An Interview with Pamela Spratlen, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan ambassadorPamela Spratlen was sworn in as the United States Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic on April 15, 2011. A graduate of Wellesley College, Spratlen earned a master’s degree in Public Policy from U.C. Berkeley. In 2006, she also received a master’s degree in Strategic Studies from Army War College while working in the State Department, where her positions included Director of Western European Affairs, Director of Central Asian Affairs, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia, and Special Assistant to the Counselor of the State Department. Spratlen began her career in government as a professional committee staff member in the California Legislature, and then joined the Foreign Service in 1990. She recently served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

There were three primary reasons. Before going into those reasons, I grew up in the U.S. during a very powerful time in American history, the Cold War, when our thinking about the world was dominated by this binary vision of the U.S. as the one country, which was going to bring freedom to the world, and the Soviet Union, which was going to try to destroy this freedom. Therefore, the kind of diversity of views that people have now really was not a feature of my growing up. I hadn’t even heard of the State Department until I was in college. When I heard about the State Department in college, it seemed both impenetrable and alluring. This alludes to the first reason I had for joining the State Department: the personal reasons. As a child, I was always curious about the world, and remember being excited by this overarching Cold War vision, which was stoked by hearing about Cuba. Having never heard of Cuba, I wanted to learn more.

The second reason was a family reason. When I first became interested in the State Department, I had learned that my own father had tried to become a diplomat, but it was not possible for him. At that time, in the 1960s, there were very few African Americans in the Foreign Service — almost none — so to know that my father had been interested, and that I might have a chance, was important to me.

The third reason was professional. When I was in graduate school — I was at the school of public policy at U.C. Berkeley, where I was trained to think about domestic policy issues, but as my career continued, I became more interested in the world and I wanted to change to thinking about foreign policy issues. Therefore, I took the Foreign Service exam and had the opportunity to join the State Department in 1990, and have continued ever since. All of these reasons revolved around my curiosity about the world in the context of Cold War America.

The Politic: Regarding the second point, that of your father wanting to join the Foreign Service: am I correct in saying that he was barred from joining because of his race?

That is correct. It was certainly at a time when the State Department was a lot more restrictive about who could join than it is now. I don’t think my father wanted to be an ambassador; he wanted to be an officer and even that was unattainable for the vast majority of African Americans — and women for that matter. The Foreign Service has become a much more open service than it was at that time, and it has greatly enhanced its own diversity, and I think we see that at most levels in the State Department.

The Politic: At the ambassador level, how well-represented are minorities?

I would say that the State Department has done a better job creating diversity throughout the core, from the beginning through to the top levels. We are seeing many people of every sect — whether they are straight or gay, male or female, African American, South Asian, or European — we have a much, much more diverse ambassadorial core than we used to have.

I would say that the Foreign Service is still dominated by most of the people who still dominated it in the 60s, but it has greatly changed, and by visiting the website of a few [American] embassies, it will be clear that the Foreign Service has done a lot to realize Colin Powell’s goal of making the Foreign Service accessible to all the peoples of America. One of the key differences between our Foreign Service and many others is that ours is a service that welcomes anyone. Unlike some foreign services that bring their diplomats into the organization, ours simply requires a test; anybody who wants to go on the State Department website, if you have a high school diploma, and sign up on

In that sense I would say the U.S. system of selecting diplomats is extremely democratic. We don’t have any preconceived notions about who will form our diplomatic core. There are lots of different kinds of people with lots of different training. There are some diplomats who have come from a state-run institution in the middle of the country, and they have never travelled outside of the United States. If they take the Foreign Service exam and do well, they can become diplomats. We have others who grew up in a foreign country—the current foreign secretary of state, for example. I would say that there is great diversity in the American diplomatic core, perhaps more diversity than there is in some others.

The Politic: How important was it to you that you learned the languages of the countries you were working in?

I certainly made it my business to try to learn the languages that were necessary for my work. I was supported as a child to learn French, and then in high school to learn Spanish, and then when I joined the Foreign Service I had the opportunity to learn these languages in more depth, as well as Russian, since it was necessary for my assignment.

The Politic: How often do you use your languages in your daily life as an Ambassador?

Ambassador Spratlen during a visit to the small Kyrgyz Republic town of Batken
Ambassador Spratlen during a visit to the small Kyrgyz Republic town of Batken

In an embassy environment, especially a U.S. embassy, the languages are important, but not critical to getting everything done every single day because so much of our work is concentrated on coordinating within the American foreign policy establishment, which is conducted in English. When it comes to working with our counterparts and partners in the host government, we often use Russian. Interestingly, in Kyrgyzstan, and other Central Asian countries, the local languages are also becoming increasingly important — in Kyrgyzstan, the language being Kyrgyz.

Recently, I have been working to improve my own Kyrgyz, as well as providing our officers the opportunity to learn it. Even though English is very important, and there are many people in Kyrgyzstan who want to learn English and to perfect their English, at the same time the Kyrgyz language is becoming increasingly important. Kyrgyzstan was very divided during the Soviet era, and now there is a movement to embrace the Kyrgyz language, and as American ambassadors, we want to ensure we don’t miss this trend; thus we engage our partners in both Russian and Kyrgyz.

The Politic: Has there been a significant resurgence in Kyrgyz wanting to speak Kyrgyz since the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I would not say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the key factor, but rather a recognition that this country belongs to its people, which has really only happened in the past five to six years. The Kyrgyz population is this country’s largest ethnic group, and there has been a drive to see the cultural value of the language realized in not only conceptualized areas such as poetry, but also in the daily lives of individuals and businesses. Most businesses still maintain communications in Russian, but within the next ten years, I see a very strong move towards predominantly using the Kyrgyz language. Currently, the center of gravity of our work in the host country is still in Russian, but increasingly, officials want to use Kyrgyz.

This trend of promoting local languages is not just limited to Kyrgyzstan; Kazakhstan for example, has made great efforts to promote the Kazakh language, and they have the resources to do it. In this part of the world, where people are struggling with what their identities are, language is a key feature, and not only want their own populations to speak these languages, but also the diplomats who live and work here. There has been a move away from the homogenization of languages to these countries asserting their own cultural identity, which has been infused with a lot of Russian over the past sixty or seventy years.

The Politic: What are the greatest challenges of working in the Foreign Service?

Before I talk about the challenges, I want to talk a little about opportunities. It is important to think about who we are as a nation, and to recognize that the U.S. is the foremost world power and the country that is focused not only on our interests, but our values. We are as concerned about the globe as we are about our own country, and while we want to spend a lot of our energy defending our own borders and making sure our own people are secure, we also want to make sure that the world is becoming a more secure place as well.

Therefore, I think that one of the things American diplomats have had the opportunity to do is not only to advance America’s interests through the promotion of UN programs and other international organizations, but we [also] have an opportunity to participate in a more global mission than might be true for many foreign ministries. I also think that going back to our earlier point, that our State Department is more diverse than most of them in the world. I have been struck as I have served in multilateral missions at how often diplomats in other missions have the opportunity to represent one group or one class or one set of interests, but for us in the United States, we have a very, very broad mandate that is focused on the United States as a global power, but also focused on the larger globe. I think that that is really unique, and something that people who are considering a diplomatic career need to consider, the tremendous opportunities.

In terms of the challenges that we face, there are many. I would say that the main challenge we face in American diplomacy today is balancing danger and opportunity. The world expects a great deal of our nation, and we are living in a time of unprecedented growth opportunity and connection, but also disorder and violence. We have seen in countries as diverse as South Africa, China, and even our country, that one person can do harm or great good. There are enormous questions of national identity that haunt the whole world. Borders are blurring; lines between friends and enemies are not as clear as they once were; old alliances are giving way to new ones.

In fact, our own country is divided about the role we want our own country to play in the world, but because of our size and our resources, we are drawn into challenges whether we want to be or not. So, I would say that is the main challenge we face: the basic complexity of the world and trying to balance the dangers that we face with the opportunities that we have.

The Politic: You have significant experience of working in Central Asia, having held prominent positions in Vladivostok, Russia, and Astana, Kazakhstan, among others. What sparked your interest in Central Asian diplomacy and international affairs?

It was really not anything specific, but it was the progression of my career. I had the opportunity to serve in Moscow in 1999, having the chance to go to Russia for the first time. For me it was an amazing experience because all that I knew — or thought that I knew — about Russia was shaped by the things I had been told as a child. I had no preformed knowledge of Russia and I had never met a Russian speaking person, so it was a fascinating experience for me.

After that brief trip, I had the opportunity to have an assignment in Russia, in Moscow in 2000, which included not only working inside our embassy in Moscow, but also working in the region, especially in the Russian Far East. I came to realize how diverse the Russian Federation was, and discovered how diverse the former USSR states were.

A few years after I finished in Vladivostok I had the opportunity to work on the issue of Central Asia. It was fascinating to think about this part of the world, and once I worked on Central Asia from Washington I wanted to work in Central Asia. Therefore, for the last several years I have been working in this part of the world. It was absolutely a progression; there was not any moment where I said, “I want to work in Central Asia.” If Americans don’t know much about the Russian Federation and the former USSR, they know even less about Central Asia. Some regions such as Africa or China will be better known to Americans. [Central Asia] is a very interesting part of the world; it is a very opaque part of the world that most people, and certainly most Americans, know very little about, but I have certainly enjoyed my time in Central Asia.

The Politic: How do Central Asian countries play into the politics of the United States and China?

What I think is so fascinating about Central Asia, is the first part of that construction: “Central.” The way that scholars, experts, diplomats all see Central Asia really depends on the vantage point. The relationship between Central Asia and China is particularly timely. Many people who study this part of the world look at it through the lens of Russia, since [Central Asia] was previously part of the former Soviet Union. From Western countries to local countries such as Mongolia, one’s view very much depends on where one is standing.

Ambassador Spratlen spoke about Barack Obama and the legacy of MLK at the American University of Central Asia commencement
Ambassador Spratlen spoke about Barack Obama and the legacy of MLK at the American University of Central Asia commencement

From my point of view, that of U.S. diplomacy, we have representation in around 200 places around the world, and the U.S. is the kind of country that really made an effort to communicate with every corner of the world, because there are both challenges and opportunities everywhere. Therefore I would say that the key thing to remember about Central Asia is that it is very central, and very important part of the world, even though it is obscure.

Your question was about China; China is a very interesting country in terms of Central Asia. It is hard to imagine the contrast between a country like China and the Kyrgyz Republic. China: the largest state in the world in terms of population, a reemerging power, a country that has many, many different ways of expressing its power, and a country with enormous inside challenges. Kyrgyzstan is a country of only five and half million people, and it just so happens that this September, Bishkek will host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit [SCO]. This is one of China’s organizations that relates with the outside world, particularly with countries in Central Asia, all of whom are members of the SCO. The heads of Central Asian states, and Russia and China, will all gather here. Therefore, from this point of view, this is extremely important. Bishkek wants to show that it has a productive and friendly relationship with its neighbor, China.

At the same time, the Kyrgyz Republic would like to invite the Chinese, very cautiously and carefully, to invest in this country, to help economically. At the same time, I think that the Kyrgyz have tremendous fears of China, and they are not so different from many other countries, of varying sizes, in that they fear of being inundated and swallowed by China. The Kyrgyz approach China with some caution, but at the same time there is a sense of opportunity.

We will all be looking very carefully at what happens at the Shanghai Cooperation Summit in September. The topics will be focused on integration of the Central Asian states with each other, and with China and Russia. They will also be looking at some security questions, for example, terrorism and extremism. China is an extremely important country for the Kyrgyz Republic — not as important as the Russian Federation, but it is extremely important.

The Politic: In terms of Kyrgyzstan’s main trade partners, Russia used to be the primary trade partner. How is China challenging Russia on this point?

I am sure that the Chinese would not frame it that way. I would still say that the Russians are still far and away the most important country here. The Russians are certainly the largest market for Kyrgyzstan; the Russians provide many goods here; Russian is still the primary language that Kyrgyz use to communicate with one another; many people have been trained to learn Russian institutions; the Kyrgyz institutions are modeled on Russian ones. So, it is very difficult to overestimate Russia’s importance here. Russia is certainly looking to push now to expand its influence.

I would say at the same time that China is also looking at its opportunities and influence here. They are moving very, very slowly to create a greater position here, to the extent China is using its influence. In the infrastructure sector, the Chinese are building some roads here. The Chinese are moving faster economically, although I think you will still have to wait and see. The Chinese goal here, I think, is to learn with time. There is certainly no rush, but I think over time you will see their influence really expand.

The Politic: Do Kyrgyz learn both Russian and Mandarin here?

I would say that Chinese is very little known here. If you want to speak Chinese, you would be very hard pressed to come here and find people with whom you can speak. The primary language in schools is Russian. There are also schools that teach Uzbek, there are schools that teach Tajik because in these areas there are minority populations. The decision to open the first Chinese school went all the way up to the President, and was only decided in the past year or two. As I say, the Chinese influence here is extremely minimal; you would probably be quite surprised. There is a great deal of caution and concern about both the pacing and the scope of Chinese influence here, so it is going to be very slow. There will be some people who will learn Chinese in their personal interest, but to have Chinese language taught in schools is something I do not see happening for some time.

The Politic: Historically, there has been a great deal of Uzbek-Kyrgyz ethnic tension, with remarkable events such as the construction of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan barrier, and the 2010 riots which killed as many as several thousand people in South Kyrgyzstan. How do you think greater international influence within Bishkek has affected the government’s treatment of minority peoples and its attitude towards a multicultural Kyrgyzstan?

The first thing I would say is that, regarding the Uzbek and Kyrgyz ethnic groups, these people having been living together for centuries. It is really important to remember that there is a long history that very much extends beyond the Soviet Union and the Russian Imperial experience. These are two individual groups that have suffered together side by side for a long time. The Uzbek group has been settled for a long time, whereas the Kyrgyz spent most of their time — in the Soviet Union and before — up in the mountains, living a more agrarian life. So they do have their differences, but they also have great similarities. It is important to remember that we come from countries that are used to looking at helping us to compare and contrast, but I think it is important to begin with what you see ethnically to ensure, which is quite a lot.

That said, certainly 2010 was a watershed moment, as was 1990 when there was ethnic violence twenty years before. The Kyrgyz Republic since 2010 has ushered in a new political system. So what has happened over the past few years is an attempt both to build this new political system and to heal the wounds that were reopened in 2010. I think that the Kyrgyz Republic — completely irrespective of what the international community wants — wants a country that is whole, unified, and where every citizen feels himself or herself to be an integral part of the nation.

The role that the international community has played has been significant. In fact, the Kyrgyz have had a high level development conference that they hosted in July, and invited donors to come and talk about what has happened over the past few years and what the country is doing to shift from what was an emergency situation to what they hope will now be a long-term development path. That includes building ethnic harmony and building more tolerance. Certainly, the role of the international community has been to help reinforce the importance of cultural integration as stipulated by the UN, the international and multilateral organizations. There have been numerous documents that have been published, which have tried to build an account of what happened, and to help the country use its own resources to chart a way forward.

The country is now — it has its own ethnic clan. All officials in the government state that they want a Kyrgyzstan that is a whole country that includes everyone — something that is very hard to do and obviously, they have a long way to go. I think that the minority voices sometimes struggle to feel that they are fully included in institutional rights, struggle to feel that they have the same opportunities as Kyrgyz people. This is going to be a long-term proposition for the Kyrgyz government, civil society, and the citizens of Kyrgyzstan.

Certainly from the Uzbek point of view, we have heard from some within the Uzbek population that the country still has far to go to realize its goals, both to heal what happened in 2010 and to build a society that truly reaches the goals that the government states it has to resolve. This is a delicate point in the country’s development, but to the government’s credit, this is something that they recognize. They have allowed the international community in to talk to them to help them, and they have embraced their recommendations to help build a society that is more tolerant, more whole, and more unified.

The Politic: How well represented are Uzbeks in the Kyrgyz political system?

It depends on where you are looking. At the minister level, there are a couple of ministers who are Russian, but I do not think that they are any who are Uzbek. In the Parliament, there are a few parliamentarians who are not Kyrgyz; there are some Russians. This is something that [the Kyrgyz government] is still very much working on. This is all happening at a time when the Kyrgyz ethnic group is still trying its own identity as well.

The Politic: Could you highlight some of the key developmental challenges that Kyrgyzstan faces?

One of the most pertinent questions concerns poverty. Kyrgyzstan is an extremely poor country, which still has a long way to go to reach its millennium development goals. There have been some good signs, but on the whole there is a great struggle concerning how to create jobs, how to create conditions conducive to a greater inflow of foreign direct investment, how to take advantage of exploiting the natural resources in a rational, a healthy, and transparent way. Most important is how to create a set of institutions that will help this process of development go more smoothly. Therefore, I would say that poverty and the related problems are probably at the core of this country’s challenges. The UN is engaged in working with the Kyrgyz — whether it’s the world food program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights or the UN development program — all of these and more are here to try to help the Kyrgyz with their development.

Parallel to the issues of economic development and poverty reduction is securing the country’s borders. This is a landlocked country and many of its neighbors are also landlocked, so there are tremendous challenges on its borders. Many of its borders, which have existed for centuries, have been removed of late, so trying to come up with rational schemes to ensure that all of the borders are rationally delineated will go a long way to help improve relations with neighbors. They have many challenges with Uzbekistan trying to get borders reopened, so that could be an avenue of greater trade. Therefore, working with their neighbors on security is extremely important.

Terrorism and extremism are also presenting enormous challenges, as well as dealing with the drug routes from Afghanistan to minimize the role that illegal trade plays in the national economy. As the U.S., we have a very active role that we are playing on all of these fronts; we see that as a long-term process that we are working with our Kyrgyz partners on.

The Politic: The Transparency International Index ranks Kyrgyzstan in the world’s top fifteen most corrupt countries. How much of a priority is placed on fighting corruption in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the context of a country that is highly dependent on mineral exports?

That is an excellent question. Going back to the earlier question raised about extractive industries, many countries that rely on natural resource extraction to drive development have enormous challenges — the resource curse. In the context of the Kyrgyz Republic, there is one mine that is providing about ten percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Gold is an extremely important part of their current economic development planning, and they are actually in negotiations with their trade partners to try to change the arrangements.

Corruption is an enormous problem; they are not proud of where they are in the Transparency International Index. The President of the country has said that fighting corruption is one of his top priorities. Unfortunately, rent-seeking is a deeply ingrained part of the way the country functions, at every level, from education, issuing licenses, to constructing buildings. Therefore, it is going to take a long time to pull the corruption out of the way things function. This is one of the priorities of the World Bank, which is trying to improve institutional governance here. This means a more transparent and effective government that is not reliant on any kind of corruption; it is important in terms of the country’s strategic priorities, and in terms of progress on corruption. [The Kyrgyz] have a long, long way to go.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change? 

We have had a very strong relationship with the government of Kyrgyzstan since its independence. We were one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Kyrgyzstan; we are in the process of building a new embassy, which I think is an important symbol of expanded cooperation; we have worked with them on global security for a number of years; we have been hosted at the transit center at the Manas International Airport. Even though that collaboration may be coming to an end in 2014 according to the President’s decision and according to the bilateral agreement that we signed with them in 2009, we expect working on security and defense cooperation to be a continued part of our bilateral relationship.

We are well connected here, and we have many instruments to use to try to build a further relationship with the Kyrgyz, from educational exchange programs to our bilateral dialogue that we have had with them. We have an American University here in Central Asia, which represents American academic values of critical thinking, of academic transparency, of trying to build broad expertise not just in one field, but really a liberal arts approach to higher education. We have everything from sports diplomacy to cultural diplomacy; we have a Peace Corps program with 80 volunteers who are serving here in the Peace Corps now, which has been an incredibly important part of our diplomacy. We have a broad, bilateral relationship with the government of the Kyrgyz Republic.

What I would like to see expanded is a broader economic relationship with this country, which will not be possible until its capabilities grow and until the level of corruption is reduced. I think there will always be a structural barrier to having greater economic cooperation just because it is so far away. We have a very large U.S. Aid program here of about forty to fifty million dollars a year. So we have lots of different ways that we engage with our partners, including visits from our senior officials. I think that they value the relationship with the U.S., and we want to see it grow.

In terms of what I would like to see changed, I think that we can always improve the technological relationship with this country. It remains extremely isolated in infrastructure, both physical and virtual. We need a better space, and I am looking forward to the new embassy that should be ready in a few years. I will say that we have a tremendous theme of diversity represented here; we have all kinds of different people serving as diplomats. While I think it remains hard to operate in the Kyrgyz Republic, we are doing better and better. I think the Americans are getting more popular here, so I feel that our role here is fairly well placed. There are some things that I would like to see changed, but I think over the 21 years we have had a diplomatic relationship with the Kyrgyz Republic, we have done a great deal of positive and constructive things to build upon that relationship.

The Politic: What would signify Kyrgyzstan being ready for a more profound economic relationship with the United States?

Economic stability would greatly help. They have struggled, principally over conditions at the gold mine, to create the confidence for Western investors to know that to come and establish a presence in the Kyrgyz Republic, there will be some intrinsic stability in that arrangement; to know what the licensing and taxation arrangements will be, and to know that the conditions in the deal will remain valid for the entire agreed period.

Another great challenge that the country faces is a human capital challenge. Increasingly, the education system struggles to meet the needs of this country, and certainly the needs of a country in the 21st-century age. This means building a university system that can prepare people for a broader, more diverse economic structure. Of course, there is the question of dealing with corruption.

Furthermore, I feel that Kyrgyzstan needs to decide where it wants to position itself as a global country. It will be making a decision about the customs unions, the joint economic states, and the Eurasian Unions. Of course, also determining the relationship with other economic partners, whether they be Chinese, Tajik, or others. The question is how the Kyrgyz Republic is going to treat international partners. There will be some differences, but I think that helping this country grow — based in part on stronger economic relationships with international partners — is important, but there are some fundamental structural points that the Kyrgyz need to work on: reducing corruption, better human capital development, and a more stable financial, commercial, and economic environment.

The Politic: It sounds like you are in Kyrgyzstan at a pivotal moment in its development.

It really is — I think that really is the key. This country has tremendous opportunities. Sometimes I think it suffers from an inferiority complex because there really is a lot here and there is no reason why this country should be so poor. It should be able to feed everyone here, it should be able to create a more prosperous and stable society. I think we are certainly among the international partners that want to help them do that. Therefore, we invite cooperation, and we will be here to the extent that they want to work with us.


Embassy of the United States to Kyrgyzstan:

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