Remarks by Ambassador Alice Wells

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells
University of World Economy and Diplomacy
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
February 27, 2019

Rector Abduvakhitov, honored professors and students.  I thank you for today’s invitation to speak with you.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak at Uzbekistan’s premiere university for the study of international relations and to address some of this country’s future diplomats, political leaders, and business people.  Uzbekistan’s diplomatic service already enjoys a legendary reputation under the leadership of such accomplished statespersons as Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, and former Foreign Ministers Sadiq Safoev and Vladimir Norov, among others.

Those of you who plan to join the diplomatic service will add to a distinguished legacy.

At the State Department, I am responsible for our diplomacy in the five Central Asian republics that emerged from the former Soviet Union and all of South Asia.  This covers a quarter of the world’s population and includes countries presenting unique opportunities and challenges, from the rapid economic rise of India, to Uzbekistan’s ambitious path of reform, to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.  While my portfolio offers no shortage of topics to discuss, I would like to focus today on the importance to the United States of our relationship with Uzbekistan and the broader Central Asian region.  As I go over these important issues, I would ask that all of you think about any questions or comments you may have so we can have a lively question and answer session when I conclude my remarks.

The great Khorezm scholar Al-Biruni understood all the way back in the 11th century that the world was much, much bigger than previously thought.  At a time when many scholars still believed the world was flat, he realized there was an entire unknown continent on the other side of the globe.  That once mysterious land is now home to the United States and many other nations.  Central Asia has historically been a crossroads for international exchange, from the days of Alexander the Great through the rise of Italian trading cities.  In the 21st century, we have learned that countries cannot prosper in isolation.  Like the wise Al-Biruni, we are discovering day-by-day that the world is much bigger than we previously believed.  Now is the time to restore Central Asia to its full potential.

Uzbekistan stands at a pivotal moment in history.  As the most populous country in Central Asia, what happens here will shape not only the future of this nation, but also the future of the entire region and beyond.

Your President envisions Uzbekistan transformed into a thriving, modern state – an example for the region – with a government accountable to its citizens and respectful of their rights, with constructive relationships with its neighbors, and with an open economy that welcomes and protects foreign investment.  None of these reforms will be easy, but all of them are essential, and the United States strongly supports them.

To understand how the United States and Uzbekistan may best move forward together, it is important to understand what our shared priorities are.  U.S. policy towards Uzbekistan rests on five key pillars, which are closely aligned with the priorities President Mirziyoyev has established for Uzbekistan.

First and foremost, the United States is committed to supporting Uzbekistan’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, as we have been since 1991, when we were the first country to recognize Uzbekistan as an independent nation.

There is nothing Americans value more than our independence – the inalienable right of each person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  In Uzbekistan, we see a kindred spirit – a nation that has stood strong against external pressure and avoided dependence on foreign powers, a nation that is committed to forging its own path, defining its own policies and priorities, and choosing its alliances carefully.

To this end, we commend President Mirziyoyev’s transformative “neighbors first policy,” which is a model for the region.  This policy benefits not only the people of Uzbekistan, but also the people of neighboring states.  As borders have opened and old disputes been settled, engagement has increased in many spheres, forging new ties and strengthening stability throughout the region, including Afghanistan.

In pursuit of greater regional cooperation, and in order to strengthen the sovereignty of the five Central Asian nations, in October 2015, the American Secretary of State asked Uzbekistan to host a meeting with the five Central Asian foreign ministers in the World Heritage City of Samarkand.  That gathering inaugurated the C5+1 diplomatic platform, a format we continue to use to promote cross-border cooperation.  The C5+1 focuses on enhancing the region’s security, economics, and the environment, from improving cross-border transit and logistics, so that goods flow more quickly and cheaply, to developing regional horticulture, so that farmers are able to sell their produce in neighboring markets.  Last year, we launched a project to create a regional energy market to increase the availability and lower the cost of electricity for consumers.

The change in tone over the past two years among the five Central Asian countries is remarkable, thanks in large part to President Mirziyoyev’s good neighbor initiative.  It is extraordinary to see 25-year-old disputes rapidly resolved and the nations of the region working together as strong, sovereign states.

Turning to the second pillar of U.S. policy in Uzbekistan, the United States is committed to promoting sustainable growth and economic prosperity.  We salute reforms that seek to create an open, transparent, market-based economy that welcomes and protects foreign investment.  I am pleased to note that, in October of 2018, Uzbekistan hosted the USAID-sponsored Central Asia Trade Forum for the first time, and saw more than $56 million in trade deals as a result.  This was a record amount of business for this annual event, demonstrating the enormous potential for closer economic ties between our countries and the great interest in doing business in Uzbekistan.

In recognition of Uzbekistan’s reform efforts, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross visited Tashkent right after the Trade Forum to help energize the commercial side of our relationship.  During his visit, Secretary Ross announced an official U.S. trade mission to Uzbekistan this coming June, which will bring American companies new to the Uzbek market to explore opportunities to invest in Uzbekistan’s future, increase bilateral trade, and play a constructive role in this nation’s economic development.

As Uzbekistan strives to join the global economy, the United States supports your goal of joining the World Trade Organization, and we have provided an expert on WTO accession to advise the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment on the process.  The United States also commends Uzbekistan’s accession to three important treaties on the protection of intellectual property rights.  These are important steps to boost investor confidence in Uzbekistan, and the United States is prepared to work with you as Uzbekistan takes further steps to create an attractive business climate.

Moving to the third pillar of U.S. policy in Uzbekistan, our two nations are united in our resolve to ensure regional stability and combat terrorism.  To that end, our security cooperation has intensified over the last two years, starting with the delivery of 308 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, marking a major step forward in bilateral security cooperation, and laying a foundation for the Mirziyoyev government to build upon.  Last fall, we held successful bilateral defense consultations.  As a result of our two Presidents’ May meeting, our Department of Defense sent a scoping mission to Uzbekistan to review ways in which the United States can help modernize Uzbekistan’s security program.  I know that my visit comes on the heels of General Votel’s Chiefs of Defense meeting, and our thanks go to your government for hosting this important, annual gathering.  Regional stability for Central Asia always includes Afghanistan.  The United States highly values President Mirziyoyev’s efforts to support a meaningful and inclusive reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

After decades of conflict in Afghanistan, our goal is to facilitate the emergence of a political settlement that ends the fighting and provides for a stable, representative government, as well as the establishment of safeguards to ensure Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorism.  President Mirziyoyev’s efforts to integrate Afghanistan into Central Asia are laudable and consistent with our own goal of anchoring Afghanistan into a stable regional context.  The March 2018 Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan was an important gathering that catalyzed high-level support for a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan that is worthy of the sacrifices and the social gains of the last 18 years.

Similarly, we understand that violent extremism remains a serious threat facing the entire region.  The United States shares Uzbekistan’s interest in combating the roots of violent extremism and radicalization to violence.  We recently began a project to study the ways extremists attempt to recruit people in Central Asia, and we look forward to deepening our law enforcement cooperation to protect the citizens of both our nations.

These are just a few examples of the many ways the United States and Uzbekistan can work together to ensure the safety and security of our two nations and beyond.  Criminals and violent extremists do not respect borders.  In the modern world, no nation can afford to stand alone, and the United States is proud to stand with you.

On the fourth pillar of our bilateral relationship, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms have long been a foundation for U.S. policy around the world, and that is equally true in Uzbekistan.  We applaud the steps Uzbekistan has taken to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion, and to end forced labor.  The removal of thousands of individuals from “blacklists” and the release of prisoners of conscience are commendable steps.

The United States has supported rule of law reforms in Uzbekistan for many years.  For example, we financed a project to strengthen confidence in the judiciary by ensuring that case documents are available online for all courts nationwide.

Given the promising opportunity afforded by the President’s reforms, we are increasing this support significantly.  Yesterday, Justice Minister Davletov and I launched a program that will support Uzbekistan’s efforts to uphold the rights of individuals, enhance protection of intellectual property rights, and improve the legal environment for civil society.

America was founded in part by persons fleeing other nations in search of religious freedom; few causes elicit greater concern in Americans.  The United States recognizes the steps Uzbekistan has taken in the past year to improve the religious landscape. In my discussions, I have noted that the registration of new churches and adoption of a law that would strengthen protections for religious observance would send a powerful signal of support for tolerance.

Similarly, The United States commends Uzbekistan’s progress to end forced labor in cotton production.  Allowing NGOs to operate freely and permitting unfettered access to the media would further demonstrate Uzbekistan’s resolve to transform into an open society where human rights are respected.

For the final pillar of U.S. policy in Uzbekistan, the United States recognizes that all lasting and meaningful relationships are built upon ties between everyday people.  We can talk all day about complex foreign policy issues, which are certainly important.  At the end of the day, what really matters are the bonds of friendship we forge between the peoples of our two great nations.

It is for this reason that the United States devotes so much effort to promoting educational and cultural exchanges with Uzbekistan.

Since the historic visit of President Mirziyoyev to Washington, we have quadrupled the number of American English teachers at Uzbek universities, and created new English language programs to help young people all around the country improve skills that will be vital to their success in a global economy.  Earlier today, Minister Shermatov and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in the education field.  The MOU provides for substantial U.S. support to help the Ministry of Public Education modernize its curriculum, raise educational standards, support English language instruction, as well as promote teacher and student exchanges.

In addition, our successful partnership with the National Library of Uzbekistan allowed the inauguration of the American Window educational space in Tashkent, and we look forward to opening six additional sites across Uzbekistan over the next two years to bring English language materials and programming to cities that have limited access.  These resource centers are critical for teaching English and sharing information with Uzbek students on how they can study in the United States.

During President Mirzyoyev’s visit to Washington, our countries also signed a memorandum of understanding that called for more university partnerships and academic exchanges between our countries.  Yesterday, I heard firsthand from President Mirziyoyev about his vision for educational reform.

In fact, the Tashkent State Agrarian University established a partnership with Mississippi State University just two weeks ago, which will provide new opportunities for study and research in agriculture.  And earlier this month, Webster University signed an agreement at the Uzbek Embassy in Washington to open the first-ever campus of an American university in Uzbekistan.  In 2018, we were thrilled to celebrate the registration of American Councils as the first American non-governmental organization to enter Uzbekistan since 2006.  NGOs such as American Councils allow the embassy to rapidly expand and sustain our programs.  We are now working with American Councils to support new university partnerships that will strengthen Uzbekistan’s higher education system in priority areas.

We look forward to reestablishing an exchange program that sends talented high school students or recent graduates to the United States to live with an American family and study in an American high school for a year.

Many students return with virtually native English language skills and a strong understanding of American society, opening tremendous opportunities for higher education and professional success in the global economy.  Alumni from this program regularly win prestigious scholarships at foreign universities and are recruited as top candidates for business and governmental positions.  Next door to Uzbekistan, President Ghani and the American-Afghan negotiator for peace Ambassador Khalilzad both participated in this type of exchange program.

Finally, the return of the Peace Corps to Uzbekistan would offer important and enduring people-to-people ties and significant support for expanded English-language instruction.  Peace Corps volunteers are everyday Americans who are eager to learn about your history and culture, and to share American culture with you.  This is one of many steps our two countries could take to build stronger people-to-people ties as a foundation for long-term friendship and partnership.

This is truly an exciting time in Uzbekistan, a time of progress towards a more modern, prosperous, and open society, towards a society in which you too will be able to realize your dreams.  But constructive change never comes without engagement from ordinary people.  I urge you to be active citizens, to make the future of Uzbekistan your personal responsibility.  Most of all, I urge you to roll up your sleeves and do your part to build a new Uzbekistan.  Your country needs you.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to your questions.