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Caucasus/Central Asia: U.S. Sees Human Rights Backsliding In Former Soviet Union

Two senior U.S. diplomats, Elizabeth Jones and Lorne Craner, criticized democracy and human rights setbacks in Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia yesterday in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Washington, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Despite some small signs of hope, Washington sees more setbacks than advances in democracy and human rights in many countries of the former Soviet Union.

That, at least, was a key messages conveyed yesterday by two U.S. assistant secretaries of state in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- an independent, bipartisan federal agency that promotes human rights.

Elizabeth Jones and Lorne Craner took part in the hearing on U.S. policy toward nations of concern in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security group that includes all of Europe, the former Soviet Union, America, and Canada.

The hearing addressed human rights concerns in such problem areas as Chechnya, Belarus, and Central Asia ahead of a key OSCE human rights meeting next month in Poland.

The U.S. diplomats said they see recent signs of progress on democracy and human rights in some places, such as the Balkans, while much of the rest of Eastern Europe gets ready to join NATO and the European Union next year.

But they were quick to note that nations with significant problems on human rights and democracy usually took more steps backward than forward during the past year.

"When we look at countries in the region that have made extraordinary progress in the last 10 or 15 years, the lack of progress by other countries is all the more disheartening. It is most disheartening for the people of those countries who see other nations which have emerged from the Soviet empire now joining NATO and the EU and enjoying the fruits of democracy," Craner said.

Craner went on to talk about Central Asia. He said that despite increased U.S. ties to the region since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America, which has led to increased American aid, the picture remains mixed on Central Asia's democratic progress.

"I've been telling the Central Asians that time is not on their side, that they need to show the U.S. and show the Congress that they are serious about reform, if they wish our relations to grow stronger and our assistance to continue," Craner said.

Among the problems Washington sees in Central Asia, Craner cited:

-- Tajikistan's "flawed" constitutional referendum, which could leave President Imomali Rakhmonov in office for another 14 years.

-- In Kyrgyzstan, besides a flawed constitutional referendum and decline in media freedom, there's an apparent lack of government accountability for last year's killing of five unarmed protesters. Craner said that without such accountability, "the rule of law will remain beyond reach for the Kyrgyz people."

-- In Kazakhstan, there's a lack of due process for political prisoners, and the U.S. is awaiting the enactment of legislation for the media, elections, and nongovernmental organizations that meets OSCE commitments.

-- In Uzbekistan, recent progress was cut short in May with the death of two prisoners by torture. There has been no credible accounting for these deaths, and coupled with the conviction of journalist Ruslan Sharipov and beating of his lawyer, Craner said Uzbekistan's commitment to human rights remains in question. Without addressing such issues, it will be difficult for U.S.-Uzbek ties to reach their potential.

-- In Turkmenistan, after a brief pause, the government is again suppressing religious freedoms. Craner added that government used the attempted assassination of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to quash whatever opposition and civil society existed.

Elsewhere, Craner said, Armenia failed to make democratic progress when its elections earlier this year were marred by manipulation. He urged other countries not to make the same mistake as they look to upcoming elections that could greatly affect their democratic development. They include Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia.

Craner added: "As to the October presidential election in Chechnya, holding a democratic election in such an environment will be extremely difficult. Nonetheless, it is possible that a legitimate election could potentially contribute to the end of that conflict."

But Congressman Christopher Smith, co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, had some other tough questions on Chechnya ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush's summit later this month at his Camp David retreat with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"By admission of the official Moscow-backed authorities in Chechnya, there are 49 mass graves containing about 3,000 bodies in Chechnya. I wonder if you can tell us: will President Bush raise these atrocities with Moscow?" Smith asked.

Craner's colleague Jones replied that Chechnya will be on Bush's summit agenda, but could not say whether he would bring up this issue.

Moving on, Jones acknowledged that in Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has cracked down on the independent media and civil society, Washington is running out of levers to promote change. But she added: "There's no question that it's very tough to influence Lukashenka, but the one area where we still have some ability to function is that there still is a bit of a free media, there's still a bit of a civil society,there still are activists in the Belarusian body politic who need and want the outside support and the moral support that we, the OSCE, the European Union can provide."

Jones said that even as those elements in Belarus come under further attack from the government, Washington, the EU, and the OSCE will carry on supporting them. But the diplomat added: "I won't hide from you that it's extremely difficult."