This is Ambassador Spratlen's first interview since she began her assignment in Uzbekistan in January 2015. In a candid interview with Navbahor Imamova, Voice of America's Uzbek Service, Ambassador Spratlen discusses the current level of engagement, policy challenges and how she defines success.
WASHINGTON DC-TASHKENT, JULY 1, 2015
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We have been looking forward to chatting with you, Ambassador Spratlen. You seem to be really enjoying your time in Tashkent, from the pictures, from the videos that we see. And also, you've been traveling around the country meeting people, interacting with them. What are they telling you?
Ambassador Spratlen: Well, first of all, before I answer that, let me just thank you for the opportunity to speak with you Navbahor and your VOA audience. This is the first time that I'm doing this as the US ambassador, and so it's a pleasure for me to speak to you. Just as you follow us, we follow what you're doing.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much.
Ambassador Spratlen: Yes... You're certainly welcome. As you've said, I've had the opportunity to travel around quite a bit since I arrived in January and presented my credentials to the President. And since then I've had the chance to go to Samarkand twice. I've been to Bukhara twice. I had the chance to travel out to Nukus to see the Savitsky art collection. I've been to Khiva as well.
So I have had the chance to go around and talk quite a bit, and so, what I have really seen is more desire, on the part of the people I've talked to be sure that, that I understand how proud they are of Uzbekistan's history and its culture. I've been very impressed with the quality of the guides we've had everywhere. I was impressed with the level of organization of the silk and spices festival that I attended a few weeks ago. I’ve seen the citadels, which really are not very well preserved here in Uzbekistan, but really have remarkable historical meaning… There's just such a rich treasure trove of history and culture here that I think the main message is "Please come and see more."
I haven't had the chance to go to the Ferghana Valley yet. I'm looking forward to doing that. I want to go back out to Karakalpakstan and look at the Savitsky for longer. We were there for just a few hours. So there's so much to see and do here. It's been great for me to see the professionalism of the people who are managing the historical legacy that's here, and to have the opportunity to learn as much as I can about Uzbekistan. Not just for today, but for its really amazing past as well.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you also get to talk to [people] about more pressing issues? Based on your conversations, in what ways can US engagement, let's say, contribute to the lives of ordinary citizens in Uzbekistan?
Ambassador Spratlen: Well, Navbahor, I think usually when I'm travelling it is people who want to show me things. But with respect to programs, the United States has been very active in Uzbekistan for many years. So when we've had the opportunity, I had the chance to participate in the launch of a TV project shortly after I arrived, and I was impressed by the level of cooperation between one of the implementing partners, Project Hope, and the Ministry of Health and its many partners.
And there I think the idea was to tell the United States that the needs are really very great here. But I've also been impressed with the attempts of, say, farmers to use technology. We had a chance to meet some of them who had actively cooperated with USAID, and they had a special app on their smartphones to try to help them with their crops, and that was something that came about because of cooperation with USAID.
So the main message is that people see the United States, look to the United States to be a beacon of innovation. They are interested in our best practices, and I think what they tell me is that they really want more opportunities to cooperate with the United States in an ever-wider array of fields. So whether it's English language when I'm talking to university students and rectors, whether it's health when I'm talking to the Ministry folks there, whether it is entrepreneurship when I'm talking to the small-businesspeople, I think that there's an eagerness, a hunger to cooperate more with the United States. And so we are as responsive to that as we can be given the constraints that we operate under, including budget constraints of our own.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, Ambassador Spratlen, I'm sure you know that there is a lot of talk here in Washington about how the US should balance its relationship with countries like Uzbekistan, where experts say that security issues have been front and center. Some of them, and even lawmakers, are saying that US should focus on political and economic reforms, support the human capital, and then there are others who say that by strengthening the cooperation in the security area, US is actually opening up opportunities to advance other parts of the relationship. And, you know, as someone who deals with the regime face-to-face, where do you stand?
Ambassador Spratlen: Well, what I would say is that we of course depend on our Uzbek partners to have whatever contact we're going to have with members of the public, with government agencies. So it is my responsibility to make sure that the doors are open for dialogue, and I would say that our bilateral relationship is one that has been growing broader in terms of our areas of cooperation.
Yes, the issues of the human dimension and human rights are often weighed against security, but we, what I really wanted to be sure of is that we have a broad relationship that encompasses all of the areas of bilateral engagement. Uzbekistan is of course, as you know better than anyone, since this is your home, that this country is really the the center of Central Asia in the sense that it's the largest country by population, it's the only one that touches all the others in terms of its geographic borders. It has a border with Afghanistan and so it's really a very complex place, and I think that's something that we have to keep in mind. That we want to keep working on every area of the relationship, knowing that some things, some areas of the relationship, are going to advance more quickly than others.
But we want the chance for dialogue on the whole relationship, and I can say so far we've had the opportunity to do that, and we want to keep doing that. We've used our high-level visits that way and I think we've been able to use our visits of those Uzbek officials who have gone to the United States in that way. And we just want to keep on doing more of that, understanding that any change that takes place in this country is going to take place because of the officials here and their decision that it's in their interests to make progress on a variety of issues. Whether it's economic reform, whether it's security cooperation or whether it's the humanitarian area and human rights. Whether it's even culture, the cultural dimension and English language training.
All of that depends on our seeing a mutual benefit for cooperation, and so I see it as my job to figure out where that mutual benefit is so that we can cooperate as deeply and broadly as we can in a wide variety of areas.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We know that the government of Uzbekistan is pleased with the military assistance it has gotten from Washington this year. The transfer of MRAPS, the delivery of which just concluded this month, has fostered, in our view, some goodwill and trust with the Uzbek government. Are you working on building on this?
Ambassador Spratlen: Well, of course we want to build on every area of cooperation. So, you know, I don't have anything specific to tell you now, but I can say that the United States believes that the security area is important for us, and it's important for Uzbekistan. This is an important time with respect to what's happening in Afghanistan, and there have been concerns on the part of Uzbekistan. So we want to try to build on the dialogue that we've been having, and build on the cooperation we've had and been having, of course.
I'm not in a position to say anything specific about that right now, but certainly that's our goal - to make sure that we're always building on the cooperation that we've established so far.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What will be success for you when you complete your assignment in Uzbekistan?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would say, first and foremost, to make sure that we stay on a steady pace of continued engagement. So the most important thing is to not lose any ground. We want to be sure that we're always moving forward, not standing still, not falling back. We want to be not losing anything that we've already created, and of course, moving ahead wherever we can.
For me, success would be to make progress, certainly on those areas where the government of Uzbekistan and the people of Uzbekistan have already said they want to have more cooperation with the United States. I've already mentioned issues like English language training. We have very good cooperation in health, we have worked to help with some of the laboratory construction here, so that in the technical areas, science and technology, and we’ve had some good cooperation. I'd like to see that expand. We had a very successful visit of Commerce Assistant Secretary Arun Kumar, and we'd very much like to see some concrete examples come through with respect to our commercial cooperation. So I think success for me would be to have some concrete outcomes from some of the visits that we've had so far. And then to keep working on specific areas of cooperation.
Obviously we'd love to see some improvements and changes in the area of human rights, and I would like to say that we'd like to see continued progress in the area of labor rights. We've already told the government that they have made some significant steps to eliminate child labor and I think that's very good in the cotton harvest. They are continuing to work with the International Labor Organization and with the World Bank, we see this as very positive. And so success would be a continued work in that area, and then to begin to tackle the area of forced labor, which is of course a much bigger challenge, and something that also needs attention from the government.
So I would say just to continue to make steady progress on a wide variety of areas that we've already talked about, and to make sure that we have a platform for dialogue, always.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have been holding conversations with the human rights activists, with the members of the civil society in Uzbekistan, and some of them have often been targeted by the national security service. How can the United States promote human rights and support freedom in today's Uzbekistan? You've been there for a few months now, you obviously know the reality on the ground. Do you see new options? Do you see new ways of doing this?
Ambassador Spratlen: What I would say is the issue of human rights remains a very important area of policy for the United States, and this is not only true in Uzbekistan, this is really true all over the world. As you know, our annual Human Rights Report just came out and that report talked frankly about countries all over the world including Uzbekistan. And I would say that in many countries, and certainly here, we use traditional tools, and one of those is dialogue. One of those is the report itself so that our partners understand how the human rights situation looks to us. And we always say that we are looking for better examples, and we are looking for successes, but it really depends on the authorities themselves to help us with that.
So I wouldn't say so much that we're looking at new tools, but making sure that we keep using the ones we have to make our position known, that ultimately every society is more successful when its citizens enjoy their full human rights. When there is a political discourse and when there's the opportunity for the press to operate.
We'll continue to make those points and use every opportunity that we have to engage in that dialogue and to seek reforms in Uzbekistan. That's something we've been talking about for a long time, well before my arrival, and it's something that we'll continue to do. It's a priority for President Obama, it's a priority for Secretary Kerry, and of course it's a priority for me and all of our regional officials, including Assistant Secretary Biswal and DAS Rosenblum and others.
In fact, as you probably know, DAS Rosenblum testified in front of the Lantos Commission last week and for those of your listeners who want to, they can find his testimony online. Before that he testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and also made some points about our interest in seeing improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan there.
So I would say we will continue to use our traditional tools to both support those internal actors who are taking principled steps to try to improve human rights in Uzbekistan, and then we will also continue the dialogue both in the United States and here.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We actually had a lot of feedback on last week's hearing here in US Congress and people are very attentively following what US policy makers are saying, what diplomats are saying and what members of US Congress are saying. So I want you to know that there's a lot of interest in what Washington wants to do in the region.
Ambassador Spratlen: Good.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Ambassador Spratlen, the topic of regional integration is quite hot on social media, not just in Washington. It's one of the most debated issues among Central Asians now. Many say that it's up to the region to connect economically and politically. The US has been promoting this for some time now. How do you plan to move Uzbekistan to become more active in that effort, in regional integration efforts?
Ambassador Spratlen: Well, I think that again, as I said before, Uzbekistan's geographic position makes it really an ideal candidate for I think many of the initiatives that we would like to see come to fruition. But again, it really depends on Uzbekistan seeing it as being in its own interest and I think the key there is to continue to talk to the officials here about what we see as the benefits and advantages to greater connectivity and greater regional integration on the infrastructure and economic plains. But ultimately it really is up to the government of Uzbekistan to see it as being in its own interest for some of these things to move forward. But I think our position has been, as you pointed out, and will continue to be that the entire region will benefit from greater connectivity and greater regional integration.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, we're about to celebrate Independence Day here in the United States, and later in August Uzbekistan will celebrate its 24 years of independence. When Uzbeks ask you about independence, what do you say to them? What is independence like for Americans?
Ambassador Spratlen: The meaning of the word is very clear. So the citizens of the country have sovereignty. When a person says "I am Uzbek," they know what the borders of the country are, they know that they carry a passport that says, "I am a citizen of Uzbekistan," just like a citizen who's carrying an American passport knows that that means that I am a citizen of the United States. It means that the country is able to formulate its policies that will govern, the way that it operates, inside of its own borders, and the way it handles relations with neighbors. And so I think independence is a very important concept.
As you know, as you drive around Tashkent, you often see reference to the word “mustakillik”, which is “independence” here. So I think it's a very important concept for a country that has a relatively young life like Uzbekistan. And I think part of the reason that we celebrate July 4th every year is because, of course, ever since 1776 the word “independence” has meant equality for all citizens, has meant the rule of law, and has meant that we are trying to build a society in which every citizen feels that he can enjoy all of the rights that are guaranteed by our founders' intention and by our constitution. So I think independence is very important to us, and I know that it's very important to Uzbekistan.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much.
Ambassador Spratlen: Thank you very much, and happy July 4th to you. We're very much looking forward to welcoming our invitees at our official 4th of July, and we know that July 4th is always a big deal in Washington. We are certainly going to be in spirit with all of our compatriots on July 4th...
I just want you to know that you're playing a very important role. You know, we never know how our words are going to touch people, so the fact that you're a constant presence and voice on VOA and give people a window into both countries is extremely important, because I don't think we understand each other as well as we need to. So I want to thank you for everything that you're doing.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much.
Ambassador Spratlen: And I wish you well for all of your work in the future.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure and honor to talk to you.