From combined dispatches
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States is taking the high road in pressing for democracy among former Soviet states historically unfamiliar with political liberty.
“Central Asia is a region that has not had a democratic past,” Miss Rice said after a meeting with Tajikistan’s authoritarian president, Emomali Rakhmonov, who has maintained a tight grip on power and shown little tolerance for dissent.
He has jailed several former loyalists and opposition leaders in recent years in what critics say is an attempt to secure his position.
“The important issue is to take these countries where they are and see them make progress,” Miss Rice said.
Impoverished Tajikistan endured five years of civil war between pro-Moscow and Islamic forces, which ended in 1997 with a U.N.-brokered power-sharing agreement. The country is a main channel for drugs transported from neighboring Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.
Earlier yesterday, Miss Rice met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the capital of Astana.
At a press conference afterward, she said the United States puts forth a consistent message of democracy for all, whether the audience is in the Middle East or Central Asia.
The U.S. top diplomat denied any suggestion that the main U.S. interests in Central Asia are oil and strategic leverage in the war on terrorism.
“We will press for free and fair elections here just as we press for free and fair elections everywhere in the world,” Miss Rice said.
Mr. Nazarbayev faces more than a dozen candidates in a presidential election Dec. 4.
Asked after a speech on U.S.-Kazakh relations whether democracy could emerge in a country where opposition leaders were detained by the police, Miss Rice avoided direct comment.
“It is extremely important that there be the ability of the opposition to mobilize, to bring their views together, to run for office without fear of intimidation of any kind,” she said.
Bulat Abilov, a leader of the “For a Just Kazakhstan” opposition coalition, said democracy in Kazakhstan was a third priority for Miss Rice behind protecting oil and military interests.
“I am a little disappointed because there was no clear message,” he said after her speech.