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Kyrgyzstan: Akaev Portrays Himself As Fervent Democrat During U.S. Trip

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, seen by some as an autocrat, portrayed himself as a fervent democrat on a trip to Washington this week. But his performance did not persuade human rights advocates, who say Akaev is abusing power.

Washington, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, accused of abuse of power by human rights groups around the world, used an official visit to Washington this week to praise his leadership of Kyrgyzstan and his vision of his country's bright future of constitutional democracy.

Speaking at a Washington policy institute on 24 September, Akaev -- the only Kyrgyz head of state since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 -- denied he has become increasingly autocratic over the last decade. But that statement, like others, was dismissed as propaganda by human rights groups.

Akaev compared Kyrgyzstan to Switzerland and France and said he has a bold plan for constitutional change to strengthen his country's institutions before a new president is elected in 2005.

Citing economic liberalization and tolerance for the opposition as his major achievements in office, Akaev told the audience of Washington insiders at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that his leadership is key to the future of Kyrgyz democracy. He added that he should not be blamed for Bishkek's momentary shortcomings.

Speaking in Russian, the Central Asian leader called Kyrgyzstan "the country of human rights" and said his democratic principles have allowed some 30 opposition parties, 3,000 non-governmental organizations, and 600 independent media outlets to flourish.

"Because of me, the opposition has the right to conduct a campaign of false accusations against me. But I don't hesitate to say that in terms of level of democracy, Kyrgyzstan is leading the way in Central Asia," Akaev said. "I would not minimize my role in this."

In little over a year, the United States has shifted its view of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states from autocratic backwaters to front-line allies in the war on terrorism. Bishkek has allowed the United States to use a Kyrgyz base for operations in Afghanistan and also shared intelligence on regional Islamic militants.

The new alliances with Central Asian leaders concern human rights advocates and some U.S. policymakers. They say these new, closer relations could backfire if the U.S. support is seen as weakening democratic reform and opposition in Central Asia.

Human rights activists say some regional leaders, including Akaev, have used the U.S.-led war on terrorism as a blanket to shield them from Western criticism for jailing opponents and stifling dissent.

On 24 September, Akaev sought to dismiss such criticism. But he did admit the police killing of five opposition protesters in Kyrgyzstan last spring was partly due to a lack of democracy and respect for human rights, though he blamed the opposition for what he called undemocratic methods.

Consequently, the Kyrgyz president said he called a "constitutional convention" last August to draw up a new democratic constitution. He said the convention was working productively and was one of several reforms that are forming "a chain toward democracy."

Flying over Philadelphia this week, Akaev said he is inspired by the city where the U.S. Constitution was adopted more than 200 years ago. But he urged his American audience to give Kyrgyzstan time to develop into a fully functioning democracy: "The process of democratic change in our country began 11 years ago. I compare this with 225 years since the adoption of the American Constitution."

Still, his American audience could be forgiven for recalling that in its first 12 years as an independent republic, the United States had already democratically changed president three times -- from George Washington to John Adams to Thomas Jefferson.

Nonetheless, the Kyrgyz appeared to enjoy a new status in some Washington circles. John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called Akaev a vital ally and praised the leader for having "courage, imagination, and energy:"

"In addition to that, he is an academic, which is an unusual thing for world leaders. A mathematician by training, an engineer, a man who has gotten to the top of his government to lead at a crucial time. It's got to be hard for a Cabinet to have a Renaissance man be your president," Hamre said.

Still, the "Renaissance man" appeared to be taken by surprise when asked if his constitutional reforms would change a libel law that forbids journalists from publishing articles that are critical of the government: "Of course, certainly, certainly, of course. I think we have already canceled that law, haven't we? Let me ask my members of parliament."

Akaev later said he has already submitted a bill to parliament to overturn the libel law and that he will work diligently for its passage.

U.S. official statements did not lavish praise on Akaev. The State Department said that along with the war on terrorism, human rights issues were at the top of the agenda when Akaev met with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In a joint written statement, U.S. President George W. Bush and Akaev affirmed their antiterror alliance. But they also spoke of the need to improve human rights and strengthen democratic institutions and processes, such as civil society, independent media, local government, political pluralism, and free and fair elections.

But human rights advocates see deterioration, not progress, on many of these same issues in Kyrgyzstan. And they criticized Akaev's rhetoric on democracy as pandering to his U.S. audience.

Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch made this observation in an interview with RFE/RL: "There are a whole series of concerns that we have, ranging from the situation in the media and the persistent use of criminal libel to stifle media; the increased religious persecution that we've seen in Kyrgyzstan that seems to mimic the policies of Uzbekistan, which have been long decried as outrageously persecutory; and also, yes, the general situation with political participation."

For his part, Akaev stressed that local political participation in Kyrgyzstan is better than in any other country of the former Soviet Union. He said local governments has no representatives from the central government and compares favorably with local bodies in Switzerland and France.

Perhaps -- but some members of the audience could be heard chuckling.