CSCE :: Statement :: Democratization and Human Rights in Central Asia
United States of America
PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 106th CONGRESS, 1st SESSION
Washington, Thursday, November 11, 1999
House of Representatives
DEMOCRATIZATION AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN CENTRAL ASIA
Thursday, November 11, 1999
DEMOCRATIZATION AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN CENTRAL ASIA HON. CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH of New Jersey
Mr. Speaker, I am disappointed that the House schedule did not permit consideration of
my resolution, H. Con. Res. 204, which has been co-sponsored by Representative HOYER, Representative FORBES
and Representative MCKINNEY. The resolution voices concern about serious violations of human rights and
fundamental freedoms in most states of Central Asia, in particular, substantial noncompliance with OSCE commitments
on democratization and the holding of free and fair elections.
Among the countries of the former Soviet Union, only in Ukraine and Moldova have sitting presidents lost an election
and peacefully left office. We will yet see what happens in Russia, where President Yeltsin has launched another war in
Chechnya. It may be too much, given the historical differences between our respective societies, to hope the post-Soviet
states could find among their political leaders a George Washington, who could have been king but chose not to be, and
who chose to leave office after two terms. But it is not too much to hope that other post-Soviet leaders might emulate
Ukraine's former President Leonid Kravchuk or Moldova's former President Mircea Snegur, not to mention Lithuania's
Algirdas Brazauskas, who all allowed a peaceful transfer of power.
Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, Central Asian leaders give every indication of intending to remain in office for life. Their
desire for unlimited and permanent power means that they cannot implement all OSCE commitments on democracy, the
rule of law and human rights , as doing so would create a level playing field for challengers and allow the media to shine
the light on presidential misdeeds and high-level corruption. The result has been an entire region in the OSCE space
where fundamental OSCE freedoms are ignored while leaders entrench themselves and their families in power and
To give credit where it is due, the situation is least bad in Kyrgyzstan. President Akaev, a physicist, is the only Central
Asian leader who was not previously the head of his republic's Communist Party. One can actually meet members of
parliament who strongly criticize President Akaev and the legislature itself is not a rubber stamp body. Moreover, print
media--though under serious pressure from the executive branch--exhibit diversity of views and opposition parties
function. Still, in 1995, two contenders in the presidential election were disqualified before the vote. Parliamentary and
presidential elections are approaching in 2000. Kyrgyzstan's OSCE partners will be watching carefully to see whether
they are free and fair.
Until the mid-1990s, Kazakstan seemed a relatively reformist country, where various political parties could function and
the media enjoyed some freedom. But President Nazarbaev dissolved two parliaments and singlemindedly sought to
accumulate sole power. In the last few years, the regime has become ever more authoritarian. President Nazarbaev has
concentrated all power in his hands, subordinating
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to himself all other branches and institutions of government. A constitutional amendment passed in October 1999
conveniently removed the age limit of 65 to be president. The OSCE judged last January's presidential elections, from
which a leading opposition contender was barred as far short of OSCE standards. Last month's parliamentary election,
according to the OSCE, was ``severely marred by widespread, pervasive and illegal interference by executive authorities
in the electoral process.'' In response, President Nazarbaev has attacked the OSCE, comparing it to the Soviet
Communist Party's Politburo for trying to ``tell Kazakstan what to do.''
Tajikistan has suffered the saddest fate of all the Central Asian countries; a civil war that killed scores of thousands. In
1997, the warring sides finally ceased hostilities and reached agreement about power-sharing, which permitted a bit of
hopefulness about prospects for normal development and democratization. It seems, however, that the accord will not
ensure stability. Tajikistan's Central Election Commission refused to register two opposition candidates for the
November 6 presidential election. The sole alternative candidate registered has refused to accept the results of the
election, which, according to official figures, current President Emomaly Rakhmonov won with 97 percent of the vote, in
a 98 percent turnout. Those numbers, Mr. Speaker, say it all. The OSCE properly declined to send observers.
Benighted Turkmenistan practically beggars description. This country, which as been blessed with large quantities of
natural gas, has a political system that combines the worst traits of Soviet communism with a personality cult seen today
in countries like Iraq or North Korea. No dissidence of any kind is permitted and the population enjoys no human rights
. While his impoverished people barely manage to get by, President Niyazov builds garish presidential palaces and
monuments to himself. The only registered political party in Turkmenistan is the Democratic Party--headed by President
Niyazov. In late October he said the people of his country would not be ready for the stresses and choices of a
democratic society until 2010, adding that independent media are ``disruptive.'' On December 12, Turkmenistan is
holding parliamentary ``elections,'' which the OSCE will not bother to observe.
Finally, we come to Uzbekistan. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings on democratization and human
rights in Uzbekistan on October 18. Despite the best efforts of Uzbekistan's Ambassador Safaev to convince us that
democratization is proceeding apace in his country, the testimony of all the other witnesses confirmed the widely held
view that after Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the most repressive country in Central Asia. No opposition political activity is
allowed and media present only the government's point of view. Christian denominations have faced official harassment.
Since 1997, a massive government campaign has been underway against independent Muslim believers. In February of
this year, explosions rocked Tashkent, which the government described as an assassination attempt by Islamic radicals
allied with an exiled opposition leader.
Apart from elections, a key indicator of progress towards democratization is the state of media freedom. On October
25-27, an International Conference on Mass Media in Central Asia took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Not surprisingly,
Turkmenistan did not allow anyone to attend. The other participants adopted a declaration noting that democratization
has slowed in almost all Central Asian states, while authoritarian regimes have grown stronger, limiting the scope for
genuine media freedom as governments influence the media through economic means.
I strongly agree with these sentiments. The concentration of media outlets in pro-regime hands, the ongoing assault on
independent and opposition media and the circumscription of the media's legally-sanctioned subject matter pose a great
danger to the development of democracy in Central Asia. Official statistics about how many media outlets have been
privatized cover up an alarming tendency towards government monopolization of information sources. This effectively
makes it impossible for citizens to receive unbiased information, which is vital if people are to hold their governments
Mr. Speaker, it is clear that in Central Asia, the overall level of democratization and human rights observance is poor.
Central Asian leaders make decisions in a region far from Western Europe, close to China, Iran and Afghanistan, and
they often assert that ``human rights are only for the West'' or the building democracy ``takes time.'' But delaying steps
towards democracy is very risky in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious region of Central Asia, where many people are highly
educated and have expectations of faster change. If it does not come, tensions and conflicts could emerge that could
endanger security for everyone.
To lessen these risks, continuous pressure will be needed on these countries to move faster on democracy. Even as the
United States pursues other interests, we should give top priority to democracy and respect for human rights , or we may
live to regret not doing so.