Testimony of Michael E. Parmly
Joint Hearing with Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia: "Silencing Central Asia: the Voice of Dissidents"

Washington, 18 July 2001

Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of the Dissidents
Michael E. Parmly
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia
Committee on International Relations
House of Representatives
July 18, 2001

Madame Chairman, I am honored to represent the Administration here today, and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss with you and your committee the state of democracy and political freedom in Central Asia. We share the concerns many of you have expressed about trends in the region.

As they approach their tenth anniversary of independence, the states of Central Asia continue to face difficult social, economic and political problems. In addition, the region is bounded by Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, creating an "Arc of Instability" that poses additional challenges. Against this backdrop, the five Central Asian states have made varying attempts at democratization and free-market economic reform, with varying results.

The overarching goal of U.S. policy in Central Asia is to see these states develop into stable, free-market democracies,

both as a goal in itself and as a bulwark against regional instability and conflict. This broader goal serves three core strategic interests: regional security, political/economic reform and energy development. While our security and energy interests are important, in the long run none of these goals can be achieved until these governments undertake comprehensive reforms to enfranchise their people both economically and politically.

We have therefore encouraged, both through across-the-board political engagement and a variety of assistance programs, the formation of democratic civil societies and the development of free-market economies. We believe that such democratic values and institutions are the only real guarantors of long-term security and prosperity in this region and throughout the world. We have made this point repeatedly, both here in Washington, in the respective capitals and in other venues, such as the OSCE’s weekly meetings in Vienna.

In some countries, particularly Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there has been progress on economic reform. However, despite such efforts, progress towards democracy has been uneven at best, while in places like Turkmenistan, it is almost non-existent. Even more disturbing, however, has been the varying degrees of backsliding in countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan had been making progress but has recently chosen to retreat from that path by harassing NGOs and independent media. Growing levels of corruption have also contributed to reduced media and political freedoms throughout the region. We know these countries are capable of doing more and we want to help their societies make that leap to democracy. We need to help them by focusing on those elements essential for a flourishing democracy: political accountability, access to a marketplace of ideas, and an active civil society.

Political accountability, particularly as embodied by national elections, is the most obvious and well monitored aspect of democracy. In this area, the Central Asian republics have performed abysmally since gaining their independence. Each country recently has held two rounds of national elections, and all have been judged by the international community to be badly flawed. They have run the gamut from the problematic to the absurd. Turkmenistan's December 1999 elections were an utter farce, restricted to hand-picked government candidates and resulting in a Soviet-style turnout of nearly 99 percent. Tajikistan's elections, though flawed, were a major improvement over the previous round five years before; most significantly, they brought into office members of the Islamic Renaissance Party, the only openly Islamic party to participate in a Central Asian government coalition.

But of course, political democracy goes deeper than mere elections. Against all odds and despite the best efforts of these governments to suppress it, there are signs of a nascent democracy in much of Central Asia. Opposition parties proliferated throughout Central Asia in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and they continue to function in all but Turkmenistan, albeit under extreme pressure in most cases. Courageous political figures continue to speak out against government repression and corruption, facing personal risk of harassment, incarceration, and expulsion, not to mention the risk to their families, friends and associates. Nevertheless, such personal bravery can only go so far, and these democratic movements are in a vulnerable position. As a result of repeated manipulated elections, the Central Asian countries have only the façade of representative democracy -- they have national legislatures not accountable to the people, which for the most part rubber stamp decisions by the executive.

The fate of the independent media in Central Asia is similar. Many independent newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations sprang up over the last decade, some with broad news coverage and some with narrow target audiences. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan especially, these independent outlets flourished in the early years. However, they have come under increasing pressure of late, as their respective governments have conducted campaigns designed to eliminate and/or take over any news media that criticize or differ publicly with government policies. The governments have used various tactics: restrictive registration, frivolous or trumped-up tax investigations, criminal libel proceedings and withholding airwave frequencies or printing services, and orchestrating hostile buyouts of publishers or broadcasters by government surrogates.

Independent media face different challenges in the other Central Asian states. Media freedom is merely a footnote in Turkmenistan, where all outlets are government-owned and censorship is strict. The government of Uzbekistan allows private control only of local, non-political media outlets, and even they are coming under pressure in 2001. In Tajikistan independent media are an aberration from the situation in neighboring countries – the media thankfully survive because of government non-intervention. However, we were concerned by the recent efforts of the Tajik government to seek the extradition of Dodojon Atovulloev, an independent journalist who publishes a Tajik newspaper in Moscow. Fortunately, the reaction in Russia and abroad was strong and the Russian government released him shortly thereafter.

Finally, NGO activity has been perhaps the most impressive sign that while the governments of Central Asia often cling to autocratic traditions of the past, their people are truly beginning to understand the meaning of civil society. NGOs exist in all of the Central Asian countries and at all levels of society, even in Turkmenistan. Many of these organizations operate not only at the grass roots, but also take a leading role in advancing their chosen cause at a national level. They span such issues as health care & HIV/AIDS, environmental protection & resource conservation, women's and children's rights and faith-based organizations. NGO activities are not limited just to providing social services, but are increasingly taking on riskier issues, such as documenting human rights abuses and advocating peaceful political change and greater accountability of their governments.

For the most part, the Central Asian governments do not harass NGOs which do not engage in political activity and which avoid criticizing official policies. On the other hand, they often crack down on those NGOs that are politically active. NGOs involved in electoral education, election monitoring, and support for political party formation suffer badly under government restrictions.

In Kazakhstan, for example, the government continues to harass those NGOs and independent media outlets that recently lobbied against the draft media law. Tax police seized financial records and computers and asked the NGOs about "foreign financing" and their ties to the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the OSCE. The government claimed the NGOs broke the Law on Public Associations by accepting foreign funding of their activities, even though this law applies only to political parties and labor unions. We are concerned that this kind of harassment hampers the legitimate efforts of Kazakhstani citizens to exercise their rights to petition parliament.

Even more disturbing in Uzbekistan has been the recent death of Shovrik Ruzimuradov, head of the local branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). We were deeply dismayed to learn that Ruzimuradov died in police custody only two weeks ago, possibly as a result of ill-treatment. He had been held incommunicado, unable to see any of his family members or colleagues. His body was turned over by the police July 7, less than three weeks after his arrest. The Government of Uzbekistan maintains it is conducting a thorough investigation into Mr. Ruzimuradov’s death. Nothing less would be acceptable. Ruzimuradov, who once served as a deputy in the Uzbek parliament, had spoken out against government actions in recent months. Unfortunately, our most recent reports indicate increased pressure by Uzbekistan law enforcement agencies on members of NGO human rights groups.

Diplomatic Initiatives and Assistance Programs

In the face of such adversity and hardship, courageous men and women throughout Central Asia are risking their careers, their safety and, in the case of Mr. Ruzimuradov, their very lives, to bring democratic change to the region. We cannot abandon them in their struggle.

Against this backdrop, what can we do to help the people of Central Asia to achieve the dream of democracy and create for themselves a truly civil society, where political activists, independent journalists, and NGOs can operate freely and without risk to their livelihoods?

Over the past decade, we have given the Central Asian governments advice on constitutional and legislative reforms to create freely elected democratic political institutions. We have helped them create electoral commissions and the infrastructure necessary to administer free and fair elections. We have regularly reminded them of their obligations, as OSCE- participating states and members of the international community of nations, to respect and guarantee the fundamental human rights of their citizens. We have raised these issues at every level, from presidential meetings right down to daily embassy contacts both here in Washington and in their capitals abroad. Sometimes we succeed. Last month, the government of Kazakhstan withdrew from parliament a troubling draft law on religion, after consultation with the OSCE and others. Similarly, the Government of Uzbekistan released human rights activist Ismail Adylov after senior U.S. officials repeatedly raised the case during Foreign Minister Kamilov’s visit to Washington last month.

We have also emphasized to these governments that it is very much in their own best interest to complete the transition to a free-market democracy, as the only final guarantor of security, stability and prosperity. We remind them that their policies of repressing political ideas and restricting economic opportunity will only increase dissatisfaction among their population.

Even more topical is the problem of Islamic extremism. We have repeatedly expressed our view to Uzbekistan's President Karimov that his persecution and repression of legitimate, peaceful practitioners of Islam is counterproductive. Rather than lessening the threat, he is actually radicalizing Uzbekistan's disaffected and disenfranchised youth and driving them into the arms of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and its radical allies. We have seen signs that the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may soon escalate their own campaigns against peaceful Islamic activities, and we have cautioned them against such steps.

Unfortunately, our efforts to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Central Asia have not been enough. Indeed, these governments seem to be giving up on the reality of democracy (though they cling to the rhetoric). As a result, we have altered our approach. Democracy and human rights issues take up more of the agenda in our bilateral discussions. We raise general problems and individual cases ever more frequently in public statements or at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna.

In addition, we have reoriented our assistance programs to these states, shifting our democracy, economic, and humanitarian assistance more toward direct grants to local communities or via local NGOs, and rely less on government-to-government aid. We can point to rays of hope where targeted assistance has made a difference. For example, some communities have greater access to fresh water as a result of their use of citizen advocacy skills nurtured by U.S.-funded NGOs. Independent newspapers in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been able to fulfill their important function as watchdogs by trying to hold governments accountable, albeit at the local level. With U.S. support and training, newspapers regularly report on such issues as local corruption. In the case of Mr. Ruzimuradov’s recent death, his courageous colleagues at the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan were able to immediately inform the world of his tragic demise because it has a website and internet access, made possible in part by U.S. assistance.

Lest the governments misunderstand, we have made clear the central tenet of our assistance programs: "Aid Follows Reform." We do not seek to subvert these governments, nor undermine their authority. However, we will not allow our assistance to contribute to activities inconsistent with our own core values and beliefs.

As long as the Central Asian states remain unwilling to create democratic and market economic institutions and are unable to set aside ethnic and national rivalries to work together, they will be vulnerable to internal instability and/or external threats. The United States is trying to help these countries integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community of nations, to deepen their commitment to democratization, the rule of law and the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the Copenhagen Document and other OSCE documents their governments have all signed. We hope that these nations, at a crossroads both metaphorically and geographically, can and will develop over time into functioning free market democracies. We continue to urge them to undertake the reforms that will allow for a lasting and fruitful partnership with the United States and the West.