Mr. Chairman, I commend you for holding these hearings. Even after September 11, Kyrgyzstan has not gotten a lot of attention in American media or even in this body, but the trends in the country and entire region are disturbing enough to warrant serous consideration.
Central Asia has become widely known as the most politically backwards and repressive region of the former USSR. Heads of state routinely annul or falsify elections, refuse to register opposition parties or newspapers, sometimes imprison or attack opposition leaders and otherwise exploit their control of the state apparatus and law enforcement to remain in power.
For several years, Kyrgyzstan stood out for its relative liberalism and President Akaev seemed different from his regional counterparts. But that has changed. Today, he is known as a typical Central Asian authoritarian leader, who will do whatever is needed to keep serious politicians from running against him and intimidating others into giving up political activity.
When Secretary Albright visited the region in April 2000, she openly criticized human rights violations and electoral shenanigans in Central Asia. But she also stressed the danger to the region posed by terrorists and drug trafficking, and announced a program of financial assistance to help safeguard borders. Her gesture demonstrated Washington’s growing concern about security matters in the region. With the United States even then prepared to expand bilateral cooperation to address perceived threats, Central Asian leaders seemed unconcerned about U.S. strictures on democracy. Last year, Uzbekistan’s President Karimov and Kazakstan’s President Nazarbaev openly rebuffed Secretary Albright’s advice on the need for greater democratization. President Akaev was more diplomatic but made no serious moves towards reform.
Now that we are involved in a war on terrorism, I am concerned that Central Asian leaders think they have a free hand with respect to human rights. I am worried that even if the United States continues to criticize them for not living up to their Helsinki commitments, these leaders will not be overly concerned. I hope our State Department representative will reassure us today on that score.
There is good reason to be concerned about terrorism. But Central Asian leaders have up to now contributed significantly to their own security problems by stifling political discourse, by rigging elections, and by not permitting the development of open societies that could provide an outlet for discontent and freedom of expression. It seems to me that if Washington lets these leaders shift the focus of relations primarily towards security issues, they will deflect attention from their determination to remain in power indefinitely, which is one of the greatest threats to democratization and stability in the region.
I look forward to hearing our witnesses.