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Rice's democracy push in Central Asia yields mixed results

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan—An upbeat Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought President Bush's global push for democracy to strategically important Central Asia in a three-day, four-nation sweep that ended Thursday.

Rice's harping on the democracy theme in public, and apparently in her private meetings, appeared to convince the leaders she met that Bush is serious about the subject.

But whether she had any impact may not be clear for a while.

Central Asia has a long way to go. Many leaders here have been in power since the Soviet Union collapsed a decade and a half ago, and centuries-old traditions of one-man rule run deep.

In place after place, Rice faced evidence of old habits.

After giving a speech Thursday in Astana, energy-rich Kazakhstan's booming capital, Rice was challenged by Bulat Abilov, manager of an opposition campaign. He said his colleague was arrested in the city of Almaty by masked government agents hours before Rice arrived Wednesday night.

"Is it allowable, normal when there are political prisoners in this country?" Abilov asked Rice. He called Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, an "authoritarian leader" and questioned his commitment to fairness in presidential elections scheduled for December.

Rice chose to emphasize the positive, in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. She declined to criticize Nazarbayev, who has been in power for 15 years.

"I think it will be possible, and is necessary, to have free elections in Kazakhstan," she replied.

In a letter to Nazarbayev this week, Human Rights Watch said it has received numerous reports of state harassment of the political opposition. "It is essential that your government immediately undertake remedial actions to promote conditions for a free and fair vote," the letter stated.

In a press conference with Rice later at his opulent presidential headquarters—one of Astana's many gleaming new buildings—Nazarbayev accused the opposition of distortion.

"Freedom of speech," he said, doesn't mean "freedom of blackmail and disinformation."

Remote as it is to many Americans, Central Asia is of growing importance. It has vast energy resources and struggles with Islamic extremist movements. China, Russia and the United States are interested in its pivotal geography between China, Russia and South Asia.

Rice visited four very different countries to promote political and economic reform: tiny Kyrgyzstan, where a grass-roots revolution ousted an autocrat in March and held free elections; Afghanistan, whose fragile elected government is threatened by insurgents and narcotics trafficking; wealthy Kazakhstan; and Tajikistan, still struggling to shake off the effects of a post-Soviet civil war.

The revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine have spurred a tentative political liberalization in parts of the region. Until recently, no activist would have dared denounce Nazarbayev publicly, as Abilov did.

In Kyrgyzstan, nonviolent demonstrators ended the long rule of former President Askar Akayev after flawed parliamentary elections. A new leadership was elected in July, promising reforms.

But a leading member of parliament was shot to death Sept. 21 in the capital, Bishkek. This week, the head of parliament's constitutional committee proposed a ban on mass meetings, blaming the tense situation.

Maria Lisitsyna, director of a Kyrgyz human rights group, said people are freer to discuss politics, but abuses by security forces continue.

Tajikistan has Central Asia's only legalized Islamist party. But the head of the leading opposition party was sentenced recently to 23 years in jail on charges of financial wrongdoing. Tajik officials deny the charges were politically motivated.

In her speech at Astana's Eurasian National University, Rice acknowledged that "the old demons of extremism and authoritarianism are still very menacing in this region."

But, she declared, "there are reasons for optimism."

U.S. officials increasingly see Kazakhstan as the regional power, and Rice offered an upgraded relationship with Washington if the December elections are conducted fairly. Nazarbayev is expected to win handily.

Abilov told reporters that he thinks democracy isn't at the top of the U.S. agenda with Kazakhstan.

"For the United States, the key thing is the strategic partnership," he said. "Secondly, it is fighting terror. And only in third place, it is democracy and human rights."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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