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Central Asia: Experts Decry Lack Of Democratic Progress

U.S. experts are offering a bleak assessment of Central Asia's democratic progress. The experts say there have been some grassroots developments, but meaningful political and economic reforms remain elusive. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports from Washington.

Washington, 13 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. experts on Central Asia say the region has made little progress toward democracy and the development of a civil society since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The experts made the assessment Wednesday before the U.S. House of Representatives panel examining trends in Central Asia. They told the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific that the leaders in the country have become more autocratic. They said the latest recent round of elections, which have been widely criticized by the international community, demonstrate the downward trend.

Congressman Doug Bereuter, who chaired the hearing, said that Central Asia has long been sidelined by U.S. foreign policy. But he said that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's upcoming trip to the region and other developments show that that the United States is giving the region new priority.

"The Central Asian states are at a critical junction in their political and economic development, balance between democracy and authoritarianism, between free market economy and systemic corruption, between cooperation with or resistance to the West."

Bereuter said that each Central Asian state faces three fundamental challenges. First, he said they must forge a shared national identity that accommodates their diverse ethnic and religious groups. Second, he said the states must develop political and legal structures that are compatible with democracy. And third, he said, they must create an open economic and political system.

Donald Pressley, assistant administrator for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offered a mixed analysis.

"While civil society and non-governmental sectors are growing, there are still no guarantees of freedom of speech and association, there are still insufficient transparent and democratic processes to support the rights of citizens as opposed to suppressing the rights of citizens."

Pressley said that the goal of U.S. foreign in the region is to promote stable, democratic, market-oriented development so that these independent states can prevent conflict, resist global threats, such as drugs and terrorism, and exploit their abundant natural resources.

He recommended that Congress continue to target development initiatives at the local level. He said that this would be the most cost-effective way to target U.S. funding in the region.

"I believe that we do have the best opportunity in the grass roots approach in the civil society work. If I could emphasize the role that non-governmental organizations play in that part of the world."

Martha Brill Olcott, a policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private think tank, says that the governments justify their continued rule -- and increasing oppressions -- by saying that their populations are not ready for democracy. Moreover, she said the leaders contend that their people respect strong leaders, in the Central Asian tradition, and are ill disposed to democracy.

But most importantly she says they argue that the region is too dangerous to allow them the risk of empowering the people. In her analysis, the leaders themselves have stifled democratic trends.

"The main reason why democracies have not developed in Central Asia is because the region's leaders don't want them to."

Olcott stressed the links between political and economic reform, and the interdependencies between the countries. She said that economic reform creates new political stakeholders in the system. She said that the democracy can only prosper where there are committed elites and strong institutions.

Because of its size and influence, Olcott said that Uzbekistan is the critical nation to watch in Central Asia.