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Democracy has been slow to come to former Soviet nations

MOSCOW—After almost 15 years, the collapse of communism has produced elections but not democracy in most of the 15 nations that were created from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Across much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the press is shackled, rich oligarchs control much of the economy and elections have been manipulated to ensure continued rule by authoritarians such as Alexander Lukashenko, who recently was re-elected president of Belarus with 82 percent of the vote.

The Bush administration has called Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator." But democracy is also weak or nonexistent in Russia and all the other former Soviet republics except Ukraine and the three small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"People in power were brought up under the communist regime. All of this makes democracy weak and civil society still nascent," said Yevgeny Volk, a Moscow-based Russian political analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Critics argue that Russia's muzzle on the news media, businesses and political opponents makes Russian President Vladimir Putin unfit to host July's Group of Eight economic summit of leading democracies in St. Petersburg.

President Bush reaffirmed last week that the United States will participate in the meeting. He noted, however, that the U.S. is concerned about developments in Russia and plans to discuss them with Putin.

"I need to be in a position where I can sit down with him and be very frank about our concerns," Bush said in Washington last week.

Critics also blame Putin for using Russia's economic and military power to bully democrats in other former Soviet republics and bolster pro-Russian governments whose democratic credentials are dubious.

Putin congratulated Lukashenko on his lopsided March 19 victory in Belarus, but the United States and the European Union said the vote was rigged, and outside observers found widespread detentions, confiscation of independent newspapers and a flawed vote count. On Tuesday, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, one of Eastern Europe's democratic icons, called for Lukashenko to resign.

Most elections outside the Baltics haven't met the democratic standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 55-nation watchdog organization that includes Russia and the United States.

Constitutions have been changed to extend presidential terms or abolish term limits, and opposition candidates have been kicked off ballots, denied permission to hold rallies or prosecuted for insulting the honor and dignity of the president, a crime in some former Soviet republics.

Some opposition leaders have been driven into exile, jailed, poisoned or even killed. Crimes such as the near-fatal dioxin poisoning of Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yushchenko, during the 2004 campaign are seldom solved.

"It varies from one country to another," said Andrew Wilson, a senior lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the University of London and the author of "Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World." "You can stuff the ballot or fake the process. You don't necessarily do both at the same time, though often you do both at the same time."

Three Central Asian nations still have their old Soviet rulers:

_ President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who's sent critics to jail or exile, has run Kazakhstan since 1989. He won re-election to another seven-year term on Dec. 4 with 91 percent of the vote.

_ Islam Karimov, who imprisons dissidents and is blamed for his government's massacre of hundreds of protesters last year, has governed Uzbekistan since 1989. Karimov won re-election in 2000 with 92 percent of the vote, and he extended his term to seven years in a referendum two years later.

_ Turkmenistan's dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, likes to be called "Turkmenbashi" or leader of all Turkmens. He came to power in 1985, and his rubber-stamp parliament named him president-for-life in 1999.

In other former Soviet republics, the top spot has changed hands, but not democratically.

In Russia, Putin took an arranged handoff from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 2000. He faced token opposition in his re-election bid in 2004, after some of his fiercest critics fled abroad, and won 71 percent of the vote.

In Azerbaijan, a 2003 presidential election looked more like dynastic succession when the late Heydar Aliyev was succeeded by his son, Ilham.

Ukraine is one bright spot. Its March 26 parliamentary election, in which Yushchenko's party finished third, was universally acknowledged as the freest and fairest in the nation's history.

Not surprisingly, Putin favored Yushchenko's pro-Russia rival, Viktor Yanukovych, in their Dec. 26, 2004, contest.

The Russian official responsible for observing elections in former Soviet republics denied that there's any pattern of ballot manipulation.

"During the 15 missions I headed, no one ever told me what to do," said Vladimir Rushailo, the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, a loose association of most former Soviet republics.

He said the delegations found fault with the conduct of only one election—the Ukrainian presidential contest won by Yushchenko.

In other elections, Rushailo said, technical violations took place, but they weren't serious enough to change the outcome. Complaining about violations, he said, is "a beloved method of those who lose."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060331 SOVIET ELECTIONS

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yushchenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041018 Lukashenko bio

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