Telephonic Press Briefing with Ambassador Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

Moderator: Greetings to everyone form the US. Department of State, I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe and Central Asia, and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today we are pleased to be joined from Washington by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Ambassador Wells.*

Ambassador Wells looks forward to discussing the visit of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Washington, DC, as well as U.S. cooperation with Central Asia. We thank Ambassador Wells for taking the time to join us today. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Wells and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many as we can during the time that we have. With that I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Wells.

Ambassador Wells: Thank you and thank you for participating. We are looking forward to hosting President Nazarbayev next week in the United States. It really marks a major event in our expanding relationship between our two countries. President Nazarbayev will be meeting and having lunch with President Trump as well as having a separate meeting with the Vice-President. I am sure our Presidents will have a wide conversation on all of the issues of global affairs and how to enhance and expand our dynamic bilateral relationship.

This visit is going to highlight the strong partnership that our two countries have forged over the last 26 years, ranging from trade to investment, security, non-proliferation and education. I would just note that ever since 1991 we have strongly supported Kazakhstan’s emergence as a sovereign, independent and important regional and global power.

I was in Astana last month for our Strategic Partnership Dialogue where we discussed a widening area of cooperation from Kazakhstan’s role as a global leader in nuclear non-proliferation to its support for our expanding economic and people-to-people ties which you can see in the new trade deals and the English language programs that have been started up.

In 2016, for instance, we provided grants worth about $3.3 million for U.S.-Kazakhstan educational exchange programs and cultural initiatives, English language training, and support for Kazakhstan to modernize its educational system. And today I’ll be signing with the Kazakhstani Ambassador an Air Navigation Agreement that will facilitate greater official travel between the leaders of our executive and legislative branches.

Some of the areas where we’ve seen Kazakhstan play this leadership role in the international community include hosting the Expo 2017 and convening the Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement council meeting last December; as well as in their role as the current chair of the United Nations* Security Council. We look forward to continuing to work with Kazakhstan as a leader of the international community.

We particularly appreciate Kazakhstan’s continuing support for Afghanistan’s stability and integration into the Central Asia region as part of the South Asia Strategy put forward by our President. We see that our security partnership with Kazakhstan is playing a key role in supporting the safety and prosperity of our citizens. The cooperation between our Justice Departments and our law enforcement agencies is vital to our goals of countering violent extremism and preventing terrorist attacks.

Kazakhstan also plays an important role in our new National Security Strategy that President Trump announced last month. Kazakhstan’s economic potential will help one of our key objectives of ensuring open and diverse global energy markets and promoting economic connectivity within Central Asia. As you know, U.S. investment in Kazakhstan by companies like Chevron and Exxon Mobil already totals over $25 billion, and we expect this number to substantially increase, not just in this sector but in more diversified areas.

Why don’t I end it there with just sort of the conclusion that with the enormous potential in our bilateral relationship, and again, our honor to be hosting President Nazarbayev.

Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question was submitted in advance and it comes to us from Ermek Abdrisaev, a journalist from Kabar State News Agency in Kyrgyzstan.

He asks, does the United States have a detailed vision of its further cooperation with Central Asian countries within the new U.S. National Security Strategy? This is becoming especially topical in light of Uzbekistan’s increasing activity on the world arena.

Ambassador Wells: Thank you for the question. We have long been supporters of a strong and integrated Central Asia, and under the South Asia Strategy we look to continue to promote the economic connectivity of the countries of Central Asia, which Uzbekistan’s recent opening allows for even more ambitious projects to take place.

With the countries of Central Asia we have, I think, mutual strategic interests in promoting economic integration, in countering narcotics, countering terrorism, enhancing the stability of the region, and we have long believed that the future for Afghanistan is to be knit back into the region and to be a strong partner with the Central Asian countries.

I would say another theme that has always characterized our policy towards the region is respect for and support for the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of all the countries of the region.

Moderator: Thank you for that response.

Our next question was also submitted in writing from the BBC Kyrgyz Service, Almaz Tchoroev

His question is that some experts state that the C5+1 platform was a project of the former U.S. President. What is the future of this platform?

Ambassador Wells: Thank you for the question. The C5+1, we find to be a very productive and constructive format. And while it as launched under a previous administration, it has been endorsed and embraced by the administration of President Trump. You saw Secretary Tillerson meet with the C5+1 in New York, met with the Foreign Ministers and committed to holding a meeting of the C5+1 in Central Asia.

Separately, of course, we’ve also received congressional support for this initiative with $15 million allocated for projects to reinforce this forum.

I think we’re very pleased, certainly, with Uzbekistan’s renewed interest in building stronger relations in the region and its efforts to resolve outstanding issues with its neighbors. I think we’re very pleased to see the countries of Central Asia naturally come together, given the range of interests that unite them, whether it’s energy cooperation, trade or security.

We were quite struck when President Ghani went to Uzbekistan and in his public remarks said Afghanistan is a Central Asian country. So I think the next area to look at is to see what are going to be the natural cooperation that will take place between the C5 and Afghanistan. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

Our next question also comes to us in writing from the multimedia portal “Exclusive” in Kazakhstan from Botagoz Seidakhmetova.

The question is, do you feel that the main issue of cooperation, or the main source of cooperation between the U.S. and Kazakhstan is still Kazakh oil?

Ambassador Wells: Thank you.

I’ve never thought that the main issue of cooperation between our two countries is oil. I mean economic relations are, of course, vitally important and they provide ballast to any political relationship. But I think from the very beginning Kazakhstan has achieved a global leadership role because of its principal position on nuclear non-proliferation, the foreign policy course that it has chartered, including of course its support for regional security and support for Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network, as well as, I think, President Nazarbayev’s leadership in developing Kazakhstan. The programs like Bolashak which created linkages between Kazakhstan and the West. So again, I think Kazakhstan’s foreign policy and its significance on the world stage is multi-dimensional, with economics just being one but not the only foundation.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our next question also comes to us in writing from Darya Malevanaya from 24.KG News Agency in Kyrgyzstan.

She asks, how does the U.S. government assess the situation with the freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan linked to multi-million-dollar lawsuits against local journalists?

Ambassador Wells: Thank you.

We believe freedom of press is a fundamental element of any democracy, and around the world the United States supports media freedom. Historically the Kyrgyz Republic has long been a leader in press freedoms in Central Asia, and any measures that limit press freedoms cast a shadow on that reputation. So we continue to encourage this essential institution, media, both to bring transparency as well as to assist governments as they formulate policies. That will continue to be our position.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our next question also comes to us via email from Yulia Nitchenko with TASS Kazakhstan.

She asks, what questions in the economic and trade sphere and also on energy cooperation will be discussed between the Presidents of the United States and Kazakhstan during the visit of the Kazakh President to Washington?

Ambassador Wells: Thank you.

I think we’ll continue our conversations with Kazakhstan on how to achieve greater economic diversification which is a key goal of the Kazakhstani government. From our perspective, we continue to encourage improvements in the business environment so that more foreign direct investment can be attracted to Kazakhstan.

In general, we find that American investors, when they’re making decisions about where to invest overseas, often will look at the success or failure of existing foreign companies in a country. That’s why we place such a great importance on resolving outstanding issues related to intellectual property rights or the sanctity of contracts. So we’ll continue that conversation on how we can help Kazakhstan create the conditions that will spur private sector investment.

I would note that American businesses have been among the world’s biggest investors in Central Asia, so we recognize the enormous potential and have worked to host the Central Asia Trade Forum which I think shows, again, our commitment to both work inside Kazakhstan, but then to create these regional linkages. And we appreciate Kazakhstan’s leadership in hosting these annual conversations that recently also produced an initiative on intellectual property, which again, we think is going to be key to increasing investment in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

Moderator: Thank you.

For our next question we’ll go to Yulia again, who is on the line. I believe she has a follow-up question. Yulia from TASS Kazakhstan.

Moderator: It seems like we’re having some technical difficulties there, so we’ll go to another question from Botagoz Seidakhmetova from “Exclusive” of Kazakhstan.

She asks, how important is it for the U.S. to identify a country in the region of Central Asia as the leader of the region?

Ambassador Wells: I don’t think it’s the role of the United States to choose leaders. I think countries assume leadership. And over the last 26 years we certainly have seen the government of Kazakhstan with the guidance of President Nazarbayev playing a leadership role in many critical areas. We, of course, continue to encourage that. We will work with all of the countries of Central Asia, a very critical region to our efforts in Afghanistan as well, to step up, to seize opportunities for economic connectivity, for cooperation in security so that we can bring stability to the region and help stitch Afghanistan back into the region.

We anticipate, without a doubt, that President Nazarbayev and the Kazakhstani officials with whom we work on a daily basis will continue to see and want to forge Kazakhstan’s leadership role in all of these areas.

Moderator: Thank you.

We’ll ask one final question, also received in writing from BBC Kyrgyz Service, Almaz Tchoroev.

He asks, there is a belief that the Trump administration is not interested in Kyrgyzstan, one of the Central Asian states. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan has closed its U.S. base and ended its cooperation agreement with Washington. What interest does the U.S. have in Central Asia, and in particular, in Kyrgyzstan?

Ambassador Wells: Thank you.

I think over the past again 26 years, the United States government has invested approximately $2 billion in Kyrgyzstan to support what has really been our overarching goal, the success of the Kyrgyz Republic as a secure and prosperous and democratic state. And we are going to continue to seek a relationship with Kyrgyzstan that’s based on trust, quality and mutual respect.

We’ve had our differences, all countries do, but we’re committed to strengthening a long and productive partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic. We continue to share, I think, very core interests regarding stability, security and prosperity, and we see the Kyrgyz Republic’s future very much a part of a vibrant and successful Central Asia.

So we’re committed to the relationship and we’ll look for ways under the new leadership to find opportunities to build on what has been a historic friendship.

Again, I think the Kyrgyz Republic really distinguished itself in the peaceful and orderly presidential elections that took place, and we look forward to partnering with President Jeenbekov.

I just want to thank everyone for participating in this call, and I look forward to future opportunities to speak with you.

Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for. Ambassador Wells, do you have any closing words you would like to offer?

Ambassador Wells: I think I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.

Moderator: I’d like to thank you, Ambassador Wells, for joining us and to thank all of you for participating and for your questions. Thank you.