Free political prisoners and hold fair elections, the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has urged Central Asian governments. The chairman, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, promoted these themes on a week-long tour that took him to all five Central Asian countries. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston sends this report from the Kazakh city of Almaty.
Almaty, 4 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On his tour of Central Asia, OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek has urged the five countries to continue their progress on the road to full democracy. He asked the governments to free all those jailed for political offenses. And he called on them to implement the pledges they have repeatedly made to make elections fairer.
Fair elections were Vollebaek's main theme in Kazakhstan today, the last day of his tour. He expressed the OSCE's concerns about preparations for Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections next Sunday.
Vollebaek spoke with reporters in the capital Astana about his talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other Kazakh officials. Those talks followed a meeting with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in Kazakhstan who have been critical of the government.
"We discussed the election, the election laws, the amendments made, but in maybe a little bit more general terms with the president. But some of the specific criticism that came up in the meeting with the NGOs I raised with the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission yesterday when I met with her, the minister of justice and the acting prime minister."
Vollebaek said that during his trip, he had told all five governments that the OSCE insisted on the right of every citizen to express political opinions without fear of repression. In his words: "No government is happy to have its actions criticized. But unless political opponents commit a criminal offense, they should not be penalized for their opinions." Vollebaek said he had told government leaders that democracy requires a multi-party system and laws that allow all parties to freely seek election.
Vollebaek said the OSCE was not disheartened at the slow progress toward these goals in some Central Asian countries, and that the organization would continue its programs to educate citizens about how democracy works.
The OSCE delegation travelled to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan throughout last week.
In Uzbekistan, Vollebaek asked President Islam Karimov about reports of repression against Islamic activists. He also handed over a list of about 12 people whom the OSCE considers to have been unfairly convicted and asked for their cases to be reviewed. He also asked Uzbekistan to provide information about four people who disappeared in recent years.
Vollebaek received reports of other human rights problems, including the status of women, at a meeting in Tashkent with members of Uzbek non-governmental organizations. Among those at the meeting was the chairman of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Talib Jakubov, who has been denied an exit visa to attend an OSCE conference now under way in Vienna.
Jakubov told Vollebaek that among the political parties now banned from participating in elections were some that played an important part in winning democratic elections for Uzbekistan in the first few years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He said there had been a return to the Soviet model in the 1994 election. Vollebaek told the meeting that the OSCE mission in Uzbekistan would continue to assist political parties whose activities have been suspended by the courts.
In Turkmenistan, the OSCE chairman had a long meeting with President Saparmurad Niyazov. Niyazov told Vollebaek there were no political prisoners in the country and no instruments for oppressing political opponents. According to people present at the meeting, Vollebaek told Niyazov the OSCE had details of several cases of people imprisoned for what appeared to be political crimes.
Vollebaek also asked for details about the death of Khoshali Garaev, who was found dead in his cell last month. Garaev was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1995 on charges of conducting anti-state activity.
The OSCE and Turkmenistan have been discussing for almost a year an agreement that would allow greater OSCE activity in the country, including election monitoring. OSCE officials said that shortly before Vollebaek arrived in Turkmenistan, they thought they had an acceptable agreement, but the government refused it at the last moment. OSCE officials said Turkmenistan does not want the OSCE's department for democratic institutions, known as ODIHR, to initiate any projects in the country. In other Central Asian countries, ODIHR holds seminars on the rights of the voter, the right of all political parties to campaign and similar topics. OSCE officials said it was unlikely that monitors would be sent to the parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan in December, because the elections did not meet the minimum OSCE standards of democracy.
Despite the differences, Niyazov told journalists accompanying the OSCE mission that Vollebaek's visit had been worthwhile. He said 2010 was his personal target date for introducing what he called a new democratic society in Turkmenistan. In a jovial mood, he denied that the huge posters of his face to be seen on many buildings in Ashgabat amounted to a cult of personality. He asked journalists "You don't like them?" and then added "Well, you can always look down at the road. There are none there."
In Tajikistan, Vollebaek spent most of his visit conferring with government and opposition leaders about upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections are part of the implementation of a peace agreement that ended years of civil war.
Vollebaek said Tajikistan would remain stable only if the elections were seen to be fair. He said OSCE monitors had found many flaws in the conduct of a referendum last weekend on constitutional changes. Opposition parties have requested an OSCE presence at the elections. But Vollebaek said he had not yet decided whether to send monitors because of doubts whether the elections would be conducted according to OSCE standards.
At a private meeting, the main opposition leader, Said Nuri, accused the government of trying to create difficulties for his group, the United Tajik Opposition.
Vollebaek said his discussions had convinced him that the OSCE must pay more attention to the problems of the Central Asian states, including their considerable economic problems, and find ways to offer practical assistance. He said Central Asia would be an important issue at the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November.