Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns’ Press Interview in Tashkent

Good afternoon.  I’m very pleased to be back in Tashkent at an important moment for Uzbekistan and Central Asia.

I look forward to seeing President Karimov again later today, and I had a productive meeting with Foreign Minister Kamilov this morning.  We continued the very useful exchange we began in Washington last December during our Annual Bilateral Consultations and reviewed many aspects of our partnership, including regional issues of mutual concern.  My message during this visit is straightforward:  America’s commitment to Central Asia and to Uzbekistan is enduring because America’s interests in Central Asia and Uzbekistan are enduring.

The Minister and I discussed the situation in Ukraine and the state of Russian-American relations.  We recognize how much these developments can affect other countries such as Uzbekistan, which has strong economic, cultural and political links with Russia.  I thanked the Foreign Minister for Uzbekistan’s constructive statements on the situation in Ukraine.  We agreed on the need for all parties to work together cooperatively to de-escalate the crisis.

I emphasized our serious concerns, which are widely shared in the international community, about Russia’s aggressive and provocative actions in Ukraine.  I also emphasized that the United States does not seek confrontation with Russia – we believe that it is deeply in the interests of Ukraine and Russia to have a healthy relationship, born of their centuries of cultural, economic, and social ties.  The same holds true for Russia’s other neighbors, such as Uzbekistan, and for the United States.  We too want a healthy relationship with Russia, based on mutual respect for international law and the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states.

Minister Kamilov and I also talked about the next steps in Afghanistan’s transition.  I thanked the Foreign Minister for Uzbekistan’s crucial role over the years, particularly in facilitating the Northern Distribution Network.  I emphasized that America’s commitment to Afghanistan’s stability and security will extend well beyond 2014, and that none of us can afford to neglect what’s at stake in the years ahead for Afghanistan or the region.

The Foreign Minister and I discussed how best to preserve and build on the gains we’ve made, even as U.S. and international forces transition into a train and advise role.  This includes enhancing regional economic connectivity through creating a regional energy market, improving trade and transport routes, streamlining customs and border operations, and connecting businesses and people.  A New Silk Road is not meant to replace the historic trade and transportation corridors through Central Asia.  It’s meant to strengthen these corridors and build additional trade and economic links between Central and South Asia.

Finally, we had the opportunity to talk about the commercial, cultural, and educational ties at the heart of our relationship.  My trip coincides with the first meeting of our bilateral  Science and Technology Joint Committee – an example of how we are expanding our bilateral contacts into new areas as we work together to tackle shared challenges.  But, as I told the Minister today and in previous meetings, achieving the full potential of our partnership, will require continued open, candid, and constructive dialogue about issues important to the United States and Uzbekistan such as respect for the rights of citizens – including freedom of expression, assembly, and association, ending forced labor, ensuring impartial justice, good governance and pursuing democratic reform.   I remain firmly convinced that a more open and democratic society is a stronger society.  That is true for my own country, and I believe it will be true for Uzbekistan as well in the years ahead.

Thank you very much for this opportunity.  I look forward to taking a few of your questions.

man at podium
Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns. (U.S. Embassy photo)

Question 1 You mentioned dialogue and human rights.  How good is the prospect for Uzbekistan as a government to become more open, especially given the current situation in Ukraine?  We know that the situation has become more rigid.

Deputy Secretary Burns:  There are obviously a lot of challenges in this society, as in many societies around the world.  The U.S. has consistently raised concerns about a variety of freedoms – freedom of expression being one of them.  We raise these concerns because we firmly believe, as I said in my statement, that realizing the full potential of citizens of any society requires respect for those freedoms. Making progress in these areas is not a favor to the U.S. or any other outsider; it is deeply in the self-interest of Uzbekistan.  We’ve welcomed progress in some areas, such as in the dialogue between the government and the International Labor Organization about child labor, but many challenges obviously remain.

Question 2:  I have two questions.  May I ask two of them?

Deputy Secretary Burns: Sure, I’ll try to give you short answers.

First question:  I’ll start with the most important one.  In my view, the opportunities for civil societies have shrunk dramatically recently.  To me, the role of the U.S will diminish in the region after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.  It directly affects the situation in the civil society of our country, in particular, and on the human rights movement specifically.  If now we have a certain degree of constructive relations with the Oqsaray (White Palace), will the U.S. government still raise the question about the presence of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan?  The reason I’m saying this is that it in some degree, it would protect and keep the human rights movement going in Uzbekistan.

Shall I ask the question right away? So, the second question: How will the U.S. be able to influence the information space, which is now under the total control of the Russian media?  As an example, Voice of America talked about the radio broadcasts and said not to rely, not to depend on digital broadcast.

Deputy Secretary Burns:  Thank you for both questions.  On your first question, the U.S. is going to remain committed and engaged in this region long after 2014 in Afghanistan.  We will continue to have an important stake in Afghanistan’s stability and security,  and in the stability, security, and prosperity of all of our friends in Central Asia.  We cannot afford to neglect the significance of this region and we cannot neglect what’s at stake.  We will also continue to consistently emphasize the importance of expanding the rule of law and supporting the role of civil society, which is in the best interests of citizens and societies across this region.  So, the U.S. is not going anywhere.  We’ll remain committed to this important part of the world.

Second, with regard to your question on freedom of information and American influence, I continue to believe, whether it’s with regard to the crisis in Ukraine, or other challenges across the region, that facts are stubborn things and no amount of propaganda can change the facts.  The fact in Ukraine is that Ukrainians must be able to make their own choices.  It’s not in the interests of the U.S. to force Ukrainians to make a choice between the West and Russia.  We’ve recognized that a healthy Ukraine will depend on healthy relations with the E.U. and the United States, as well as healthy relations with Russia.  But Russia does not get to make Ukraine’s choices.  And Russia does not have the right to violate international norms – like the Budapest Agreement, in which Russia, along with the U.S. and Great Britain, promised to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.   So, the United States will continue along with many other members of international community to support the ability of Ukrainians to make their own choices.  And we will continue to support very fundamental and very important international norms, especially those of sovereignty and territorial integrity

Question 3:  Regarding your visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Voice of America broadcasted that the United States is committed to supporting Central Asia and the wellbeing of people in the region.  Did you ask in your meeting with the Foreign Minister or will you ask in you forthcoming meeting with the leadership of the country to what extent the local government may realize that the external threats may not be as dangerous as the internal threats?  Will you ask about the domestic threats which may be born out of the lack of freedom of expression and other freedoms that exist in society, such as the quality of life or the level of wellbeing?  I think these are the more likely potential sources of instability and insecurity rather than external threats.

Deputy Secretary Burns: We consistently raise those concerns, and I did again today.  Societies that work to build respect for the rule of law, work to build institutions that help ensure those basic freedoms, and work to expand economic opportunities are healthier, they are stronger.  They are much more able to withstand any external pressures to their stability or their prosperity or their security that might emerge.  I’m not naïve; I know progress in those areas is not easy.  I know it takes time and it takes great effort, but it’s very important.   That is the best way to build a strong and healthy country.

Thank you all very much for the chance to meet today.  I wish you all the best.  You play a very important role; an independent media is an extremely important part of any society.