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(Un)Civil Societies: March 4, 2008

Will Violence In Armenia Fuel Passions Further?

Armored troops in the capital, Yerevan, on March 2

For many watching Armenia, the question now is what impact the deadly clashes between police and protesters will have on the resolve of opposition supporters.

Seven protesters and one police officer were reported killed in clashes late on March 1 after demonstrators defied a state of emergency and regrouped in a central square in the capital, Yerevan. Earlier in the day, police and Interior Ministry troops had used truncheons, tear gas, and electric stun guns to disperse thousands of opposition protesters.

The weekend violence erupted at a point when the daily demonstrations had already begun to lose momentum, after swelling to at least 35,000 people earlier in the week.

RFE/RL regional analyst Liz Fuller says the government, in authorizing the use of force, might have inadvertently given the protests a longer life than they would have had otherwise.

"They might not have died out for another week, or two weeks, or three weeks," she says, "but if the authorities had simply turned a blind eye, I would think that within two weeks you would have seen a falling off in the number of people out there in the streets -- people would have simply given up hope."

The First Stone

The government and opposition are now fighting over different versions of how the violence began.

The police say they had to use force to quell a group of demonstrators who had looted downtown stores and were barricading streets with city buses and assembling gasoline bombs. The opposition, meanwhile, accuses the government of sending provocateurs into the crowd.

Fuller calls "exceedingly doubtful" the authorities' claims that they were forced to act because protesters were gathering weapons. The timing of the first round of crackdowns, moreover, showed possible signs of forethought, she says.

"I think the timing of the initial police action was significant -- the early morning of the day before the presidential elections in Russia," she says. "If everything had gone smoothly, without violence, then possibly the international community would barely have registered what had happened, and perhaps this is what the Armenian authorities were hoping for."

Media Blackout

Incumbent President Robert Kocharian imposed a state of emergency following the initial wave of violence on March 1, 11 days after the contested vote.

The state of emergency bans mass gatherings and requires media outlets to use only official information when reporting on the domestic political situation. It also restricts the movement of citizens and allows authorities to search vehicles.

The measure has effectively muzzled the country's already largely compliant media. There has been virtually no news coverage inside Armenia regarding the clashes and deaths. (RFE/RL's Armenian-language broadcasts have been banned from the airwaves since March 1, and its website has been blocked.)

Opposition figure Levon Ter-Petrossian, whose failed bid in the February 19 election sparked the protests, remains under virtual house arrest. His home is surrounded by police and he says he has not been permitted to leave the grounds.

Ter-Petrossian has accused Kocharian of using the 20-day state of emergency to paralyze his ability to continue rallying the opposition. "Losing the square means losing the connection to the people," he told reporters from his home on March 2.

Kocharian's preferred successor, current Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, won the election in a vote warily characterized by Western observers as basically free and fair. Ter-Petrossian and his supporters contest the official results, saying fraud and pressure were rampant and that he, not Sarkisian, is the rightful winner.

Heikki Talvitie, a special envoy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is continuing talks in Yerevan with Kocharian and Sarkisian on preventing further violence.

In Washington, the State Department announced that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza would travel to Armenia to help "facilitate discussions" between the government and the opposition.

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said that the United States does not want "people to move from peaceful expressions of political opinions and engage in violence," but is in no way signaling its support for a crackdown.

The 'Leader for Life' Governance Model

By Christopher Walker

Handing over the reins

With Russia's presidential election on March 2, "Operation Successor," the Kremlin's finely orchestrated plan to hand power to a dependable ally of Vladimir Putin, is reaching its crowning moment.

Two months ago, on December 10, Putin endorsed soft-spoken and uncharismatic First Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev as his chosen successor. The next day, Medvedev made it known that he would support Putin becoming Russia's prime minister. Then, a week later, Putin completed the circle by agreeing to become prime minister if the 42-year-old Medvedev were elected president, an outcome that is effectively guaranteed in Russia's tightly controlled political system.

Putin had for some time coyly hinted that he would retain an influential role for himself, indicating on November 13 -- before December's parliamentary elections -- that a strong performance by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party would give him the "moral right" to keep a grip on power after he reached his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in 2008. Unified Russia unsurprisingly won a crushing victory on December 2 in what observers deemed to be patently unfair elections. This elaborate political choreography seems designed to craft a new and enduring role for Putin at the pinnacle of Russia's politics.

In his presidential news conference on February 14, 2008, Putin indicated his view on the matter, saying, "The premiership is not a transitional post." Speaking of the goals he set for Russia's development through the year 2020, Putin added, "If I can see that in this capacity [of prime minister] I can fulfill these goals, I will work as long as possible."

The Kremlin's succession rollout is noteworthy for its meticulousness, but Putin's project to retain political dominance represents part of a broader pattern in which the leaders of a regionally diverse and strategically relevant set of states are attempting to secure unchecked power. By pushing opposing voices to the sidelines and undercutting independent institutions, these rulers are doggedly pursuing a deeply illiberal model of governance: the leader for life.

Dodgy Referendums

A critical mass of "leaders for life" is entrenched in the former Soviet Union, where the prevailing method for retaining power has been the orchestration of referendums to lift constitutionally prescribed term limits.

For instance, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has ruled that country since 1990, pushed through constitutional changes last August that exempt him from term limits. He had already extended his term through a referendum in 1995. On August 18, 2007, Nazarbaev's party won nearly 90 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, sweeping all remaining opposition forces from the country's legislature. The constitutional changes in 2007 paved the way for Nazarbaev to remain in power indefinitely.

In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who first came to power in 1994, engineered a vote in October 2004 that removed presidential term limits. Lukashenka went on to receive 83 percent of the vote in April 2006 elections that the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights deemed neither free nor fair. With restraints no longer in place, the Belarusian leader has signaled his intention to run again in 2011.

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon in 2003 pushed through a referendum that amended the constitution and opened the door for him to remain in power until 2020. Rahmon was head of state from 1992 to 1994, when he was elected president. A constitutional change in 1999, when he was reelected, increased presidential terms from five to seven years. In the 2006 presidential election, he was credited with 80 percent of the vote.

Uzbekistan's constitution currently states that the president is permitted to serve only two seven-year terms. President Islam Karimov, who assumed power as first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic's Communist Party in 1989, was elected president of independent Uzbekistan in 1992. In 1995, Karimov extended his presidential term until 2000. He was reelected in 2000 for another five-year term, but prolonged it to seven years through a national referendum in January 2002.

While his peers in post-Soviet states have at least made the effort to hold managed referendums that would extend their terms, Karimov dispensed with such legal niceties and in December 2007 stood again for reelection, ignoring the constitutional prohibition. The Uzbek leader, whose regime has expunged independent news media and civil society, faced no genuine opposition in the poll (in fact, all three "challengers" endorsed his candidacy). In the end, he was credited with 90 percent of the vote.

Keeping It In The Family

Other leader-for-life systems feature a dynastic twist. Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev cleared the path for his son, Ilham, to carry on his legacy once the aging president proved too ill to rule himself. A 2002 referendum altered the presidential succession process so that the prime minister, rather than the speaker of parliament, would become acting president if the president resigned or became incapacitated. Ilham Aliyev was named prime minister soon thereafter. As Heydar Aliyev's health declined further in 2003, he withdrew his candidacy for reelection, allowing his son to coast to victory with 76 percent of the vote.

This phenomenon can be found beyond the former Soviet Union. In Syria, family rule has apparently been institutionalized. In Egypt and Libya, where the sitting leaders' tenures are measured in decades rather than years, conditions are also ripe for handing the presidency from father to son. In Cuba, a fraternal handoff of power is being completed.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, in power for nearly three decades, has presided over one of the most catastrophic societal implosions in recent history, and is now dragging what remains of his country into an economic, political, and social morass. According to government reports, Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate reached a mind-boggling 66,000 percent in December 2007, although some observers believe that this figure may understate the true magnitude of the problem. Mugabe, who turned 84 on February 21, is looking to secure a sixth term in office in elections to be held on March 29.

In December, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sought to push through a referendum on a new constitution that would have dramatically expanded his powers and done away with presidential term limits. This initiative was narrowly defeated. Chavez said after the vote, however, that his plans were only derailed "for now" and that his proposals to reform the constitution remained "alive." Despite growing public dissatisfaction with his rule, Chavez has stated his ambition to remain in power until 2050, when he will be 95 years old.

In Russia, the Kremlin's current succession gambit has largely adhered to the letter of the constitution, but the document's spirit is certainly being tested. Dmitry Medvedev is poised to assume the presidency, while Vladimir Putin will swap his current post for that of prime minister. The net result of this managed transfer of power is that there has been no meaningful debate of policy issues among a diverse range of political forces. The Russian public remains disconnected from the small elite that determines who holds and uses power.

Such controlled and insular politics clearly have profound drawbacks. The leader-for-life system creates a zero-sum, winner-takes-all approach to governing. And with unchecked power comes unchecked corruption. In fact, "hyper-corruption" is the soft underbelly of this model, in which accountability and transparency are all but nonexistent. It is no surprise that all of the countries in question are trapped at the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. For example, despite Putin's ambition to create a "dictatorship of law" and the prominence of anticorruption initiatives on the Kremlin's policy agenda, the scourge of corruption in Russia has grown in recent years. INDEM, a policy institute in Moscow, estimates that bribery and graft in Russia are now at the level of some $300 billion per year.

The oppressive dominance of the leaders for life smothers the institutions -- an independent judiciary, free media, and political opposition, among others -- that are essential not only for tackling massive corruption but also for improving the quality of public policy, thus preventing meaningful reform in the spheres of education, health, and public infrastructure.

For all of its obvious flaws, however, the leader-for-life phenomenon may have some staying power, especially in resource-rich states such as Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, where otherwise brittle regimes are cushioned by oil prices hovering around $100 per barrel. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the wave of democratization that washed across much of the globe in the last generation seemed to signal that life-presidencies had been cast onto the ash heap of history. Their survival suggests that this retrograde form of governance is more resilient than previously imagined.

(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.)

Russia's Oil Wealth Trickling Down -- But Not Far Enough

By Claire Bigg

Has Russia's new wealth left behind many Russians?

Like every evening, Igor Bokov and his family gather around the broad kitchen table to share dinner and talk about their day.

The 42-year-old entrepreneur lives with his wife, their four children, and his mother-in-law in a large wooden house some 25 kilometers south of Moscow.

The three-story house, painted a cheerful blue and pink, has a vegetable patch, a shed with farm animals, and a large garden dotted with fruit trees.

Bokov, a tall, solid man with an unabashed affection for his family, has grabbed the opportunities unleashed by the Soviet collapse with both hands. Today, he runs a successful chain of electronics repair shops in Moscow, owns a flat in the city, and is building two more houses for his children.

It's a far cry, he says, from his own frugal childhood in Soviet-era Moscow.

"I built a solid business that has been able to generate money, which we chose to place in real estate rather than in banks," he says. "I think it's a good investment, and it also provides the children with a future -- not like what I had, sharing a room with my mother in a communal flat."

New World Of Plenty

Bokov is not alone in reaping the fruits of Russia's still-young market economy. The overall standard of living in Russia has come a long way since Soviet times, particularly since high oil prices began flooding the country with petrodollars some five years ago.

According to President Vladimir Putin, purchasing power in Russia rose by an average of 10 percent last year, despite soaring inflation and a record price increase on basic foodstuffs. The country has seen robust economic growth, with GDP rising steadily at around 7 percent a year for the past several years.

Russia's new wealth has sparked an all-out consumer frenzy across the country, although much of the shopping is still concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Cocktail bars, sushi restaurants, and designer boutiques have sprung up in places where, in a not-too-distant past, hungry people once queued up for bread.

Russians can now purchase the latest Swedish furniture designs in one of their country's 10 IKEA stores. The furniture giant is poised to open two more shops in southern Russia this spring.

Big-city dwellers can also freely indulge in late-night cravings for Italian cheese, fresh fish, or mango juice -- Russia's sprawling, round-the-clock supermarkets have it all.

"It's like night and day," Bokov says. "If 15 years ago, shelves were empty and there were huge lines for products as basic as toilet paper, now shelves are piled high with a wide variety of products. People once found it hard to believe that 30 types of sausages were sold in Germany. Now shops here offer much more than 30 different kinds of sausages, and this no longer surprises anyone."

Feeling Poor

But is this abundance making Russians happier?

To a certain extent, it is. The Russian Academy of Sciences' Psychology Institute has kept a tally of suicides, murders, mental disorders, orphans, and divorces in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The figures, although still significantly higher than in most Western countries, have been steadily receding over the past five years.

But Andrei Yurevich, the institute's deputy director, says Russia's mounting riches also carry the potential for social discord.

"The positive changes in recent years give ground for optimism," Yurevich says. "But economics are not the only factor here. In some cases, economic growth can even cause deterioration in a society's psychological state. The growing economic pie, for instance, is being divided very unequally -- the rich are getting richer, and this affects the psyche of the poor."

While life has become more comfortable for the vast majority of Russians, the bulk of petrodollars has landed in the hands of a select few.

According to the Russian magazine "Finance," the number of dollar billionaires in Russia last year jumped from 61 to 101, with the country's 10 richest people sitting on a combined fortune of $221 billion.

Such massive wealth stands in stark contrast to the millions of Russians who continue to live well below the poverty line.

Officials put this figure at 13 percent of the population. Sociologists, however, prefer estimations based on the population's own perception. Surveys conducted by Russia's respected Levada polling center found that 32 percent of Russians considered themselves living in poverty in 2007. It's a marked decline from 48 percent in 2000, but still high for a country with the world's sixth-biggest economy.

Respondents, on average, described the poverty threshold last year as 3,000 rubles ($122) per person per month. This sum is barely enough to cover basic expenses. A monthly transportation coupon in Moscow, for example, can cost as much as 1,800 rubles ($73), and a pensioner benefiting from a 50 percent discount will still have to pay some 1,300 rubles ($53) a month on utilities for a one-room flat in the capital.

Trading Liberties For Well-Being

The deepening gap between Russia's rich and poor puts the country on the list of socially volatile countries. According to the World Trade Organization, countries where the richest segment of the population earns at least 14 times more than the poorest are prone to severe social unrest. This figure has reached 15 in Russia.

The Kremlin fears a repeat of the protests over social-benefit changes (AFP)

No wonder, then, that Putin has made improving living standards one of the top priorities for 2008. The outgoing president is intent upon consolidating his regime, but needs the support of Russia's nascent middle class to do so.

In return, the middle class, for the time being, appears to be willing to muzzle any concerns about the Kremlin's clampdown on civil liberties -- but only as long as economic conditions remain stable.

Improvements in living standards during the past several years have generally been enough to prevent widespread discontent over continued shortcomings in health care, housing, and education.

Polls show that the majority of Russians are willing to trade some of their rights for more stability. But not all are turning a blind eye to the government's failings and its rollback of the democratic freedoms gained in the 1990s.

Bokov, for instance, condemns the upcoming presidential vote as falling short of international standards for free and fair elections. And as a small-business man, he says the Kremlin has done far too little to protect the rights of the country's burgeoning entrepreneurial class.

Law Of Diminishing Returns

The highly popular Putin and his likely successor after the March 2 election, Dmitry Medvedev, may see their ratings fall in the long term without much-needed reforms in the social sphere.

Marina Krasilnikova, a living-standards expert at the Levada Center, says the situation presents "a kind of trap" for the Kremlin.

"On the one hand, the political regime must continue raising living standards," she says. "On the other hand, rising living standards will generate higher expectations toward the regime concerning the quality and the delivery of services such as education and health care. Then conflicts will arise. I don't know whether the regime is prepared for this."

Ordinary Russians, on the contrary, seem prepared for anything -- including a repeat of the 1998 financial meltdown that wiped out their savings overnight. To a large extent, Russia's consumer frenzy is a testament to misgivings about the sustainability of the current financial boon. Many Russians still prefer to spend their money than save it.

Back at the Bokovs' pretty suburban home, the family's real-estate investments are a recurrent topic of conversation around the dinner table. Igor Bokov, too, is uncertain of what the future holds. Like most Russians, years of privation and the wild instability of the 1990s have left him with a guiding principle -- get it while you can.

"There are rumors predicting financial meltdowns, devaluation. People are afraid of losing their savings and of keeping it under a pillow or in stockings as they used to," he says. "People don't trust banks either -- we've all been through perestroika and 1998. The demand for consumer goods is growing not because people need a second video recorder or a second television, but because they want to invest their money before it completely evaporates."

(RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Chloe Arnold contributed to this report.)

Iranian Activist 'Dynamic Duo' Fight For Human Rights

By Farangis Najibullah
He's spent almost a third of his life in prison as a political dissident. She's been arrested many times on myriad charges. Together, Taqi Rahmani and Narges Mohammadi are a dynamic duo of political activism -- husband-and-wife "superheroes" fighting human rights abuses by Iran's theocratic regime.

It's not easy. But despite the regular time in prison -- an increasingly common fact of life for Iranian activists, particularly during an intensified crackdown on dissent ahead of parliamentary elections next month -- the couple vows to continue its campaign to defend human rights in the Islamic republic.

Rahmani is the author of some 26 books and articles on religious modernism. In 2005, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch awarded Rahmani the Hellman/Hammett grant -- a prize that the group bestows on writers targeted for expressing views that governments do not want reported.

The 47-year-old has long been critical of the relationship between religion and politics in Iran. He says that theocratic rule has had an undeniably negative impact on his country's democratic development.

"As a Muslim who supports freedom and democracy, I am opposed to a number of principles and positions of the Islamic republic," Rahmani says. "That's how I got involved in politics as an author and activist. I belong to a movement that is known in Iran as a nationalist-religious movement. This movement believes that religion should serve civil society. It also believes that all Iranians have equal rights, and that they should be seen as equal citizens despite their different viewpoints. For these ideas, I've spent more than 14 years in prison."

Rahmani's wife knows all about prison, too. A 36-year-old mother of two, Mohammadi is an engineer by day. But her passion is the rights of political prisoners and women. She is a spokeswoman for the Iranian Center for Defenders of Human Rights, the organization led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Ebadi says both Mohammadi and her husband are well-known and well-respected among Iranian intellectuals and rights supporters, though the couple has paid a heavy price to gain such respect.

"Being a human rights activist in Iran is not easy work," Ebadi says. "It's not easy to work in this field. But we shouldn't forget that Iranian women, including Mohammadi, have a willpower far greater than all the difficulties they face."

University Activism

Mohammadi's political activities began during her student days at Qazvin University, where she studied physics and engineering.

It was at Qazvin where she met her future husband. Rahmani used to teach evening classes where participants -- including students, journalists, and teachers -- would discuss politics, human rights, and the role of religion in society. Rahmani says favorite topics included Islam and human rights, Islam and democracy, and Islam and civil society.

Mohammadi soon swapped her favorite hobby, mountain climbing, for a new one -- politics and human rights. In Iran, it was to prove a high mountain to climb.

Narges Mohammadi has fought for prisoners and women (ISNA)

She became known as a key activist at university and soon followed in Rahmani's footsteps by writing articles in independent newspapers criticizing the human rights situation in the country. It was the late 1990s, a favorable time for independent publications increasing in number under reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

By the time he met Narges, Rahmani had already served two prison terms -- 11 years in total -- for expressing his political views through books and articles.

In 1981, Rahmani was imprisoned for three years for his writings in an underground publication, "Pishtaz." Five years later he was arrested again, and sentenced to eight years in prison for his writing on religion and politics.

Rahmani resumed his work as a writer and journalist following his latest release from prison. But most newspapers remain reluctant to publish his work.

"Because of existing pressures, newspapers nowadays do not publish our articles," Rahmani says. "Generally, in countries like Iran, newspapers do not have too much freedom. They cannot publish whatever they want. There are certain conditions that usually create problems and restrictions for newspapers."

Both husband and wife have worked for reformist newspapers and magazines, including "Iran-e Farda" (Tomorrow's Iran,) a reformist publication that has subsequently been banned.

A Marriage Made In Prison

The couple got married in 2001, only to be separated soon afterward when Rahmani was again sentenced to two separate jail terms between 2001 and 2005.

In one case, Rahmani and two fellow journalists were arrested on the orders of Tehran's chief prosecutor. They spent almost two years under arbitrary detention without being charged.

Her husband's numerous arrests helped turn Mohammadi's attention to the plight of political prisoners in Iran. She began campaigning against the practice of putting people behind bars for merely expressing their opinion.

Mohammadi has publicly criticized the authorities for violating "the most basic principles of law -- keeping people in prison illegally, without charge, sentence, and trial." She says defense lawyers in many cases can't even get access to their imprisoned clients' files.

For such criticism, Mohammadi has twice been imprisoned. With firsthand experience of life behind bars, Mohammadi now tries to assist jailed dissidents and their families. Through the Center for Defenders of Human Rights, she provides lawyers for political prisoners who cannot afford to pay for their defense. The center also offers legal advice and counseling for dissidents' family members when necessary.

Mohammadi tells RFE/RL that the center's members want to raise people's awareness of their social, political, and human rights through media, meetings, and discussions. They also publish regular reports on human rights to attract domestic and international attention to the issue.

Are Mohammadi and her husband afraid of more time in prison -- or worse? "In Iran, you don't have to be a human rights activist to get arrested," she says. "In our country, many teachers and workers are put in jail merely for asking the government to increase their wages. Students are put behind bars for wanting their own publications. The Iranian government does not tolerate any criticism."

But is the sacrifice of Mohammadi and other Iranian rights defenders, scores of whom have been jailed in recent weeks, paying off?

Abdulfattah Sultani believes it is. A Center for Defenders of Human Rights founding member, Sultani says rights activism in Iran is not a line of work that shows quick results. However, he believes that activists such as Mohammadi and Rahmani have already brought positive change to Iranian society.

"Nowadays, the authorities are trying to comply with human rights -- at least, they try to make it seem that way," Sultani says. "They are trying to improve prison conditions. With regard to women's issues, society has gradually accepted the fact that patriarchic laws should be abolished. Several religious leaders in the city of Qom recently issued a religious decree, which says women have equal rights to compensation, and that a woman's evidence is no longer equal only to half of a man's evidence."

Mohammadi, for her part, says Iranian society is moving toward democratic changes and better human rights conditions. She believes there is "no going back."

"Iranian society is rapidly moving toward claiming its right to democracy," she says. "Students, workers, teachers, women, and young people -- these different groups have serious claims, and the government has to answer them. The government has to give them a satisfying response. It's not a question of a handful of people -- it is about an entire nation."

It's also about a brave couple that fell in love. And dared to speak truth to power.

Uzbekistan: Is EU's 'Engagement' Policy With Karimov Bearing Fruit?

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Umida Niyazova believes international pressure secured her amnesty

Bobomurod Mavlonov quickly joined his family in the central Uzbek city of Navoi after spending 2 1/2 years in an Uzbek prison for charges that he says were politically motivated.

He says his release was a big surprise. "I returned to my family on the same day" that prison authorities told him of his release. One of them accompanied me -- he brought me home. I am resting now. I should get some medical treatment."

The 62-year-old Mavlonov was one of more than two dozen human rights activists who had criminal charges brought against them in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown against protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005, when security forces shot dead hundreds of demonstrators.

He was convicted of corruption and abuse of office. Mavlonov, a member of the Erk opposition party, said the charges were trumped up.

But he and four other activists -- Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, Dilmurod Muhitdinov, Ikhtior Hamraev, and Bahodir Mukhtarov -- were freed from prison on February 2-4.

The surprise release came on the eve of a key meeting in Tashkent between European Union and Uzbek officials on February 5.

Just Window Dressing?

Umida Niyazova, who was serving a suspended prison term, was also amnestied on February 3. Niyazova links her amnesty with international pressure put on the Uzbek government and a current "thaw" in relations between Uzbekistan and the West.

"I was amnestied, although a month earlier I received a formal refusal" from the authorities, she says. "Therefore I am absolutely positive that there is a direct link between my amnesty and international relations."

But other activists are skeptical about the releases, saying they are merely window dressing and that they don't signal any true change in the Uzbek government's abysmal human rights policy.

Dadakhon Hasan is a dissident singer and poet who was given a three-year suspended sentence in 2006 for writing and performing a song about the events in Andijon. He says the release of other prisoners that Uzbek President Islam Karimov considers his "enemies" is highly unlikely.

"They will not release those who they consider dangerous [for the regime]. Many are set free after they beg [Karimov's] pardon," Hasan says. "Others refuse to ask for a pardon. Their release is out of sight in my opinion."

The EU welcomed the move to release the prisoners. It also noted that a number of other human rights defenders are still jailed in Uzbekistan and it called for their immediate release.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for the further release of more than a dozen activists. Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, says the release of the six rights activists is "extremely significant" and demonstrates that sustained international pressure on Tashkent works.

International Pressure Working?

"These releases show that international pressure sustained over time on the Uzbek government can be effective in securing concrete progress in human rights," Goldston says. "This proves that the sanctions policy that the EU has in place has the potential to trigger positive change."

Goldston points out that more than a dozen other rights activists remain behind bars and "there is more that needs to be done." She continues: "These are significant initial steps that really show that the sanctions work as an effective leverage on the Uzbek government and it sends a message that the EU needs to maintain pressure and secure the release of all the other prisoners who are behind bars on account of their human rights work."

Goldston says the EU should maintain the pressure on Tashkent and "not give away the leverage prematurely."

Some observers believe the arrest on February 19 of Deputy Prosecutor-General Anvar Nabiev -- who was responsible for the prosecution of many of those imprisoned after the Andijon events -- is also connected to EU pressure.

The release of the jailed activists is one of the EU's demands outlined in a declaration adopted by EU foreign ministers in October 2007.

The EU came under fire after it suspended a visa ban on top Uzbek officials in October. Uzbek and international human rights groups accused Brussels of being "too soft" and also putting energy and geopolitical interests ahead of human rights and democracy.

The EU imposed the visa ban and a weapons embargo on Uzbekistan in October 2005 in response to the bloodshed at Andijon. The suspension of the visa ban came with a list of tough conditions attached to it.

Among the conditions the Uzbek government has yet to meet are full access by international bodies to the remaining prisoners, access to Uzbekistan for UN special rapporteurs, and the ability of nongovernmental organizations -- including HRW -- to operate freely in the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been trying to get access to Uzbek prisons for years. The committee's representative -- who spoke to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity -- said the ICRC has been engaged in negotiations with the Uzbek government but has not yet received access to the prisons.

There is speculation that the EU will not reinstate the visa ban when EU foreign ministers review it in late April, despite the Uzbek government's failure to meet most of the conditions needed for the ban to be waived.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted its own initiative report on an EU strategy for Central Asia on February 20. The report noted "the slowness of implementation" of the EU's 2007 strategy for Central Asia. Members of the European Parliament also called on the European Council and the European Commission to "ensure that human rights issues should carry equal weight with the EU's robust approach to energy, security, and trade."

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)