PRAGUE, March 31, 2006 -- Belgian Foreign Minister, Karel De Gucht, appeared on March 31 to secure Tajikistan's permission for observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the country's presidential elections in November.
That was, for De Gucht, a welcome result, as preparations for the elections were a key issue on his agenda when he visited Dushanbe, the fourth stop on his tour of post-Soviet Central Asian states.
Speaking after talks with President Imomali Rakhmonov and Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov, De Gucht said Rakhmonov had "immediately" replied that there was "no problem at all" in OSCE monitors observing the elections, which De Gucht said would be "a very important benchmark on Tajikistan’s road to democracy."
The OSCE has monitored Tajik elections before, both presidential and parliamentary, and never deemed any to have been free and fair.
The upcoming elections will see Rakhmonov stand for a third presidential term, which was controversially made possible by a constitutional referendum in 2003.
An 'Ever-Closer Relationship' With Turkmenistan?
Tajikistan was, then, a good example of the diplomatic obstacle course De Gucht, and others, must run when visiting Central Asia: De Gucht highlighted the importance of a truly democratic elections but he did not question Rakhmonov's right to run for a third term. Such obstacles are making it increasingly complicated for representatives of Western governments and international organizations to travel to the region. Officials need to balance calls for these states to uphold basic rights with both their strategic interests -- the region is rich in oil and natural gas and wedged between Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran -- and with their knowledge that some of these countries are fragile.
Tajikistan, which emerged from a five-year civil war in 1997, is an example of fragility. An example of the strategic importance of the region is Turkmenistan, which De Gucht visited on March 29.
The regime of President Saparmurat Niyazov has been the focus of numerous complaints from international rights organizations. De Gucht did express similar concerns. An OSCE press release said De Gucht called on the Turkmen government to "devote increased attention to the human dimension," adding that "it is important to start political reforms and democratization." He also brought up specific concerns, such as several cases of individuals barred from leaving the country or incarcerated for reasons "that were not of great significance and did not conform to the standards of international legislation."
But De Gucht also mentioned discussions about Turkmenistan's role as a supplier of natural gas to Europe and, in his comments to the press after meeting with Niyazov, the OSCE head stressed the positive. "Several proposals" about how to increase cooperation between Turkmenistan and the OSCE had been made, he said, and he expressed the hope that "this visit will have contributed to an ever-closer relationship" between Turkmenistan and the OSCE.
Kazakhstan To Head The OSCE?
De Gucht started his tour on March 27 in Kazakhstan, where he was warmly welcomed -- and with good reason. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev hopes that his country will be allowed to occupy the OSCE's rotating chairmanship in 2009. De Gucht offered encouragement, saying that Kazakhstan is the country in Central Asia most ready to hold the chairmanship. He pointed specifically to Kazakhstan's sustained economic growth, stability, and tolerance. But the OSCE's current chair was also cautious, stressing the need for political reforms before a Kazakh can take the post he currently occupies.
It is "important" that Kazakhstan now undertake additional political reform and steps to safeguard fundamental rights, adding that "it is also important that these steps [...] be concrete."
While Kazakhstan may have offered the warmest welcome, the easiest visit on De Gucht's schedule was -- arguably -- to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is credited by many as the most democratic of the Central Asian states, but the OSCE chairman reminded officials that there is room for improvement.
"Although progress has been achieved in certain areas, many challenges remain, first of all the interethnic tensions in the north and in the south," he said. "They most probably necessitate a comprehensive action plan for national minorities' integration."
De Gucht's concern is not shared by Marat Sultanov, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament. He denies any ill-treatment of minorities and implied that the Kyrgyz people are naturally sympathetic to any oppressed minority.
"In principle, Kyrgyzstan today treats its national minorities well," Sultanov said on March 30. "There was a period when the Kyrgyz were themselves a national minority in Kyrgyzstan."
The Hardest Part Of The Tour
The most difficult part of De Gucht's itinerary comes last -- Uzbekistan, where he is due to arrive on March 31. Like many Western governments and human rights organizations, the OSCE has been critical of the Uzbek government's violent suppression of a protest in the eastern city of Andijon last May. Uzbek authorities say 187 people were killed, but others claim the figure was several times higher.
Uzbek authorities have reacted harshly and very vocally to international criticism, chasing several foreign organizations out of the country over the past year. Uzbek President Islam Karimov himself has criticized the OSCE, saying it seems more concerned with questions of rights than with security. The Uzbek government maintains that terrorist were responsible for the events last year and that Uzbek troops were forced to use deadly force to prevent an attempted coup.
In Tashkent, De Gucht will once again have to express concerns about the methods used by government troops used last year while trying to find common ground with Tashkent in an effort to maintain and develop relations between the OSCE and Uzbekistan.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Turkmen Services contributed to this report.)
(RFE/RL erroneously indicated on March 30 that the OSCE had made a specific decision not to include Uzbekistan on De Gucht's tour of the region. The OSCE informed RFE/RL on March 31 that a change in De Gucht's itinerary will take the OSCE chairman to Tashkent on March 31 for talks with President Islam Karimov on April 1.)