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U.S.-Uzbekistan: Strategic partnership, continuity, and Mirziyoyev's challenges


At the conclusion of 2020 Annual Bilateral Consultations and Commencement of a Strategic Partnership Dialogue, U.S. Department of State, November 20, 2020

As U.S.-Uzbek annual bilateral consultations took place in Washington last week, Voice of America's Navbahor Imamova interviewed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Henick, the State Department's point person for Central Asia. The discussion evolved around the strategic partnership between the countries, the reform process in Uzbekistan, the American assessment of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's four years in the office, as well as U.S. expectations and support.


Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

Thank you so much for joining us, Deputy Assistant Secretary Henick.

DAS DAS Jonathan Henick:

Thank you for having me.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

We know that the ABCs, Annual Bilateral Consultations, are important events, but why are they taking place now, when we know that the Trump Administration should be wrapping up its term and America is getting ready to inaugurate a new president in January?

DAS Jonathan Henick:

Well, actually, Navbahor, the Annual Bilateral Consultations were supposed to have taken place last March, but of course, because of the pandemic, our plans back then were postponed. We didn't know, of course, how long the pandemic would last, and so a few months back we decided that the bilateral relationship was just too important to keep them on hold. And so we put plans in motion to have them here in Washington, and fortunately the plans have worked out.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

When the presidential terms are ending, we talk a lot about change and continuity. What are those things now with regards to Uzbekistan. What should they expect? What should the international community and the Uzbek people expect from this relationship as change takes place eventually? What will continue from this point on?

"... our policy towards Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole, our relationship with Uzbekistan, is really going to be characterized, I think, by continuity, more than change."

DAS Jonathan Henick:

Obviously, it's not for me to make predictions about the next administration's policies, but what I can tell you, Navbahor, is that our Central Asia strategy is something that we've been working on for many years now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. There's a lot of continuity in that policy, as I think you know, and the most recent version of our Central Asia strategy, which was released earlier this year, is something that we've briefed extensively on Capitol Hill, and it really enjoys very strong Democratic and Republican support. So my expectation is that our policy towards Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole, our relationship with Uzbekistan, is really going to be characterized, I think, by continuity, more than change.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

Tell us about the format of the Annual Bilateral Consultations. We know that they were launched more than a decade ago, right... Is this a one-day event? Who should be there around the table, and what are the priorities for these consultations?

DAS Jonathan Henick:

The actual Annual Bilateral Consultations usually do take place during one day. They are separated out into a number of different sessions. So there'll be a session where we talk about the political dimension of our relationship, another about the economic dimension, security dimension, and then usually the human dimension. That's generally been the typical pattern. So we cover issues across the whole relationship. It's of course, up to each side who is represented at the table, but generally speaking, we've had a very senior level in representation across ministries, on our case, across our inner agency. And so different sessions will be chaired by the most appropriate senior person who works on those issues. This year, Foreign Minister Kamilov is leading the Uzbekistan delegation, but he's brought a number of colleagues with him from Tashkent. And from our side, our U.S. delegation will be led by senior bureau official Dean Thompson, but also with participation from across the department and across our inner agency.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

Do they include non-governmental actors - people from the private sector and from the civil society?

"When we go to the Central Asian capitals, we make a point of having meetings with civil society and with others, because their views are very, very important to the relationship."

DAS Jonathan Henick:

It's a terrific question. The actual bilateral consultation for government to government talks, but usually whether the Uzbekistan delegation travels here to Washington, or whether we travel to Tashkent, we usually take advantage of those trips to have a range of meetings on the margins of the Annual Bilateral Consultations. And so I know that Foreign Minister Kamilov and his colleagues have been having meetings on Capitol Hill, they've been doing meetings with U.S. private companies. I don't know, I don't have the whole schedule, but I certainly know that, that's been our practice as well. When we go to the Central Asian capitals, we make a point of having meetings with civil society and with others, because their views are very, very important to the relationship.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Henick, who oversees U.S.-Central Asia relations, talks to VOA's Navbahor Imamova, November 19, 2020
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Henick, who oversees U.S.-Central Asia relations, talks to VOA's Navbahor Imamova, November 19, 2020

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

The Uzbek side tells us that all the issues are very important. They obviously know your strategy and the priorities there, but right now Afghanistan seems to be the top issue. Is that right? Cooperation on Afghanistan and what will happen there in the near future.

"... the United States has strategic interest in Central Asia, above and beyond Afghanistan."

DAS Jonathan Henick:

I think Afghanistan remains an important issue. It's certainly not the only issue on the agenda. As far as our Central Asia strategy is concerned, I think, one of the key adjustments that we've made with the last strategy, is making it absolutely clear that the United States has strategic interest in Central Asia, above and beyond Afghanistan. And of course, the future of Afghanistan has a direct impact on Uzbekistan and the other countries of Central Asia, namely, that if we're successful in reaching a peace agreement there and stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, it is to the benefit of Afghanistan and the Central Asia countries, to be able to exploit their full economic potential. And so certainly we'll be discussing Afghanistan here and sharing our views on how we see the peace process developing, and the importance of enhancing connectivity within Central Asia in the years to come.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

A recent discussion at the Atlantic Council with you and Uzbek Senator Safoev was very interesting. Both of you seemed to fully agree on many points... specifically on the progress that has been made in Uzbekistan as the Mirziyoyev government sees it and assesses it. Are there any major differences in terms of assessment of, let's say, four years of President Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan? What are the differing points when it comes to your conclusions?

" I think there may be some disagreements on how quickly Uzbekistan can move forward and how to prioritize different areas. But by and large, we recognize the progress that's been made and we both agree that there are more needs to be done."


DAS Jonathan Henick:

I don't think there are a lot of differences. We recognize the important progress that Uzbekistan has made in issues like release of political prisoners, registration of religious organizations, including churches in Uzbekistan, reform of its religion law, reduction of forced labor. And at the same time improvement in the media environment, as you know well. At the same time, we see a lot of things that are yet to be done. That said, I think, Uzbekistan recognizes that continued progress is also necessary. And so, I think, there may be some disagreements on how quickly Uzbekistan can move forward and how to prioritize different areas. But by and large, we recognize the progress that's been made and we both agree that there are more needs to be done.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

What we hear from the Uzbek officials and leaders in general, is that, "Give us time, we can't be any faster than this…,” when the pace of the reforms are criticized. We used to hear a lot about “strategic patience” of Washington when it came to change in Central Asia and specifically in Uzbekistan. Do you still use that term – “strategic patience?” Do you have any deadlines for certain levels of progress in certain sectors, let's say, in the field of human rights, for example?

DAS Jonathan Henick:

It's not a phrase that I'm accustomed to using. I think, so for example, like in the area of economic reform, Uzbekistan has made it clear that attracting more foreign investment is one of its top priorities. That is something that we've made pretty clear that we share that priority. But the U.S. private sector, it requires a lot to be done, I think, for them to be able to make the commitment to invest in a country like Uzbekistan. Things like protecting intellectual property rights, things like ensuring that there are strong judicial processes that can protect their investments, making it easier to register businesses and engage in joint ventures. All of those things are going to require time, and so if we hope to see the kind of progress that Uzbekistan is hoping for, in terms of foreign investment, then it's not too soon to be making progress on those other areas, because it is a long process.

"I believe the Uzbek citizens have made it very clear that they want to enjoy freedom of expression, they want to enjoy the right to choose their political leadership and have political leadership that is accountable to the will of the people."

The same with, I'd say, with human rights and political reform, we believe, I have made the case I think to our Uzbek friends, that Uzbekistan's long-term political stability, I think depends on meeting the expectations of the citizens of Uzbekistan. And so meeting those expectations means moving, I think, in an expeditious fashion. We can differ, I think on, again, the precise priorities and how quickly they move, but I believe the Uzbek citizens have made it very clear that they want to enjoy freedom of expression, they want to enjoy the right to choose their political leadership and have political leadership that is accountable to the will of the people. And that's something that I think for anybody can't come too soon.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

You know, as we cover the relations, Deputy Assistant Secretary Henick, we get a lot of feedback from our audience, specifically from Uzbekistan, and sometimes a lot of people, I should say a lot, are cynical when they see these official meetings, dialogues… And they question whether Americans know of real issues in the country… of real problems that people face on a day-to-day basis. For example, right now it's a cold winter and a large part of Uzbekistan is living without electricity and without natural gas, because those systems are not reformed yet, and people are suffering. So, as we’re covering these bilateral consultations and various events in Washington, people are leaving those kinds of questions [on social media], like "Do they care about what we're really experiencing right now?" To what extent America knows real Uzbekistan?

DAS Jonathan Henick:

I'm not going to lie to you, Navbahor, Uzbekistan is, from a United States perspective, is a very remote and distant country that most Americans know very little about. But then I think that's a perception that's been changing over the last couple of decades, as Uzbekistan develops as an independent country. Uzbekistan certainly has as you know, they're host to some of the famous Silk Road cities, an amazing culture and culinary tradition, has enormous tourist potential. And I'm surprised every day that I meet more and more Americans who do know about Uzbekistan, maybe have even traveled to Uzbekistan or certainly want to visit Uzbekistan.

"... the day-to-day experiences of Uzbek citizens are certainly very difficult, and we don't pretend to understand that completely, nor I think, can you expect the bilateral relationship with the United States to be the solution to all of Uzbekistan's problems."

But that said, I think, to your question, the day-to-day experiences of Uzbek citizens are certainly very difficult, and we don't pretend to understand that completely, nor I think, can you expect the bilateral relationship with the United States to be the solution to all of Uzbekistan's problems. In the end, that is really something for the Uzbek people and for the Uzbek government, I think, to take responsibility for. We believe we can be a strong partner to Uzbekistan. And for example, during the current coronavirus pandemic, we have done what we can to be responsive and to provide humanitarian assistance, to double down on the development assistance that we provided for the last 20 years to the Uzbekistan health system and to their infectious disease professionals. But we know that just like the American people continue to suffer, so the people of Uzbekistan suffering from this disease.

And so I don't pretend that these bilateral talks are going to bring immediate solutions to the problem of Uzbekistan, but I think that over the long-term, the deep relationship with the United States can be a source of support to Uzbekistan as it continues to try to develop both economically and politically.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

Thank you. One more question before I let you go. Over the years, we have heard various definitions... references to President Mirziyoyev. He's been called a reform-minded leader by Washington. He's been called a reformist leader by the United States, and recently you used the word “instrumental” when talking about his role in changing the dynamics in Central Asia. But the word “democracy” has so far not been linked to his name. What would it take for the United States, for the international community, to start seeing him as a pro-democratic president?

"We're going to need to see a situation where it's easier for political parties to register in Uzbekistan, and for individuals to go into politics with a vision for the country that might be very different than President Mirziyoyev's vision."

DAS Jonathan Henick:

Well, President Mirziyoyev certainly deserves, I think, some credit for the considerable reforms that have been undertaken in Uzbekistan over the last couple of years. We have seen tremendous progress in some of the areas that I've mentioned earlier. But that said, obviously there's a long way to go. I think for us to be convinced that that democracy is an irreversible form of government in Uzbekistan, we're going to need to continue to see a strengthening of the legislature as an actual authority in Uzbekistan, exercising legislative authority. We're going to need to see the continued development of political parties. We're going to need to see a situation where it's easier for political parties to register in Uzbekistan, and for individuals to go into politics with a vision for the country that might be very different than President Mirziyoyev's vision. And for the people of Uzbekistan to have a genuine choice when they go to the polls to cast their votes on who will lead their country in the future, they should have a choice just like Americans and citizens of all the democracies have a choice. And so this is a process that takes a long time, we recognize that. And we're going to continue to partner with Uzbekistan as it continues to make progress towards this.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

And you are discussing all these issues with them?

DAS Jonathan Henick:

Of course.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek:

Thank you so much for talking to us.

DAS Jonathan Henick:

My pleasure.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek

We really appreciate your time, Deputy Assistant Secretary Henick.

DAS Jonathan Henick:

Well, thank you, Navbahor, and please keep up the terrific work that you're doing reporting obviously both developments here in the United States, but also in Uzbekistan as well.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek

We're doing our best. Appreciate it.

DAS Jonathan Henick:

Thanks. Take care!

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