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Election Observers See Progress in Central Asia

Washington, Feb. 20 (RFE/RL) - Professional election observers from the United States see signs of progress in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but are less enthusiastic about democratization in Azerbaijan.

In addition, despite encouraging developments in parts of Central Asia, one observer notes a "disturbing trend" toward Soviet-style concentrations of power throughout the region.

The experts presented their views last Friday at a briefing in Washington sponsored by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the official U.S. Government body that monitors compliance with the Helsinki Accords.

The experts were from the U.S. Helsinki Commission and the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES). IFES is a private, non-profit organization that assists emerging countries in developing their electoral systems. It is funded by private grants and by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The panelists reported on December's parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, the elections in Kyrgyzstan in December, and the constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan last November.

Gwen Hoffman, the IFES project manager for Central Asia, said that despite its Soviet legacy and a general apathy of citizens toward politicans and government, Kazakhstan has made improvements in its electoral process.

She said that in Kazakhstan, people tended to "vote out of habit", rather than out of a belief in the value of political participation. She also said that citizens did not trust politicians and did not have a lot of confidence in their constitution. In addition, she said citizens did not have a lot of information available to help them make choices.

Hoffman contends that, because of international assistance, this is changing for the better. She said IFES held two seminars before the election that were intended to help leaders of non-governmental organizations and private citizens learn more about elections and how to participate in them.

Hoffman praised the authorities, notably the country's central election commission, for listening to outsiders' suggestions and making some improvements in the way the elections were conducted. She cited as an example a decision by the central commission to permit more domestic groups to act as election observers.

In Kyrgyzstan, Thomas Kahn, who is on the staff of U.S. Congressman John Spratt (Democrat from South Carolina), said that the citizens are still learning about the democratic process and that political parties are still very much in their infancy.

"The people very much want democracy and are enthused about elections," Kahn said. "This gives cause for hope."

He noted that the turnout for the presidential election was 86 percent and that President Askar Akayev received 75 percent of the total. He said it was a sign of strength that Akayev was challenged by other candidates, but on the other hand he said it was somewhat disappointing that three other challengers were stricken from the ballot on the eve of the election by the Supreme Court for alleged irregularities.

Still, he concluded that the election was orderly and well-organized and that the results probably reflected the voters' will.

Michael Ochs, an adviser to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said there is room for improvement in Azerbaijan. He said the elections were conducted against a background of extreme insecurity caused by economic problems, the setbacks suffered in the conflict with ethnic Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh and political instability.

He said that Azerbaijan's election commission rejected offers of assistance from IFES and never implemented any of the organization's suggestions for improving the electoral process.

Ochs noted that the government excluded three of 12 registered political parties and scratched more than 60 percent of the candidates. He said that on voting day, the authorities tolerated multiple voting by individuals all over the country.

As a result, he said, a parliament was elected that is very supportive of President Heydar Aliyev with only a handful of opposition deputies chosen.

Hoffman concluded the presentations by saying that, while there are indications of progress, she sees what she called a troubling trend throughout Central Asia. She said it is apparent that many leaders are trying to strengthen the office of president at the expense of the parliament by revising the national constitutions through popular referendums. Hoffman said much more work needs to be done on voter education.