ANTONY J. BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE
HYATT REGENCY HOTEL
MARCH 1, 2023
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, good afternoon, everyone. Good to see you all. So this is my first visit to Uzbekistan, and let me express first of all my gratitude to the president, to the acting foreign minister, and to all the people I’ve had an opportunity to meet with over the course of this day for what’s been an extraordinarily warm welcome.
The partnership between our countries dates back to Uzbekistan’s independence. It’s grown much closer in recent years. Across all of my engagements here, what I come away with is a mutual and enthusiastic commitment to strengthening that partnership even further.
That starts with deepening our ties with Uzbekistan’s young people. Over the past five years, the United States has invested $25 million in English-language education, teaming up with the government to train 15,000 Uzbekistani English teachers, providing English-language textbooks to some 10,000 schools. And I had an opportunity to witness some of the work that we’re doing today sitting in on a class with some really extraordinary young people who are only three or four months into English-language education and already sounded incredibly fluent.
This is about more than just learning a language. It’s about empowering rising generations of Uzbeks to use their new skills to compete for jobs in markets that demand English proficiency, enabling connections with English speakers across the region and the world, opening doors to exchange programs in the United States, which can create new opportunities for people in both of our countries.
Another way that we’re expanding opportunity is by supporting the full implementation of President Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda. The progress that Uzbekistan has made on labor rights shows just how transformative that agenda can be. For 11 years, more than 300 companies banned Uzbek cotton from their products due to the use of child and forced labor. In partnership with national and international labor groups and human rights organizations, the government worked to eradicate this pervasive practice, not only passing a new labor code, but ensuring that it was enforced. Last year, the International Labor Organization determined that Uzbekistan’s cotton sector was free of child and forced labor. This is a historic achievement and it’s a model for countries around the world facing similar challenges.
It’s already making a tangible difference in the lives of Uzbek workers, farmers, businesses. Wages are up. Private investment is increasing. People of all ages, including children, are no longer being forced to pick cotton in abusive conditions. We look forward to working with the government to promote similar efforts in other sectors, as well as to fully implement the president’s reform agenda. That includes delivering on commitments to defend religious freedom and press freedom and strengthen protections for vulnerable populations – issues that I discussed today with the president.
I also underscored the importance of Uzbekistan fully and transparently investigating allegations of human rights violations committed by law enforcement officers during the July 2020 – 2022 unrest and holding accountable those responsible.
In addition to strengthening the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, we’re also working together to deepen regional integration. Foreign Minister Saidov and I just came, as you know, from the C5+1 meeting in Astana, where I announced a new commitment to work with Congress to provide an additional $25 million to catalyze economic growth in Central Asia. That brings our total investment in the region since our meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly last September to more than $66 million. We’re focused on diversifying trade routes, fostering greater private investment, providing job training.
And let me emphasize that so much of the work that we’re doing in these – in these programs and with the investments we’re making from our government really serve as a catalyst for increasing private sector investment. I think the opportunities that the private sector is already engaged in are significant and everything I’m seeing suggests that there is growing enthusiasm, interest, focus on investing here and investing in other countries in Central Asia.
It’s also how we provide the support that matters. The United States is making these and other investments in Central Asia openly, transparently, in a way that empowers people across the region to shape their own future, and that meets high labor, human rights, environmental standards. That’s how investment should work.
We’ll have a chance to build on these efforts next month in Samarkand when the United States sends a high-level delegation from across our government to a meeting of the U.S.-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework.
So the bottom line is this. A more connected, a more cooperative Central Asia will be better able to determine its own future and deliver for its people’s needs. The United States is committed to supporting that vision. One of the things that we’ve learned over many, many years is that the investments that we make in these partnerships benefit our partners, but they also benefit us, creating potentially new markets for our own products, our own investments, creating new opportunities to partner with countries in meeting global challenges where Central Asia can make a real difference, and just developing new friendships that benefit our country across so many different aspects of our society in many different ways.
And that’s fundamentally why I’ve come here, and I want to emphasize that this is not just a matter of one visit; it’s the work that we’re doing day in, day out, including through our embassies, through our engagement with the private sector, through engagements with civil society and other groups. And we’re in it for the long haul.
In our meetings today, I also had a chance to thank the government for its generous aid to the people of Afghanistan, from electricity to emergency humanitarian assistance, especially to women and girls. And we applaud Uzbekistan for repatriating more than 400 family members of terrorist foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq whose reintegration the United States will continue to support.
Finally, this visit to the region comes against the backdrop of the one-year anniversary of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. This continues to be a cause for hardship for people around the world, including here in Central Asia. The second- and third-order consequences of this aggression continue to be felt. Indeed, few regions have been more acutely affected than Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where people continue to shoulder increased food and energy prices. As always, this is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. That’s why the United States has provided more than $16 million in emergency food aid to this region since President Putin launched his aggression against Ukraine.
This hardship makes Uzbekistan’s generosity even more remarkable. The government, the people of Uzbekistan have stepped up to provide food and medical assistance to Ukraine. They continue to host tens of thousands of Russian citizens who fled their country after President Putin launched his war.
Russia’s invasion has also fostered deep concern across the region. After all, if a powerful country is willing to try to erase the borders of a sovereign neighbor by force, what’s to stop it from doing the same to others? Countries across Central Asia understand this. So does the United States, and so do partners and allies around the world. And that’s exactly why we’ve been committed and remain committed to standing for the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, the independence not only of Ukraine, but for countries across Central Asia and, indeed, around the world.
MR PATEL: We’ll go to our first question from Ed Wong of The New York Times.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hey, Ed.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah. He’ll survive without the microphone.
QUESTION: Thanks. I’d like to follow up on your comments on the Ukraine war.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: First, you’ve said that you’re somewhat skeptical of Moscow’s talk of possible negotiations, and you say that the main aim of the U.S. Government right now and European allies is to help Ukraine on the battlefield, yet many of the non-aligned or neutral countries that you’re meeting with this week here and also at the G20 say that they would like to see peace talks open sometime soon, and I expect that pressure will increase. How do you address that? And some have even favorably looked at China’s talking points on that, and I know you’re skeptical of that.
Second, at the G20, Russia and China will both be sending their foreign ministers. Do you plan to talk to them one on one or talk to them in a group setting, and what do you plan to say to them about the Ukraine war?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah. Second – second part of the question first. No plans to see either at the G20, although I suspect that we’ll certainly be in group sessions of one kind or another together.
So the first thing to say is this: No one wants peace more urgently than the people of Ukraine. They’re the victims every single day of Russia’s aggression, and if they could have peace yesterday, they’d take it and so would we and so would countries around the world who are suffering, as I said, from the second- and third-order effects of Putin’s aggression.
Now, we all know the simple truth that the war could end tomorrow – it could end today – if President Putin so decided. He started it; he can stop it. It’s, on one level, as simple as that. And we should never lose sight of that fact. No one should lose sight of the fact that we have an aggressor and we have a victim, and to have any kind of equivalence between the two, including suggesting who is more committed to peace, I think, is profoundly wrong.
Second, if Russia, President Putin, were genuinely prepared to engage in meaningful diplomacy necessary to end the aggression, of course we’d be the first to work on that and to engage. But there is zero evidence of that. To the contrary, the evidence is all in the other direction. Just listen to President Putin’s own words. To cite just one example, he said recently, and publicly, that unless and until Ukraine recognizes what he called “the new territorial realities,” there’s nothing to even talk about. In other words, unless and until Ukraine accepts the fact that Russia has seized their territory and gets to keep it, they won’t even talk. That’s obviously a nonstarter and it should be a nonstarter not just for Ukraine or for us, but for countries around the world. And I think that certainly resonates here in this region, where every single Central Asian country feels very strongly about their territorial integrity, their sovereignty, their independence – all of which, of course, were very, very hard-won.
So the real – the real question is whether Russia will get to a point where it is genuinely prepared to end its aggression and to do so in a way that is consistent with the United Nations Charter and these very principles. That’s why I think what you – what you hear around the world, and you saw reflected in the resolution that was passed at the UN General Assembly by 141 countries, is the strong desire for peace, but for a just and durable peace, just in that it’s consistent with the principles of the UN Charter in terms of territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence, and durable, as I’ve said before, so that we don’t leave things in a place where Russia gets to simply repeat this exercise a year or two years or three years later – it rests, it rearms, and it reattacks. So I think that’s what we need to be focused on.
In terms of the proposal that China put forth, as I’ve said and as others in the government have said, look, there are some positive elements there, including things that China itself has said several times in the past – very similar to elements that are in Ukraine’s own proposal that President Zelenskyy put out some time ago. But if China was genuinely serious about this, the very first principle it put out – sovereignty – it would have been spending all of the last year working in support of the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty. And of course it’s been doing the opposite in terms of its own efforts to advance Russian propaganda and misinformation about the war, blocking and tackling for Russia in international organizations, and, as we’ve made clear recently, now contemplating the provision of lethal military assistance to Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
So China can’t have it both ways. It can’t be putting itself out as a force for peace in public while it, one way or another, continues to fuel the flames of this fire that Vladimir Putin started.
MR PATEL: We’ll next go to Davlat Umarov from Gazeta.
QUESTION: Thank you. Gazeta’s website. Mr. Secretary, during your visit in – oh, I’m really sorry.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, during your visit in Kazakhstan you mentioned that U.S. is trying to demonstrate its commitments to Central Asian countries as a steadfast partner. You announced even today about additional $25 million to the initiative and also as well as licensing the companies that are working with sanctioned Russian companies. In that regard, I’d like to ask: What are the expectations of the United States from countries of the region, and in particular from Uzbekistan, to be ensured in their commitment as reliable partners, keeping in mind the ongoing war in Ukraine and close ties of the region with Russia and China? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Well, first, what we have been trying to demonstrate throughout this visit, but again, more than that, every single day in our engagement with countries throughout the region – and by the way, the meeting that we had in Kazakhstan of the C5+1, I think that’s the fourth meeting that I’ve participated in with my colleagues – but every single day we’re engaged to build the strongest possible partnerships with all of the Central Asian countries. And it starts with our enduring support for their sovereignty, for their independence, for their territorial integrity, and our determination that each be able to determine their own futures consistent with those principles.
What I think we also know very well is that Central Asia is in a complicated part of the world with longstanding relationships with different countries based on history, based on geography, and that’s something that we well understand. But I think we also see each of these countries looking to multiply and deepen their relationships and partnerships with other countries around the world. And in that, the United States wants to be a steadfast partner and a partner that works with them to create new opportunities for people in this region and new opportunities for us to work together.
Now, as I said earlier, we’re also very well aware of the consequences that the Russian aggression against Ukraine has had for people in Central Asia, and I’d say two things about that. First, the immediate consequences have been, in one way or another, a rise in energy and in food prices, and then, more generally, inflation.
Now, there’s a simple reason for that. Putin has tried to weaponize energy in his effort to subjugate Ukraine, and in weaponizing energy and trying to hold it back, deny it from different places – that has contributed to rising prices. We’ve worked very hard to make sure that there was enough energy on world markets to keep prices down. We’ve come directly to the assistance of the – of countries that were directly targeted by Putin using the energy weapon, but these effects, again, have been felt here in Central Asia as well, and we’re working to mitigate them.
Food – Putin also weaponized food. He blocked the breadbasket of the world, Ukraine, from exporting a lot of its grain and food products. And it was only because of the very good work by the United Nations and Türkiye that we were able to establish this Black Sea grain corridor that allowed food once again to – grain and other products to come out of Ukraine and to reach world markets. The majority of that is going to countries in the developing world and in the Global South, but even countries that aren’t directly receiving it are benefiting from the fact that with more Ukrainian food products on the market, the more prices are held in check and are lower.
Second part of the equation is this: sanctions, export controls that are being imposed by dozens of countries – not just the United States – on Russia. And again, to step back – it’s not as if we woke up one day and said, oh, let’s impose sanctions and export controls on Russia. The reason for those sanctions and export controls is because of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. And countries came together both to support Ukraine in defending itself from the Russian aggression, but also to try to impose costs and pressure on Russia to get it to change its conduct, to stop the aggression, and to make it more difficult for Russia to continue that aggression. So that’s what this is all about.
But we’re looking at this very closely. We appreciate the work that countries have done to help prevent the evasion of sanctions, because Russia is looking for ways to nonetheless acquire products and otherwise engage in sanctioned activity. So we’re working closely with governments throughout the region, helping them understand exactly what the sanctions require and, as necessary, looking to see what we can do to mitigate the negative effects that they’re feeling. And this includes, in some cases, issuing licenses for trade where that makes sense, and we’ve been engaged in that – in that process as well.
Finally – and I’m sorry for going on so long, but it’s important – a big part of the work that we’re doing here is to help the region diversify trade relationships, to build new partnerships and relationships with other countries, including with the United States, so they’re not dependent on any one country or any one source for trade and investment, and at the same time to increase trade and investment within Central Asia itself. There’s a very strong potential market here, and the more connectivity we have among the countries of Central Asia, the more collaboration we have, the stronger that market’s going to be, the more investment it’s going to attract from outside of Central Asia.
So we’re working on all of that. And as I noted yesterday and again today, we’ve made some significant new investments to try to do that – to increase and strengthen the climate, the environment for private sector investment, to strengthen connectivity among these countries, and to help them diversify their trade and investment relationships.
MR PATEL: Next we’ll go to Barbara Usher with the BBC.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Blinken, I wanted to follow up on that, what you’ve just been talking about, with a different angle. You say that you’re not asking Central Asian countries to choose between the U.S. and Russia or between the U.S. and China, but you are asking them to divert trade routes away from Russia and China. So isn’t this a new version of the Great Game, which has historical resonance here, as I’m sure you’re aware?
And if I might add briefly, you spoke quite positively about the reforms of the president. Did you also perhaps advise him against trying to change the constitution so that he can extend his term? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Barbara. I think what many countries have recognized, both in Central Asia and beyond, for a variety of reasons in recent years, is that there is tremendous benefit in having a multiplicity of partners when it comes to – when it comes to trade, when it comes to investment, when it comes to supply chains of one kind or another. We’ve seen what disruptions in any one partnership and connection can do, and those disruptions might come from anything from conflict to COVID to climate change.
So this experience, I think, is causing countries to look very hard at where they may have dependencies, and it’s in their interest, I think, to find ways to diversify, multiply, expand their relationships, their partnerships, including when it comes to trade and investment. And of course that doesn’t – that doesn’t need to be something that’s zero-sum. These things can be additive, and countries will benefit tremendously from the increased investment that they’re getting, the increased opportunity that that’s creating.
So that’s the recognition that we’re seeing and that’s what we’re trying to support, to help, and to be a strong partner in helping to achieve. And it really runs the spectrum of things that we’re engaged in with countries here. I mentioned a little while ago the work we’re doing here in Uzbekistan on English-language training. It so happens that at this moment in history – it was different before; I’m sure at some point in the future it’ll be different – but right now English happens to be the primary currency for international engagement, whether that’s for businesses, whether that’s for governments and diplomacy, whether that’s for people-to-people connections, whether that’s for the internet.
And so it’s a profound advantage for countries and in some ways even a necessity to build up the proficiency, especially among young people, in the English language, and that’s going to make people much more able to be competitive in a global economic environment, a global world in which, as I said, English is right now the main connective tissue. So that’s just one way in which we’re helping to put countries in a position where they can very effectively diversify their contacts, their connections, their work with other countries.
When it comes to the reform agenda that the president has put forward here, we talked about that at some length today during our meeting. We applauded the steps that had been taken. I noted as well the importance not only of having the strong vision but of fully implementing it, and of course that remains an important work in progress. We talked about the importance of media freedom, having a strong space for civil society, and we did discuss briefly as well the constitutional reform process.
MODERATOR: Final question, Nikita Makarenko.
QUESTION: Mr. Blinken, we feel an enormous pressure from Russian propaganda here, and it really shapes minds of our people, so we, our local media, try to struggle with it. Is there any plans the United States going to help us in this struggle? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, thank you. Well, I think it only underscores the importance of having a strong, vibrant, and well-resourced local media. And one of the things that we discussed today, including with the president, was the importance of that, the need for that in part to be able to deal with misinformation coming from Russia or from any other source. So we have programs, as you know, to support independent media but also in our own engagements with other governments urging them to do what’s necessary to create the right environment in which media can grow, can flourish, and can bring a diversity of voices and a diversity of views to the public.
And with that information, let people make up their minds about what’s right and wrong, what’s good policy and what’s bad policy, what’s an appropriate direction or not. But it’s certainly true that Russia has built up a very strong and long-enduring propaganda and misinformation system that is felt here and is felt in other parts of the world. And the best answer to that, of course, is the strongest possible environment for genuinely free, independent, open media to bring the facts to people and let them make up their minds.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: One more question.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, everyone.