Opening Statement of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Joint Hearing with Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia: "Silencing Central Asia: the Voice of Dissidents"

Washington, 18 July 2001





Today, the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia are meeting jointly to hear testimony on the subject of Silencing Central Asia: the Voice of Dissidents.

When the five countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – achieved independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years ago, many Americans had high hopes that democracy and respect for human rights, so long suppressed by Soviet communist tyranny, would take root in these storied lands of the ancient Silk Road. Regrettably, that has not happened. In fact, the prospects for democracy and respect for human rights have progressively deteriorated.

Central Asia presents the United States with a fundamental dilemma. It is a resource-rich area in a strategically important part of the world. The regimes that rule these countries use the specter of Islamic insurgency to justify their repression. Actually, their brutality generates popular support for the very forces they seek to eradicate.

In Kazakhstan, for example, President Nazarbayev has virtually eliminated any semblance of an independent judiciary, freedom of the press is essentially non-existent, and opposition political party leaders are either in exile or constantly harassed by government forces. In a technological twist on repression, the government even controls and manipulates all traffic on the Internet. There is, thus, little accountability for the government’s actions.

Time and time again, we have heard about corruption in Kazakhstan. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal of July 6th and one by Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist, in the July 9th New Yorker described the bribes and corruption that exist there at the highest levels. Corruption, especially in Kazakhstan, is at an appalling level and it should and must stop.

At the hearing that Mr. Gilman chaired on June 6th of this year, the State Department witness, Mr. Clifford Bond, stated that "the overarching goal of U.S. policy in Central Asia is to see these states develop into stable, free-market democracies, as a bulwark against potential instability and conflict in the region." Yet, the persistence of corruption and repression has eroded public support for the region’s governments, undermined economic development and discouraged foreign and domestic investment. In short, these countries appear more likely to be sources of instability and conflict, rather than bulwarks against those threats to U.S. interests in the region.

U.S. policy toward Central Asia during the previous eight years failed to address this troubling situation effectively. That was because the message from Washington was inconsistent and lacked credibility.

There are hopeful signs, however, that real change is on the way. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently responded to a written question submitted at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Senator Biden about what message Secretary Powell would send to the leaders of Central Asia on the fundamental importance of human rights. Secretary Powell responded by saying:

"The message we should send to these leaders is very simple: Democracy and respect for human rights are basic values for the United States government and its people. We will continue to press you on these issues at every opportunity. We think it is in your own self interest to empower your citizens both politically and economically, because in the end they will not support you if they do not have a stake in your country’s future."

There is real hope for the people of Central Asia in those words.

On March 8th during a hearing of the full House International Relations hearing with Secretary Powell I raised the matter of the political imprisonment under harsh conditions of two of former Prime Minister Kazhegeldin’s security assistants. One of them, Pyotr Afanasenko, has since been released. The other, Satzhan Ibrayev, is, however, still in prison and I urge the government of Kazakhstan to release him as well.

In addition to the distinguissed panel which I will introduce shortly, we have some honored guests from Kazakhstan in the audience, and I would appreciate it if they would stand to be recognized. They are all engaged in courageous actions to promote freedom of the press and democracy in their country. Their names are:

Two additional opposition figures that the Committee invited to attend this hearing were, unfortunately, detained at the airport and prevented by the government of Kazakhstan from traveling to Washington. We are holding their seats reserved for them even though they were prevented from attending the hearing. They are Mr. Amirzhan Kosanov, a senior officer of the Republican People’s Party, and Mr. Yermurat Bapi, editor-in-chief of the opposition SolDat newspaper. I pray for their safety and hope that one day they will be able to share their views with this Committee.

Comment After Testamony

I thank all of you for your testimony and I would like to especially thank those guests of the Committee who are here from Kazakhstan and who are on the front line of the fight for freedom.

A true national dialogue could begin if individuals of the stature of Mr. Kazhegeldin, who is with us today and who now lives in exile, are given personal guarantees for their safety and that of their families before returning to Kazakhstan.