AKIPRESS.COM – U.S. Ambassador Lesslie Viguerie talked about the results of the Central Asia-U.S. inaugural summit and its importance for the region, sanctions against Russia, human rights and freedom of speech situation in Kyrgyzstan, prospects of bilateral relations in an interview with AKIpress.
– How do you assess the results of the C5+1 Presidential Summit?
– This meeting was a big deal. This was the first time a U.S. president met together with all five Central Asian leaders. It marks a new chapter in U.S. relations with the Central Asian states. The first-ever C5+1 Leaders’ Summit did not come out of nowhere. It builds on years of close cooperation between Central Asia and the United States. As President Biden said, it was a historic moment. We look forward to harnessing the momentum from the meeting to push our cooperation forward in specific areas.
– What specific results can you list?
– Let me highlight some of the commitments made at the Summit related to the economy, energy, and climate change. If readers are interested, they can take a look at the C5+1 Joint Statement – which can be found on the U.S. Embassy Bishkek website in English, Kyrgyz, and Russian.
The C5+1 leaders underscored their shared determination to achieve regional and inclusive economic growth. They identified opportunities for lasting economic reforms that will create a more favorable business environment for U.S. private sector investment in Central Asia. It focuses on enhancing alternative trade routes, facilitating new connections between U.S. and Central Asian businesses, and creating a regional network of young professionals receiving English language and professional development training.
Speaking of which, developing that English language network builds on an initiative the U.S. Embassy began here in the Kyrgyz Republic in 2018 – the English for Young Professionals Program. Approximately 5,000 Kyrgyz government officials, journalists, and civil society professionals have participated to date. We are committed to building English language mastery to help the Kyrgyz Republic connect with the world.
On the topic of energy and climate change, the leaders at the C5+1 Summit discussed ways in which they can cooperate toward an energy-secure future for Central Asia. This includes integrating regional energy systems while diversifying energy export routes to reliably supply new global markets. In particular, the leaders emphasized the importance of pursuing opportunities for increased clean energy production, and climate-sustainable actions that represent a balanced approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Like the Kyrgyz Republic, the United States recognizes that climate change is a priority issue on which we must work together. As President Japarov said during his UN General Assembly address this year, “a global collective response” is necessary to solve this global problem. The United States supports the Kyrgyz Republic’s effort to bring international attention to the specific threat that climate change presents for mountainous countries, and we see opportunities for continued partnership in this area.
– Does this summit mean that the United States has begun to attach more importance to Central Asia?
– I want to emphasize – Central Asia has always been important to the United States. The United States was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of the Kyrgyz Republic, and we have continued to work together to further strengthen each of the Central Asian nations’ sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity. Our commitment to the region is demonstrated by the establishment of the C5+1 format back in 2015, the many enhanced strategic partnership dialogues, working groups, and annual bilateral consultations that we’ve held, in addition to high-level U.S. government visits to the region. As National Security Council Senior Director Nicholas Berliner said, if there were any doubts about the level of interest on the part of the United States in Central Asia, the C5+1 Presidential Summit should put those to rest.
Is the C5+1 Summit related to sanctions against Russia and a possible future confrontation between the United States and China?
The United States is watching sanctions compliance closely around the world, including in Central Asia, to prevent the Russian Federation from continuing its unjustified war against Ukraine. We are working with the Kyrgyz government – by proactively sharing information about attempts to avoid sanctions in nine narrowly drawn technology areas. These items are imported into the Kyrgyz Republic and then re-exported to Russia to be used in the conflict. The United States is committed to further discussions and information sharing with our Kyrgyz partners on this issue.
However, the C5+1 Presidential Summit was not focused on any one issue or on any one country. It was a positive, forward-looking agenda based on our shared respect for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all states.
– Is the U.S. concerned about human rights and freedom of speech in the Kyrgyz Republic? What threat do you think the Foreign Agents Bill poses?
– A vibrant Kyrgyz civil society and media are not only part of the proud heritage of the Kyrgyz Republic – they are also a necessary ingredient for its prosperous future. However, there is draft legislation currently being considered by Parliament – with text largely copied from Russian legislation – that we believe threatens the very democratic institutions that enabled greater freedom and human rights in the Kyrgyz Republic.
In my meetings with Kyrgyz government officials, I have underscored the concerns expressed by many Kyrgyzstanis about how these laws could potentially limit their freedoms and restrict their access to vital information and services as well as restrict the ability of the United States to support non-profit organizations, NGOs, and even local governments that provide vital services to Kyrgyz citizens every day. Our ability to implement foreign assistance programs – such as strengthening healthcare, providing healthy school lunches, and bolstering education in primary schools – is done through NGOs and civil society organizations.
The Kyrgyz people need laws that are transparently and openly drafted, consistent with the values and history of the country, and in line with international law, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Copy-pasted laws, imposed from abroad, do not address the problems that many Kyrgyzstani citizens face. Of course, the government will do as it wishes, but I ask decision makers in the Kyrgyz government to take a hard look at this legislation, listen to the concerns of its citizens, and protect the country’s hard-earned democratic gains.
– The head of the Legal Support Department of the Administration of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Murat Ukushov, wrote in his article that the USA has a similar FARA law, and the Kyrgyz Republic is not coming up with anything new here. Your comments?
– Yes, this is a common misunderstanding. I have seen instances in which articles or individuals draw false parallels between some of the bills being considered by the Kyrgyz Parliament and the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act – commonly referred to as FARA. In my view, these comparisons do not hold any merit because they are based on inaccurate or incomplete information about the practical application of the law. And that’s ok – I do not expect everyone to be experts on U.S. law. But I do want to take this opportunity to provide accurate information and dispel a few misconceptions.
First, FARA operates in practice as a disclosure or notification mechanism, not a “pre-approval” procedure. In other words, any entity registered under FARA can conduct its work without interference – it simply needs to notify the U.S. government. FARA does not allow the U.S. government to regulate the operation of the entity, become involved in its meetings, or judge whether the entity is acting in accordance with its charter. The U.S. government cannot unilaterally place an entity on the FARA registry – an entity may only be compelled to register by court order after being afforded judicial due process under well-defined legal standards.
Second, it’s important to emphasize that FARA registration is required only under specific circumstances. If an entity engages in a narrow set of activities at the order, request, direction, or control of a foreign entity, then they must register. Receiving funding from a foreign source – such as through a grant – does not automatically make an entity a “foreign agent” under FARA. In fact, FARA has a specific exemption for activities in “furtherance of bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or of the fine arts,” as well as other NGO activities.
Third, and most importantly in terms of how it differs from the draft legislation in the Kyrgyz Parliament, FARA does not permit the U.S. government to regulate the internal activities of NGOs, nor is FARA limited to or specifically directed at NGOs. In fact, NGOs and media outlets rarely fall within FARA’s definition of a “foreign agent.” As of September 2023, only three out of over 500 entities registered under FARA are civil society organizations – a far cry from the more than 1.5 million NGOs operating in the United States – many of which receive foreign funding or have a foreign connection.
– Some officials in Kyrgyzstan say that media funded by the West and the United States work in their interests and are shaking up the political situation in the Kyrgyz Republic. Your comments?
– I want to zoom out a bit and talk about U.S. support to civil society, of which NGOs, non-profit organizations, and independent media organizations are an important part.
The United States firmly believes that a robust civil society – independent of state control or government involvement – is necessary for democracy to thrive. As I mentioned earlier, approximately 1.5 million NGOs operate in the United States, as well tens of thousands of news sources, including broadcast stations, websites, newspapers, and magazines.
U.S. support to civil society abroad is an essential part of U.S. support to democratic countries. A strong civil society strengthens democratic practices to the benefit of citizens. For example, we know that civil society, often in partnership with Kyrgyz state and local governments, provides essential services such as food, shelter, education, healthcare, and legal counsel. It works with local governments closely to provide or enhance service delivery every day. As I mentioned earlier – most U.S. foreign assistance programs in the Kyrgyz Republic are implemented through NGOs and non-profits.
Take for example the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Education program – implemented by an international non-profit – which provides Kyrgyzstani children with daily hot, nutritious meals in primary schools across the country. I’ve seen the difference a meal or snack can make in ensuring that all students can concentrate on their schoolwork. Or the U.S. Agency for International Development’s support for women in Talas who suffered from domestic violence, a crime that disrupts families and communities. This important work is implemented through a Kyrgyzstani crisis network, which provides psychological support to victims and teaches them entrepreneurial business skills so that they can generate their own income.
Independent media and civil society organizations keep citizens informed so that they can keep their government accountable and ensure it serves the needs of the people. The Kyrgyz Republic’s independent media organizations produce internationally award-winning reporting and play a role in the fight against corruption through investigative journalism. U.S. support to independent media organizations in the Kyrgyz Republic focuses on building capacity for professional journalism – that means upholding objective journalistic standards, discouraging disinformation, and fostering the next generation of journalists and informed citizens. Independent media organizations also tell the Kyrgyz Republic’s story to the world. Two popular YouTube series – Akyrky Sabak and Agai – were produced with U.S. government support.
In short, civil society is a vehicle for public good. It is essential for building strong and prosperous democracies. And the United States is committed to supporting a prosperous, independent, and secure Kyrgyz Republic.