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Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland Interview with Vremya Newspaper

July 24, 2009 

Vremya:  Your Excellency, the changes in the new administration’s foreign policy are obvious since Barack Obama became president.  The international community has noticed the “thaw” or “reboot” of U.S.-Russian relations.  What changes have taken place between the United States and Kazakhstan in the last year?
Ambassador Hoagland:  First, I would say that President Obama and his senior foreign policy team have been very clear.  We desire to work pragmatically with other countries on the basis of practical, mutual interests.  We have no desire to impose our values on other countries, but we will stand clearly as we always have for our own ideals, which include democracy and human rights.  So that has been a general statement about policy, but specifically about the United States and Kazakhstan now.

We’ve seen a desire by both sides – Washington and Astana – for a stronger, more mature relationship, and we’ve already started to act on that.

We’re in the process of establishing a Bilateral Cooperation Commission where we can regularly discuss and take action on the full range of issues which our two countries cooperate on.

Vremya:  Central Asia is traditionally in Russia’s “sphere of influence.”  It is obvious that the United States wants to be present in the region.  The Manas military base in Bishkek is an example.  What is the view of the United States about a Russian military base being opened not far from Manas?  Does the United States have any plans to open a military base or a “transit center” in Kazakhstan?
Ambassador Hoagland:  I think President Obama, when he was in Moscow at the beginning of this month, was very clear that the United States does not recognize the concept of special spheres of influence.  In just the last few days Vice President Biden, when he was in Kiev and again when he was in Tbilisi, said exactly the same thing.

The American facility at Manas is not a permanent American military base.  In fact, it is now considered a transit center to support the stabilization of Afghanistan.

For a number of years there has been a Russian base very close to Manas which is called Kant.  It’s a traditional base that has been there for decades and decades.  There are also some reports that Russia might like to use a military base at Osh for the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Rapid Reaction Force.  These are purely decisions that are between Kyrgyzstan and Russia.  Of course the other countries in the region might have some opinions about it, but we consider those bilateral decisions between Russia and Kyrgyzstan.

As for Kazakhstan, I see no United States intention -- at this time -- to have any kind of facility in Kazakhstan that would require U.S. military to be based here.  But I do want to acknowledge that Kazakhstan has been very helpful with the transit of non-lethal material for the U.S. military in Afghanistan through the territory of Kazakhstan.

We just recently had bilateral consultations on this project, and I think that both sides are increasingly satisfied with how well this is working.

Vremya:  Recently after a PPEPI meeting you said, “It’s too early to say that a plane full of U.S. businessmen will come with suitcases full of money tomorrow.”  Why “too early” if cooperation between the United States and Kazakhstan has been going on for some time?  What frightens American businessmen most of all?
Ambassador Hoagland:  I hope you understand it’s possible for an ambassador to have a sense of humor.  That comment, which I have seen reported in the press, was in the context of a commission meeting of the Public/Private Economic Partnership Initiative.  This is a very important initiative, but what I meant was one meeting will not lead to immediate results the next day, obviously. 

In general, U.S. investors, and I think all investors, look for places where there is rule of law and  independent courts that guarantee the security of their investments.

I really don’t believe that U.S. investors are in any way afraid of Kazakhstan.  We already have very important major investment here.  That will continue, and I fully expect there will be new investment in the coming years, especially as the economic situation improves around the world.

Vremya:  I would like to know if you would advise your friends to invest in Kazakhstan?

Ambassador Hoagland:  In good projects, absolutely.  Without question.

Vremya:  In what sectors?

Ambassador Hoagland:  Good projects can be in any sector, so it doesn’t have to be only in gas and oil.  It could be in manufacturing; it could be in agriculture; it could be in trade.  It depends on the quality of the project.

Vremya:  One of the key achievements of democracy is freedom of speech and the press.  What can you say about the current situation in Kazakhstan from this point of view?  Are you aware of the astronomical suit filed by MP Romin Madinov against Taszhargan newspaper that resulted in the closure of the newspaper or the suits against Vremya paper?  Are such things possible in your country?
Ambassador Hoagland:  Of course this is something that I watch closely, because you’re exactly right, this is an issue of freedom of the press and ultimately a question of democracy.

To answer in more detail let me quote from a letter that the OSCE representative on freedom of the media recently sent to the government of Kazakhstan.  This is specifically about the question of libel suits, lawsuits, against the media.

First of all, the international standard is that libel cases should be civil cases, not criminal cases.  In civil cases reasonable limits should be introduced by law or by precedent for the amounts of damages that are possible.

If a journalist or a newspaper is judged to have committed libel, then the amount that’s required to be paid should not bankrupt or endanger the existence of a newspaper or an individual journalist.

Also according to international standards, public figures should normally tolerate more criticism than private citizens in these kinds of cases.  And probably the most important thing is that a court should determine independently and fairly if in fact the article is correct.  The idea behind this is that investigative reporting that exposes corruption, exposes problems, is actually very positive for a society.  And if a lawsuit is used to punish a newspaper or a journalist who actually had an accurate report and told the truth, then that’s not a very positive development.

Vremya: Is it possible to imagine that such a situation could happen in the United States with U.S. newspapers?

Ambassador Hoagland:  In the United States we have clear law and long precedent that yes, of course, libel cases are possible.  But just as the OSCE recommendations suggest, the cases are never used to destroy a journalist or to destroy a newspaper or any other media outlet.

Kazakhstan has a very positive, very important program called The Path to Europe.  I would suggest that The Path to Europe should include European standards on questions of libel and how media outlets and journalists are treated.  It would seem to me that the misuse of libel cases against journalists and media outlets would be really a path away from Europe.

Vremya:  Have you, yourself, ever personally experienced bad effects from journalists, from media?  Were you ever offended by media?

Ambassador Hoagland:  No.  In short…

Vremya:  Annoyed?

Ambassador Hoagland:  Well, in my diplomatic career I have several times been a press spokesman and so I’ve worked very, very closely with journalists.  In my personal experience, I have always found professional journalists to be honest and honorable people.   So no problem.

Vremya:  It’s difficult to imagine a country that hasn’t suffered due to the economic crisis that has been developing during last two years.  Many analysts blame your country for this economic recession because it started with mortgage problems in the United States.  Do you agree with this point of view?  What is the main reason for the start of the economic crisis in your view?
Ambassador Hoagland:  Well, it seems that the economic crisis that the whole world is experiencing right now largely started in the United States, but banks all over the world have been involved at the beginning in this crisis.  I’m sure it will take many years to fully understand the exact details of this crisis, but I notice there are many analysts who think that what is happening right now is that the economic model of the last 30 years has really stopped working.  And I don’t mean that free market economy doesn’t work.  In principle that works very well.  What I’m talking about is something much more narrow.  And that narrow area is the question of regulation and supervision of financial activity.

The economic orthodoxy of the last 30 years has been that financial institutions can regulate themselves without government interference.  So I think one of the first lessons that we’re learning right now is that governments really must be more involved in the regulation, the correct regulation, of financial activity.  This is something that President Obama recognizes very clearly, and his economic team is working around the clock now to develop new, responsible forms of regulation.

Vremya:  Does that mean that they will move away from the traditional model of capitalism and develop something similar to, or resembling a socialist model?

Ambassador Hoagland:  No, I don’t think so.  I think what it means is that, once again, as we have seen throughout history, the capitalist system is looking for ways to reform itself.

For example, in the 18th Century when the Industrial Revolution began, in the United Kingdom and in Germany principally, one of the big problems that developed was no protection for the workers, and in fact abuse of workers including child labor.  So that required reform, and it required new rules of regulation.  And then at the beginning of the 20th Century in the United States, our oligarchs at that time started to form huge, huge businesses that pushed the small businesses out of existence.  So we had to develop new regulations against that kind of monopoly.  But in both of these cases the regulations didn’t destroy capitalism, they improved capitalism.  I think that’s what’s going to happen this time.

Vremya:  On February 4, 2009, as a result of the appreciation of the dollar against a tenge, many citizens and businessmen lost huge amounts.  Many analysts believe that the epoch of the dollar is coming to an end and another currency will come instead – the euro, ruble, or yuan.  Do you share this opinion?
Ambassador Hoagland:  I think honestly the dollar will continue to be one of the major international currencies.  So I don’t think it’s a question of one or another currency, like the euro or the yuan, replacing the dollar.  But of course, all of this is an evolutionary process so I think the strong currencies in the world will find new ways to work together.  But I have to emphasize that I’m not a professional economist, so I have to be careful about what kind of predictions I make.

Vremya:  Do you think that the choice of Kazakhstan to chair the OSCE is a political gift from the West to our country?  Or is it an economic deal, taking into account the rich hydrocarbons and other mineral resources in Kazakhstan? 

Ambassador Hoagland:  Well, Kazakhstan gaining the chairmanship of OSCE for 2010 was certainly neither a political gift nor an economic deal.  Kazakhstan is a responsible, respected country that is looking for ways to play a larger international role.  So it’s natural that as a member of the OSCE Kazakhstan should say that it wants to be chairman and for that desire to be taken very seriously.  In fact, for Kazakhstan to become chairman of the OSCE is very historic because it’s the first former Soviet republic to gain the chairmanship of the OSCE.

As we often say, with great honor comes great responsibility.  I am absolutely certain that Kazakhstan is going to be an excellent chairman of the OSCE.  I’m also certain it’s going to be a very interesting year.

Vremya:  In the framework of an anti-corruption campaign, a series of arrests of officials, businessmen, and managers of national companies are taking place in Kazakhstan.  Do you believe that corruption can be defeated only through such stringent measures?
Ambassador Hoagland:  Corruption is a common problem all over the world, including in the United States.  In countries where corruption is, or seems to be, especially out of control to the extent that it’s harming the development of society and harming the economy of the country, then very strong steps are necessary to get that under control.  Sometimes that means taking steps against very senior public figures.  We do that in the United States.  We have former Senators and former members of Congress who have spent time in prison for corruption.

So in principle, by international standards Kazakhstan is taking responsible and important steps to try to bring corruption under control, but there are several caveats here.

First, arrests and detentions for corruption should not be used for political purposes against one individual or another, or one faction or another, within a country.  And it’s also very important for rule of law that court trials should be transparent and absolutely fair.

Vremya:  U.S. President Barack Obama awaits the visit of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the nuclear security summit which will take place in the United States in spring of 2010.  Do you think Kazakhstan can teach the United States anything on the issue of nuclear safety?
Ambassador Hoagland:  From the very first years of its independence, President Nazarbayev has made sure that Kazakhstan is a world leader in non-proliferation.  I think maybe, finally, other countries in the world are beginning to catch up with his point of view.

You ask if there’s anything that Kazakhstan can teach the United States on this issue, and the answer is, “absolutely yes.”  In fact this morning, I just received a very long, detailed report of experts from both of our countries, a very detailed meeting they had at the beginning of June to discuss these issues.  And I want to emphasize, this report makes clear that this was a mutual sharing of information.  It was not one side teaching the other side.  So clearly, we learn from each other.

Vremya:  Recently, Russian President Medvedev announced that the Russian Federation will enter the WTO within the framework of a customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.  Do you think this might delay Kazakhstan’s WTO accession? 
Ambassador Hoagland:  Well, the short answer is it would be extremely difficult for the customs union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to enter the WTO as a customs union, because there is no legal precedent for that in the WTO.

In principle, the United States certainly does not object to customs unions, because customs unions exist all over the world.  Our point of view is that we hope that Kazakhstan does not take any steps that close the door to future WTO accession.  Kazakhstan has invested many years in the extremely complicated negotiations that are necessary to join the WTO.  And in principle, Kazakhstan is rather close now to finishing those negotiations.

But on the question of WTO versus customs union, I think it’s not very clear right now what the three countries involved really want to do.  In fact, when President Medyedev was in Italy for the G8 meeting, he made some statements that indicated that the countries are still trying to decide what is the correct path forward.

So I think the leadership and the governments of the three countries involved are still consulting and still trying to decide on what is the proper path to follow on this question.

Vremya:  In spring and summer of 2009, Kazakhstani officials made society nervous with a legislative amendment equating Internet resources with the media and tightening control over it.  The OSCE urged the government not to accept those amendments, but, nevertheless, the bill was passed.  Do you think this new legislation is a step backwards for the liberalization of our society?
Ambassador Hoagland:  Well, I wouldn’t say this is a step forward for liberalizing society.  In fact, the United States has made clear to the government here that we really regret the passage of this law.  But the law is now the law.  So the question, the important question is how will the law be implemented?  And we would suggest along with the OSCE that the law not be implemented in a way that restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the mass media.

Vremya:  Do you have a personal blog?

Ambassador Hoagland:  I don’t have a personal blog, but on our embassy internet site there is a block called “Ask the Ambassador.”  So anyone can write to the embassy here and all the messages come to me and I respond to every message we get.

Vremya:  Do you know if your webmasters, if your web site operators have had to make adjustments related to the passage of this law, after the law was passed?  Do they have to be more careful to look through all the incoming messages more carefully?

Ambassador Hoagland:  No.  Here in the American Embassy we do not restrict freedom of speech.

Vremya:  Before you took this position did your predecessor give you any guidance, instructions, or advice?

Ambassador Hoagland:  My predecessor, Ambassador John Ordway, was an excellent ambassador.  The best advice he gave me was travel throughout the entire country of Kazakhstan, see the different regions, meet different people, and learn as much as possible about the country as I can.  I think that’s good advice.

Vremya:  Do you stay in contact with him now to get any advice from him?

Ambassador Hoagland:  In fact, yes, we are in touch by email.  I just discussed an issue with him by email yesterday.

Vremya:  Where does Ambassador Ordway work now?

Ambassador Hoagland:  Technically, Ambassador Ordway has retired from the diplomatic service and is living in California.  But in fact he is still doing diplomatic work on a contract basis.  For example, he just finished two months as our charge’ d’affaire, acting ambassador, at the American Embassy in Vienna, Austria.  He has great diplomatic experience and I am certain he will continue to be very active in foreign affairs, foreign policy, for many years to come.

Vremya:  Have you seen the movie “Borat?”

Ambassador Hoagland:  Yes, in fact, I did see the movie Borat. 

Vremya:  And what do you think about it?

Ambassador Hoagland:  Well, I can understand how some Kazakhstanis would feel insulted by certain parts of this movie.  But this movie was not a documentary, it was a satire.  I think, from my point of view, the satire was much stronger against the United States and against Americans and American mentality than it was against Kazakhstan.  Because I think what it did was try to expose some of the prejudices and narrow minds, narrow ways of thinking of some Americans.

Vremya:  Are you aware if Kazakhstani citizens are actively seeking to leave for the United States?  Are there many Kazakhstanis that want to go to the United States?

Ambassador Hoagland:  There are people from probably almost every country in the world that seek to become American citizens.  But really, we have seen no special increase in the rather small number of Kazakhstanis that look for this possibility.  I think probably, in general, that’s because by and large Kazakhstanis are proud of their country and they feel that they have a future here.  And I think evidence of that is, for example, the students from Kazakhstan who study in the United States.  Every year about 1,600 students from Kazakhstan are studying at universities in the United States.  And the vast, vast majority of them always return to Kazakhstan.  Very, very few ever try to stay permanently in the United States.

Vremya: The diplomatic mission is located in Astana, but you visit Almaty quite often.  In which of two capitals do you feel more comfortable?
Ambassador Hoagland:  Astana and Almaty are quite different cities.  In my experience it’s like the difference between Washington and New York City.  I certainly like to visit Almaty, but Astana is now my home.  This is where my house is, so I feel comfortable here because this is my home.

Vremya:  Thank you.

Ambassador Hoagland:  You’re welcome.

Ambassador's Remarks