VOA Exclusive: Why is Republican Congressman Trent Kelly from Mississippi pushing for closer cooperation with Uzbekistan? What are his priorities? Why does he trust President Mirziyoyev and the Uzbek establishment? Kelly, a Brigadier General with the National Guard, says that the U.S. and Uzbekistan "are friends for life."
Transcript, September 26, 2019
I think there are a lot of similarities between Uzbekistan and Mississippi.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Hello! I'm Navbahor Imamova reporting for the Voice of America. Today we're in the Longworth U.S. House Building, here to have a very candid conversation with Congressman Trent Kelly, who proudly represents the state of Mississippi, which has a very special relationship with Uzbekistan. So I'm here to talk about Uzbekistan, Congressman Kelly.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Oh, yes. And you know it's one of my favorite subjects, both on the military partnership. You know, I just spoke with our governor three days ago about his visit again to Uzbekistan and so I think there are a lot of similarities between Uzbekistan and Mississippi.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How did this special relationship between Uzbekistan and Mississippi start? We know that you've been in the House since 2015, right? But you seem to know the country well. You seem to bond with Uzbekistan very closely. So how did that happen?
Congressman Trent Kelly: I think sometimes you just wind up around the people you're supposed to be around. But, you know, we've had a state partnership program with our Mississippi National Guard, which I'm a member, for many, many years. But I went over in a congressional delegation at the OSCE in 2016 and met with the President who then was Prime Minister then. Well, I know I met with the Prime Minister who is now president, Mirziyoyev. Did I say that right? I'm trying...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Mirziyoyev.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Mirziyoyev.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah. Mir-zee-yoy-yev.
Congressman Trent Kelly: It's, you know... And we were talking earlier, we have these short Irish names in Mississippi.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I know. But he knows your name very well, I'm sure.
Congressman Trent Kelly: He does. And so... But it's so funny, he was Prime Minister then and I met. And then he ascended to the presidency and he does just such a great job. But I think that first meeting, which had Senator Safayev was there, and I think at the time maybe he was an ambassador or maybe a foreign minister. You know, foreign minister Kamilov...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Safayev was a senator then too.
Congressman Trent Kelly: What a great guy. And so I've just become friends, but it was just a chance meeting. We were at this meeting and I walked by the table and said, "Hey, we have a state partnership and I'd really liked to talk to you guys." The entire delegation walked out and we talk and we started that friendship, planted that little small seed of friendship which has become so big.
... we started exposing members of Congress. We talk about it. I talk about it at home all the time.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So it boils down to personal connections. How you connect as people, as individuals... And that is something that the U.S. government has been trying to do - to connect with the people... people-to-people relationships. That's something that we hear a lot from the State Department. How much do the ordinary Mississippians know about Uzbekistan?
Congressman Trent Kelly: You know, they're learning. That's what, you know... There's so many things I can talk about because I'm so excited.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Please do.
Congressman Trent Kelly: You know, I took the first CODEL [Congressional Delegation] over there and we took seven other members. So eight total members of the House of Representative. I think the largest CODEL at least in many years to Uzbekistan. And we started exposing members of Congress. We talk about it. I talk about it at home all the time. And so, you know, our governor just got back from over there, our director of Economic Development for the State. The Minister of Defense was recently in Mississippi. So we continue to have exchanges, not just at the military level, but we've turned it into also economic and state level. So we've developed it and expanded it to so many things. And it goes back to those relationships.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I want to ask you about your priorities later, but you played a key role in the formation of the Uzbekistan Caucus now. What is the goal of it?
Congressman Trent Kelly: The goal is to improve relationships between the United States and Uzbekistan, to make members here in the House of Representatives very aware of what is going on in Uzbekistan. Quite frankly, most people couldn't have pointed to Uzbekistan on a map 10 years ago, but now...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Even here.
The goal is to improve relationships between the United States and Uzbekistan, to make members here in the House of Representatives very aware of what is going on in Uzbekistan.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Even here. But now people know where it is. And that's part of it, is to educate and then to show what great strides they have made, whether we're talking about our religious freedoms or human rights in the workplace and the cotton fields, our release of political prisoners. Just so many great things. And Uzbekistan was very closed... and now they're very open. They're a regional leader. They're a regional partner. They're a worldwide partner. The President visited with our Secretary of Defense here. Also with our President and he visited with me and Senator Hatch and several other people. It is great to have those exchanges and we've just got to continue. And that's the purpose of the caucus, is to grow the exposure of Uzbekistan and to do... We just introduced with [Representative] Vicente Gonzalez, who's the co-chair with me. He's from Texas... We're introducing a resolution that deals with Uzbekistan and what they've done and recognizing their independence.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So it's a bipartisan body, right?
Congressman Trent Kelly: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah. So, it is basically a consultation circle, like a network of House members who are focusing on the region, and who want to have that exchange, between them. We have had several members of Congress over the years, who have been very critical of the situation in Uzbekistan, of the policies in place in Uzbekistan and I'm sure you hear from them too, right?
Congressman Trent Kelly: We do. And you know, I would say there is very few weeks that go by that I don't speak to the Ambassador [Javlon Vakhabov] or that he's not in my office or that we're not interchanging with him.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: He's very active, isn't he?
I have formed such deep and lasting friendships and relationships with members of the government of Uzbekistan and they've made it easy to do.
Congressman Trent Kelly: He is very, very active. We've become friends, you know, and I think it's so easy for me because I have formed such deep and lasting friendships and relationships with members of the government of Uzbekistan and they've made it easy to do. Like I said, everything we have asked them to do, it is important to recognize, to improve areas which we all need improvement. And we've worked together to both improve, I think, both nations and both governments.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So I am sure as you mentioned just now, you hear this a lot from the Uzbek officials, they want so much from the United States. There is a lot of hope, lots of expectations from here. And you're focusing on on a range of issues, right? Not just the military, as you just said, businesses and the investment, human dimension, technical assistance. There is a lot that this country wants to do in Uzbekistan but you had to have priorities. What are your priorities? What are you mainly focused on?
Congressman Trent Kelly: Well, the military will always be that because I have such a strong tie...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Security ties.
Congressman Trent Kelly: And, you know, I think regional stability, and when I say that I include Afghanistan in that. I think that Uzbekistan is right in the middle of any peace process that we have with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. I think they're right in the middle. I think they're such a regional leader and so we continue. And then economically, I had peanut farmers in yesterday from all over the Southeast and we were talking about the viability of a distribution point in Uzbekistan for our peanut farmers or either sharing crops and information. So agriculture is really, really important to me with USDA to see what we can do to make Uzbekistan and the United States partner better.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So military, security, and then agriculture...
Congressman Trent Kelly: Agriculture and economic...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There were many experts in Washington and elsewhere, even in Tashkent, who see this as a very transactional relationship. They think that, you know, US is there in the region as a whole for just very specific things. They want to work with the countries, specifically with Uzbekistan, because of Afghanistan and the region is a route to somewhere. So they criticize the American establishment for being too pragmatic and too transactional with the region.
... anybody who says it's transactional, they're seeing what they want to see and not what's really happening.
Congressman Trent Kelly: I'd say they'd just have to look at me and they would know that's not true. You know? I mean this will be the third November in a row that I've been there. I've done other trips. I have at least one more to Uzbekistan. It's like I said in the interaction day to day, the resolution recognizing their independence, Vicente Gonzalez. We're a huge government, there's 535 members of Congress, 435 in the House and a hundred in the Senate. And so, you know, some of them probably are transactional, but they've got some really good friends here on the Hill. I mean the fact that our governor went over there and visited, he has nothing to do with national policy. He has nothing to do with Afghanistan, he has very few troops. But he's over there and it's all economic and it's all about what can we do to partner together to make Mississippi in Uzbekistan stronger. So I would say anybody who says it's transactional, they're seeing what they want to see and not what's really happening.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So as far as you're concerned, you are there longterm. You want that kind of a relationship.
Congressman Trent Kelly: They're my friends for life.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You hosted President Mirziyoyev last year when he was here. You gave him a tour of the Capitol.
Congressman Trent Kelly: We did give him a tour and got to meet in the Lincoln Room, which was really where President Lincoln, when he was president, his little hideaway and that's where we met with the President. Isn't that a great venue?
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah, we saw those spectacular pictures. You seem to trust him. You trust him. You're a Brigadier General. It's not easy to earn your trust, right?
Congressman Trent Kelly: No, it is not.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So what makes you look at the Uzbek government, specifically President Mirziyoyev as a credible party, as a credible head of government?
Congressman Trent Kelly: First of all, I think we want this relationship and I think he wants it and I want it. And so I go back to my first visit, my first CODEL, and the president was out, I think he was in Japan maybe at the time, and his entire cabinet was with him. And so we had this large codel and we couldn't change the dates. I mean we had the dates, we have several other. So we're there for two or three days and he couldn't get back because he had these meetings with other heads of state. He sent his entire cabinet back to me. Well that shows commitment to making sure. And then there was a list, there were political prisoners that at the time I think Ambassador Brownback and some of the State Department were negotiating and all those things. There were some other things that were going on in and they way cotton was picked and kids getting out of school.
I think we want this relationship and I think [Mirziyoyev] wants it and I want it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Forced labor. Child labor.
Congressman Trent Kelly: And we brought those up.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You discussed those issues?
Congressman Trent Kelly: Absolutely. And they were immediately fixed. Well that says "We want to do the right thing." Now we don't move as fast in the American government and Uzbekistan's government does not move as fast as sometimes people on the outside and peripheral would like. But here's what I do say, I've seen nothing but steady progress from the government of Uzbekistan under the President's leadership since he has taken over. And here's the other thing that I think people really need to understand, the elections this December, I've been invited. I've been asked to come. I want to observe. I don't know, it's close to our Christmas so, you know, I do have a young kid and I have to... But I'm trying. But they have been arms wide open to the international community to say "Please come in and observe our elections." They have become very, very transparent and transparency is always good, not perfect, but transparent always says "We're not hiding anything." And so I think that's where the base of the trust and it will be long-term.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You've met the members of Oliy Majlis, the Uzbek Parliament. What do you think of them?
I've seen nothing but steady progress from the government of Uzbekistan under the President's leadership since he has taken over.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Well, Senator Safayev is one of my really good friends, and all the members of Parliament. And we have to continue to empower them and to let them be a voice of the people and I think the President has done very good at that. He's redistributing the power just from, you know... He could keep all of that to himself, and that's how it was in the past. And he's not. He's sharing that and spreading it out...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You think he's on that path?
Congressman Trent Kelly: I think so.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: A lot of people doubt that it could be a permanent thing.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Well I think so. And I think the elections... I just think he's forward-looking.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: They see him as someone who is consolidating power... Eventually he may tighten the grip, they say.
Congressman Trent Kelly: I've not seen that. So all I can say is I've seen him to not consolidate but to rather to trust the people to make the right decisions. And I think the election show that. I mean when you're inviting people in to observe the election, if you were trying to consolidate power and make sure you would be trying to keep people out.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So if you go, it would be a bipartisan group of...
Congressman Trent Kelly: It could be. It could only be me or it can be bipartisan. We will try to put together a group. And I know they've also looked at the international organizations to also come in and look at, United Nations and other people. It's definitely more open than any election process in the past. Wouldn't you agree?
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You know, this will be a major challenge for the Uzbek political system because everybody wants to see that the system is reforming itself. That it's fundamental is improving. In its fundamentals, there, is a political reform there. So I think definitely the international community, but the people of Uzbekistan want to see for themselves what can they do.
... we're trying to do a regional exercise which foreign troops come into Uzbekistan to train
Congressman Trent Kelly: I'll just put it to you this way. Having foreign military in Uzbekistan would not have happened four years ago. So closed, even for a training exercise or anything else. And we're in the process on the military side, okay, through your minister of defense and all this goes. The president knows what's going on. And we're trying to do a regional exercise which foreign troops come into Uzbekistan to train, to work on... Now this is like earthquake response and those kinds of things. Natural disasters.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Right. The laws of Uzbekistan now do not allow the foreign troops to be based but you can definitely go there for exercise.
Congressman Trent Kelly: To train. But even though you could in the past, it was not allowed. And so you just see the openness and the openness of the borders which has been very improved over the last three or four years. Does that mean they're perfect? No. I mean we have border issues here. Imagine that. But you have to work through. But you can see the improvement. You can see the openness to change and not rely on the ways of the old.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you have met the Minister of Defense. You have talked to the security officials of Uzbekistan.
Every time very open to meet and to discuss the challenges and have seen improvement or either when we disagree we disagree. And that's okay too.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Everyone. I've been to your military academy. I've been several times and there's not been a part, either business, economically or militarily or any part of the government which I've not met with the ministers. Every time very open to meet and to discuss the challenges and have seen improvement or either when we disagree we disagree. And that's okay too.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you see these opportunities as an opportunity to sort of, you know, counter the Russian influence? Because you know, a lot of people see Central Asia as a region of this huge, great games and competition. I know a lot of people in Washington don't see it that way, but how do you... Are you worried about Chinese, Russian influence, for example?
Congressman Trent Kelly: Not really. Listen. It's a three-legged stool. Okay. And to be honest, five years ago, Russia had a real long leg. China had a small egg and America had almost no leg.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There.
I don't think they need to be anybody's puppet. I don't think they need to be America's puppet. I don't think they need to be China's puppet. I don't think they need to be Russia's puppet. I think the Uzbekistan people are great and we're supportive of them doing what is best for Uzbekistan.
Congressman Trent Kelly: There in Uzbekistan and now we're, I wouldn't say we're an equal leg, but we're getting closer to equal. And I think that's important. It balances. I think that's good for Uzbekistan. I mean, they're part of the old Silk Road. I mean, they are such a country, such rich in resources. Great people. They're located in an area which has influence all throughout the region. I don't think they need to be anybody's puppet. I don't think they need to be America's puppet. I don't think they need to be China's puppet. I don't think they need to be Russia's puppet. I think the Uzbekistan people are great and we're supportive of them doing what is best for Uzbekistan. And hopefully Mississippi and the United States play a part in that. But I'm not worried about Russian influence. I'll let them worry about us. I'm not worried about Russia. They can worry about us. We're not trying to take over Uzbekistan. We want to make Uzbekistan a better place and we want the Uzbek people to take control of Uzbekistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And congratulations with the award... [Uzbek Friendship Order] I was in Tashkent when they announced it.
Congressman Trent Kelly: That is amazing.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So I wondered, how did you learn about the award? How did they inform you?
We're not trying to take over Uzbekistan. We want to make Uzbekistan a better place and we want the Uzbek people to take control of Uzbekistan.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Well, the Ambassador let me know. And it's just such an honor, and I think it cements and glues our friendship. Like I said, you can go look at anything I've done. I still maintain relationships with my police officers from when I was city prosecutor 15-20 years ago. I have soldiers that come up and visit with me that I haven't seen in 10-15 years. I'm in this for the long haul. I'm making friends for life and I think you can say that all you want. The people will see that that's true.
(Excerpt from the awards ceremony, Washington, Sept 27, 2019)
Congressman Trent Kelly: I will be very brief, but I first want to thank Minister Kamilov for presenting this on behalf of President Mirziyoyev. What an honor to be recognized in this way. The friendship and partnership between Mississippi and the United States and Uzbekistan is the most important thing that I do in the House of Representatives. And in honor of that, Vicente Gonzalez is a Congressman from Texas who is the co-chair of the Uzbekistan caucus in the United States House of Representatives. We introduce a resolution for the 28th anniversary of Uzbekistan independence, and I want to..
And it's in honor of all the progress that has been made under the current administration and all the ministers. What a great place. And if you have not been to Uzbekistan, you are missing out. There's only two places in the world that I love to leave to go to and Washington, D.C. is not one of them. It is Uzbekistan and Mississippi, and when I'm there I feel like I'm at home in both places. I thank you for the friendship of your great nation and our great state and our great nation. Thank you and God bless you all.
(Back to the interview)
There's only two places in the world that I love to leave to go to and Washington, D.C. is not one of them. It is Uzbekistan and Mississippi...
Congressman Trent Kelly: I'm just honored, that's all, to even be considered is great and to actually get the award is great.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You just said some wonderful things about people... people of Uzbekistan, people of Mississippi. If someone is up there in Uzbekistan or in other parts of Central Asia, who watch us, is sitting and wandering about, "Well you know, this Congressman has a great relationship with the Uzbek government. To what extent, he cares about our issues? " Because, you know, the governments and people are two different... sides.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Well, you've got to understand, I come from a place where it's not two different things. We are the people. You know, I represent 763,000 people and I'm on the ballot every two years.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So you are the people.
Congressman Trent Kelly: I am the people, you know? And I'm in the House of Representatives, which is the people's closest voice in America. And so I do care about it. I see them as one. And that's what I think the President is trying to get to. That's why I think he is trying to decentralize. I think he was trying to get it closer to get the parliament more engaged and more powerful. And so I think that's what it's about. I think in a perfect government, the government and the people should be the same. And I think that's what's great about a Republic, which we have. And I think that is great on these elections in Uzbekistan, for the people's voice to speak.
I am the people, you know? And I'm in the House of Representatives, which is the people's closest voice in America.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And we'll be watching together.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Absolutely. I hope I'm able to come.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes. Thank you so much.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Thank you.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's been wonderful.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Absolutely wonderful.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And we could go on and on and on.
Congressman Trent Kelly: We're talking about something we both love.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes. Absolutely.
Congressman Trent Kelly: Thank you!
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you.