In an exclusive interview with the Voice of America (VOA), new U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Jonathan Henick laid out his priorities as well Washington and Tashkent's mutual goals. Henick so far sees a new Uzbekistan yet stresses that the progress the Uzbek people and the international community want in the country will take a long time, including democratic reforms and eradicating corruption.
"We want to see Uzbekistan continue to strengthen as a democracy and respect human rights," Henick told VOA's Navbahor Imamova. "We don't have a particular vision for how Uzbekistan should go about this. That's up to Uzbekistan and Uzbek people to decide."
State Department, Washington, December 15, 2022
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Assalomu alaykum, Mr Ambassador! (In Uzbek)
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Vaalaykum assalom! (In Uzbek)
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Delighted to talk with you in Washington. (In Uzbek)
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So am I with you. (In Uzbek)
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We will have more to discuss from Tashkent ... (In Uzbek) We know that you just got started there but we are very much interested in your assessment of the current situation in Uzbekistan because you have been watching Uzbekistan for a long time and here at the State Department for many years focusing on Central Asia. You served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, specifically focusing on the region. So, we know that you know a lot of things. So, thank you so much for this conversation.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: It's my pleasure.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: This week you had a Strategic Partnership Dialogue here. We have an energy crisis in Uzbekistan as we speak. We have Karakalpakstan trials going on and other pressing issues that I would like to talk with you about. Let's talk with what happened here this week here. What are your takeaways from this dialogue? We know that these are annual meetings, what's new about them?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: You know, it's a terrific question. We did have a terrific delegation led by Foreign Minister Norov, but it included the justice minister and many others as well. Many other people who've worked for many years on this. I've participated in a number of these dialogues, but qualitatively this dialogue felt different to me. It was really we, first of all, we covered a huge range of issues in addition to bilateral relations.
... we've always supported Uzbekistan's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. But I think as we see the relationship deepening there, there are opportunities to go deeper.
We talked about security. We talk about regional issues. We had a human dimension dialogue, economic issues, but really the tone of the conversation. It was really much more candid and open than many of the dialogues that ended in the past. And so I think it's an indication that our relations you know continue to get stronger and stronger.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: It is quite exclusive, right? Because when you used to have annual bilateral consultations, we used to see non-governmental organizations also coming in, their representatives participating in these discussions But now with these enhanced talks, it's really a government-to- government.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: The annual bilateral consultations never formally included non-governmental organizations although we have often used the occasional experts to be able to have those types of dialogues on the margins. But we did have a number of other conversations this week. I know that the delegation had a number of meetings on the Hill. I know they visited the Bush school, for example. And so, we definitely encourage them to engage directly with civil society as well.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: But when you have these full day conversations were just government-to-government.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: The nature of these discussions has always been and continues to be government-to-government talks.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And so, based on these fresh talks, what would you say are the top mutual priorities at this point?
I told President Mirziyoyev and I firmly believe is that we really need to work more to expand our commercial and trade relationship and to help Uzbekistan develop economically.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: You know, it's hard to boil it down. I will say that one of the techniques that we used during these talks was was to come up with a short list of priorities that we can exchange for the coming year, but it's very hard to keep it short … But I will say that, the nature of our relationship has changed. As you know we've always supported Uzbekistan's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. But I think as we see the relationship deepening there, there are opportunities to go deeper. And one of the things that I told President Mirziyoyev and I firmly believe is that we really need to work more to expand our commercial and trade relationship and to help Uzbekistan develop economically.
I think an economically prosperous Uzbekistan is a more independent Uzbekistan, and that really will I think in the long run help U.S. interests as well.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And that is more relevant than ever. Now, with these energy issues… You have your own priorities, obviously in line with these priorities that we've been talking about, as the U.S. ambassador in Tashkent. What are some most important areas for you as you start your assignment there?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Yeah, I think the three big areas as I mentioned were certainly economic and commercial relationship. Of course, we want to continue to support president’s reform agenda, certainly on a broad array of political reforms. I think we have a lot of work to do. Also on the security relationship, there's room for enhanced military-to-military partnership and a deeper security relationship, as well as work together to combat issues like terrorism and narcotics trade and to work to enhance Uzbekistan's border security.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, to clarify, human rights issues, civil society issues will be under the reform support priority?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Afghanistan will be under security?
I think an economically prosperous Uzbekistan is a more independent Uzbekistan, and that really will I think in the long run help U.S. interests as well.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Right. Certainly, Afghanistan was a major topic of discussion this week here in Washington.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, this week you escaped the the height of the energy crisis in Tashkent. This year, quite unusually, the capital has also been facing energy shortages. Are you following this issue? And, you know, I remember two years ago when I interviewed you, while you were the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, November of 2020, Uzbekistan was in an energy crisis then as well. And when I was talking to you, we were getting questions from our fans wondering: Does America really care about this? Do they care about these domestic problems? And of course, the underlying question there and today as well is: Can you help? Are you willing to help Uzbekistan to resolve these energy problems?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: We definitely care about aspects and problems, and even while I was in Tashkent last week, already we saw some outages and some rolling blackouts. We know that many of the houses, even in the Tashkent area were cold and long lines up there at the gas stations.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Has the U.S. Embassy been affected?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Certainly, some of the neighborhoods in Tashkent experienced a reduction of supply of gas but no, I'm sure that our colleagues were fine. But we are very concerned about that the people were adversely affected by this. Can the United States help? I do think we can. We probably can't help in the immediate short term. We don't have the ability to increase the gas supply but in the long term, I think some of the areas where we're party in terms of economic reform, in terms of things like privatization, in terms of strengthening the regional cooperation…
These are all things which I think will enhance the resilience of the gas market, of the energy market in the region that will make the companies that provide gas more effective as we look at privatization going forward give them the resources. They're going to need to be able to invest in the energy infrastructure to avoid outages like this in the future. But unfortunately, in the short term I wish there was more we could do about…
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Any U.S. companies working in this sector or interested in this sector or already starting their efforts that's been part of these discussions, bilateral discussions?
We don't have the ability to increase the gas supply but in the long term, I think some of the areas where we're party in terms of economic reform, in terms of things like privatization, in terms of strengthening the regional cooperation…
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: I don't know any U.S. companies that are directly involved right now in the domestic gas or energy sector within Uzbekistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: But the alternative energy?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Alternative energy, I believe there are U.S. companies that have I think really terrific technologies to offer. And I think that's an area where there's a lot of potential, you know, in U.S. and Uzbekistan partnership and perhaps investment going forward. As you know, the president was aware of, and his government is making a very heavy investment in renewable energies. That's something that certainly is supported by our government here. And our special envoy [John] Kerry has been traveling around the world, working on the climate change and renewable energy. So, I think that's certainly an area where I'd like to see a stronger partnership.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, you would be vouching for this sector? You would be willing to work with these companies if they are interested? Help them to resolve issues if they are already working with Uzbek government?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Absolutely.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Very interesting to hear you say that you really want to focus on the economic development in Uzbekistan. So far the investment flow has been slow and there are many reasons for that. And Uzbeks admit that there are issues, especially when it comes to the rule of law and transparency, but at the same time I've heard many saying, including the members of the the private sector in Uzbekistan that it's easier to work with other countries than the United States because they come with just very high standards. It's hard to find that common ground with them and that it's easier to work with, for example, with the Chinese or with the Persian Gulf companies and with Russia because we know them. What do you say to that?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So, I can't deny that there are other countries that have some comparative advantages in geographic proximity is one of those ventures. Linguistic connections are another advantage that some companies have. But I would say that there are a number of things which make U.S. companies really stand out as a real value proposition for a country like Uzbekistan, and that is the quality of U.S. investment. It's not simply transactional and you can't measure their contributions in terms of just the dollar value investment, because when U.S. companies invest abroad, it's for the long term.
U.S. companies build capacity, they invest in local communities. Look, for example, at the partnership between Uzbek Auto and General Motors. And it's a tremendous partnership… And that investment has created thousands and thousands of jobs not only in Uzbek Auto but in the other industries, in other places and Uzbekistan now is a premier exporter of GM automobiles. And so I'd like to see more of that type of investment. U.S. companies are there for the long run, working with educational institutions to train the next generation to work in their industry, better investing in the local community and teaching, building the kind of Uzbek leaders who are going to be not only leaders of industry in Uzbekistan but leaders of industry in the region, in the world.
U.S. companies really stand out as a real value proposition for a country like Uzbekistan, and that is the quality of U.S. investment. It's not simply transactional
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: On anti-corruption efforts, we know that you've been working specifically the Anti-Corruption Agency. How concerned are you with the corruption level in Uzbekistan now? We know that that's the biggest factor behind the slowness of the investment flow from here.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So, corruption is a major issue… It's an old issue and it's a problem we face all around the world, even here in the United States. It's something that we continue to work on. I would say that we're getting good cooperation. As you know there was a delegation that came to the United States to participate in the global forum. We're working very closely with the Ministry of Justice, with the Prosecutor General, with the courts.
Combating corruption is not a simple or short-term problem. It's something that's going to take years and years of effort. Changes require changing people's mentality and culture. And so, we recognize that this isn't a problem we're going to solve quickly. But we appreciate that the leadership that President Mirziyoyev has shown on this and the cooperation that we're getting from his government. But we still have a lot of work to do.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And it is such a deeply rooted issue that it is at the core of many other issues and ongoing problems. For example, even though the main reason for the July unrest in Karakalpakstan was the constitutional reform proposal that angered many people, protesters also expressed grievances about the level of corruption in Nukus and Tashkent. They said “nobody cares about us”, asking “what's happening to all this money that's being directed to us.” They said, “We're not seeing the impact of this investment.”
How do you see this issue or evaluate the aftermath of what happened in Karakalpakstan? We know that you're closely watching the trials in Bukhara, and you have called for a full and transparent investigation. How do you see the process so far?
Justice, you know, moves slowly sometimes and we recognize that it's important that proper procedures are followed. But we do hope that there will be some more information sharing, some more transparency and ultimately accountability for what happened in Karakalpakstan.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: As you said, we're following it very, very closely. After the initial protests and the horrible violence that we saw in Karakalpakstan, there were some encouraging steps taken by the government to establish an independent commission to take a closer look at what actually happened. We'd love to see the report of this commission. I think it's long overdue. I'm sure that in addition to the United States, the people of Uzbekistan would like to know what the commission found.
At the same time, we've seen a number of people on trial but there's still some questions about whether or not there will be law enforcement officials that are going to be held accountable for possible crimes or misuse of a force during the protests. Justice, you know, moves slowly sometimes and we recognize that it's important that proper procedures are followed. But we do hope that there will be some more information sharing, some more transparency and ultimately accountability for what happened in Karakalpakstan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Have you seen what the Chief Prosecutor's Office issued this week?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: I have not seen…
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Well, based on the numbers that they're showing, we can say that there are 59 people behind bars, including 20 people among the 22 who are now on trial.
And two people there: one is under house arrest apparently, another one is conditionally released. Then there were 39 people who are being investigated separately.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: OK…
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So the majority of the 516 initially arrested are out. And then the Chief Prosecutor's Office also in response to the inquiry from the Ombudsman's Office, that the the actions of the security forces will be investigated. If there is enough proof, they will be prosecuted, it said. So, the government is basically indicating that the investigation is still on.
I think I'd like to see what the commission comes up with. It would be premature of me at this point to say that their findings are insufficient when we don't know yet, you know, what they found.
In interview with us, Justice Minister Akbar Tashkulov this week in Washington told us, “don't rush to judge… Don't rush your conclusions because we're still working… Let the system do its job…”
“Give us a chance” is what we hear from the Uzbek government and from the members of the parliamentary commission. They say something like this never happened before, “We've never had such a probe…” And this is in response to all this criticism about the commission. It doesn't really enjoy much credibility, including in Karakalpakstan, where I asked many people. They don't really see this as a serious effort even though the commission keeps emphasizing its role and functions, they lack credibility.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Well, because they haven't released their findings, I think until you know we've seen until there's a little bit more transparency about this investigation and the findings of the commission, how can people have confidence in them.
But the news you're reporting that this week is certainly encouraging, the indications that there should be more information forthcoming and that the people who are on trial right now may not be the only ones who are brought to account is certainly a positive indication. And so, I look forward to it, as I'm sure many Uzbeks do. I look forward to hearing.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What was the gist of what the Uzbek government told you about this issue? Because you raised the issue.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: They told us much of the same of what you've probably heard from the Justice Minister that both the trial and the investigation are still ongoing and that if in fact, there is evidence to support that there was misuse, if the violence was committed by those protesters or law enforcement and were guilty, that these people will be brought to account.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Are you still pushing for an independent investigation? Do you think that these events should be investigated by outside groups?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So, in the end, I think I'd like to see what the commission comes up with. It would be premature of me at this point to say that their findings are insufficient when we don't know yet, you know, what they found.
... whether it's journalists or whether it's civil society or human rights advocates or others, they should all be free to look into what happened ...
But certainly, as a general principle, I think, it's fair to say that there should be as much transparency as possible about events like this and that whether it's journalists or whether it's civil society or human rights advocates or others, they should all be free to look into what happened and to make sure that this type of thing never happens again.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You have been in Uzbekistan now for a few weeks. Knowing everything you knew about Uzbekistan before you got there, have there been any things that you found surprising, uplifting, promising so far, including in the system?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Yeah. So, in addition to the physical changes and there have been many because as you know I last lived in Uzbekistan some 26-27 years ago, and certainly Tashkent has changed dramatically in that time. But I'd say more significant than the physical changes, there's a real change in the mentality of the people in Uzbekistan.
When I was there over a quarter century ago, there were a lot of people didn't know what to make of us. And I think they kept foreigners a little bit, of course, we speak hospitality has remained unchanged but but still they were a little bit you know, cautious with warnings and now it's really refreshing to see.. I can go into a supermarket, and you know people might overhear me speaking English to my wife and people see that as an invitation to come and talk to us and, learn more about us. And that's a refreshing change.
I think Uzbekistan is one, which as you know, the president would say, “Yangi O’zbekiston” is opening up to the world in a way that wasn't true when I lived there before.
... there's a real change in the mentality of the people in Uzbekistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You know it's impossible to talk with the Uzbek officials, policy makers including those around President Mirziyoyev without them mentioning the Russian pressure and the Chinese pressure. Both of them, they say, have increased because of the war in Ukraine, because of other challenges. And they definitely don't want to be choosing sides. Many experts here in Washington also recommend and urge the U.S. government not to force these Central Asian countries including Uzbekistan to choose sides. Tashkent maneuvers and makes decisions based on the mood in Beijing and especially in Russia. How do you see the picture? Is this really real, these increasing pressures? Do you feel it?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So I can't speak for the government of Uzbekistan...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Definitely, but as an American?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: What I can say is that we are 100 percent sincere when we say that Uzbekistan should not be forced to choose... What kind of relationships they have with their neighbors or with other countries. Frankly, I have long been an admirer of their ability to say that, hey, you know, we need to have a balanced, multi-vector foreign policy if we're truly going to remain independent. And so, the United States policy is simply to support that. And we believe that we can be a strong partner for Uzbekistan as we talked about in the economic space and security space. But we don't think that that partnership should necessarily come at the expense of Uzbekistan having good and positive relations with its neighbors and with other countries as well.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, if the members of the Uzbek government tell you and we know that they've already been telling you, “Don't push us too hard, especially when it comes to human rights issues on non-governmental organizations, on freedom related issues and including corruption, we're doing our best… This is the best we can do right now… We are the reform minded people in the government. We're working very hard, so support us, cheer for us, help us in any way we can.” What do you usually tell them?
... we will ignore our concerns on human rights on democracy, on you know, on media freedom, on these principles. There will always be a part of our foreign policy. At the same time, we recognize that every country has its own democratic path to follow.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So, the United States, just as a matter of fact, always puts its values at the center of its foreign policy, and we will ignore our concerns on human rights on democracy, on you know, on media freedom, on these principles. There will always be a part of our foreign policy. At the same time, we recognize that every country has its own democratic path to follow. And Uzbekistan is no different.
And so, while we'll raise these concerns, we understand that Uzbekistan has to move at its own pace. Many of the changes that we're seeing in Uzbekistan right now are really happening from the top down. And that makes it sometimes difficult to change things like attitude about as we talked about corruption, about media freedom. And so, I don't see there's a false choice. You don't have to choose between advancing democracy and human rights and having good relations in other spheres. We can can walk and chew gum at the same time.
And I certainly think that we've seen that in Uzbekistan. We've seen tremendous progress in recent years in the areas of religious freedom, trafficking in persons and the elimination of forced labor. And I'm confident that we're going to see you know continued progress in media freedom and freedom of expression and the protection of human rights and also in the fight against corruption.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Do you observe a generational change, especially a change in the mentality as we see these new appointees? Specifically president’s chief of staff is a different person now, and we know that you recently met with top communications policy people in the government. How do you see their performance so far? Are they making a difference?
It's not going to be just a few officials in some positions. We're going to need to see changes not just in the central government but it's going to have to happen at the regional and the municipal level.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: I think they're making a difference. Uzbekistan has been independent now for over 30 years, which means that we've seen a whole generation grow up. Uzbeks who grew up with no memory of the Soviet Union or the Cold War. And we've seen many of these people increasingly and more and more with each day have experienced, traveling around the world, studying abroad, working in the private sector.
And so, I think they're bringing these experiences and these ideas back to Uzbekistan and then many of them want to work with the president to build this new Uzbekistan, to fulfill this vision he has for the future. It's going to take a lot of work. It's not going to be just a few officials in some positions. We're going to need to see changes not just in the central government but it's going to have to happen at the regional and the municipal level. And that's going to take time.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And that's what you mean when you say political reforms? In general, in these talks you reminded the Uzbek government that you want to see more, speedy reforms, right?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: We want to see Uzbekistan continue to strengthen as a democracy and respect human rights. We don't have a particular vision for how Uzbekistan should go about this. That's up to Uzbekistan and Uzbek people to decide... Whether Uzbekistan changes its constitution, how Uzbekistan changes municipal governance, how Uzbekistan combats corruption. That's for Uzbekistan to decide. We are standing by to help because we want to, provide assistance, when requested in combating corruption and promoting economic and political reform. But we are not telling Uzbekistan how to become a stronger democracy.
We want to see Uzbekistan continue to strengthen as a democracy and respect human rights. We don't have a particular vision for how Uzbekistan should go about this. That's up to Uzbekistan and Uzbek people to decide...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And as we wrap up this conversation, I have to ask you - you met President Mirziyoyev briefly. Had you met him before?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: I had met him once before. As you indicated when I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia, I had an opportunity to meet him on one of my trips to Tashkent. So, I was honored, privileged to have had the opportunity to meet him again.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What did he say to you?
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: So he told me that he thought because of my previous experience in Uzbekistan, that I was uniquely qualified to appreciate how much the country has changed and how difficult the reform process has been. And I think he's right. But we also talked about the importance, as I indicated, about deepening our political and our economic relationship. He asked for continued support for his reform agenda. We talked about Afghanistan, which I know is a serious concern for Uzbekistan, and it's a subject that we discussed here in Washington this week as well. So, it was a short but very robust conversation which covered a number of topics.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Well, good luck with your assignment in Uzbekistan.
Ambassador Jonathan Henick: Thank you. And I look forward to seeing you in Tashkent.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Absolutely. Thank you so much.