I went to Dushanbe last week to conduct our second annual bilateral consultations covering the full range of issues on our agenda, but I also had time to meet with business executives, civil society representatives, and political party leaders. I came away with a more optimistic view about Tajikistan's future. Although Tajikistan faces a long, porous border with Afghanistan and a struggling economy, several developments could provide more prosperity for Tajikistan.
I met with a surprisingly large gathering of business executives, who offered an upbeat take on Tajikistan's economy. They looked forward to exploring the potential for natural gas deposits, which could help Tajikistan's strained budget and provide a much-needed domestic source of energy. I heard several complaints about the byzantine tax code and rampant corruption. I conveyed these concerns to the government. I was pleased to see that President Rahmon acknowledged these obstacles to business in his April 20 state of the union speech. If the Tajikistan government takes concrete steps to improve the business environment, I conveyed my willingness to help organize meetings with U.S. firms so they can learn more about business opportunities there.
I also met with a group of Tajiks who had participated in State Department exchange programs, such as the FLEX program for high school students, as well as the Humphrey and Fulbright programs. The diverse group, which ranged from college students to UN Development Program officers, gave me a better picture of the talented young people in Tajikistan's civil society and other fields.
The meetings themselves went well. Foreign Minister Zarifi and I emerged from the full day of talks with a comprehensive list of action items, ranging from plans to enhance counter-narcotics cooperation to human rights engagement. I pledged my continued efforts to do everything I can to build stronger ties and cooperation between the United States and Tajikistan.