Interview with British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Christopher George Edgar

576765_361291850657435_1649402125_nChristopher Edgar – British Ambassador to Uzbekistan

The Ambassador represents Her Majesty The Queen and the UK government in the country to which they are appointed. They are responsible for the direction and work of the Embassy and its Consulates, including political work, trade and investment, press and cultural relations, and visa and consular services.

OCA: Please tell us a little bit about your background

I have spent most of my career up to now working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My most recent posting overseas was as British Consul General in St Petersburg. Before that I was Ambassador in Cambodia and then in Macedonia. I spent three years in the mid 1990s working as a consultant for the EU Tacis programme, which supported economic reform in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Before joining the Foreign Office I studied mathematics and philosophy at university, and much later – because I was fascinated in Cambodia by the links between environmental issues, economic development and politics – I did a post-graduate degree with the Open University in Environment, Policy and Society.

I learned Russian with the Foreign Office before my first posting to Moscow, and have used it through most of my career. I’m taking Uzbek lessons as I’m keen to be able to speak the national language at least a little – and maybe eventually read Navoiy in the original.

I’m in Tashkent with my wife and our younger daughter. Our elder daughter finished school in summer 2012 and will go to university next autumn.

 

OCA: How did your appointment to the Uzbek ambassador’s role come about and how are you settling in since your arrival?

As with all jobs in the Foreign Office these days, I applied and was interviewed for the post. I was attracted to the job because I’d spent time in the region before – although I’d never previously worked in Uzbekistan – and also because Britain has important interests in its relationship with Uzbekistan.

I’ve been here four months now, so far mostly getting to know key contacts in Tashkent and understanding how things work. We’ve had some senior visitors in that time including several British Members of Parliament and the most senior official from UKTI (UK Trade and Investment), the British Government organisation responsible for commercial relations with other countries. We’ve also welcomed a large business delegation for the 19th session of UBTIC (The Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council). And I’ve been visiting as many as I can of the British companies that are present in Uzbekistan.

I’ve also been enjoying some of the cultural aspects of Tashkent. My family and I have visited the main museums. I liked the history museum, which has some fascinating exhibits relating to the history – and pre-history – of the region in the pre-Timurid and Timurid periods. And I’ve attended a range of concerts, from traditional shash maqom to contemporary classical music. I think my favourite was a multi-media performance (supported by the Goethe Institute) in which a local group, Ensemble Omnibus, played improvised music around sounds recorded inside a high mountain glacier. I also enjoyed a concert by a US bluegrass group, EllaMae. They spent a few days in Uzbekistan during which they worked with a group of Uzbek musicians. The songs they did together were rousing and fun, and a great example of music bridging the divide between different cultures.

 

OCA: You spent time earlier in your career in Moscow as well as head of policy and analysis in the Soviet Department of the FCO. How has that helped prepare you for your current role?

Almost half the population of Uzbekistan have grown up since the end of the Soviet Union. And Uzbekistan isn’t Russia. So it would be a mistake to come here thinking that Tashkent in 2012 will be like Moscow in the 1980s. Nevertheless it’s useful to have had experience of the Soviet Union, because it helps me to understand the starting point for the developments in this country during the period since independence – and some of the burdens of the past that have to be overcome – and how much has changed since then.

I got as much briefing as I could before coming here, but there’s no substitute for seeing things for yourself.  It’s important as a diplomat to be open to learn, and to recognise that there are different ways of doing things. That doesn’t mean that we won’t work hard to defend our interests or that we won’t stand by our principles. It’s more a question of accepting that you have – metaphorically as well as literally – to learn to speak the right language.

 

OCA: What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for closer co-operation between the UK and Uzbekistan?

One of the top priorities for the British Government is to work with the Uzbek authorities on regional security issues, in particular in relation to shared interests and goals as the international military presence in Afghanistan draws down. We want to encourage and support a more active trade and investment relationship between the UK and Uzbekistan. We also want to support the Uzbek authorities where we can in their process of democratisation and liberalisation.  Promoting values like democracy and human rights is a key part of the British approach throughout the world.

I’d also like to see the UK and Uzbekistan working more closely together on important international issues. Some of the biggest issues that we face need to be addressed by the international community working together – from climate change to counter-narcotics work to arms control – and I think there’s a big agenda where we can usefully co-operate.

 

OCA: Following the recent UBTIC meeting with Uzbek officials, what work will the embassy be doing to help encourage businesses and investors to consider Uzbekistan as a partner for future cooperation?

The most important thing we can do is to spread information about the opportunities available for British business in Uzbekistan. There are big opportunities for British companies to play a role in the Uzbek Government’s priority investment projects. And as Uzbekistan’s economy continues to grow, we should see increasing opportunities for British companies to supply goods and services to Uzbek consumers. At the same time, where British companies face problems in Uzbekistan we can make sure that the Uzbek authorities are aware, and work with them to find a solution.

I’m very pleased that the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP has been appointed as UK Co-Chair of UBTIC, and I know he plans to work very closely with his Uzbek counterpart, Minister of Foreign Economic Relations Elyor Ganiev, to promote more active commercial co-operation. Both sides were pleased with the UBTIC session that took place in Tashkent in October 2012. We want to see even more British companies participating in the next session, which will be held in London in late 2013. That will be a great opportunity for British companies that might be considering engaging with the Uzbek market to meet face to face with senior Uzbek decision makers.

 

OCA: Prior to your appointment you worked for the FCO’s Olympics protocol which must have been an exciting role. What have you learned from the experience and how can these learnings be translated into your ambassadorial role?

My job was to look after arrangements for the large number of Heads of State and Heads of Government who visited the UK for the games, and to ensure they had an enjoyable and smooth experience that reflected the best of British hospitality and organisational ability. That involved a huge amount of preparation – I joined the team about nine months before the opening of the Games, but others had been hard at work for months and in some cases years previously.

It was a privilege to be a part of the team working on the organisation of the Olympics and Paralympics. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Opening Ceremony – for work rather than as an audience member. I’m not sure it came across that way in the TV coverage, but for me the most exciting part was the athletes’ parade, and the way each team were welcomed, not just by their compatriots in the stadium but by the whole crowd. Uzbekistan’s athletes played a full part in the Games; and since I’ve been in Tashkent we’ve seen some impressive achievements by the country’s amputee football team, as well as their Under-16 footballers, who are the Asian champions.

The main lesson for me from my work on the Games was in terms of contingency planning. One needs to have thought about everything, but to recognise that on the day things may still not go the way you expect, so you have to be ready to be flexible. With an event like this, it’s also vital to remember what the purpose is. For us, it was all about the experience provided for senior people – in the end what matters wasn’t whether things went in accordance with our plans, but how it looked and felt to them.

 

OCA: Do you have plans to visit more of Uzbekistan and Central Asia and if so where do you plan to go?

I want to see as much as I can of Uzbekistan. I don’t think you can understand any country if you just stay in the capital. Of course I’m keen to visit the famous ancient cities – Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva – and some of the archaeological sites, for example the remains near Termez that date from the time of Alexander the Great. I’ve heard a lot about the Savitsky Museum in Nukus and its unique collection of 20th century and Karakalpak art, so I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself. I want to visit agricultural areas and industrial zones – because it’s important in understanding the opportunities for British business but also because it makes for a more complete picture of the country.

I’d also like to see more of Central Asia beyond Uzbekistan. But I remember my experience in Cambodia, where we went with a pile of guidebooks to the surrounding countries, thinking we would do a lot of regional travel, but there was so much to do in Cambodia itself that we never made it to most of its neighbours. I suspect the same may be true here.

 

 

OCA: You ordered one of the issues of Discovery magazines which was dedicated to Wildlife of Central Asia. Can you please kindly give us your opinion about wildlife of Central Asia and publication which covered this topic? Any comments are most welcome.

I’m not an expert on wildlife, in Central Asia or anywhere else, but I’d like to know more. And I want to see some of the wild places of Uzbekistan- the mountains in the east, the Ustyurt plateau, Nuratau. The magazine has some beautiful photographs of animal and bird life in Central Asia, and gives a taste of how rich the region is. Even around Tashkent there’s a lot to see. I love the ubiquitous mynahs, and the doves in the markets and in the streets, and just a little outside the city you can find a range of birds from finches to raptors to egrets. If the publication helps alert people to the glories of nature in the region that’s a valuable achievement.

The magazine also underlines the stress some of Central Asia’s unique wildlife is under as a result of human activity and economic pressures. I’ve heard a lot about the efforts made by the Uzbek Government and various organisations to protect this country’s unique ecosystems, but I’m keen to find out more, and to support those efforts if I can.

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