Afghanistan, security, trade and good governance all figured into Feb 1-3 talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the foreign ministers of five Central Asian republics as well as the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Pompeo's spokesperson discussed the trip with VOA's Navbahor Imamova.
Transcript, State Department, February 6, 2020
Morgan Ortagus: It's great to be with you.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We know that every day is a busy day for you.
Morgan Ortagus: That's true.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You've just come back from Central Asia.
Morgan Ortagus: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: This was your first time, right?
Morgan Ortagus: It was. Yes, and it was really an honor to be there. Actually, when I moved to Washington about 13, 14 years ago one of the first embassies I was ever invited to was the Embassy from Uzbekistan, and I went to a dinner there, and I think maybe that helped me fall in love with foreign policy, so it was nice to go.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: How much did you know about the region as you started this job?
Morgan Ortagus: I had the privilege of being able to cover the entire world with Secretary Pompeo, so it's been one of the most fascinating intellectual challenges for me. And of course Central Asia is so important to this administration. It's the reason that we unveiled this new Central Asia strategy and had the meeting of C5+1, because we believe it's important to bolster these countries, to help them with their independence, with their territorial integrity, and of course with their relationship with the United States. So Secretary Pompeo always says that it's important to show up and that's why he went there, to show up, to build the relationships. To build them when it is already a great relationship.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And the last time the U.S. Secretary of State was in the region was five years ago, in 2015, so it was a huge excitement in the region to have Secretary Pompeo, and of course you, and Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, but you just said “show up…” What does this mean? Because there is a feeling, a very heavily felt feeling in the region that they come, they visit us, we're exotic enough, we're interesting enough, they enjoy our cuisine...
Morgan Ortagus: The cuisine is very good.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: ... ethnic outfits, and other things. They’ll remember our historic places, maybe buy a couple of rugs, and that's it, nothing else happens. Basically, they criticize major governments for coming, checking on the region, and not necessarily following up.
Morgan Ortagus: So we had a couple of reasons for going there. One, of course, is we were very encouraged by the president's reform agenda. He has sought out ways in which to make Uzbekistan an even better place for American businesses to live, to work, to do business. He obviously has been working on things like religious freedom, which is incredibly important to Secretary Pompeo. We had a religious freedom event there. And so, we think in these meetings with our counterparts we were able to discuss more ways in which Uzbekistan can continue the president's reform agenda. We were able to talk about more American investment, and what needs to happen there.
Of course, one of the crucial things about Uzbekistan is the close counter terrorism relationship that the United States has with Uzbekistan and that sometimes gets lost in the headlines. A lot of the American media can focus on Afghanistan, our involvement there, but it's because of partners like Uzbekistan that we were able to have an American presence in Central and South Asia, and as we move forward to hopefully finding a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan, it's going to be more important now than ever for countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the other members of the C5 to really bring Afghanistan into the culture and the tradition of Central Asia.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What were the messages from the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that you felt like we have to absolutely discuss this is Washington, this is something that we had never heard before, this is a major concern or issue for us?
Morgan Ortagus: So I always want to be careful about characterizing the private conversations that the secretary has with his counterparts. But you know I'd say that the secretary has really asked Alice Wells, our Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia to focus on this new Central Asia strategy. We think it's important for a number of reasons. Number one, the counter terrorism, reasons that I just talked about. Number two, it's incredibly important in our mind for these countries in Central Asia to know that they have a friend, and ally, and partner in the United States, and that friendship is important.
As we see Russia, and China, and other geopolitical competitors having influence in Central Asia, it's important for us for Central Asia to know that the things that America stands for, or the things that we think the people of Uzbekistan and Central Asia care about. We care about religious tolerance and freedom. We care about the business practices. We care about transparency and accountability, and we believe something that's really a pillar of the Trump Administration is sovereignty, is national identity, and national sovereignty, and that's why we were there to help those countries.
The one thing I think that I forget that I would also add that was discussed was energy needs. That was actually a theme throughout our trip when we were also in Ukraine and in Belarus, and the robust ... America is a huge energy supplier around the world now. We have certainly offered our assistance on the energy front as well.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: In Uzbekistan?
Morgan Ortagus: Throughout Central Asia, yeah, that was a theme of our trip.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So some of the things that you've just mentioned - we have heard this before from the previous administrations, from the previous members of the State Department. What if Central Asians say: You know this is an election year in the United States. We don't know if Secretary will be here within a few months or not. Why is the Trump Administration changing or updating the strategy for Central Asia, and why should we take all of this seriously?
Morgan Ortagus: We are a thriving democracy in the United States so you never know when any of us are going to be here. We have elections every two years, every four years, people change, but what's important, and I think this goes across party lines here in the United States is our support for the people of Central Asia, and our belief. And again, I believe this goes across party lines. Our belief that these countries deserve the right to be sovereign, to be independent, to be able to make the decisions that are best for their country.
We also, listen, since the last time the secretary of state was in Uzbekistan that was five years ago, as you said, and we've seen a lot change in the Communist Party in China in the past five years. Xi Jinping has accelerated the Belt Road Initiative. He's accelerated putting Muslims, and Kazakh, and other minorities in camps in China. He's accelerated the way in which the Chinese Communist Party is trying to expand their influence throughout Central Asia, so that's different than five years ago, and that's why we're showing up, because we believe that American value, American integrity, American standards and practice, are best suited for the people of Central Asia despite the free and cheap money that the Chinese Communist Party likes to offer.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Both in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, we heard a lot of people saying to Secretary Pompeo, and his delegation, you included, "We want President Trump to visit. We want the American president to come to the region." No U.S. president ever visited the region. What would you say to them?
Morgan Ortagus: I will be happy to mention that to Secretary Pompeo and to President Trump when I see him next. He'll probably be traveling around the United States quite a bit because as you noted it is an election year, and he does have I think a few foreign trips coming up, but I'll be happy to relay the message. It would certainly be an honor for the people of Uzbekistan to continue to welcome this administration into your country.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: As soon as you got to Tashkent the first people you met were the religious leaders. How did you make that decision? Why them? Not the press, not the members of the civil society, not your regular human rights activists, but the members of the religious circle?
Morgan Ortagus: That's interesting that you noticed that and that was purposeful. I'm glad you brought that up. We have had two religious freedom ministerial at the State Department, and listen, when you're secretary of state you know that you have a limited time to make a difference, and so you have to choose issues that are important to you. For Secretary Pompeo pursuing and advocating for religious freedom around the world is something that he wants to be known for. It's a hallmark of what he's doing here at the State Department.
And it's especially important to have those meetings with the religious leaders, to continue to promote inclusion, and tolerance of other religions, and to say to the whole world that America will not stand for Muslims and other ethnic minorities being persecuted and forced into camps in China. We'll never stand for that.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Thank you. We hope to talk to Secretary Pompeo too at some point.
Morgan Ortagus: I will let him know. I'm sure he'll be happy to.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Before the end of the year. Yes.
Morgan Ortagus: Great.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And discuss Central Asia with him. Thank you so much.
Morgan Ortagus: Thanks for having me.