U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan: President Mirziyoyev Wants to be Seen as a Reformer

WASHINGTON — As she starts her final year as the US Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Pamela Spratlen talks to Navbahor Imamova, Voice of America Uzbek Service, about how she sees the new leader and current dynamics in this country.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Ambassador Spratlen, it’s wonderful to have you in Washington. We like it when you visit the Voice of America.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Navbahor, it’s wonderful to see you, happy New Year to you and it’s wonderful to be here.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have spent a lot of time in Central Asia, you have worked in Central Asia, you have worked with Central Asia for a long time, and you have witnessed some historic processes.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What are you seeing in Uzbekistan now? How would you describe the current relationship? Most importantly, how different is this relationship from where it was more than a year ago, before the leaders in both countries changed?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Those are very, very important questions. I’d first like to say that it really is my great honor to have been in Uzbekistan for three years this month. I presented my credentials to the late President Karimov on the 27th of January 2015. What we are seeing now, when I compare my arrival to what is happening, it’s very, very difficult to see the same country. One of the biggest changes is just the level of energy, the level of energy given to change, given to trying to think more consciously about where is Uzbekistan in the world and how does it want to develop. This has been extremely exciting time. In terms of the rest of my time in Central Asia, I’ve been there since I was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Kazakhstan, and then I spent three and a half years as the Chief of Mission in the Kyrgyz Republic.

What’s very exciting from a regional point-of-view is to see this convergence on a variety of topics, and I would say that we can really turn to President Mirziyoyev. The speech he made immediately upon assuming the interim presidency in September of 2016, in which he announced essentially a Good Neighbor Policy, that Uzbekistan wanted to reach out to its neighbors and to recast those relationships.

Very energetically, we’ve seen that happen first with the president’s visit to Turkmenistan, then to Kazakhstan, and then to many other places. I’ve just read yesterday that the prime minister will be visiting Tajikistan. This is all extremely exciting for all of us who’ve been working on Central Asia for a long time who’ve seen the potential. Now I think there’s a great sense of hope that that potential could be realized.

I think in addition to what’s happening with the five Central Asian states themselves, we also have some very interesting developments, again, spurred by Uzbekistan regarding Afghanistan. President Ghani’s visit last month was very, very good. I have the great privilege of being at the dinner between the two presidents. The tone, the rapport between them was excellent, presenting President Ghani with an Honorary Award and Bukhara. I understand the foreign minister is now talking with an Afghan delegation right now.

What’s been happening not only inside of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia more broadly, and now Central Asia with Afghanistan – this is a sea change from when I arrived in 2015.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The United States has always promoted regional integration in Central Asia, at least through the three administrations that we have seen. The Uzbek government was always seen as the major obstacle, right?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Often, yes, that’s right.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Now we see President Mirziyoyev trying to be the enabler, the leader in that process.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: That’s right. Not trying to, he is.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is that just it or do you also see him as being open to US ideas, to other ideas that US wants to promote in Central Asia?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: I see President Mirziyoyev as a very open person in general. I think, from the very moment that he arrived it was very clear that he is an engagement-oriented person. He leans forward in his conversations, this was true when he met with General Votel, and there were many ideas expressed in that meeting. It was true when he met with Lisa Curtis, the Deputy Assistant to the President for South and Central Asia including Uzbekistan.

In any meeting that I have ever attended, including with Undersecretary Thomas Shannon, which was the first time we saw him in 2016, he’s always been open, always been open. He’s open to many ideas, from the United States, from Europe, from South Korea, from lots of places, and I think this is wonderful. After a period of essentially being closed to the outside world is now saying in so many ways that Uzbekistan is open for business.

We have to understand in real terms on the street what does that actually mean, but just the rhetorical commitment to being more open with all of the interlocutors I’ve seen is an important change.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You see him as someone that you can closely work with?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: We certainly see him as somebody that we can talk to. We certainly see him as somebody who is interested in taking the country in a new direction, and all of that suggests that we’re going to be able to work with him very closely.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: He is poised, we believe, to visit Washington this year?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Well, that is the great hope, and certainly every ambassador would like the highest level engagement between the two countries, and that certainly true for me. We had a call last month and that was a very, very successful event. I think the tone established between the two leaders was good, and now we’re looking to see what the next step will be, and of course, the very best thing that could happen would be a visit to Washington.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Has Mirziyoyev surprised you? Because he came out of the system, as you know, and very few people predicted him to be the kind of a leader that he’s trying to be.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Absolutely. I think he’s just not surprised me, I think he surprised everyone. It was a very shrewd and interesting choice that was made to choose him, I think no one in the international community would have expected him to be the one who would follow President Karimov, but I would say he has surprised me in many ways.

First of all, I’ve mentioned this issue of just his temperament and being much more of an engagement-oriented person. Second of all, and I think this is important for the citizens of Uzbekistan, somebody who I think from the very beginning has said he wants to change the relationship between the government and the people. This was true in his year of dialog on human interest. I don’t think that’s an approach to governance that anybody would have expected.

There have been some fits and starts, some things have gone better than others, but I think it’s very clear that when he talks, he’s interested in making sure that instead of the government being an oppressive force in the lives of people, that it actually serves people. How to turn this all around? I think that there are some challenges associated with that, but that was one of the biggest surprises.

A second surprise was the change and focus on who could be part part of the government apparatus. In the past it was sort of an old guard, and some of those very, very talented people are still there, some of the ones who know where every nook and cranny of what the past was all about. We’ve also seen some exciting new people come on the scene, and I think the openness to having people in the government who are educated elsewhere, not necessarily in Uzbekistan, this is also an enormous change.

I think the focus on youth, a big, big change. Thinking of the people who find it necessary to work outside of the country instead of seeing them as a negative force, seeing them as an opportunity. You’ve talked a lot about this on your Twitter feed and other places. I think there are so many different ways. The idea of the economy, being a market economy. There’s a lot of work to do in this area, but this is the direction which the president has said he wants to go. He announced it at the UN. He told our business community in New York in September that this is what he wanted to do. So, now we’re waiting to see what is this actually going to be made of. Yes, there are many, many surprises and we keep seeing them everyday.

Another big surprise is the pace of change. In the past I think Uzbekistan was seen as a country that was delightful and charming because it took time. It took time to drink tea, it took time to build relationships, and I think this is still a basic part of the culture. But at the same time, the country wants to move forward.

I see President Mirziyoyev as somebody who wants to rush forward to try to get more business in the country, more foreign direct investment in the country. That’s going to be a challenge, but it’s again, a big surprise that he was willing to make the change that he did in September on the currency. We’re waiting to see what happens with the rest of that. Again, surprises everyday.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you see him as someone being under a deadline? Because very often when you listen to him there is obviously a lot of rhetoric and it resonates… People respond very positively. But the critics say that he’s the sole variable here, that these changes you just mentioned are not systematic or systematic enough.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: I would say this is certainly something we’re looking at. So far he has been the driver of the change absolutely, and the extent to which people can first of all keep up with him is one question, and then the extent to which his vision is really shared and that he has enough support for what he’s trying to do. I think these are questions that a lot of people had. He is a person who wants to race forward. With respect to the idea of a deadline, I think that’s a question for him.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: He’s definitely under a lot of pressure.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: He under a lot of pressure and I think there’s a sense that there’s a window of opportunity. Well, windows open and windows close, so how long that window is going to be open, how long the patience of the population will be there behind him, I don’t know. But I think that in him one senses that he had set for himself a deadline. Exactly what that deadline is I’m not sure, some people have said two or three years, but let’s see what happens, let’s see what happens. I’m not aware of any specific deadline but I agree with you there’s an enormous sense of pressure and I think that some of that is the pressure that the president has put on himself.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, he is definitely. Every time he talks he’s raising the expectations and it’s going to be very difficult to manage those expectations.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: That’s right.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It’s obvious. What is the Uzbek government asking from the United States at this point? Are they asking for some specific assistance in terms of supporting the reforms? We hear “investment” a lot when it comes to the United States.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: There are many things that are specific, but I think in general what the government of Uzbekistan would like certainly at the level of the president is recognition. Recognition that Uzbekistan that President Mirziyoyev is leading is not the Uzbekistan of old.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Does he want you to see him as a reformer?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Oh, I think, absolutely. I think he would like for, not only me, I think he would like to have all Americans in the policy space, see him as a reformer. Certainly in all the speeches… I wasn’t there for his four-hourtour de force speech at the end of the year but I was there for the Constitution Day speech which he talked a lot about a subject like torture, something that would not have been discussed by the president before. That is a reform. The idea that there was a blacklist and now people are off it. That is a reform.

I think yes, absolutely, he would like to be seen as a reformer and he would like to see those reforms recognized. Because I think for a long time he knows that Uzbekistan was often compared unfavorably to many states in the region. And it was seen as certainly not a state that was moving forward in the area of how citizens related to the government. I think this is something he very much wants to change. Yes, he wants us to see him as a reformer.

I do think that in the area of what kind of economic relationship that President Mirziyoyev would like, certainly as before, the government of Uzbekistan wants the United States to be very active as an investor, particularly, but also in trade. I think there we have always said that the ideas, that one of the conditions that Uzbekistan is offering is it’s Uzbekistan that must attract the businesses, it’s not that United States needs to go there necessarily.

I think this is a debate. This is a debate and there’s a work that Uzbekistan has to do in order to be more attractive to our foreign direct investors. As we saw from the AUCC meeting, the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce meeting in New York in September, there’s tremendous interest. The question is how do we turn that interest into something concrete.

There, I think, a lot depends on Uzbekistan. There’s a lot that still needs to be done on the issue of currency, there’s a lot that still needs to be done on the rule of law. I think there’s a lot of concern about the bandwidth of the country.

Do they have the workers there who could really provide that human resource that investors need? Absolutely, I think one of the things that President Mirziyoyev wants is more foreign direct investment, a stronger economic relationship.

I also think he wants to be seen as a provider of security for the region and therefore we have been very appreciative of Uzbekistan’s long-term support of what we have tried to do in Afghanistan, there’s now a new strategy. The president has suggested that he is willing to be supportive of that. I think that’s very much welcome. Again, I think he wants to be seen as a friend of the international community, where there is mutual interest for the United States and Uzbekistan to cooperate more closely. Absolutely, he wants that and of course, that’s what we want too. The key is to find those areas where the mutual cooperation makes the most sense for both countries, that’s what we really want.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: As far as Washington is concerned, you are the most credible person in Tashkent. When you come visit the nation’s capital here, what kind of issues are they raising – the political circles here, definitely the administration? What are the priorities for the Trump administration? We’ve read the national security strategy. Central Asia seems to be important but not as important. It’s definitely not a priority region based on our reading. As the relationship with Pakistan is souring, the Central Asian stock seems to be rising here in Washington.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: What I would say is we want to put this in context. What I think is interesting and important is that the South and Central Asia strategy specifically mentions Central Asia. We have had as I said, we’ve had General Votel come visit from Centcom, a visit of the Deputy Assistant to the President for the region in November to the Samarkand Conference. That’s the very, very important message of the Trump administration to Uzbekistan about the importance of this country and of the region broadly. I wouldn’t sell Central Asia short by any means, I think it’s important.

Obviously, the relationships we have with countries differ, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t very interested in expanding that cooperation and doing as much as we can with Uzbekistan. I would say while I’m in Washington, the meetings that I’ve had suggest that there’s much more attention focused on Uzbekistan.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It’s not just about Afghanistan?

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: It’s not just about Afghanistan, it’s broader. People really want to understand. What should we think about what we see? People know there’s a difference. They know that some changes are taking place. But the question is how are we really to understand this. It goes back to these changes, and it goes back to what you said earlier about who is driving them and who beyond the president is really supportive of what is happening in the country.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you see a strong team around him? Because many doubt that… We hear a lot from Tashkent about this, from the people on the ground, who say that this is still the old guard.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Well, there are certainly members of the traditional team who were there and I think we know who they are, and we’re actually very grateful that some of them were there. I think the foreign minister has proven to to be an extremely valuable contributor to the president’s success with his idea of the more open regional policy and working more closely with Afghanistan.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have worked with Abdulaziz Komilov for a long time.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: For a long time. We don’t want to sell experience short. At the same time there are some important new voices. If we look at say the state committee on investment, a new very young person who’s in-charge there. If we look at the former minister of labor who has now moved on to work on tourism. There are some young people who are not around the president and I think that this is good, but the key is who were the people driving the ideas. He has some old friends, Senator Sodiq Safoyev being one of them who are helping him. But how big a team is this? And how can the president broaden the support for his program and make sure that people are with him?

And that as he is driving this change there are people who are with him. I think this is a question. As I talk to people I hope to hear more and more as I return to Uzbekistan to hear how deep and broad are the changes that we are seeing. They are remarkable, we see this is a moment of hope, we are encouraged by what we see, the relationship has the potential to grow, but we need to be sure that there really is enough support for what the president says he’s trying to do.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Last question is on Uzbeks in America.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Has the fact that Uzbek immigrant stands accused of a terrorist attack in New York that happened last October affected the relationship in any way? Should the Uzbeks here in America be worried? Because what they’re hearing from President Trump scares them.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: What I would say is, obviously anytime there’s a terrorist attack on our homeland, the United States is going to react to that, the United States is going to be very concerned about that. There were eight people who lost their lives in that event, and so that’s a tremendous tragedy and it’s extremely unfortunate that it was a person who happened to have an Uzbek passport and Uzbek nationality.

I would say that this event took place in the context of a much broader conversation in the United States about immigration and about how to address the concerns about illegal immigration now. In the case of this individual, he came legally to the United States, but there are still security concerns about immigration in general.

We have looked at the diversity visa program very carefully and we know that the vast majority of the people who participated in this program have come and used their visas as they were suppose to. I would say that those people should continue to live their lives and contribute to the society that they’ve chosen to live in.

What happens to the broader immigration debate I think is something that we have to all watch very, very closely. So far I have not heard of Uzbekistan being singled out in any way in any of this discussion, but I think it’s a conversation that’s extremely acute in the United States and I would say that the terrorists or the attack that took place in New York didn’t help things.

At the same time, I just like to point out that in spite of that, it was after that that Lisa Curtis came to Uzbekistan. We had an eight-member congressional delegation that came. They left very happy. I just ran into one of the congressmen who attended that – very happy with their visit. There was a call between President Mirziyoyev and President Trump. All of that suggest that individual events are not going to derail what is an emerging and developing relationship between our two countries. I think that’s the place to focus.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We will continue to closely watch what’s happening here and there.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Absolutely. We’re going to closely watch what happens. As I say, I return extremely excited, happy about the potential that Uzbekistan represents not only in terms of the bilateral relationship which has always been the foundation and will continue to. The United States will continue to support the sovereignty of the territory, and the integrity and the independence of Uzbekistan. We want to see the development.

We had another delegation that came with USTR. We want to be supportive of Uzbekistan’s desire to enter the WTO, another sign of wanting to internationalize its presence. All of the folks in UN who have visited including Mr. Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur, and Mr. Zeid who came as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These are exciting changes that are taking place and they all give us hope that Uzbekistan truly is on another path.

I want to say that we wish not only President Mirziyoyev but his entire team and all the citizens of Uzbekistan the very best not only for 2018 but for the future, a very bright ahead.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We think that the Uzbek government is definitely expecting a lot from 2018 in this relationship.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: Well, they’re expecting a lot and we hope they deliver a lot, those two things need to go together.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Good to hear that. Thank you so much, it’s always wonderful to have you here.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: It’s wonderful to have you too. Navbahor, let me just say that the Voice of America plays a very important role. I follow you very closely on Twitter and I know that you are playing an important role not only in informing the citizens of Uzbekistan and those who speak Uzbek everywhere in the world, but you are also having an influence on the policy space, so just keep up the good work. I greatly admire what you’re doing and I wish you the very best for 2018 and beyond.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen: You’re welcome.

Navbahor Imamova

Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America and a leading Washington-based authority on geopolitics and national development in Central Asia. As anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for over 15 years on TV, radio and online. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Imamova played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented nearly 800 editions of the flagship weekly show, “Amerika Manzaralari,” which covers American foreign policy focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She is frequently asked to speak on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences, including the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, Princeton University, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, Northeastern University, and her alma mater Harvard University. Her essays on the region have been published in journals and edited volumes, including Central Eurasian Studies Review and Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.

She began her career at the Uzbek state broadcaster. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from Maharaja’s College at the University of Mysore, India and a Master of Arts in journalism from Ball State University.

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