Ambassador Pamela Spratlen’s Interview to Barakelde
May 3, 2012
April 25, 2012
Barakelde: You came to Kyrgyzstan almost a year ago. What is your opinion about Kyrgyzstan and has it changed since you came here?
Ambassador Spratlen: First of all I just want to thank you for the opportunity to speak to AkiPress this afternoon, and to say that I have been here 11 months, so it’s been not quite one year since I have arrived.
I came with the idea that we wanted to expand our relationship, built up our relationship with the Kyrgyz Republic and I am very pleased, I think, with the results that we have had in what I think we can agree is a very dramatic year in the history of the Kyrgyz Republic with the fulfillment of the work of the transitional government under former President Rosa Otunbayeva.
I would say that when I came there were really, I would say, three or four main areas that we were concerned about. First of all, the most important I think role for any new ambassador is simply to get to know the country. To travel around and to talk to people, to listen to people, to begin to understand the Kyrgyz Republic in greater depth.
So I had the opportunity to travel to Osh, to Jalalabad, to Narin, lake Issyk-Kul, Karakol, Tokmok, and I’m looking forward soon, I hope, to traveling to Talas and to Batken. I haven’t had the chance to visit there yet. I did drive all the way around the lake, and I enjoyed that very much.
So it’s been a very enjoyable year for getting out and seeing this beautiful country.
In terms of building our bilateral relationship, of course this was remarkable because the United States and the Kyrgyz Republic celebrated 20 years of bilateral relations. We established bilateral relations on Christmas day in 1991 and we opened our first embassy on February 1, 1992. So it was with great pleasure with representatives from various ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we had the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Justice. We had the mayor’s office with us on February 1, 2012 when we broke ground on our new embassy. We hope in two years that we will have a brand new embassy, and of course it will be a very permanent and larger facility which I think is a good symbol for the development of our bilateral relationship.
Of course we were extremely proud to witness on December 1st the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Central Asia. This was a considerable achievement for the Kyrgyz Republic and we hope it will be a model for the region.
We were very pleased to provide assistance in the preparations for the election to the Central Election Commission. And we also fielded, had some international observers come and we helped support their mission as well. But of course the achievement belongs to the people of the Kyrgyz Republic, the voters and the leaders, the civil society and the press who all made this such a remarkable achievement for the country. And the journalists.
Barakelde: Marking 20 years of bilateral relations how would you assess relationship between U.S. and Kyrgyzstan?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would say that the relationship between our two countries is very strong. Of course it can always be stronger. But I would say it’s very wide, covers a number of areas, and we’re always looking for new opportunities.
Of course I’ve already mentioned our cooperation in the political reform sphere with respect to the election assistance that we provided. In addition, we were able to support the development of the Kyrgyz Parliament. We have through the U.S. Agency for International Development established a parliamentary strengthening program and members of our Congress came in a delegation led by Congressman David Dryer to establish the House Democracy Partnership Program which creates direct links between Kyrgyz parliamentarians and U.S. Members of Congress.
In the economic sphere of course there’s a great deal more we could do, but the United States has offered assistance for the last almost 20 years to the Kyrgyz Republic to help develop the market economy and make the business climate more friendly to entrepreneurs.
We have specifically tried to expand our cooperation with women who are entrepreneurs, and last July we were very pleased to host the Women’s Economic Symposium and Melanne Verveer, the Secretary’s Ambassador at Large for Women’s Issues came and of course the former President was also there to speak. Since then there have been a number of positive developments that have come out of that conference.
Two programs that I think are important for the medium term are the Economic Development Fund which is a $20 million program that we have worked on in the agricultural sector with the Prime Minister’s Office, and also the local development program which has helped us work with local officials to help with agricultural development, cattle breeding and so on.
In the cultural arena we have a very active program of cultural diplomacy and I would just like to note that this coming Friday we’re very excited about a group called Dance Motion USA which is part of our continuing effort to build mutual understanding by bringing U.S. cultural groups to the Kyrgyz Republic, and when possible helping Kyrgyz groups go to the United States.
We have an expanding group of people we call alumni, those who have gone to the United States on U.S. exchange programs and come back to the Kyrgyz Republic and want to stay in touch with us. So we have students all the way from high school level, the Future Leaders Exchange Program, all the way up to Fulbrighters who are doing graduate level research, and then many programs in between.
Of course we’re very proud that the American University of Central Asia is here, and is working with students every day and graduating students in English, and many of them receive a joint degree with Barr College, which is in New York.
In the diplomatic arena which is very very important, I’m very pleased with the level of high-ranking officials from the United States who have been coming to the Kyrgyz Republic. Most recently we had the Secretary of Defense here as well as General Mattis who is with our Central Command. In December of 2010 we had Secretary Clinton here. Of course the regional expert from Washington, the senior official from the South and Central Asia Bureau, Mr. Blake, has been here several times. He was here on December 1st for the inauguration. And of course it’s our pleasure to host senior Kyrgyz officials in the United States. Most recently we had the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Otorbayev who was there for meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and he had, according to his own press reports, 40 meetings in three days, so I think he had a very successful trip.
We expect there could be other visitors later on this year here in the Kyrgyz Republic from the United States, and we hope to the United States from Kyrgyzstan.
Of course in the area of regional security Kyrgyzstan is a very important partner of the United States. I was very pleased to have a meeting just this morning with Mr. Tabaldiev of the Defense Council and we talked about regional security. We talked about the threats that the Kyrgyz Republic faces, the threat of extremist thinking, the threat of terrorism, and the threat of narco-trafficking. And of course many of these threats emanate from Afghanistan, so we have been very pleased with our partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic since 2001 with Kyrgyzstan as host of the Transit Center at Manas International Airport.
Of course we also, through our Office of Military Cooperation and others who are international narcotics and law enforcement programs, we try to help strengthen the police inside the Kyrgyz Republic and the border between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors through a variety of programs.
So I think if you look across all of these areas -- political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, educational, security, and regional security -- you can see that we have a very broad relationship with the Kyrgyz Republic. We’ve built it up over many years and we believe that it would be important to continue this relationship and help it grow.
I would like to just mention one other area of cooperation that I think is important. On May 3rd we will be celebrating World Press Freedom Day, and I’d just like to note that the United States has been a great supporter of open media and the development of journalists for many many years and that’s another area of cooperation that we expect to continue.
Barakelde: How would you assess the regional security situation? Are there any new concerns for Kyrgyzstan?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would just refer back to what I heard this morning when I had my meeting which is that the situation in the Kyrgyz Republic internally is very stable. Of course the events of two years ago continue to reverberate in the society and tensions remain, so there’s a great deal of work to do to establish more unity in the country, but overall inside the country people seem to feel optimistic about the future and are working hard, and it seems that they are willing to give the current administration a chance to perform and to sustain the stability that the country’s enjoying right at the moment.
Of course as we look around the region there are some traditional areas of tension. Water is one great challenge that the Kyrgyz Republic and some of its neighbors face. Energy is another one. Ecological problems. These are all I think serious regional challenges with Kyrgyzstan and its immediate neighbors.
Of course I would say one of the largest problems that is faced by a number of countries is poverty. A feeling on the part of a number of people that they don’t have the kinds of opportunities they need to sustain their own lives and to create life for their families, and that is why there is such a large number of Kyrgyz citizens who actually don’t have work in Kyrgyzstan and work outside the country . And of course if people feel a long time that they don’t have a chance to improve their circumstances, poverty can be a factor in stability.
Finally I would just note that of course there have been, I think it’s no secret that there have been some ethnic tensions in this region and of course that is another potential area of trouble. We hope that the authorities will continue to work to ensure a harmonious relationship between the various groups inside countries and across borders. I am pleased to hear that I think the government and the parliament and many many elements of the society are working toward that end.
Barakelde: What is the U.S. position regarding Manas Air Base?
Ambassador Spratlen: First of all, I would just like to note that the transit center since 2009, it has been operating as, the facility at Manas has been operating as a transit center. Approximately 45,000 soldiers a month from the United States and from the coalition come in and out of the transit center each month. This partnership has been extremely important. As President Obama has said a number of times, this is support we greatly appreciate, and other officials have said that from the United States.
I would only say that the stabilization of Afghanistan is a long-term challenge for the whole world and this region and it will require the cooperation of many states including Kyrgyzstan over a number of years to stabilize.
Barakelde: President Almazbek Atambaev raised the question about removing the U.S. Transit Center. What is the official position of the U.S. and your personal opinion?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would say that we have heard the President’s position clearly. I think that the two features of his position that are important to us at the moment are one that the current agreement will be fulfilled to its conclusion in 2014. And on a number of occasions the President has said we should talk about the future and those, the discussions about the future of the transit center have already begun. There was an expert team that was here just last week. So I think we will continue to talk about the needs and requirements of each side as we talk about the future.
Barakelde: Yesterday Premier Minister Babanov said that the decision on Transit Center will be defined after the NATO summit. What are U.S. further steps regarding this issue? Will Transit Center be civilian transit center?
Ambassador Spratlen: The President’s been very clear, that’s his conception and we have heard that. I would only say I think it’s very early for us to start talking about the future. The discussions have just begun and I think we have to wait and see how those go. In addition, the situation in Afghanistan itself is evolving and I think over the next two years that will also be a factor. But again, we’ve just started the discussions and I think it’s too early to make any, I would not be willing to make any definitive statements about how we will end except that I will say we have heard the President very clearly.
I would just like to point out that the United States and the Afghan authorities have just come to agreement on a Strategic Partnership Agreement. In Chicago on the 20th and 21st of May there will be a summit of NATO. I think after the NATO summit we may also have a better idea of how the international community and Afghanistan are going to be working together to help stabilize the region.
Barakelde: Is U.S. against or for withdrawal of military troops from Afghanistan?
Ambassador Spratlen: I think what I would say is that what we are for is a stable and prosperous Afghanistan as part of a stable and prosperous region. So questions about whether we are for or against troops depend on how close we are to achieving a stable, prosperous Afghanistan as part of a stable and prosperous region.
Barakelde: Rumor has it that Russia is interested in withdrawal, removing of the base from Kyrgyzstan.
Ambassador Spratlen: Again, I’m not going to speak for Russian authorities. I think they can speak for themselves. I think if you look at some of the commentary recently from the Russian Foreign Minister, it may change your view. The Russians are, I think, as interested in stability in Afghanistan as we are, and I think they see the effort to get there is an international one, so I think we will be talking with our Russian partners just as we are talking to Kyrgyzstan and all of our global partners about how we can work together to stabilize Afghanistan.
Barakelde: Do you believe that the Russian base will leave Kyrgyzstan after the U.S. base does?
Ambassador Spratlen: Again, the question of the presence of military facilities in the territory of the Kyrgyz republic is a sovereign question for Kyrgyz authorities with their partners, so they will have to decide that question.
Barakelde: How would you assess the way our president conducts the country’s foreign policy? Who do you think – the President or parliament - should define the foreign policy?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would say that the issue of foreign policy is, of course, extremely important for all countries in the world. It’s particularly important for a country like the Kyrgyz Republic which is surrounded by neighbors and landlocked. I think under the transitional president she used her immense international experience to create a variety, a multiplicity of foreign policy relationships for the Kyrgyz Republic within the interest of her country. The current president seems to be continuing that same policy of many partners for the Kyrgyz Republic. But the specific question of who should have primary responsibility for foreign policy. The President, or the government, or the parliament is really a decision that must be worked out within the leadership of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Barakelde: How would you assess 100 day plan of the Kyrgyzstan’s government?
Ambassador Spratlen: That’s a very hot button question. What I would say is that the government of the Kyrgyz Republic set for itself an extremely ambitious 100 Day Plan. As far as I know the Prime Minister is intending to make a presentation to the parliament tomorrow about how he evaluates the progress of the government. And I would certainly not want to preempt the Prime Minister, so I’m going to wait and listen to his evaluation and then I would be prepared to perhaps make some commentary about the first 100 days. But of course we certainly wish all of the members of the government, the President, everyone who is working very hard to improve the lives of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic through the actions of the government, we wish them well. And of course the United States is involved in a very very intensive program of cooperation with many ministries to try to help improve governance, improve the rule of law, and improve the capacity of ministries to carry out their capabilities, their functions.
Barakelde: If the Transit Center at Manas will have to leave Kyrgyzstan, does it mean that the Kyrgyz-U.S. relations get worse?
Ambassador Spratlen: Again, we are very clear that the facility at the airport is a transit center. I’d just like to repeat that. We don’t refer to it as a base, we refer to it as a transit center. Because it’s not a base.
But with respect to the future, again, I don’t want to preempt the discussions, but as I said at the very beginning of our discussion, the relationship between the United States and the Kyrgyz Republic is very wide. It covers a great many areas, and we want to see that relationship continue. The relationship is broad, it covers a number of areas, and we hope the relationship will continue.
Barakelde: Why does the U.S. pay special interest to the technological development of Kyrgyzstan and other Center Asia countries?
Ambassador Spratlen: I think the whole issue of technology is very very closely linked with the issue of innovation which is how economies grow.
The question of technology particularly with respect to the media and the internet is also very closely linked to how open a society is. And as Kyrgyzstan is a developing democracy, the issue of high technology and better technology helps I think the democracy develop because people can connect with one another more easily and talk to each other and share their opinions.
It’s why we believe that there should not be any attempts by the government to close web sites or try to limit what information people have access to.
Finally, and I think very importantly, connected to what I said earlier about the development of the economy. If Kyrgyzstan’s young people are comfortable with technology, if they’re familiar with the language of technology, it makes it easier for them to participate in the broader world with their peers in this generation, so I think it connects Kyrgyzstan to the world.
I should say it’s not limited to young people. They probably have the easiest time working with technology, but of course we believe technology should be available to everyone.
Barakelde: Do you think that freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan meets democratic princiles?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would say the Kyrgyz Republic has a great deal to be proud of with respect to the issue of the free press. Of course if we compare the Kyrgyz Republic to the countries in the immediate region I would say that consumers of the media in the Kyrgyz Republic have a great many more resources at their disposal than their fellow citizens in other countries. And of course this information is available not only in the Kyrgyz language and the Russian language, but in English, Chinese, and lots of other languages, too. The Kyrgyz people have access to a lot of information.
What I would say is that we remain concerned about the level of professionalism of the journalists because it can sometimes be hard for people to get access to information that is truly objective and independent. But I think as the media market develops and there are more options and journalists I think feel freer to act as journalists and not as people who are paid to report for a specific person, then I think the journalism in the Kyrgyz Republic will continue to develop.
Of course last year in 2011 we were concerned about some attacks on journalists, particularly in the southern part of the country. But I think the journalists themselves are organizing to make this known and they are protected and supported by civil society organizations and by the ombudsman’s office.
So we hope that the free press in the Kyrgyz Republic will continue to be open, will be more professional, and to provide the readership and the viewership with more and more quality choices.
Before I conclude I just want to say a word about a subject we really haven’t talked much about, and that is the subject of human rights. You asked me about the free press. It’s one part of our ongoing discussion with various parts of the Kyrgyz government and civil society about human rights. So we hope in the area of human rights that the issue of religious freedom will flower, meaning that people have the right to practice their own religion, whether it’s Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, whatever their religion, that they should be able to do this freely, and in general they can do this in the Kyrgyz Republic, but there is some work to do.
Of course I mentioned earlier the challenge of ethnic tensions in the country and we think it’s very very important to continue to work so that every citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic, regardless of the language they speak or the ethnicity that they have feels a full part of this society with no discrimination and the ability to pursue his or her dreams all over the country. In this context we’re very pleased that we have a cooperation and that it’s a priority for the government to work on reform of the judicial sector and the police. These are two institutions that are extremely important for giving people more of a feeling of security, regardless of their ethnicity and language.
Of course the rule of law is also important in a completely different context, but related, which is for the business and investment climate. We really, I think it’s important if our investors and other foreign investors are going to come to the Kyrgyz Republic, to have a much better firmly established rule of law with no corruption.
But in conclusion I would like to say that I almost have been here one year and it has really been a great pleasure to be here in the Kyrgyz Republic. This is a very young country with a very bright future trying to do extremely ambitious things in democracy, the rule of law, economic development and security. And of course it’s also a beautiful country and I look forward to getting to know more people and continuing to travel around the country.
Barakelde: What is your opinion on reforms of internal forces of Kyrgyzstan?
Ambassador Spratlen: I think it’s too early to say. Again, this is something that I think is a long term, very deep challenge for the authorities and we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not aware of any specific results yet, but we hope, except for the financial police. I know there was a test recently for them. But for the milicia, I’m not aware that any specific reforms have been fulfilled and this is going to be a long term reform project for the Kyrgyz Republic.
Barakelde: Do you have an opportunity here to continue your hobbies like sports, singing in chorus, etc?
Ambassador Spratlen: I would like to be able to ride horses, but unfortunately I’m not able to do that because of my allergies. But as I said, I’m looking forward to getting out and doing some hiking because I think that would be a great way to see the country.
I do just want to say, all of our activity here is designed to support Kyrgyz efforts to be a unified country. The United States has an interest only in the unity and peace and success of the Kyrgyz Republic. Nationalism is really a dangerous illusion and we hope that those people who are working toward unity in the country will be much stronger than the voices that want to favor any one specific group.
Barakelde: What would you like to wish to citizens and the government of the Kyrgyz Republic?
Ambassador Spratlen: My wish, as I said, is for the success, for the health, for the prosperity and the unity of the Kyrgyz Republic today and into the future. Not just 20 years from now, but 200 years from now and beyond. And of course the United States hopes to be the partner of the Kyrgyz Republic in this journey.
Barakelde: Thank you.
Ambassador Spratlen: Thank you very much.
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