had something to do with Boeing selling one of its streamliners and so there's potential to grow. The foreign direct investment, actually I don't have the number in my head of what the current amount is and what the annual increase was last year, but there's definitely room to grow there.
... our programs are going to be training, I think, something like 20,000 English teachers.
And so that's something that we can track over time and see how we're doing year to year. I also very much want to be able to point to some elements of the government's reform where we made a contribution, a tangible contribution to its success. And I can see it, we can measure it in health and agriculture already. I hope to be able to measure it in education, especially the English language. The Ministry of Public Education has a goal of training, I think it's 33,000 English teachers to get them to a level where they can teach at a high internationally recognized level. And we, and our programs are going to be training, I think something like, 20,000 English teachers. So, a few years from now, if we've succeeded, we can show that, we can test the teachers and see that they're...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Tangible.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: They've achieved a certain level. And then in general, I really hope that in my time there that I'm able to point to an increase in the people-to-people ties. This is something I talked about a lot in my swearing in. I want to be able to say that we have X number of more students going both directions, teachers, scientists, business people, professionals of all kinds.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Tourists.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: ... and tourists, right. There's already been a big uptake in American tourists coming to Uzbekistan. I think last year in 2018 it was like 14,000, is the number that sticks in my mind. I want to see that go up. So there are going to be some metrics that we can use and those are the things that I'm really interested in.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: A lot to focus on.
There's already been a big uptake in American tourists coming to Uzbekistan. I think last year in 2018 it was like 14,000...
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much. It's not everyday that you get to talk to a U.S. ambassador on the National Mall here. We really appreciate your time.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah. Beautiful stroll.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much for finding these precious minutes for us. We've been talking to Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum, America's top diplomat to Uzbekistan, visiting Washington.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Thank you, Navbahor.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And I know that you've been practicing, actually learning and improving your Uzbek. You excite the crowds every time you speak Uzbek.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You know how well your Uzbek language addresses were received, right?
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: I hear it almost every day. I run into someone who saw my videos. It's incredible how many people saw those videos.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, they do. Thank you again.
Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum: Thank you.