Washington, Feb. 20 (RFE/RL) - Professional election
observers from the United States see signs of progress in Kazakhstan
and Kyrgyzstan but are less enthusiastic about democratization in
In addition, despite encouraging developments in parts of Central
Asia, one observer notes a "disturbing trend" toward Soviet-style
concentrations of power throughout the region.
The experts presented their views last Friday at a briefing in
Washington sponsored by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the official U.S. Government body that
monitors compliance with the Helsinki Accords.
The experts were from the U.S. Helsinki Commission and the
International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES). IFES is a
private, non-profit organization that assists emerging countries in
developing their electoral systems. It is funded by private grants
and by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The panelists reported on December's parliamentary elections in
Kazakhstan, the elections in Kyrgyzstan in December, and the
constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan
Gwen Hoffman, the IFES project manager for Central Asia, said that
despite its Soviet legacy and a general apathy of citizens toward
politicans and government, Kazakhstan has made improvements in its electoral process.
She said that in Kazakhstan, people tended to "vote out of habit",
rather than out of a belief in the value of political participation.
She also said that citizens did not trust politicians and did not
have a lot of confidence in their constitution. In addition, she said
citizens did not have a lot of information available to help them
Hoffman contends that, because of international assistance, this is
changing for the better. She said IFES held two seminars before the
election that were intended to help leaders of non-governmental
organizations and private citizens learn more about elections and how
to participate in them.
Hoffman praised the authorities, notably the country's central
election commission, for listening to outsiders' suggestions and
making some improvements in the way the elections were conducted. She
cited as an example a decision by the central commission to permit
more domestic groups to act as election observers.
In Kyrgyzstan, Thomas Kahn, who is on the staff of U.S. Congressman
John Spratt (Democrat from South Carolina), said that the citizens are still
learning about the democratic process and that political parties are
still very much in their infancy.
"The people very much want democracy and are enthused about
elections," Kahn said. "This gives cause for hope."
He noted that the turnout for the presidential election was 86
percent and that President Askar Akayev received 75 percent of the
total. He said it was a sign of strength that Akayev was challenged
by other candidates, but on the other hand he said it was somewhat
disappointing that three other challengers were stricken from the
ballot on the eve of the election by the Supreme Court for alleged
Still, he concluded that the election was orderly and
well-organized and that the results probably reflected the voters'
Michael Ochs, an adviser to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said there is room for improvement in Azerbaijan. He said the elections were conducted against a background of extreme insecurity caused by
economic problems, the setbacks suffered in the conflict with ethnic
Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh and political instability.
He said that Azerbaijan's election commission rejected offers of
assistance from IFES and never implemented any of the organization's
suggestions for improving the electoral process.
Ochs noted that the government excluded three of 12 registered
political parties and scratched more than 60 percent of the
candidates. He said that on voting day, the authorities tolerated
multiple voting by individuals all over the country.
As a result, he said, a parliament was elected that is very
supportive of President Heydar Aliyev with only a handful of
opposition deputies chosen.
Hoffman concluded the presentations by saying that, while there are
indications of progress, she sees what she called a troubling trend
throughout Central Asia. She said it is apparent that many leaders
are trying to strengthen the office of president at the expense of
the parliament by revising the national constitutions through popular
referendums. Hoffman said much more work needs to be done on voter