An Interview with George Krol, U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan
George A. Krol was sworn in as United States Ambassador to Uzbekistan on June 10, 2011. He is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and most recently served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Krol joined the Foreign Service in 1982 and served as U.S. Ambassador to Belarus from 2003 to 2006. He has served in overseas postings in Warsaw, New Delhi, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Minsk, and has held several domestic assignments, including Director of the State Department’s Office of Russian Affairs, and as Special Assistant to the Ambassador-at-large for the New Independent States. Krol has also taught at the National War College and was a member of the State Department’s Senior Seminar. He is the recipient of several State Department Meritorious and Superior Honor awards, and a graduate of Harvard and Oxford Universities.
The Politic: I wanted to start asking about your personal career as a foreign relations officer and then discuss U.S. relations in Uzbekistan. Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I’m one of the people who joined practically out of university. I did my undergrad at Harvard and then a graduate degree at Oxford University in England. When I was at Harvard, my major was history — diplomatic history — and I was thinking what would I want to do as a career. There was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service who was doing a seminar at Harvard at the time. The Foreign Service has what they call diplomats-in-residence at various universities, and they give seminars about the State Department to recruit people. So I got interested in it from that standpoint. I was at university in the late 1970s. I graduated in 1978, and at the conclusion of the Vietnam War I felt that there was a compulsion to serve the country. I thought it would be best to serve my country through the Foreign Service rather than through the military service.
There were a number of factors like that that led me to a career in the diplomatic service, which I joined after my graduate degree in 1980. It takes a while after you take the examination. It takes a few years, and I was finally admitted into the Foreign Service in 1982 when I was 26 or so. It has become a career, which has become a life. There have been a lot of people who have entered the Foreign Service for whom it has been a second career; military officers, people in business, and lawyers enter in their thirties and sometimes forties. So the Foreign Service has changed in that there are people that are older and have other careers, whereas I was part of the generation that entered as a life career and have been service for the past 31 years or so.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person or event in the U.S. or Uzbekistan that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? And how so?
I represent the United States government, and I follow the policy of the United States. It is not my policy per se, but as a Foreign Service officer I represent the U.S. government and the policy of the U.S. This is formed not by me as the ambassador but is determined in Washington. It is determined, of course, by the President of the United States, but it has been developed over time and over several administrations. Uzbekistan is one of the newer countries; it never existed on its own until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. So the United States did not have a specific policy per se towards Uzbekistan, or, frankly, central Asia, or the other republic of central Asia. Our policy has [since] been fairly consistent. The U.S. has been working and hoping that they could develop into stable countries and that they could have a market economy (more or less). We are also working for a representative form of government and a democratic form of government that would reflect the desires and aspirations of the people. Of course, coming out the of the Soviet Union, there was not initially a free market economy or a political system that was democratic.
When these republics became independent states, the U.S. has then and continues today to have a policy to encourage them to develop their economic system as a more private market-oriented system, as well as their political system, which has not been a representative democracy. Of course, these things don’t happen overnight — it happens as these countries and their leaderships evolve, because the leaderships have remained largely intact since the Soviet period. And although they have opened up somewhat, they are not as evolved in the sense of having market economies and having the free-wheeling democratic systems that we think can bring long-term stability to countries around the world.
Here in Uzbekistan, that has been something that has been a general policy, an effort of my predecessors as well as of the previous Secretaries of State, the whole State Department, and our government as a whole. We try to foster this kind of development in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is the largest country, not by territory, but by population — at 30 million — in Central Asia. Again, these countries emerged from a system where they had all been integrated into the Soviet Union, and as they developed into independent sovereign states, they sought to develop their economies and their trade and their infrastructure as independent states, rather than being integrated into the overall authority of Moscow. It is a long process and every country is different [due to] different cultures and different approaches of leaderships. The challenge that we face is working with these societies as they develop so that they become and remain stable states that won’t disintegrate or be in conflict with one another or be disruptive in the international scheme of things.
Another issue from this area of the world — and this has been one since 2001 — has been the conflict in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is a country bordering on Afghanistan and has the only rail link into Afghanistan. So it has been an important country for the U.S. military in defeating the Taliban in 2001, and then in supplying the coalition forces that have been in Afghanistan. It is one of the routes for supplying the contention there, in addition to the supply routes through Pakistan. As you are probably aware, we have had difficulties in the relationship with Pakistan. That meant closing down these routes for a number of months. So the northern part of Afghanistan, close to where Uzbekistan is, has been of importance logistically as well as politically to the U.S. since 2001, when the U.S. sent troops into Afghanistan. Subsequently, now that we are going to be reducing the number of our troops and our presence in Afghanistan, our interest is in ensuring that the four states bordering Afghanistan can be supportive of Afghanistan’s stability in the periods ahead.
The Politic: Could you tell me a little more about Uzbekistan’s policy on the use of its own territory and if they are asking for anything in return from returning troops?
Uzbekistan does not have any troops in Afghanistan. It is not a member of the coalition per se. But it currently allows the transit through its territory of supplies to the U.S. military and to the international coalition that is in Afghanistan. It is also allowing its territory to be used for the transit of equipment being removed from Afghanistan out through what is called the Northern Distribution Route… And they do so not because they are expecting something in return — the return for them is to see that Afghanistan is stabilized. What the U.S. has accomplished and has been doing in Afghanistan is in their own interest because it’s a neighboring country and they don’t want to see the Taliban re-emerge and take over Afghanistan. When the Taliban was in power in the early 1990s, there were efforts to penetrate Uzbekistan at that time. They don’t want to see the Taliban back.
The Politic: How can the U.S. strike a balance between these short-term war needs and more long-term interests in promoting a freer Uzbekistan? I know they have been called out for human right violations including the Andijan massacre and things of that sort. So what is the U.S doing to curb these violations?
We have had a constant policy of engaging Uzbek society as well as the government over these twenty years to constructively address the issues with their political system, which has not been democratic. There have been problems regarding the treatment of dissidents, and also of religious organizations — particularly how they treat what they view as radical Islamic groups and individuals, as well as and the conditions of their prisons and their justice system. We don’t have a blind eye to the problems there, and in fact we follow this quite closely and try to work with them to encourage change to bring about better respect for human rights of people in Uzbekistan.
Of course, because of Afghanistan, but not solely because of Afghanistan, we have a multi-faceted relationship with [Uzbekistan]. It is not easy because this country and its leadership do things in a particular way and one cannot simply wave a wand over it and have things go the way you would like them to. It is the painstaking business of working constructively with a lot of disappointment and frustration too. But we can’t just give up, and therefore we take up the challenge and we’ve been doing it for the last twenty years. Things don’t change overnight, frankly, anywhere in the world and not here in Uzbekistan.
The Politic: It sounds like an incredibly difficult job. I can’t imagine.
Even if you are in the United States, in our political system, change is hard, as you have various interests who see things differently. This is not unusual — it is just the hard business of government. And when you are an outside power such as the United States, you have, in a certain respect, a limited influence over a particular development, so you try to work as constructively as you can within the of the particular place. You’re right — it is quite a challenge.
I’ve spent the last twenty years in the former Soviet Union; I’ve been an ambassador in Belarus, Russia, the Ukraine; I was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asian affairs. I was in our consulate when the Soviet Union collapsed in Leningrad, St. Petersburg. For me, it has been a challenging past twenty years in this part of the world, as it has emerged.
The Politic: President Islam Karimov’s government can be resistant to oppositional voices. How difficult is it for you to interact with NGOs, the people of Uzbekistan, and even the government?
[I] interact with everyone. I am accredited to the government of Uzbekistan and on a regular basis I deal with the foreign ministry on matters of government business. Every time I meet with the foreign ministers in Uzbekistan to deal with human rights, it is a constant dialogue of dealing with these issues. I deal all the time with people who are human rights defenders, members of non-governmental organizations, and the like. We keep contact with these people and try to encourage a constructive relationship between the government and the non-governmental organizations, and individuals in Uzbekistan as best that we can.
For instance, last week I met with the foreign minister and raised a lot of things with him, and held a session at the Embassy for the representatives of the human rights defenders for our annual human rights report, which the State Department does for every country including Uzbekistan.
The Politic: I have a feeling that as an ambassador you don’t have a “typical day,” so could you share with us a typical week in your life?
As an ambassador, I am in charge of the mission of the embassy, which is comprised of various offices: our Political and Economic Office, Assistants of Development, our Public Affairs Office, our Military Affairs Office and our Drug Enforcement Agency. (Narcotics are a big issue that we deal with in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is one of the biggest producers of narcotics, which traffic through central Asia into Europe.) So I will meet with the various sections of the embassy and they give me their reports. If there is an issue that they bring to my attention, I need to get their advice on options and decisions on how to deal with it. Of course, I have to work a lot with Washington because I need to let them know when there are issues or problems. I give them recommendations and advice, heads-ups and warnings. I give them reports on developments regarding issues that they want me to raise here. A lot of the day can be spent getting through all of the messages that you get from Washington and sending messages, and getting information and sitting down and working out issues.
But I also get out and meet with a lot of people. I have a busy schedule of public events where I host people at the embassy or the residence. I meet with government officials on a regular basis, and I meet with regular citizens as well. For instance, I gave a conference for the Association of English Language Teachers of Uzbekistan — I gave the opening speech to the teachers on Friday, and then went off to see the Indian ambassador because the Indian Vice President has been here and I wanted to know what had gone on with that. Then I went back to the embassy to see what was going on there in terms of issues and responding to Washington. And, of course, I plan all of my trips, because you can’t spend all of your time at the embassy behind your desk. I spend a lot of time traveling around the country to give speeches and see for myself what is going on, meeting the governors of various provinces, meeting the people, and seeing what is going on with various projects that the United States is supporting largely through our U.S. Aid and Assistance Program.
Every day is different in many respects. There are also always crises that you have to deal with. The foreign minister from Uzbekistan went to Washington and I went as well and was there to visit with Secretary of State Kerry and go to the meetings there. I am the senior U.S. official in Uzbekistan, so I have to deal with everything the U.S. is doing and cares about in this country. It is a busy schedule, but I find it very enjoyable, particularly when [I am] traveling out in the field, talking to people and trying to see the world through their eyes. Most don’t speak English and so I use my Russian, which I speak well, as well as my Uzbek for public speeches. That is always a challenge, to be working with another language.
The Politic: How much time did you have to learn Uzbek?
Once I was nominated by the President as the Ambassador to Uzbekistan, I went to the Foreign Service Institute that teaches languages and had a crash course in Uzbek, which was a new language for me. It is a Turkish language and I had been a Russian speaker for the last twenty years. Russian is certainly spoken a lot here in Tashkent, but I like to learn the language of the people here in order to give public addresses.
When I was ambassador to Belarus — although Russian is widely spoken there — I learned Belarusian for speeches as well. People really appreciate that someone from the United States will attempt to speak an exotic language. It is hard on the mind when you are thinking in another language — switching from Western Russian to Uzbek all in your head. But it really makes a difference to have language ability. You can use an interpreter, but it is always helpful when you can speak and understand the nuances of a language and not have it filtered through another person.
How do you feel that the U.S. is represented abroad?
The people of Uzbekistan are very well inclined toward the United States. Everywhere that I have gone, I have never felt any hostility or tension. Our country is one that people may not have the correct idea of, but there are movies, and our culture is all around the world. Even though Uzbekistan is a majority Muslim country, the people here were under the Soviet system for seventy years and it is still a fairly secular society that has not been permeated — as in other parts of the Islamic world — by negative feelings about the United States.
Many of [the people in Uzbekistan] are fascinated with our country; many of them have relatives that work or live there. There really is a sense that America is the land of opportunity and so there are a lot of people that would like to go the United States. There is a very popular section of our embassy that issues visas to people that would like to visit the United States and would like to work there. America’s image abroad, at least here, is a very good one…
As long as the Congress can give us some money, we can do our jobs. That has been one of the hard things that we have had to experience. The budget of the state department is about the equivalent of one B-1 bomber. People seem to think that the United States spends so much money overseas, and it is really miniscule compared to our defense outlays. Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton have always tried to make the case to put money into diplomacy, but that is always a hard proposition to make, because there are many interests on the Hill. When you are appropriating funds, you need a strong lobbying effort and unfortunately foreign affairs don’t have as strong of a lobbying effort. That is one of the frustrations that we must work with: how we finance and support our own foreign policy. The Foreign Service is pretty small; they joke that there are more members of military orchestras than the Foreign Service — only about four thousand in total, I think. There are sixty people here in the embassy in Tashkent, and about three hundred local employees (of which a good majority are security guards).
The Politic: Are there any misconceptions that people might have about Uzbekistan, or even the Foreign Service in general?
Most people in America have no idea what the Foreign Service is. When I speak to local audiences in the U.S. and explain that I am the U.S. ambassador in Uzbekistan, I get a stare back. There aren’t many people that really have a conception of what we do abroad, and it’s because I think it is not something that is written about as much. The Foreign Service sometimes gets a reputation of just going to cocktail parties and talking with people. But talking with people and getting out is important because diplomacy is all about persuasion. You have to talk with people. I think there are many misconceptions also about American foreign policy.
I encourage delegations from Capitol Hill to come out to Uzbekistan and actually see what we do. And [when they do,] they actually see a new country and expand their mind. Of course, though, they must be focused on domestic issues; being focused on foreign affairs won’t win you that many votes. If people aren’t reading the New York Times or the Washington Post, they probably wouldn’t know a lot about what is going on in the world at large. This is because, unfortunately, large media outlets aren’t covering foreign affairs as much as in the past.
Embassy of the United States to Uzbekistan: http://uzbekistan.usembassy.gov/