- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Elections this week in two of Central Asia’s five ex-Soviet republics illustrate how leaders in the region are responding to the eastward wave of democracy that began in Eastern Europe 15 years ago and recently swept away unelected regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, where opposition had been building for years.

While Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan tolerate no legal opposition at all, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have reacted by keeping their tiny legal opposition from sharing political power.

And in President Askar Akayev’s Kyrgyzstan, where a thousand U.S. troops and hundreds of NATO peacekeepers back up stability operations in Afghanistan, nobody won more than half of the 75 parliamentary seats that were up for grabs Sunday, suggesting high voter dissatisfaction with the available choices.

As for Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the patterns were similar: The president begins by repeatedly pledging that upcoming elections will be fair and honest. Nongovernmental organizations, many financially supported by the United States, work feverishly to train election workers. Improved election laws are passed.

But opposition access to the press continues to be poor and the leaders’ promises don’t penetrate to the grass roots.

Come election day, international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) see the new election laws flouted. Bureaucrats wedded to the ruling party intimidate voters, control access to vote counting and ignore — some say participate in — serial voting.

When the results are announced, the opposition goes into shock.

In Kazakhstan last fall, the parliament of the richest, largest and most Westernized of the republics went from having three opposition members to having one — and that one refused to take his seat to protest election fraud. Meanwhile, the OSCE noted that the exercise “fell short of international standards” and of the commitments Astana, the Kazakh capital, made when it joined the OSCE.

The Central Asian rulers go through the motions of having elections because they need Western economic and political cooperation, and “because they know that what people in the West remember is the many news stories about progress, not the single reports of the actual elections,” said Muheddin Kabiri, leader of the largest opposition party in Tajikistan, where the scenario was repeated Sunday.

Mountainous and remote, Tajikistan endured a civil war that lasted five years and left 100,000 people dead in a population of 7 million.

President Emomali Rakhmonov, who has an even stronger grip on power than President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, had nurtured expectations not only that the process would be fair but that the representation of parties other than his own in the lower house would increase.

The outgoing parliament, elected in 2000 under less-than-fair conditions, had two members of the opposition Islamic Revival Party, the political successor of the losing side in the civil war. It is the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia, mainly because its goals have become wholly secular.

The lame-duck chamber included eight members of the Communist Party, whose platform describes the collapse of Soviet communism as “a temporary phenomenon” and asserts that North Korea, China, Vietnam and Cuba are leading the way to the future. The Communists vote with the Popular Democratic Party of Mr. Rakhmonov, which held the other 53 seats.

Driving around his constituency on election day, Mr. Kabiri, 39, leader of the Islamic party, who was running for a second time, fielded cell phone calls from irate election observers from his party describing wide-scale violations.

“You would have asked me a week ago, I would have told you that the elections really were going to be more honest,” he said. “I didn’t have any problems campaigning. But now it’s clear the whole election is going to be an insult.”

At a packed press conference before the Central Election Commission the next day, officials announced preliminary results that gave 80 percent of the vote to the ruling party and about 10 percent each for the Communists and the Islamists, which will translate into one or two seats for each — a bitter pill for the Communists.

The lopsided victory of the ruling party and the shutout of four other parties fielding candidates took everyone by surprise.

At the press conference, Communist leader Shodi Shabdolov, 61, angrily read a statement signed by the party heads announcing a legal challenge of the results and threatening to pull out of the government.

Rahmatullo Zoirov, head of the pro-Western Social Democratic Party, offered this explanation of why Mr. Rakhmonov would want to further reduce the presence of the Communists in parliament.

Mr. Zoirov noted that Mr. Rakhmonov, who came to power in 1992 and is 52, recently changed the constitution so he can serve two more seven-year terms. “He wants to privatize all the big state enterprises into the hands of his friends, and make sure his clan will rule for another 50 years,” he said.

“That requires time and absolute control.” For now, steamrolling the opposition — which is unknown to most Tajiks because of government control or intimidation of the news media — is not likely to draw many protests.

“People are really scared of a return to the civil war,” said a Tajik journalist who asked not to be identified. “They only heard about the events in Georgia and Ukraine through Russian television — which described them as an imperialist destabilization plot — so they have a pretty negative image of democracy.”

U.S. Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland, in an interview days before the election, said Mr. “Rakhmonov is popular because he’s done a remarkable job of bringing stability to the country. He could afford to have transparent elections.”

U.S. diplomats say the same thing about Mr. Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, but veteran election-watcher Peter Eicher, who headed the 150-member team of OSCE observers, disagreed with such a theory in an interview.

Speaking about former Soviet republics in general, he said: “If you gave people six months to campaign, and the voters really understood they could do what they wanted and support who they wanted with no police interference or prospect of losing their job …, there would be a groundswell of ‘throw out the bums.’ ”

At a press conference on Monday, Mr. Eicher said the elections in Tajikistan were a “disappointment” in light of previous promises. While his observers reported “widespread multiple voting” and “moderate turnout,” Mr. Eicher said, the official turnout was announced as 88 percent.

Muso Asozoda, head of the governing party, disagreed in an interview with the OSCE’s gloomy verdict, insisting that the election had been held in “a level condition” and that opposition complaints were “all lies.”

In Kyrgyzstan, the OSCE found that parliamentary elections last Sunday “fell short” of international standards — softer code words than Mr. Eicher’s verdict that Tajikistan “failed to meet” the standards.

But unlike the virtual shutouts in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, this week’s outcome in Kyrgyzstan leads to runoff elections March 13, and there is some hope they will produce a more pluralistic parliament.

Opposition Kyrgyz leaders have taken to wearing yellow scarves — an echo of the orange ones that pervaded Ukraine’s Orange Revolution — and Mr. Akayev is widely believed to have a weaker grip on the levers of power than his counterparts in the region.

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