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Central Asia: OSCE Mission To Discuss Human Rights And Fair Elections

A delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will visit all five Central Asian republics this week. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Vienna that the delegation will meet government and opposition leaders for discussions on human rights and fair election practices.

Vienna, 27 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A top-level diplomatic delegation leaves tomorrow for Central Asia on a mission to discuss the five countries' progress in building democratic institutions. The mission was organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and is led by the OSCE chairman, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek. The 19-member delegation also includes representatives of the UN High Commission for Human Rights and the European Commission.

The mission flies to Turkmenistan tomorrow and then continues to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. An OSCE spokesman told RFE/RL that Vollebaek intended to speak "frankly and openly" about the problems some of these countries have in meeting their democratic commitments as members of the OSCE.

OSCE representatives declined to discuss specific problems in advance of the mission, but the organization has said previously that it is concerned about the fairness of elections in some countries. It is also worried about religious extremism and human rights abuses.

In Turkmenistan, questions are expected about the recent death in jail of an activist. International human rights groups have said the activist, Khoshali Garaev, was a political prisoner. Vollebaek will also hold separate talks with Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov and Parliament Chairman Sakhat Muratov. Last year, President Niyazov told a similar OSCE mission that it could take up to ten years to create the atmosphere for the full functioning of democratic institutions in Turkmenistan. Niyazov said OSCE standards of democracy could not simply be imposed, but had to be preceded by a change in the mentality of the people.

An important issue for the mission is the democratic conduct of presidential and parliamentary elections. The OSCE and other international organizations have held seminars and workshops in Central Asia on election processes. Seminars have covered topics such as legislation, the secrecy of the ballot, equal rights for all parties and candidates, and the role local monitors can play in ensuring that elections are honest.

All five countries have elections scheduled within the next few months. Parliamentary elections are scheduled before the end of the year in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and in February in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Presidential elections are scheduled in Tajikistan in November and in Uzbekistan early in the new year.

Kazakhstan is having elections to its lower house in two weeks, and the OSCE has already expressed concerns about the treatment of some candidates. One opposition party leader, former premier Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was briefly arrested at Kazakhstan's request earlier this month when he returned to Moscow from abroad. He has been accused of tax evasion and illegal possession of property, but he says the charges are politically motivated.

The OSCE was highly critical of the Kazakh presidential election in January this year, which returned President Nursultan Nazarbaev to power. The organization said the poll was deeply flawed and fell far short of OSCE standards.

An OSCE spokesman said the organization is not only concerned about Kazakhstan. He said other countries also fell short of democratic standards in regard to elections and the delegation would discuss the situation in all its meetings.

Another important issue for the mission is the concern felt in several Central Asian states about the spread of what is sometimes called "political Islam." The mission will discuss the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, in which Islamic militants are holding hostages. There is also concern in Tajikistan about the ultimate goal of the Islamic Renaissance Party. And in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev this month created a special commission to counter the threat of religious extremism. The OSCE has said it will ask Nazarbaev for more details about how the commission will operate.

The mission will also discuss the dangers that the illegal drug trade poses to regional security. Central Asia has become a major route for smuggling heroin and other drugs to Europe.