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U.S.: Is Washington Able To Help Opposition In Uzbekistan And Azerbaijan?

U.S. President Bush (left) with his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi in early June U.S. President George W. Bush says the focus of his second four-year term is the spread of democracy worldwide, and the United States has garnered some of the credit for facilitating the democratic movements in Georgia and Ukraine. But with respect to at least two countries, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Washington must maintain a careful balance between its economic and strategic interests on the one hand, and their peoples' desire for democracy on the other. RFE/RL spoke with two observers of U.S. policy in Eurasia.

Washington, 26 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bush underscored his support for fledgling democracies during a speech to a throng of Georgians in Tbilisi in early May.

"Now, across the Caucasus and Central Asia and the broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people," Bush said. "They are demanding their freedom and they will have it."

Since then, the region has seen two countries express this desire: Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

The White House and the State Department have spoken out in favor of greater freedoms in Uzbekistan, the scene of recent protests that led to the deaths of as many as hundreds of people in the eastern city of Andijon.

In Azerbaijan, the recent detention and arrest of about 30 members of the opposition prompted the U.S. Embassy in Baku to question the country's commitment to free and fair elections this fall. The arrests came just before an unsanctioned pro-democracy rally scheduled for 21 May that authorities broke up.

It is not clear how the Bush administration might be helping democracy movements in Uzbekistan, but efforts to provide aid via nongovernmental organizations are under way in Azerbaijan. For example, the Eurasia Foundation, a private nongovernmental organization financed in part by the U.S. government, this week announced grants totaling more than $90,000 to support civil-society work in Azerbaijan.
"A lot of these governments that know that they may become targets for that kind of maneuver are becoming much more leery of allowing U.S. assistance to NGOs."

Marina Ottaway is a senior associate in the Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy center in Washington. She told RFE/RL that Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan appear to be facing what she calls "second transitions." The first was their independence when the Soviet Union broke up; the second, she said, is deposing the communist-era leaders who remained in power afterward.

According to Ottaway, the U.S. government is divided on how and even whether to help postcommunist countries on the road to democracy. On one side, there is what she called the "old-school" thinking of leaving well enough alone. On the other, she said, there is an effort to learn from those "second transitions."

"There is a lot of thinking within the State Department on what we are learning about these democratic transitions in postcommunist states," Ottaway said. "And the emphasis is: 'What have we learned from the second transition -- that is, from the overthrow of [Slobodan] Milosevic [in Serbia], from Ukraine, and so on that could be applied to other countries?'"

Which thinking will prevail? Ottaway said she suspects the State Department will concentrate its efforts in countries where the effort will reap benefits.

Ottaway said it is too early to say whether nongovernmental organizations in Azerbaijan will receive support from the United States. Now, she noted, the pro-democracy movement is fractured. She said the different opposition factions could help their cause if they begin working together more closely.

According to Ottaway, there are two other developments that make the United States more reluctant to support opposition movements in postcommunist countries. One is the danger that such efforts could destabilize their political environment. She pointed to the current uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan and to what she calls the political "mess" in Serbia.

The other development, Ottaway said, is that governments with growing democracy movements are cracking down on NGOs that promote civil society.

"A lot of these governments that know that they may become targets for that kind of maneuver are becoming much more leery of allowing U.S. assistance to NGOs," Ottaway said. "So there is a lot of concern among democracy-promotion organizations that they cannot operate in these countries the way they used to be able to do in the past."

Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are greatly in need of reform, this according to Freedom House, a New York-based advocacy group for democracy and human rights. It says human rights in both countries have improved little, if at all, since they gained independence.

Yet both countries are allied with the United States. Washington has a military base outside Tashkent to support operations in neighboring Afghanistan. And it has interests in gaining access to the oil that will be flowing from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which began filling near the Azerbaijani capital yesterday.

Christopher Walker, a Eurasia analyst at Freedom House, said the Bush administration has to be careful not to let its needs blind it to the needs of ordinary Azeris and Uzbeks. In fact, he told RFE/RL, these needs are not necessarily contradictory.

"It's really developing a more comprehensive diplomatic approach that enables [the U.S. government] to speak both to the governments in these countries where we have interests, but also making a consistent and firm effort to speak to the governments about their need to adhere to democratic principles and practice, and to the people of these countries in order to let them know that we stand behind their own democratic aspirations," Walker said.

Walker said just such a policy was enunciated by Colin Powell when he was secretary of state during Bush's first term. He said he expects the current secretary, Condoleezza Rice, will be carrying on that policy during her tenure.