US military assistance to Uzbekistan; new strategy for Central Asia; promotion of human rights and democracy, and upcoming elections in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Exclusive interview with Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The first thing we want to know is whether it is true that the United States has been delivering MRAPs… Based on what we know Uzbekistan is getting 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles and 20 Armored Recovery Vehicles, is that true?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: It is true that US is providing MRAPs, as you said, 308, and another 20 vehicles to support those MRAPs. They are sort of tow truck and repair vehicles for the ones that might break down. We are doing that under a program called Excess Defense Articles or EDA, which essentially provides US military material not needed by the US military. It is in excess of requirements and are provided for the countries that seek it but only after involved process of review that goes on - first, to determine whether the need is there, whether the appropriate equipment exists, and also we look at the variety of things like regional balance, whether this will affect the regional balance in some way, before deciding to provide it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Why does Uzbekistan need them, in your view?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Our determination was that Uzbekistan required these vehicles and they made the case, of course, to support their efforts at counterterrorism and counternarcotics. They will all be provided to the Ministry of Defense and can only be used by the Ministry of Defense. These are definitely defensive vehicles. They are inherently defensive. Also, we consider them to be non-lethal. They are intended to protect personnel, crews and passengers in areas that there might be explosive devices, mines, so on. Under those circumstances and for the purposes of counterterrorism and counternarcotics, we thought that it was a legitimate request and decided to fulfill it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Based on the size of this military transfer, we could say that this is the largest military assistance that the US provided to Central Asia. Have you informed the neighbors? I know you don’t have to, but you just talked about “regional balance.” I’m sure countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would want to know that this is happening. And this is happening as we speak, right? The delivery is a long process, as we understand.
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: It is. It is a drawn-out process. First on the delivery, just to note that it began in December, first days of December and will be going on over a number of months. That is because of the way the EDA program works. Basically the country is offered these excess articles as is, where is. That is the terms that are used, meaning in the condition that they are, good or bad. But we hope that it is good enough to be used obviously and wherever the location is. These MRAPs were at number of different locations. None were in Afghanistan by the way. I know that question has come up. These are not coming from Afghanistan. They are coming from other places.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, the US is not dropping them off the train as they are passing the region, as some may imagine? (Laughs)
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: No, no, that is not happening (Laughs). On the question about the neighbors and their concerns, first of all, I should mention that we made similar offer of excess defense articles to all Central Asian countries. Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have also expressed interest. We are working with them to determine a) whether any excess defense articles are what they need and b) whether we have what they want. So, it’s a two-way process. As far as the delivery of the MRAPs, that decision, we were very transparent with all the Central Asian countries. We made sure they were aware that was happening, so not have any surprises. So, this was done, I’d say, in a transparent way.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, these vehicles were somewhere in the United States… Who pays for the transportation?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Some were in the United States and some were in overseas locations. The transportation is paid for by the country receiving them. Because again, this is as is, where is. So, if they are in the US and they need to get to Uzbekistan, then Uzbekistan pays the cost.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What kind of controls do you have in place to make sure that these vehicles are used for their intended purpose?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: So, we have a pretty rigorous end-use monitoring. In this case, it is the Defense Department, which is responsible for this equipment, will be checking up on it to make sure that after the fact that it is being used by the elements, which is in this case the Ministry of Defense, and for the purposes that it was intended. That is a pretty standard practice when it comes to EDA.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, factually, Uzbekistan has been the only country getting any EDA so far?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Well, in Central Asia, yes, so far. But actually, if we look historically, there may have been cases of Central Asian countries, even before I can remember, getting some of these, because EDA are not a new thing, of course, it’s been around for a while. But in this current round and certainly within the last year, it is the only country to have gotten it. As I said, we are in discussion with other countries about at least the potential of them receiving them.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: While some argue that you are rewarding an oppressive regime by giving these “toys” as they say, others say that by strengthening the security relationship, you are opening opportunities, new ways to work with these governments. Where do you stand?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: I guess the way I look at it and we look at is that we have a number of interests in the relationship with Uzbekistan and other countries in the region. And we want to maintain robust relationship, robust level of cooperation in all areas. Security is an area where we do share interests, share concerns. We also are worried about terrorist threats. We are very concerned about narcotics trafficking that goes through the region, and in those areas, we want to cooperate. Because cooperating with countries like Uzbekistan is the best way to address those threats. At the same time, it is very much a part of our policy in the region and globally, frankly, to emphasize the importance of democratic development and respect for international human rights. And that is not because of our values that drive a lot of this but also because in the long term, that is the best guarantee of stability in all these countries. So we have robust engagement with Uzbekistan on those issues, on issues of democracy and human rights, and on security, and we think it is possible to pursue both and try to maintain that balance in the relationship.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What do you mean by “robust” - when it comes to the promotion of human rights and democracy?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Well, there are a number of elements to it and I’ll mention a few of them. Most recently, we had the chance to raise directly, in a diplomatic dialogue, our issues of concern in that area, in our Annual Bilateral Consultations (ABC) that were held in the first days of December in Tashkent. In that meeting we went through the whole litany of issues, some of which we’ve been raising for a number of years, some of which were highlighted in our annual reports - about prison conditions, treatment of prisoners, about restrictions on civil society and media, about labor rights and particularly, about annual cotton harvest, labor issues surrounding that, and also about religious freedom. That ABC was a chance for us to go through in detail about where our concerns are and to hear the perspective of the government of Uzbekistan. In addition, we had another opportunity in this ABC, which we hope will become a regular feature in our dialogue, which was to bring the civil society groups themselves into the discussion. We are able to hold a roundtable. We decided to have not just a broad discussion on civil society but there was a theme which was prison conditions. There were six to seven NGOs at the table, government of Uzbekistan, officials who work on prison issues, Ministry of Interior, Bureau of Prisons and so on, and then the US diplomats and agency people who were there and talked about some of the really difficult issues and got to hear the perspective of the civil society at the same time. So, diplomatic exchanges, this kind of roundtables, where you can bring in other voices, and I guess the third element of this robust engagement is less engagement but about us stating our position is through our annual reports we do on human rights, religious freedom, trafficking in persons where we give very candid assessments of where we think there are shortcomings.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The US has been raising the issue of human rights and civil society for a while, pretty much in every ABC. And I know you have not held this position for a long time, but is it your observation that the attitude of the Uzbek government has changed when it comes to these issues? How serious are they when they discuss these areas with you?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: You know, I would not attempt to analyze people’s motives or make a determination of how serious someone is. Judging from the dialogue and actual words, I think they are serious about discussing, about acknowledging where shortcomings and deficiencies, not always, it is a give and take, sometimes you raise a point and they’ll defend the way they do things and say that ‘we disagree with your assessment.’ But there is a willingness to talk frankly and to invite, as I said, outside groups into the room. I should mention that those outside groups are a mix of NGOs who are more sympathetic or work more closely with the government and others that are critics, outspoken critics of government’s actions.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Of which you don’t really have a lot on the ground.
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Not a lot but handful, some of whom were there. So, judging from their words and the way in which they express, I think, they are serious about talking about these issues. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Talking has to be backed up by action and concrete steps. And we try to the extent possible to focus on some very specific steps and actions that we think would be helpful and moving them in that direction.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We know that there is a new Central Asia strategy in place, can you briefly describe it? What is new about this policy?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Yeah, I guess I can give you… I mean to really describe it, it will require a longer period but I would say, it highlights, first of all, all the ongoing and sort of abiding US interests in Central Asia’s development that goes beyond. Even though our concerns about the stability in Afghanistan are still important, it goes beyond that. Whether it is stability in the region because of its location, important crossroads between Europe and Asia, whether it is about energy resources and economic growth we want to see in the region because it is a benefit to the world, frankly... So, the strategy first emphasizes that and talks about some of the challenges we face and what we are going to emphasize in our policy to meet those challenges. There are security challenges, obviously, that I talked about earlier, terrorist threats, narcotics trade, weapons of mass destruction, movement across borders that we want to see stop. There are economic challenges that need to have some better economic growth that create jobs for people, so that they are not dependent on migrant work in other countries and also for stability’s sake. And then there are internal reform challenges that have to be addressed, as I discussed earlier with Uzbekistan. The same is true elsewhere in the region. So, political reforms, respect for human rights… Those issues need to be addressed. So the strategy addresses all these elements and tries to give some ideas of how to engage on addressing them.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How high is the promotion of human rights and democracy in this new strategy?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: It is very much there. We attempt not to do a strict rank ordering because it is difficult in any given case it is difficult to say one thing is more important than the other, and we think it is possible to pursue all of these priorities in parallel. As we sometimes say, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Will this strategy have any impact on funding? More money or less money for the region in the coming years?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Well, those of us who care for Central Asia and focus on it can always hope for more. Our hope is that resources will follow. We also recognize the reality of very constrained budgets not just on foreign aid but in general. The fiscal situation is not expanding right now and there are a lot of tradeoffs and other crises in the world, a lot of other important interests to be funded. So, I can’t say that I’m optimistic that we are going to see some big increases. But I hope we’ll continue to get the funding we need to continue to make an impact.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And what will be the priorities for the current funding?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: I don’t think there will be any big shifts in the kinds of things we have been doing. I think we will continue to have good funding for exchange programs and education programs because we think it is really important to have that person to person engagement with people in Central Asian counties. We’ll continue to have some funds for economic reform efforts, and sort of grassroots poverty alleviation. There is more of that in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan… And then I think security assistance will continue to be a part of our assistance because it touches on issues that are critical for our interests as well as the countries of the region.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What did the United States think of the recent parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan? The State Department has not said anything. OSCE’s assessment is that voters in Uzbekistan had no electoral choice.
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: I would say that we largely agreed with OSCE/ODIHR statement… There were some procedural improvements that were made in the actual conduct of the election but it fell short in other respects when it came to the playing field for candidates. When it comes to elections, we generally always want to see some incremental improvements from election to election. We recognize Uzbekistan has some ways to go.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The campaign for the presidential election is on in Uzbekistan… What is the message from the United States?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: I’m not sure we will have a specific message for the presidential election, to be honest. We will be watching it closely. It’s obvious that President Karimov who has now been nominated officially has some advantages…
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There are four candidates… I want to ask - any predictions on who might win? (Laughs)
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: No, I’m not going to make any predictions. (Laughs) But we are always interested in elections in our region and are watching how they result. The bottom line is we will work with whatever government is in Uzbekistan, whatever leadership is there, to pursue common interests. That goes no matter what.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And would that be the same message to Tajikistan getting ready for parliamentary elections in early March?
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: Yes, in Tajikistan, I think, ODIHR will be there. As OSCE member, we will be contributing to their efforts to monitor the election. We are not doing a large program around the election as we sometimes do in other countries but we will be watching with interest to see how that one comes out. I know in Tajikistan there are some opposition parties that will have candidates running in that election. We will be hoping for and urging that the process will be as free and fair as possible.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have a new ambassador in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and soon in Kyrgyzstan. Many are wondering what kinds of new messages these top diplomats are bringing. What will be their priorities and how different will they be from the previous ambassadors.
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: I don’t expect any serious changes. They are there to carry out the President and Secretary of State’s and US government’s policy. All of them are seasoned diplomats. Of course, two of the new diplomats are not new. Ambassador Krol in Astana and Ambassador Spratlen in Tashkent... They just finished three years serving as ambassadors in the region. Ambassador Mustard, who is already in Ashgabat, just arrived the other day, has served quite a bit in the post-Soviet region, did a couple of tours in Moscow, was in Turkmenistan in 1979 when he was with USIA (US Information Agency). They are all very knowledgeable about the region and country they are going to. They are also knowledgeable about the US policy. So, I think, they’ll faithfully carry that out. There are always variations in personality, they put their own personal stamp on it but I don’t expect it to result in any shifts.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you.
DAS Daniel Rosenblum: You are welcome.