Title

Central Asia and the Arab Spring: Growing Pressure for Human Rights?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011
2322 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
United States
Official Transcript: 
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Chris Smith
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Ben Cardin
Title Text: 
Co-Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Alcee Hastings
Title Text: 
Ranking Member
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
The Honorable Robert O. Blake
Title: 
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs
Body: 
Department of State
Name: 
Dr. Stephen J. Blank
Title: 
Professor of National Security Affairs, Strategic Studies Institute
Body: 
United States Army War College
Name: 
Mr. Paul Goble
Title: 
Professor
Body: 
Institute of World Politics
Name: 
Dr. Scott Radnitz
Title: 
Assistant Professor, Jackson School of International Studies
Body: 
University of Washington
Name: 
Mr. Gulam Umarov
Body: 
Sunshine Coalition, Uzbekistan

Popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, along with ferment in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Syria, surprised even expert analysts and shook the very foundations not just of the states concerned but of the entire region. The long authoritarian rule of leaders in the region had been accepted by many as a factor of stability. In the end, however, public anger erupted over regimes that had been in power for decades, enriching themselves and their cronies, while most citizens barely scraped by.

Many of these conditions apply to the states of Central Asia, with the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan – where street protests have toppled two presidents since 2005 and last year the country established a parliamentary government. Although the situation is unique in each Central Asian country, the region’s states have human rights records that are consistently poor, and some are listed among the most repressive countries in the world.  Rulers have contrived to remain in office indefinitely, controlled and rigged elections, restricted independent media and religious freedom, harassed opposition parties – where they exist at all—and stunted the development of civil society. Torture and mistreatment in detention are common in the region.

Relevant issues: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority Faiths

    Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized. 

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Trade and Investment in Central Europe and the NIS

    This briefing was the tenth in a series of briefings covering topics such as U.S. assistance to Central and East Europe and the NIS, and free trade unions. Topics of discussion included the economic aspects of efforts to develop institutional networks between the Central and Eastern European countries and the OSCE and the Western European multilateral structures and the progress that has been made by countries in developing association agreements with the European Union. Witnesses testifying at this briefing – including Harriet Craig Peterson, President of Cornerstone International Group and Thomas Price, Coordinator for OSCE Affairs for the State Department – evaluated regional issues associated with infrastructure, environment, energy, and border procedures that needed to be addressed to produce a smoother flow of goods from an economic perspective.

  • U.S. Assistance to Central and Eastern Europe and the NIS: An Assessment

    This briefing discussed the successes achieved and the difficulties encountered on the road to democratic reform and stabilization are reflected throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and evaluated the impact of these factors in the scope and tenor of U.S. assistance programs. Such programs involve assistance to countries throughout the region in democratic institution building, market reform and restructuring, health care improvement, energy efficiency, environmental policy, and housing sector reform. Witnesses testifying at this briefing addressed the relevance of the crisis in Chechnya, continued conflict in the Balkans, and tensions in various parts of East-Central Europe to United States Interests in the region. They focused on the goals of U.S. assistance to the NIS and East-Central Europe and the effectiveness of current programs in furthering those goals.

  • Crime and Corruption in Russia

    The rationale of this briefing, which Commission Staff Director Sam Wise presided over, was that of a marked increase of crime in Russia. At the time of this briefing, crime had become the dominant subject in Russian politics. Unsurprisingly, the extent of crime in Russia had significant implications for its society, specifically for hte viability of the state. In fact, President Yeltsin had called crime the Russian state’s gravest threat. A question that Wise brought up in the briefing was the possibility of criminals taking over the Russian Federation’s government. Another possibility that Wise mentioned was election of authoritarian, repressive leaders who would make Russia safe. Witnesses in the briefing included Dr. Louise Shelly of American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Society, and Stephen Handelman, Associate Fellow at the Harriman Center of Columbia University.

  • Russia and its Neighbors

    Dennis Deconcini (D-AZ) and other legislators discussed Russia’s relations with its neighboring countries. More specifically, concerning democratic reform, the hearing contrasted the economic criteria of privatization, the rate of inflation, currency emission, and subsidies to enterprises with Moscow’s policies vis-à-vis its neighbors. Of course, Russia’s neighbors are referred to as the New Independent States, and, as Deconcini argues, it is problematic when Russia militarily or economically coerces its neighbors to enter into unwanted, yet inevitable, political, security, or economic relationships.

  • The Countries of Central Asia: Problems in the Transition to Independence and the Implications

    This was the first Helsinki Commission hearing held on the Central Asian republics. The Commissioners and witnesses discussed five countries' transitions to independence, which were  complicated by the presence of repressive regimes that maintained the old Soviet-style order and economic turmoil. Chairman DeConcini opened the hearing by noting that the presidents of four out of the five new Central Asian countries were former first secretaries of the Communist Party. Dr. Martha Olcott, professor of political science at Colgate University, expressed concern over the rise of extremist ideologies of nationalism and Islam in the region, which were fuelled by economic stagnation. Firuz Kazemzadeh, professor emeritus as Yale University, argued instead that the dominant threat in the region came from the projection of Russian influence. This was corroborated by Micah Naftalin, director of the Union Council for Soviet Jews, who detailed the KGB's role in silencing the press and repressing opposition in Turkmenistan, and the growth and diffusion of anti-semitism from Russia into Central Asia. A final testimony was offered by Adbumannob Pulatov, chairman of the Uzbekistan Society for Human Rights. Pulatov decried the lack of press freedom in Uzbekistan and urged Congress to continue its monetary support of Radio Liberty. In the end, all four witnesses cautioned that human rights concerns often take a back seat to other issues, and that doing so could jeopardize progress in the field.

  • Helsinki Commission Visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine

    This Helsinki Commission delegation was the first to visit the "former Soviet Union" since its breakup in December 1991. It was also the first Commission delegation visit to any of the former republics in their new status as independent countries, and the first ever to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Of particular significance was the fact that all the former republics are now full­ fledged members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), having been admitted during the meeting of the CSCE Council of Ministers in Prague in late January 1992. Their entry into the CSCE means that all the governments of these newly independent countries have obligated themselves to implement Helsinki commitments, providing a standard by which their progress towards democratization, observance of human rights and free market economic systems can be measured. Moreover, since at least two of these countries -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- are, essentially, engaged in hostilities, if not actually a state of war, the CSCE's mechanisms for conflict mediation and resolution can be brought into play: a test both for the republics, and the CSCE, especially in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia crisis. The fact that the delegation's visit took place during the CSCE Follow-up Meeting in Helsinki (March-June 1992) offered an appropriate backdrop to this Commission fact-finding mission. This mission had particular resonance in the Central Asian republics, which have long been neglected in the West. In fact, there had been much debate among CSCE participating States as to whether these republics should be admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as they were manifestly not in Europe geographically, or, in many ways, culturally. Nevertheless, the CSCE's Council of Ministers was persuaded by the argument that the best way to bring Western democratic and free market ideas to the region was to include them in the process. The visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan was motivated by obvious considerations: the increasingly bloody and alarming conflict between them over Nagorno-Karabakh. From an ethnic dispute that threatened to complicate Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program, the conflict has ballooned, with the dissolution of the USSR, into a larger regional conflict with international significance that threatens to involve neighboring states, one of which -­ Turkey -- is a NATO member. From the CSCE perspective, this conflict brings to the fore the inherent contradiction between two equally valid principles of the CSCE: the right of peoples to self-determination, on the one hand; and territorial integrity, with only peaceful change of borders, on the other. Yugoslavia in 1991 had already presented the CSCE with the difficult problem of reconciling these principles; Armenia and Azerbaijan are offering the latest challenge. There is reason to believe -- or fear -- that this issue will resurface elsewhere on the territory of the former USSR, and the unhappy experience of these two Transcaucasian countries may prove an object lesson that has applicability to other situations. Reflecting the concern of the CSCE member States about the situation, and in an attempt to resolve the crisis, a decision was taken at the March 1992 opening of the Helsinki Follow-up Meeting to organize a "Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh" which will meet soon in Minsk under CSCE auspices. Ukraine, meanwhile, is embroiled in its own disputes as it develops its institutions as a newly independent country and CSCE state. Unlike its quarrel with Russia over division of the USSR's assets, especially the disposition of the Black Sea fleet, some issues have direct relevance to the CSCE. The Crimea, for example, may hold a referendum on its future status (remaining within Ukraine, autonomy, joining Russia, or opting for independence), which reflects the emphasis placed in the CSCE on democratic expression and fair balloting practices. Another area of critical importance is military security and arms control: the disposition of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal and compliance with the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) agreement, when Kiev has not yet reached agreement with Moscow and other capitals of former republics over a unified military that could implement the agreement. Finally, Ukraine's efforts to build a law-based state and overcome the legacy of 70 years of communism must overcome difficulties of personnel, "old thinking" (a term popular among Moscow's elite a few years ago), and bureaucratic resistance to change. The United States recognized all the former Soviet republics as independent countries on December 25, 1991, but established diplomatic relations only with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the others was put off, pending satisfactory assurances of commitment to human rights, democracy, responsible arms control policies, and a free market economic system. This "two-tiered" approach drew criticism, however, for risking the alienation of the "second-tier" states and the potential loss of American influence, I especially with the January 1992 decision by the CSCE to admit the former Soviet republics as full members. In February, the Bush administration signalled its intention to establish diplomatic relations with all the former Soviet republics. The result was the speedy opening of U.S. Embassies in the newly independent countries, which was enthusiastically greeted by the leaderships and opposition forces. Effectively, therefore, the United States is the only Western country with fully-functioning Embassies in all the new countries visited by the Helsinki Commission.

  • The New Commonwealth of Independent States: Problems, Perspectives, and U.S. Policy Implications

    This hearing discussed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a series of succeeding states. The hearing covered the theme of regional and ethnic divisions as key elements in the unpredicted dissolution of the Soviet Union. The witnesses covered the particular challenges of securing peaceful independence from the “commonwealth of former Soviet Republics” and the democratization process. The conversation centered on the human rights dimension and the process of newly created states signing on to several international treaties and obtaining memberships in international organizations.

  • Report: the Referendum on Indipendence and Presidential Election in Uzbekistan

    Uzbekistan held a referendum on independence and its first direct, contested presidential election on December 29,1991. According to the republic's Central Election Commission, over 98 percent of voters cast ballots for independence, and more - important - 86 percent voted for Islam Karimov as president. Karimov, former head of Uzbekistan's Communist Party (now renamed Party deputy to the republic's Supreme Soviet and chairman of the opposition party Erk). Uzbekistan's referendum on independence was a mere formality, given the dissolution of the URSS. Karimov's victory in a direct, two-candidate election signaled significant progress compared to the republic's previous practices and relative to other Central Asia republics, most of which did not hold contested presidential elections. But Karimov's advantages over Salih in the campaign, the exclusion of Pulatov, and the prevalence of old voting habits, both among voters and polling station officials, indicate that much remains to be done before Uzbekistan attains Western and CSCE notions of political pluralism and electoral probity. Two Helsinki Commission staffers observed Uzbekistan's referendum and presidential election, at the invitation of the republic's Supreme Soviet. They spent four days in Tashkent, the capital, and also traveled to Samarkand, to interview spokesmen of unofficial movements about the election and the general political situation in Uzbekistan.

  • Turkmenistan's Referendum on Independence

    On October 26, 1991, Turkmenistan held a referendum on independence. Over 97 percent of eligible voters turned out to answer "Yes" or "No" to two questions, the first dealing with the republic's independence, the second seeking approval of President Saparmurad Niyazov's political and economic program. Over 94 percent of participants voted for independence; almost as high a percentage of voters voiced backing for Niyazov. On October 27, an extraordinary session of Turkmenistan's Supreme Soviet declared independence. Most republics of the former Soviet Union declared independence soon after the August 19, 1991 coup attempt. The much-delayed declaration by Turkmenistan's conservative government aimed at putting the republic on an equal footing with the other republics as negotiations among them and what remains of the center continue towards an uncertain conclusion. But Niyazov has made it quite clear that Turkmenistan's leaders will not countenance Baltic or Russian-style political pluralism on the road to independence. Equally clear from statements by the republic's official spokesmen and from the prominence of Iranian guests in Ashkhabad during the referendum is that Turkmenistan will pursue a regional foreign policy, oriented primarily towards developing good relations with its neighbors. Helsinki Commission staff traveled to Turkmenistan to observe the October 26 referendum. The Commission has been observing elections and referendums in the Baltic States and Soviet republics since February 1990. Except for monitoring the voting in the March 1991 All-Union referendum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, however, the Commission has not been to Central Asia. The trip to Ashkhabad thus marks the beginning of a geographical expansion of Commission activity. U.S. policymakers have tended to neglect the region -- a habit that can no longer be afforded as the USSR dissolves and these republics become independent states and enter the world community. The trip's purposes were therefore not only to observe the balloting in the referendum but also to establish contact with the republic's leadership, to gain a sense of the leadership's plans, its attitude towards the CSCE and its commitments, and to meet with representatives of opposition groups. 

  • Soviet Involvement in Afghanistan

    The purpose of this hearing, which Sen. Dennis DeConcini and Rep. Steny Hoyer presided over, was to examine what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, specifically in relation to the U.S.S.R. At the time of this hearing, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had ceased, and Moscow had expended financial, military, and human resources that had cost the country dearly, towards a war that had grown to be overwhelmingly with the Soviet populace, no less. Likewise, the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan had serious repercussions for the Soviet economy, which was why it was surprising that, even after the war, the U.S.S.R. had continued to spend significant capital to prop up the government in Kabul. Another issue was where U.S. aid was going and whether or not it was being properly spent.

  • Vienna Review Meeting of the CSCE - Phase III and IV

    The main activity of the Vienna Meeting throughout Phases III and IV was the presentation and negotiation of proposals for inclu sion in the concluding document of the meeting. The number (more than 160), complexity and controversial nature of many of these propos­als led to the extension of the Vienna Meeting well beyond its target closing date of July 31. These factors, along with other ele­ments such as continuing major shortcomings in the implementa­ tion of existing commitments, are largely responsible for the con­tinuation of the Vienna Meeting into 1988. The slow pace of progress already evident in Phase II continued through the next phase. Each side defended its own proposals but showed little disposition to begin the process of compromise which could lead to the conclusion of the meeting. The main procedural development during this phase was the appointment of coordina­tors from the neutral and non-aligned states to guide the work of the drafting groups. This development provided greater order and structure for the proceedings but did little to advance the drafting work or to induce compromises. Other major developments during this phase were the introduc­tion of the long-awaited Western proposal on military security and the tabling of a comprehensive compromise proposed in Basket III by two neutral delegations, Austria and Switzerland. Both propos­als were put forth at the very end of the phase and thus did not have much impact until the next phase. The Western (NATO) proposal on military security questions was designed as a response to the Eastern proposal which envisioned two main objectives: another round of negotiations on confidence­ and security-building measures (CSBMs) to build upon the success­ful Stockholm meeting and the initiation of negotiations on conven­tional disarmament, both within the same CSCE forum. The West­ern response to this proposal was delayed primarily because of United States and French differences over the connection between the conventional arms negotiations and the CSCE process, the French arguing that the negotiations should be an integral part of the process and the U.S. insisting that they be independent. The issue was resolved by agreement that the negotiations would be "within the framework of the CSCE," but should remain autono­mous.

  • List of Organizations Involved in Exchange Programs with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

    The Commission developed this report to help in­terested persons and organizations participate in exchange pro­grams with the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. It lists organizations which conduct exchange programs and other contacts with these countries. The parties to the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe declared their intention to expand cooperation in security, economic, humanitarian, information, culture, and education affairs and to respect and put into practice certain basic principles, including those of human rights. The Final Act was signed in Helsinki on August 1, 1975, by 35 heads of state or govern­ment, including the United States, Canada, and every state in Europe except Albania. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsin­ki Commission) was created as an independent government agency in 1976 to monitor compliance with the Final Act and to encourage U.S. governmental and private programs to expand East-West eco­nomic and cultural cooperation and exchange of people and ideas. In the Final Act, the signatories express the view that cultural exchanges and development of relations in education and science contribute to the strengthening of peace, better mutual under­ standing, and enrichment of the human personality. In the Com­ mission's view, exchange programs with the Soviet bloc countries break down barriers and lessen distrust. They help Americans learn about the views and goals of these societies. Such programs help expose the peoples of these countries to the values and goals of our pluralistic society. Critical to such programs is that Americans are given the opportunity to tell the Soviets and their allies on a personal level about their concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

  • Soviet Violations of the Helsinki Accords in Afghanistan

    The Helsinki Commission held its second hearing on Soviet aggression in Afghanistan six years after Soviet invasion in 1979. The witnesses shed light on the deliberate destruction of the people, culture, and way of life in Afghanistan for the Commissioners present, and considered ways to move forward.

  • THE OTTAWA HUMAN RIGHTS EXPERTS MEETING AND THE FUTURE OF THE HELSINKI PROCESS

    The commissioners gave testimony on the importance of the 35-nation conference which addressed "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," The discussion centered on inconsistencies between the rhetoric of the United States on the subject of human rights and its actions.  The focus of human rights covered the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and also Afghanistan. In response to human rights violations- recognizing the framework provided by the Helsinki accords- the witnesses discussed constructive measures to concentrate on human rights violations that could be corrected with relative ease and without effecting systemic change within the Soviet Union or the other states in the Soviet sphere.

  • Soviet Violation of Helsinki Final Act: Invasion of Afghanistan

    Attendees at this hearing, over which Commissioner Dante B. Fascell presided, discussed the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, an invasion that ran counter to international law due to Afghanistan’s status as sovereign and independent. The set of agreements that the Soviet Union signed on to in 1975 with 34 other countries (i.e. the Helsinki Final Act) incorporated rights inherent in a country’s sovereignty, refraining from the threat or use of force, the rights of peoples to self-determination, and acceptance of international conduct principles. In short, the Soviet Union’s invasion and attempted occupation of Afghanistan had struck at the very heart of these principles, and its invasion had severely damaged the international climate and greatly damaged East-West relations.

  • Review of Implementation of Basket II of the Helsinki Final Act

    This hearing, which Commissioner Jonathan B. Bingham chaired, was a joint meeting of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. These organizations held this hearing after the establishment of a new strategy by the U.S. in its relations with the Soviet Union. More specifically, the month before this hearing, the CSCE adopted a resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arrest and exile of Andrei Sakharov as blatant violations of the Helsinki Final Act. Commissioner Millicent Fenwick, who was also one of the sponsors of legislation creating the CSCE, proposed this resolution. Likewise, the resolution called on the signatory states of the Final Act to join in such protest and undertake such sanctions against the former U.S.S.R. as may be available to them. The hearing itself, then, focused on the current status and prospects of U.S. commercial and economic relationships with the U.S.S.R. and Eastern European countries, implementation of Basket II, efforts to promote better implementation, and the impact the Soviet violation of the Helsinki accords in Afghanistan would have on the Madrid Review Session and the CSCE process as a whole.

  • Podcast: Disappeared in Turkmenistan

    In Turkmenistan, detainees serving long-term prison sentences often literally “disappear” into the notorious Ovadan Depe prison outside of Ashgabat. Disappeared prisoners have no access to medical care or legal assistance; no information is provided to their families about their well-being. Current estimates indicate that more than 120 individuals are currently disappeared in Ovadan Depe, including Turkmenistan’s former foreign minister and former ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, who disappeared into the Turkmen prison system in 2003. Kate Watters of the Prove They Are Alive! Campaign joins Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Janice Helwig to discuss the tragedy of those who have been disappeared, as well as the current situation in Turkmenistan and the steps that are being taken to encourage the Government of Turkmenistan to halt the practice and live up to its international commitments to human rights. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 7 | Disappeared in Turkmenistan

Pages