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World: Freedom House Report Highlights Countries With Democratic Deficits

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The U.S.-based pro-democracy organization Freedom House has issued a report that examines the problems and hurdles facing democratic development in 30 countries. The report concludes that Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. It also says democratic efforts in Kyrgyzstan have stalled, as they have in Armenia and Ukraine. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are described as having authoritarian systems.

Prague, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom House, an organization that monitors democracy around the world, today published a list of countries that it claims need help to achieve democracy -- or to further improve it.

The New York-based group says its list of 30 countries is the first of its kind. It is aimed not just at criticizing the countries named but also at drawing the international community's attention to the fact that they need assistance.

In presenting the report -- called "Countries at the Crossroads" -- Freedom House's Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said "these countries are at key transition points and to ignore their needs creates a risk of both individual backsliding and regional democratic deterioration."

The list includes Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan; in the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia; and in Europe, Ukraine. Several Arab states are also mentioned, such as Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen.

-- In Afghanistan, the report finds that the "rule of the gun largely supersedes the rule of law." It says that extra military support is urgently needed to stabilize the country outside the capital Kabul, and that the rights of Afghan women remain at Taliban-era levels in some regions.

-- In Pakistan, it says the growing role of the military in government and civil life is a major obstacle to democratic reform, and that promises of reform have not so far shown results.

-- In Kazakhstan, the report finds an authoritarian system with limited scope for political competition.

-- Kyrgyzstan, it says, has experienced initial democratic openings that have since stalled or eroded.

-- The report sees Uzbekistan as being among the most politically repressive states in the world, having perpetrated what it calls "gross violations" of human rights and religious freedoms.

Turning to the Caucasus, the Freedom House report finds that:

-- In Armenia, the limited democratic reforms that were undertaken have gradually eroded, and stalled, and are in danger of complete reversal.

-- In Georgia, before November's ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze, the situation was rated the same as in Armenia.

-- In Azerbaijan, there is an authoritarian system with limited scope for political competition.

-- In Ukraine, the limited democratic reforms that were undertaken have gradually eroded, and stalled, and are in danger of complete reversal.

"I think the key question is what happens to U.S. policy -- for how long the U.S. is going to go on supporting authoritarian regimes in Central Asia while trying to spread democracy in the Middle East?" -- Political analyst Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform
Freedom House's inclusion today of Uzbekistan as one of the most repressive regimes comes after the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced yesterday that it was banning most loans to Uzbekistan because of continued political repression and lack of economic reform.

EBRD President Jean Lemierre said the bank will stay engaged to push for reforms but can no longer conduct business as usual in Uzbekistan.

EBRD spokesman Jeff Hiday -- speaking in London before yesterday's decision -- gave the methodology on which the bank based its decision. It set criteria against which Uzbekistan's performance could be measured.

"The environment in Uzbekistan has been particularly challenging. So we set seven benchmarks. And we sought for Uzbekistan to demonstrate progress on these benchmarks. The extent to which they made progress would determine the extent to which we continue to invest in the country," Hiday said.

The watchdog organization Human Rights Watch today praised the EBRD's decision, calling it "unprecedented" and "principled," and describing Uzbekistan's rights record as "appalling."

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Vanessa Saenan said in Brussels that the EBRD should apply its benchmark system to other countries, as well.

"There are several other countries out there, particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where a similar approach to that taken with respect to Uzbekistan would be warranted," Saenan said.

Another Human Rights Watch spokeswoman, Veronika Leila in Geneva, listed those countries, saying such benchmarking could become a standard method for measuring progress in democratic and economic reforms.

"It would be Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan. In the South Caucasus, we are talking about Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. In Europe, it would not be unwarranted to take a similar approach with respect to Ukraine. So we are really hoping that the [EBRD], after this experience with Uzbekistan, will become more forceful and serious about its political mandate, as it has really demonstrated that it is able to 'operationalize', if you wish, its political mandate, which makes clear that it was set up to engage those countries in the region which do respect democracy and human rights," Leila said.

Leila called on the United States and the European Union to take a harder line with countries like Uzbekistan, which are allies but which do not observe human rights. She noted that the U.S. government must soon issue its periodic certifications for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, confirming that they are making progress on rights commitments so that aid can be continued.

She said these two countries are plainly not making progress.

Political analyst Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform in London said that much will depend on what the United States does.

"I think the key question is what happens to U.S. policy -- for how long the U.S. is going to go on supporting authoritarian regimes in Central Asia while trying to spread democracy in the Middle East? It doesn't really make sense, and obviously the U.S. agenda has a huge impact on the role of the international organizations," Grabbe said.

Grabbe said it's an important moment for international donors to consider the conditions they attach to their financing. But she also said there was a persistent lack of consensus within the international community on how to deal with repressive regimes.

The complete Freedom House survey can be found on the Internet at www.freedomhouse.org/research/crossroads/cac.htm
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