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Central Asia: Senior U.S. Diplomat Urges Regional Reform

By Diane Kim

A senior U.S. diplomat says Central Asia's authoritarian governments must carry out significant political and economic reforms if they wish to enjoy strong relations with America.

Washington, 7 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner is urging the governments of Central Asia to shed their authoritarian ways and take real steps toward democratic reform.

Craner, a vocal critic of Central Asia's autocrats, is again pointing to lack of official accountability in Kyrgyzstan and media repression in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as areas that need improvement.

He warned that a lack of progress could jeopardize the improved ties Washington has developed with Central Asia since the war on terrorism began following the 11 September 2001 attacks on America. "The countries of Central Asia will only enjoy strong and lasting relationships with the U.S. if they also take serious steps in political and economic reform," Craner said.

In remarks to a group of law students in Washington last week, Craner -- the top U.S. diplomat in charge of human rights and labor issues -- broadly addressed the challenges and opportunities for democracy in postcommunist Central Asia.

Craner said the attacks of September 2001 gave the U.S. a greater incentive to strengthen its ties to Central Asia, where it set up military bases to assist the assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan. Craner added that Washington is also intent on ensuring that the instability and terrorist elements still in Afghanistan do not spill over into Central Asian states.

But the diplomat was quick to note that despite small improvements in some areas of civil society, the Central Asian governments have achieved little in the way of political or economic reform.

As examples, he cited last year's unsolved killing of five unarmed protesters in Kyrgyzstan, which he said demonstrates a continued lack of government accountability. He also noted the conviction of Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov, saying it highlighted the country's flawed constitutional referendum.

"In Uzbekistan, we have seen a very mixed record on human rights," he said. "There have been small but significant steps in the past 18 months. But such progress is often negated by continuing, credible reports on torture, deaths, and [people being taken into] custody. To date, there has not been credible accountability for a number of these deaths. The latest events, including the conviction of independent journalist Ruslan Sharipov, the severe beating of a member of his defense team, and the threats to the International Crisis Group, call into question the government of Uzbekistan's continued commitment to human rights."

Craner said that harassment of the independent media reached its low point in Kazakhstan with the conviction earlier this year of journalist Sergei Duvanov on rape charges. Human rights activists have called those charges politically motivated.

Craner urged the Kazakh government to address the lack of legal due process in Duvanov's case. "We are waiting the enactment of media NGO and electoral legislation that meets OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] commitments," he said.

Again, Craner said that unless the countries of Central Asia address these individual cases and take concrete actions to remedy them -- as they have told U.S. officials they will do -- relations with Washington are unlikely to blossom.

Craner said the decline in freedom in the region is a direct "product of the political system." But while democratic elections would be a key step forward, Craner said, "what happens in between elections is the fabric of democracy."

For example, he explained that the presence of an informed public with access to independent media means there is less possibility of election fraud. "Let me stress up front that democratic elections alone do not, in and of themselves, make a country democratic," he said. "What happens in between elections is the fabric of democracy. But elections can provide the framework for that fabric; and they are certainly a clear indicator of a government's commitment to democracy."

Once "backsliding" countries show their "political will" to establish the conditions for democratic elections, Craner said Washington will have a greater incentive to assist in their development.