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Kyrgyzstan: Albright Finds Little To Praise

As Kyrgyzstan prepared to receive U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it could not expect her to deliver many words of praise. The country that once showed such promise of democratic development has so far this year held highly criticized elections and jailed several of its opposition leaders. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 17 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In 1992, then-U.S. Secretary of States James Baker, on a visit to Kyrgyzstan, called the country "an island of democracy" in Central Asia and a good example for its neighbors. Eight years later, another secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is visiting -- and she will find one of the most unstable countries of CIS Central Asia when she arrives in Kyrgyzstan today (April 17).

The progress of democracy in the former Soviet republic seems to be reversing as the year 2000 goes on. Police have been called in to break up demonstrations. Leading opposition figures are in jail. The country's courts are interpreting the laws increasingly creatively. Intelligence services warn of an impending invasion from Islamic militants in the mountains.

The case of Daniyar Usenov, head of the opposition El Party and a candidate for parliament in the recent elections, is an excellent example of manipulation of the court system for political ends.

Having passed through the first round of elections, Usenov was barred from competing in the runoff for his district for failing to declare an apartment. Usenov said he had sold the apartment years ago, but his appeal was rejected and he was out of the race. Meanwhile, an old charge that he had assaulted another man -- a case that was closed last year when the plaintiff dropped the charges -- had been brought back to life.

Usenov's lawyer requested a postponement of the trial to study the 16 volumes of evidence investigators presented. All this evidence was to document two punches Usenov allegedly delivered to the face of Kengesh Mukaev in 1996. When the court appointed a new lawyer for Usenov early this month (April 5), his own lawyer was not present. Usenov rejected the court-appointed lawyer, asking instead for a third lawyer. The court ruled that he was obstructing justice and ordered him imprisoned.

Just hours later, however, Usenov was released. He still seemed a little surprised by the whole proceeding as he explained the circumstances to a news conference.

"My arrest was a strange event. They put me under arrest because my lawyer did not come to the court session. But my release was even stranger. The court decided to arrest me then the court decided to release me. Very high-ranking officials from the (Kyrgyz) White House came in the night and released me."

Considering events in Kyrgyzstan in the first 100 days of the year 2000 Usenov's surprise is natural. The campaign and the elections for parliament in February drew criticism from opposition groups as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, and the United States. Any hopes that run-off elections -- required in nearly every election district -- on March 12 would be an improvement were quickly dashed. Those elections were actually worse than the first round.

Charges of falsification were not uncommon. One particularly popular opposition figure, Feliks Kulov, lost his race for a seat in parliament, although polls had predicted he would win easily. When election officials from the Kara-Buura electoral district where Kulov ran admitted to election violations favoring Kulov's opponent, protests began in the Kara-Buura district and in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

On March 22, Kulov was arrested in a hospital, where he was being treated for high blood pressure. He faces charges of abuse of power during his service as minister of security several years ago.

The same day Kulov was arrested, police in Kara-Buura broke up a demonstration at the district administration building there, arresting some of the protesters. But the demonstration in Bishkek continued. Some of the protestors joined the jailed Kulov on a hunger strike. Police broke up that demonstration last week but arrested only one person.

Besides being put in jail, Usenov and Kulov have one other thing in common -- they both planned to run for the presidency against incumbent Askar Akaev in the election scheduled for the end of this year.

U.S. officials have on several occasions during the last six weeks expressed concern about the treatment of opposition figures. During her visit, Albright can be expected to talk about this with Kyrgyz government officials, especially as the U.S. primarily looked upon Kyrgyzstan as a model of democracy for other regional states to follow. The U.S. has few business interests in Kyrgyzstan.

(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)