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Central Asia: Pledges To Albright Evaporate Quickly

  • Bruce Pannier

When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan last week, she criticized the governments for some of their failures in the pursuit of democracy. At the time, Central Asian leaders acted contrite, but now that the U.S. secretary is gone, it appears her words were not taken to heart.

Prague, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had plenty to criticize on her tour of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan last week. All three countries recently held elections characterized by government interference and media bias. And all three have spotty records of upholding human rights.

Albright began her Central Asian tour in Kazakhstan's new capital Astana. One of the issues she discussed with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was a scandal surrounding the sale of MiG fighter planes to North Korea. Nazarbaev has stated the sale was illegal, and the country's defense and security ministers resigned in the scandal and were later put on trial. But the court exonerated them, and one became deputy foreign minister and the other commander of Kazakhstan's air force.

At a press conference with Nazarbaev, Albright said the U.S. is disappointed with the outcome of the trial and the promotion of the two former ministers to new top positions. When a journalist pursued the matter further, Nazarbaev spoke up.

"In general, it is not a question for the U.S. secretary of states to decide who will be named (to government posts) in the sovereign state of Kazakhstan."

Similarly, Albright's words about freedom of the press in Kazakhstan did not seem to penetrate. Just days after she left, Nazarbaev announced a crackdown on newspapers that publish articles that show Kazakhstan in an unfavorable light.

State Department spokesman James Rubin expressed Washington's disappointment at the announcement.

"We're disappointed that the right of free expression in Kazakhstan has been questioned. We're trying to get a better understanding of what the significance of these statements are and in the coming hours and days, but for now, I think it's fair to say we oppose any [such] statement, including the one coming out of Kazakhstan on this subject."

From Kazakhstan, Albright traveled to Kyrgyzstan -- once the region's greatest hope for democracy under President Askar Akaev, but now turning increasingly authoritarian.

Albright expressed disappointment with Kyrgyzstan's February parliamentary elections, which garnered much international criticism about the role of the election commission. There were complaints about ballot forging, box stuffing, bribing voters and falsified results. In a few cases, election officials admitted to violations. While Albright was visiting, Akaev pledged, as he has several times, that improvements in election legislation and practice would be carried out before the presidential elections scheduled for the end of this year.

But this week (Tuesday), with Albright gone, Akaev congratulated the election commission on the fine job it had done.

Akaev also appears to be ready to give parliament more power. He suggested holding a referendum to amend the constitution. But, he said, this would be best done after presidential elections are over. Akaev has not declared his candidacy but he is almost sure to run for re-election -- which makes his offer to parliament sound almost like a campaign promise.

The last stop on Albright's trip was Uzbekistan -- and that produced an exception to the pattern set in the other two countries. Uzbekistan did not break any pledges of better behavior after Albright left, apparently because few such pledges were given. In a press conference at the end of her Uzbek visit, Albright said there were many areas of disagreement between her and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, but she did not elaborate. Uzbekistan has long been a target of international criticism of its inadequate defense of human rights and press freedom.

The aftermath of Albright's visit suggests that while the three Central Asian countries may be interested in good economic ties with the U.S., they are less eager to adopt the democratic reforms the U.S. advocates.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)