Julie Finley: Before I left Washington to go to Vienna to represent the United States at the OSCE, everybody in Washington said: 'Oh, your biggest problem is going to be the Russian Federation. Oh dear, they don't move at all....' And that's not true. It hasn't been my biggest problem. The European Union has been my biggest problem. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Russian Federation is very clear about where it stands on things.
RFE/RL: So where does Russia stand?
Finley: I think the Russian Federation has become harder and firmer with regard to its positions and its unhappiness with ODIHR [the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] and I think if you look at President [Vladimir] Putin's speech at the security conference in Munich in February, where he took two or three sentences to criticize the OSCE, he actually meant ODIHR. And probably this was a prelude to not inviting the OSCE to monitor the Russian Federation elections.
So as we've got closer to 2008, they've become harder and harder in their criticism of the human rights basket of the OSCE. I will say that they are cooperative and interested in forwarding economic and environmental matters in that basket, and also political-military [matters], which is essentially why they wanted to have this organization founded in the beginning.
RFE/RL: And why does the EU pose such a problem?
Finley: The EU has been a problem because it takes a long time for the EU to come to a conclusion and make a decision on a lot of things. And by the time sometimes the EU comes to a conclusion, it's so late and the conclusion itself is so watered down that it's almost...the whole thing is irrelevant.
Now, those are problems within the EU, but it makes it difficult to operate within the framework of the OSCE for a country like the United States not to be able to build a consensus, or not to be able to build even a large majority because the EU is 27+8 and that bloc within [the] 56 [OSCE members states] is considerable.
RFE/RL: Has there been a rollback of democracy in many CIS countries? Or is there cause for optimism over the long term that democracy will take root? Let's look at Central Asia, for example.
Finley: Some of these countries that have had extremely repressive regimes are coming up from the bottom level of freedoms. And I think Tajikistan has made some strides in the human rights effort. But it's not enough. They deserve to be praised for the progress they have made. But it's not nearly enough.
RFE/RL: How do you view development in the region's most repressive state, Turkmenistan, after the demise of President Saparmurat Niyazov?
Finley: I was in Ashgabat last fall. I'm going back again in June. I think you have to wait for a bit. I'm encouraged by what I see the new president is trying to do. Again, it's not enough but any centimeter of progress is progress.
RFE/RL: ODIHR, which you mentioned earlier, does a lot of election monitoring. Are fair elections the litmus test of a democracy?
Finley: Most of these countries refuse to grasp or understand that having what they consider a fair election on election day is [not] it. They refuse to understand that it is about the weeks, many weeks, before the election day. That everything that goes on in that period is as important as how election day runs.
And all of those things have to do with freedom of assembly, freedom of media. Do they all have access on the television? Do they all have access to the radio? Do they have the ability of their supporters to gather in a town square to discuss?
RFE/RL: How do you answer the accusation, by some, that the United States should do more to promote democracy and that, in fact, Washington overlooks human rights violations in some countries -- like Azerbaijan -- because it is more interested in energy resources?
Finley: It's a very complicated question...I submit that you have a number of friends, some of whom are closer than others, some of whom have more faults than others. But for a variety of other reasons, the characteristics that are not faults but that are strengths, cause you to maintain that friendship. And I don't think it's really different between nations.
(RFE/RL's Armenian, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Romania/Moldova services contributed to this report.)
A boy sells balloons in Kabul because he is unable to go to school (epa)
A BLEAK PICTURE: Below, HRW experts comment on the human rights situations in some of RFE/RL's broadcast countries.
Human Rights Watch's Asia Research Director Sam Zarifi, speaking about Afghanistan:
"The Taliban have been using increasingly brutal tactics such as suicide bombings and attacking soft targets, such as health clinics and schools. The attacks on schools have been particularly vicious. More than 200,000 children who were in school last year have not been able to go to school this year. We've seen over 130 schools attacked. The resulting fear, of course, has caused a huge amount of resentment, especially in southern Afghanistan, because ordinary Afghans feel that President [Hamid] Karzai and his international backers are not able to support them and provide them what they need.
Basic reconstruction and development throughout the south has essentially come to a halt in many areas. The situation is not just bad in the south, however. In the north and in the west of the country, warlords -- many of them ostensibly allied with the government - have also used the threat of the Taliban and the weakness of the international community and President Karzai to re-entrench themselves and so Human Rights Watch has been documenting numerous instances of land grabs, political oppression and rampant human rights abuses by these warlords, many of whom are also involved in the drug trade."
Giorgi Gogia, of Human Rights Watch's Caucasus Office, speaking about Georgia:
"Georgia, in late 2005, announced a reform of its criminal justice system and started a rigorous fight against organized crime, particularly against the power of organized crime bosses. While this move is certainly commendable, this had some negative consequences, particularly overcrowding in prisons and abuse of power by some police or law enforcement structures. Overcrowding is particularly a big problem in Georgian prisons, considering that they are very poorly ventilated, filthy, and prisoners very often receive inadequate nutrition and substantive medical care."
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Kyrgyzstan:
"In September, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented the poor state response to domestic violence and bride kidnapping for forced marriage in Kyrgyzstan. Our main finding, which I think is consonant with the conclusions of Kyrgyz human rights organizations, is that the authorities just allow for impunity for domestic violence and kidnapping for forced marriage."
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Turkmenistan:
"Turkmenistan is one of the world's most repressive and closed countries. The authorities severely suppress all forms of dissent and they absolutely isolate the population from the outside world. The president, who just passed away on December 21, President Saparmurat Niyazov, had declared himself president for life. He presided over a massive and grotesque cult of personality. This year, due to international pressure, the government reduced some harassment of followers of minority religions; they released several people from psychiatric institutions, where they had been forcibly detained as a measure of punishment. And they allowed one dissident to travel abroad. But otherwise, 2006 was as disastrous as every other year for human rights in Turkmenistan."
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Uzbekistan:
"2006 was one of the worst years for human rights in Uzbekistan in the 15 years since Uzbekistan's independence from the Soviet Union. There has still been no justice for the massacre that happened in May 2005 in Andijon, in Uzbekistan, during which government troops fired on mostly unarmed protestors -- no justice for that whatsoever. And the Uzbek government has continuously rejected all efforts to have an international, independent investigation of the massacre. The government crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists, is the fiercest we have ever seen in Uzbekistan, since independence."