First of all, I would just like to say – thank you all for coming today. It is my pleasure to welcome you to the first press event of 2016.
We have several different press outlets here and I will try to address some of the questions that you raised with us, and if you have others you are certainly welcome to raise those questions also.
First thing I want to just say is that the process of the Annual Bilateral Consultations is one that we have undertaken for several years now, as many of you know. I wanted just to say that the reason that we do this is because it gives us an opportunity to bring together experts and officials from both governments – from the U.S. Government and from the Uzbek Government – to talk about a wide range of questions.
As you know, we switch off with Uzbekistan. The last session of the Annual Bilateral Consultations took place here in Tashkent in December of 2014. This was the turn of the United States to host this time, which we did on January 19.
These consultations take place in the spirit of diplomacy, which, I think, President Obama has on numerous occasions said is extremely important and he is very proud of his own efforts to try to resolve international problems that concern the United States through diplomacy.
It is also true that in any bilateral relationship there are both challenges and opportunities and the ABCs, as we have come to call them, are a way of talking about both of those. This issue of challenges and opportunities is a point that Assistant Secretary Biswal made when she had her press conference with some of the same journalists sitting around the table in 2014.
Just a technical point, the Uzbek delegation was headed by Foreign Minister Kamilov, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal.
Both sides had numerous senior level officials who were part of their delegations. The Uzbek delegation included Ambassador Gulyamov, and our delegation included myself.
I would like to thank Foreign Minister Kamilov and his team for traveling so far in winter time. I think they barely escaped the storm to participate in these consultations.
The talks were successful and showed once again that the strength of the Uzbek-U.S. relationship is going in the right direction and that this visit of the Annual Bilateral Consultations topped off a series of high level and successful meetings between our governments. There were about six main high-level meetings and we had press conferences after some of those, which I think many of you remember.
As you know, the capstone event of 2015 was the visit to Samarkand of Secretary of State John Kerry, not only for the bilateral meeting with President Karimov, but also to meet with the foreign ministers of the other countries of Central Asia, in what we have come to call the inaugural C5+1 meeting.
At the bilateral consultations specifically we discussed a broad range of issues covering all aspects of our relationship with Uzbekistan, but they were grouped in four main areas.
That included the political dimension, the economic question, security issues, and what we have come to call the “human dimension,” which includes subjects like education, cultural exchanges, health, democratization, human rights.
In the political dimension, our discussion included the importance of our high-level bilateral engagements and the need to continue these in 2016.
We had the opportunity to underscore our support for the sovereignty, the independence and the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan.
And we also discussed the potential for further bilateral and regional cooperation to address emerging challenges and to take advantages of opportunities.
With respect to the economic and developmental issues, we discussed bilateral trade and investment and ways to increase Uzbekistan’s attractiveness for American businesses and investors.
With respect to security, we talked about Uzbekistan as a key partner in helping to ensure the stability of Afghanistan and the broader Central Asia region.
We are cooperating on border security, strategic trade controls and counter-narcotics.
We underscored the need for a comprehensive approach to prevent the spread of terrorism.
With respect to the human dimension, we had a very frank and respectful discussion about a wide variety of areas.
We talked about our desire to cooperate with the Government of Uzbekistan with respect to English language teaching and specialists, as well as cooperation on expanding educational opportunities in the United States.
With respect to science and technology cooperation, we discussed the work of the Uzbek – U.S. Science and Technology Joint Committee and we discussed the work of the United States Agency for International Development with respect to health programming, particularly in combatting tuberculosis.
On security, I just like to also note that there is tremendous interest here and around the world on the global fight against ISIL. This is a multi-faceted battle, involving not just military action.
Our goal is to smother ISIL’s attempts to establish networks across the globe, and to cut off its financing and to expose its propaganda.
We believe that there is a role for every country to play in this whole effort and we continue to talk to all of our partners in Central Asia and beyond about potential roles that they might play in this global struggle.
There were some other questions that we talked about. I think those really kind of go beyond this press conference but I would say that these are the main outlines of what we discussed. What is important about this is it gave us the basis for what I think is going to be a very fruitful year in our diplomatic engagement in 2016.
With that, I will end this statement. Thank you for your attention and now I am prepared to take your questions.
Let me just say one other thing. Overall, the relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan is a strong one and the ABCs gave us an opportunity to talk about how we can continue to grow that partnership on a wide range of issues.
Yuriy Chernogayev, Anhor.uz: Thank you very much for this meeting. This year is very important for us and as a journalist I do not hear how the situation will go about. For Uzbek citizens, it is very important to know how they will go about their life in 2016. Will it be safe and secure? Will it be wealthy? All of these issues depend on the United States. My first question: could you name the specific interest of U.S. businesses in Uzbekistan? What are the areas that they are interested to cooperate? Is it textile industry, mining, or electronics? And can you give us concrete examples?
Ambassador Spratlen: The first thing I would like to say is that of course economic questions are of great concern to everyone all around the world. The world is experiencing a lot of economic pressure, particularly in this region with commodity prices, in particular, lower than they have been in some time.
Overall, the United States itself when President Obama first came into office, the United States was experiencing some serious economic challenges and over the last eight years a lot has been done to try to improve employment and try to build opportunities for business. The only reason I mentioned that is because I would say for the United States, the best way to solve an economic problem or to make everyone richer is to have a robust private sector that is able to compete in a variety of markets. Our hope is that one of those markets will be Uzbekistan.
I would like to say that Uzbekistan is a country of 30 million people with a very strong human potential, a country that is very lucky to have vast natural resources and a country that I think is interested in expanding the role of the private sector and entrepreneurship, particularly with respect to building exports and high technology economy. Of course, high technology is a sector in which the United States excels.
With respect to the specific interests of U.S. companies – obviously there are many fewer companies here than I would like to see, but U.S. companies themselves, not the U.S. Government decide where they are going to go.
I think there are some very well-known U.S. brands that are present here in Uzbekistan – the joint venture with GM is one of the model U.S. ventures, the Coca-Cola Company of course. We have other companies that have a different kind of relationship to this market. Those would be companies like the Merck Company which is in the pharmaceutical industry, which is an industry, I think, that the Government of Uzbekistan would like to see developed here.
We certainly were pleased to see that there were over 10 companies that came to Uzbekistan during last November’s International Investment Forum that was held here and sponsored by the economic block of the Uzbek government. I think that there are always U.S. companies that are going to be interested in this particular part of the world, but I would say that there would be more companies here if certain things were easier for U.S. firms.
I would just like to say, I am not going to dwell on the individual issues that I think are of concern to U.S. investors except to say that every year, the U.S. Government publishes an Investment Climate Report that talks about how easy or difficult it is for a country to be an investor. We have produced such a report here for Uzbekistan. We would be happy to supply that report to you as journalists, if you would like to see it.
I would also like to say that we have had some very good discussions with Mr. Ganiev, who is the Minister of Foreign Economic Trade. We also had the visit of Mr. Arun Kumar last year, who is a very senior official in the U.S. Department of Commerce, and that meeting was an opportunity for us to talk about a variety of issues that are of concern to our companies that are interested in working in this market.
Of course, we participate in the American Chamber of Commerce, where we have an ex officio position on the Board of Directors and that is our regular way of our companies talking with Uzbek companies, potential partners and officials about the business climate here and some things that might be done to improve it.
In the past year, Uzbekistan has increased its score in some international reports like the World Bank’s Doing Business report. I think there was an increase in the score last year.
You specifically asked about figures. I would just like to say certainly the role and presence of the United States is dwarfed by Uzbekistan’s major economic partners which are China and Russia and Kazakhstan. We do not expect to be able to compete at that level given the fact that the United States is so far away and this country is double-landlocked, but that does not mean that where there is mutual economic advantage, that our very talented private sector members will not find an opportunity, if the opportunity is actually welcomed by Uzbekistan.
Umida Maniyazova, CA-News: You mentioned that during the ABCs you discussed questions on which you have disagreements and probably that was regarding the human rights area. Could you please give us some detailed information on that? Maybe some cases you specifically discussed? Maybe you reached some agreement, or maybe both sides remained on their own opinions?
Ambassador Spratlen: What I would just like to say generally, because obviously these were consultations that took place as consultations do, in a diplomatic setting, but I would say that what was important about the issue of human dimension is that the conversation was very open and there were members of the Uzbek delegation who came who had a great deal of expertise in the area of – what is happening – the many changes that are happening in the area of the cotton sector, and also were prepared to talk about the issue of the human dimension, democracy, what is happening with people who are detained and so on. So, there was a broad range of issues that we discussed.
I think I would just like to leave it at that. It was a broad discussion on a wide variety of issues. We specifically had the opportunity to talk about our education and exchange programs. In the area of English language we would like to be able to do more. On other topics, I would just say that there was a very good discussion and we will continue to work with our Uzbek counterparts to see where there might be more points of common ground.
I would like to just say that in the area of the cotton sector that we were very much encouraged by the cooperation of the Government of Uzbekistan with the international partners, particularly the World Bank and the International Labor Organization, and it is our hope that that work will continue as Uzbekistan seeks to modernize and to mechanize its cotton sector and to diversify its economy.
Eldar Asanov, Kun.uz: My question is regarding travel of Uzbek citizens. Have you discussed during the ABCs the issue of simplifying the travel of Uzbek citizens to the United States and vice versa? Can we hope that in the future it will be easier for us to travel?
Ambassador Spratlen: This question of travelers, both those who came here and those who travel from Uzbekistan to the United States is the subject of ongoing discussions, and of course we have a Consular Section that is fully engaged in helping qualified Uzbek travelers go to the United States, just as the Uzbek Embassy in Washington, D.C. processes travelers to come here.
Our visa laws are global. We don’t have a specific set of standards for getting a visa that are related to Uzbekistan. We have a general law in the United States that applies to every country in the world.
Of course, just as with any country, the United States is very concerned with the protection of our borders.
Nonetheless, we very much welcome travelers, business people, students, and tourists to the United States, and we welcome millions every year.
Of course, we also have many official delegations that come to the United States.
Here, I can give you a specific figure. Last year, the U.S, Embassy here in Tashkent granted 10,500 visas.
I would like to say that this was an increase. We are seeing – in spite of all the challenges of the economy – every year we are seeing more people qualified to travel to the United States.
Even though the basic law is the same globally, every embassy does what it can to make sure that it is welcoming visa applicants in the appropriate way. Let me just give you a few examples of things that we have done to make it easier for visa applicants here in Tashkent.
Let me just give two examples. One, we have reduced the waiting time for nonimmigrant visa interview appointments.
Usually, it is less than one week.
This is a dramatic improvement from last year when the wait time was routinely 2-3 weeks.
One other change I just like to note in customer service – we have reduced the time that an actual applicant has to spend in our Consular Section on the day of the interview.
We are very sensitive to the fact that how we treat people is important and we want that our visa applicants to – whether they get a visa or whether they don’t get a visa, and we know that unfortunately many people will not qualify for a visa according to our law, but we want to make sure that everybody is treated with respect.
With respect to travelers coming here, certainly, my hope (is) that in the future it will be possible for many more Americans to come and to get to know Uzbekistan. We will continue to have discussions with the government about how we can make it as comfortable as possible for U.S. travelers who want to come and see this beautiful country.
Luiza Makhmudova, Turkiston Press: How is the United States seeing concrete ways of participation of Central Asian countries, in particular of Uzbekistan in the fight against ISIL. You mentioned that you discussed that issue in Washington, D.C.
Ambassador Spratlen: As our Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has said, this is a very important fight for everyone, not only here in Uzbekistan, but really around the world. This is a global issue.
I do not want to suggest that he specifically mentioned Uzbekistan – he did not, but he was focused on the fact that this is a global, multiyear effort.
In being a multiyear effort, coordination and cooperation among global partners is important no matter where ISIL may show itself.
It is also important to underscore that – and this is a point that our officials make often – that this not just a military fight, although it is that, but it is not just a military fight. It includes cooperation among law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well.
As Secretary Kerry said in Rome last week at the meeting of the representatives of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, a coalition made up of 66 member nations including Afghanistan, we need to give ISIL “no time to regroup, no place to run, no safe havens in which to hide.”
Now, Uzbekistan is not a member of the anti-ISIL coalition, and we are very well aware of Uzbekistan’s concerns about that, but I think that we share our concern about the growth of terrorism and making sure that we coordinate as closely as possible in any way we van, to ensure that this threat does not affect Uzbekistan or any other country in the world any further.
Yuriy Chernogayev, Anhor.uz: The UN General Secretary said that Uzbekistan is one of the four countries from where the most of the recruits are joining ISIL ranks. Also, Mr. Ashton Carter, during his speech before the Economic Club in Washington, said that for the defense goals in Europe, the United States is allocating 3.4 billion dollars. Could you tell us, in dollar equivalent, the amount of funding through Central Command of the United States for its operations directed at defensive actions in our region?
Ambassador Spratlen: Let me just step back and say that one of the important things is that every country wants to do its utmost to protect its own borders.
We have for many years worked with Uzbekistan, law enforcement and other agencies, to help Uzbekistan strengthen its own borders.
We know that the United States is not the only security partner of Uzbekistan but I would just like to say we have provided support.
Stability and prosperity in Uzbekistan and all of Central Asia are key U.S. priorities.
This is the most populous country in the region, as I have already said, and it is the only one that borders on all the other countries of central Asia.
Given its proximity to Afghanistan, it is a key partner in helping to ensure the stability of the whole region.
With respect to the Pentagon, each year, the President of the United States sends his budget proposal to Congress for their changes and their final approval.
This $3.4 billion dollar figure that you mentioned is from the proposed budget for troops and training with our NATO allies in Europe.
Funding for American troops who are training and advising Afghan security forces as well as for U.S. military operations to fight ISIL/Daesh are provided much greater funding, and it is the U.S. Congress that will actually decide what amount to provide to the President.
The United States has been engaged with our Central Asian partners on this issue of security in the face of continued challenges in Afghanistan for many years now.
There will be ongoing discussions about how we can have the best possible relationship with respect to security, taking into account the priorities and position of Uzbekistan, and the priorities and position of the United States, but we each respect one another as partners and we will continue that discussion. The United States has every intention of continuing our partnership with Uzbekistan in the sphere of security, as Uzbekistan welcomes that cooperation.
I would just like to say one other thing, and this is particularly in light of the fact that last year there were very tragic terrorist attacks, including the ones that took place in Paris last fall.
In addition to the military fight against ISIL and against terrorist groups, because ISIL is only one, unfortunately there are many terrorist groups that require the resources and attention of the United States and other countries, our goal is to make sure that our countries are secure, and certainly for the countries of NATO to also be sure that we are working to preserve the democratic values that really join us together, (…) to be sure that they are absolutely secure, as well.
Luiza Makhmudova, Turkiston Press: It has been already a year since you arrived as Ambassador. It has been a fairly an intensive year for you. Could you give us your assessment of the efforts of the leadership of Uzbekistan to ensure the security in this country?
Ambassador Spratlen: First of all, it has been a great year here in Uzbekistan. I have enjoyed it very much and I have had a chance to begin travelling around the country and I hope in 2016 to travel to destinations I have not seen before.
The issue of security, securing the borders, and making sure that the citizen themselves are secure is of highest priority, it is very clear, for the Government of Uzbekistan. That is understandable.
The only challenge is to make sure that at the same time that the country’s security is being preserved, that the other goals for development in every sphere are also progressing.
With that, ladies and gentlemen, we are at the end of our time. I would like to thank you very much for coming today and for your very sharp and good questions. We look forward to your accurate reports of our session today and to future opportunities to review with you the status of Uzbek – U.S. relations, which I am very pleased to say continue to be strong and to grow every day.