An Interview with Susan M. Elliott, U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan

Tajikistan picSusan M. Elliott has been the U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan since September 2012. Her career as a Foreign Service Officer spans 22 years, and in that time she has held positions such as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Minister Counselor for Political Affairs in Russia, and Deputy Executive Secretary on the staff of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Before joining the Foreign Service, Elliott was a professor at Ball State University and the University of Virginia.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined the Foreign Service for a variety of reasons. My husband is also a diplomat, and he joined the Foreign Service first. I decided to join the Foreign Service after he did so we could both have meaningful careers. I was quite happy in my career as a university professor and probably wouldn’t have joined the Foreign Service if he hadn’t joined.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Tajikistan that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

I have been working on Tajikistan on-and-off since 1994, so I would say that there isn’t one particular issue or person here that has had a big influence on how I approach the government or the people of Tajikistan. Before becoming Ambassador, I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, so I had quite a bit of contact with Tajik government officials and people. I visited Tajikistan four or five times before becoming ambassador.

The Politic: Tajikistan recently became the second of Central Asia’s five post-Soviet republics to be accepted to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was a goal that you had set out in your testimony before the Senate. What did the US do to help Tajikistan achieve this?

The U.S. Government has always supported Tajikistan’s quest to become a part of the WTO.  In my previous job as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister approached us for assistance. We, at the State Department, worked with the United States Trade Representative (USTR), because they’re the main interlocutor in the U.S. Government on the issue. We set up a series of digital video conferences to help the Ministry of Economy work on the issues. USTR gave the government of Tajikistan quite a bit of guidance on how to do their negotiations. Likewise, we provided a technical advisor to help the Government of Tajikistan prepare their documentation and to reform their laws. Becoming a member of the WTO is a complicated process, but we felt that it was something that wasn’t only good for the government and people of Tajikistan, but also for U.S. businesses. The U.S. is a member of the WTO, and if Tajikistan is as well, it makes it easier for U.S. companies to do business in Tajikistan. So it is a win-win for both sides.

The Politic: In your testimony before the Senate, you also talked about the problem of narcotics trafficking and terrorism in Tajikistan. Has there been any progress in that area?

A lot of our assistance to Tajikistan is related to counterterrorism and border security. Threats from terrorism know no boundaries. By working with Tajikistan to secure its borders we help ourselves, because a threat to Tajikistan could also be a threat to the people of the United States. We also conduct training and cooperation in the area of counter-narcotics. Tajikistan is a transit country, which means that most drugs just pass through here, and are not produced or consumed here. Most illicit drugs passing thru Tajikistan come from other places such as Afghanistan. Their end market is often Europe or Russia. We’re trying to help the Government of Tajikistan and the other countries of the region to stem the flow of narcotics and terrorists. We have done a lot of work in that area, and we have really good bilateral cooperation. I anticipate our strong cooperation will continue.

The Politic: Tajik Police Commanders and Captains recently took a trip to Seattle to get advice from Seattle police officers. What did they achieve and why was the Seattle Police Force chosen to advise them?

We have several different exchange programs where the State Department brings people from around the world to the U.S.   We look for topics that are of interest to the people in our host nations. Community policing was the topic that this group was in the U.S. to study our police forces. Participants come to the United States and meet with people who are doing similar jobs. The idea is networking and the sharing of ideas and information. The program’s organizer’s pick locations which they think will be of particular interest to foreign visitors. They try to pick the best matches — if the participants are from a police force from a small city then they will match them with similar police forces in the U.S. I believe that we chose Seattle because it is roughly the same size and population as Dushanbe.

The Politic: In your testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you talked about Tajikistan’s important role of providing assistance to US and Coalition efforts to stabilize the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan. Now that the US’s presence in Afghanistan is winding down, what do you predict for the future of the relationship between Tajikistan and Afghanistan?

A voter in Tajikistan's 2010 parliamentary elections
A voter in Tajikistan’s 2010 parliamentary elections

Tajikistan has played an important role in supporting our troops in Afghanistan. They have allowed us to use their country to transit supplies to Afghanistan. Although Tajikistan isn’t an ISAF coalition partner, they have provided us support. They have also been a good partner on different types of security, counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics cooperation. In my testimony I was referring to Tajikistan’s support for the Northern Distribution Network, which is a supply route that we developed to get supplies to the troops in Afghanistan. As we draw down, Tajikistan is allowing us to use their country to take equipment and supplies out of Afghanistan.

The Politic: Will they continue to serve this function when the planned troop withdrawal ends in 2014?

We will continue to have commitment to the region and a different kind of presence in Afghanistan as we transition to having Afghans take more charge of their security. I envision that the good relationships we have with Tajikistan and Afghanistan will continue. A few years ago, former Secretary of State Clinton outlined a vision for regional economic development called the New Silk Road. I envision the New Silk Road will allow Central Asian products to be sold in markets in India, or Indian products to come to the markets of Afghanistan and Central Asia. Even though our troops’ presence will decrease in Afghanistan, with regional stability and security, there will be more opportunities to develop the economies of the region.

The Politic: Tajikistan has a presidential election coming up this year in November. Given that watchdog groups have criticized the legitimacy and fairness of Tajik elections in the past, do you hold out any hope for improvement this year?

According to Tajikistan’s Constitution, elections will be held this year, but candidates will make their announcements of intention to run closer to the elections. It is unclear how many candidates will run for office, so until we know that, it is hard for me to predict how the election will go. It is something that we in the U.S. government will watch closely. We hope to work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They have made recommendations to the government of Tajikistan on how they can improve the election process. What we would like to do is to help the government and people of Tajikistan have free and fair elections. During President Rahman’s recent speech to the parliament, he said that he supports the democratic process and that he wants to have free and fair elections. We will do whatever we can to support the government in that effort.

The Politic: Do you think that the opposition Party of New Tajikistan, the development-oriented group of businessmen and intellectuals, has the potential to make a lasting impact on Tajikistan? Are they a good influence?

They announced the formation of the party within the last few months. My staff has met with some of the members. I haven’t specifically met with the members or heard what their platform is going to be. Any political party that wants to form, express their point of view, and participate in the elections and democratic process is something that we would support.

The Politic: What exactly is the U.S. doing in Tajikistan to encourage democratic consolidation?

We, through our assistance programs, support democracy initiatives. We support local efforts with the help of USAID and the State Department’s Democracy Grants. In fact, we just went through a process where local Tajik NGO’s gave us proposals for initiatives that they want to implement. We chose the best proposals and funded them. We’re doing a great deal to help civil society in Tajikistan.

The Politic: The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has said that the Tajikistan’s plans to build a dam on the Vakhsh River could incite a war.  Do you think that there is a fair and optimal solution to this controversy?

Right now, the World Bank is conducting an extensive feasibility study on the building of this hydroelectric power station. Tajikistan has energy deficits and they need to look for ways to improve energy efficiency. I look forward to the results of the World Bank’s work.

The Vakhsh River in Tajikistan
The Vakhsh River in Tajikistan

The Politic: The energy firms Total and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) have announced that they will conduct oil exploration in Tajikistan. The Diplomat claims that Tajikistan could “become China’s second largest source of Central Asian gas.” Do you think this will have a positive impact on Tajikistan? Is Tajikistan ready to handle such a role? 

There is actually a third company, Tethys Petroleum that signed this agreement with CNPC and TOTAL. These companies believe that there is potential to find large deposits of natural gas in Tajikistan. That would be a great thing for the people of Tajikistan, because if they find gas, it would not only fill the country’s energy deficits, but could provide gas for export to markets in China and perhaps Pakistan and India. That would be a very good boost for the economy of Tajikistan.

The Politic: Can you talk about the struggles of children with disabilities in Tajikistan and what is being done to help them access more care and opportunities?

President Obama has signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. We’re focused on encouraging other countries to sign this convention. It is a personal interest of mine as well. There is a lot of work to be done. One of the first steps is to have the government sign on to the UN convention. I have heard that President Rahmon is very receptive, and has developed an action plan for how Tajikistan can address the needs of disabled people. I have visited centers that serve not only physically, but also mentally handicapped children and adults. I have met with local organizations that support people with disabilities. We recently sent three people to the United States who either have a disability or advocate for disabled people in Tajikistan. They each went to different places in the U.S. — one went to Chicago, one went to Hawaii, and one went to Colorado. They learned how we assist people with disabilities to become as integrated into the society as they possibly can. As part of this program, the participants are also eligible for some small grants from the State Department to implement programs here in the communities they serve. I am optimistic, but there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that people who have disabilities have the same access and rights as all citizens.

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? 

I am a U.S. diplomat and I think that we do a great job of representing the people of the United States abroad. America is the greatest country in the world. There are things that I think we probably could improve or change, but in general I think we are doing a good job. I am really proud to serve as President Obama’s representative in Tajikistan. I have served in many countries, including Russia, the U.K., Greece, Honduras, and Peru. I have always felt that we do a great job of representing our people and our country overseas. It is a great job. I encourage you to take the Foreign Service Exam and come and join us.

Embassy of the United States to Tajikistan:

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