Democratization and Human Rights in Central Asia

Democratization and Human Rights in Central Asia

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Thursday, November 11, 1999

Mr. Speaker, I am disappointed that the House schedule did not permit consideration of my resolution, H. Con. Res. 204, which has been co-sponsored by Representative Hoyer, Representative Forbes and Representative McKinney. The resolution voices concern about serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in most states of Central Asia, in particular, substantial noncompliance with OSCE commitments on democratization and the holding of free and fair elections.

Among the countries of the former Soviet Union, only in Ukraine and Moldova have sitting presidents lost an election and peacefully left office. We will yet see what happens in Russia, where President Yeltsin has launched another war in Chechnya. It may be too much, given the historical differences between our respective societies, to hope the post-Soviet states could find among their political leaders a George Washington, who could have been king but chose not to be, and who chose to leave office after two terms. But it is not too much to hope that other post-Soviet leaders might emulate Ukraine's former President Leonid Kravchuk or Moldova's former President Mircea Snegur, not to mention Lithuania's Algirdas Brazauskas, who all allowed a peaceful transfer of power.

Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, Central Asian leaders give every indication of intending to remain in office for life. Their desire for unlimited and permanent power means that they cannot implement all OSCE commitments on democracy, the rule of law and human rights, as doing so would create a level playing field for challengers and allow the media to shine the light on presidential misdeeds and high-level corruption. The result has been an entire region in the OSCE space where fundamental OSCE freedoms are ignored while leaders entrench themselves and their families in power and wealth.

To give credit where it is due, the situation is least bad in Kyrgyzstan. President Akaev, a physicist, is the only Central Asian leader who was not previously the head of his republic's Communist Party. One can actually meet members of parliament who strongly criticize President Akaev and the legislature itself is not a rubber stamp body. Moreover, print media, though under serious pressure from the executive branch, exhibit diversity of views and opposition parties function. Still, in 1995, two contenders in the presidential election were disqualified before the vote. Parliamentary and presidential elections are approaching in 2000. Kyrgyzstan's OSCE partners will be watching carefully to see whether they are free and fair.

Until the mid-1990s, Kazakstan seemed a relatively reformist country, where various political parties could function and the media enjoyed some freedom. But President Nazarbaev dissolved two parliaments and single-mindedly sought to accumulate sole power. In the last few years, the regime has become ever more authoritarian. President Nazarbaev has concentrated all power in his hands, subordinating to himself all other branches and institutions of government. A constitutional amendment passed in October 1999 conveniently removed the age limit of 65 to be president. The OSCE judged last January's presidential elections, from which a leading opposition contender was barred as far short of OSCE standards. Last month's parliamentary election, according to the OSCE, was “severely marred by widespread, pervasive and illegal interference by executive authorities in the electoral process.” In response, President Nazarbaev has attacked the OSCE, comparing it to the Soviet Communist Party's Politburo for trying to “tell Kazakstan what to do.”

Tajikistan has suffered the saddest fate of all the Central Asian countries; a civil war that killed scores of thousands. In 1997, the warring sides finally ceased hostilities and reached agreement about power-sharing, which permitted a bit of hopefulness about prospects for normal development and democratization. It seems, however, that the accord will not ensure stability. Tajikistan's Central Election Commission refused to register two opposition candidates for the November 6 presidential election. The sole alternative candidate registered has refused to accept the results of the election, which, according to official figures, current President Emomaly Rakhmonov won with 97 percent of the vote, in a 98 percent turnout. Those numbers, Mr. Speaker, say it all. The OSCE properly declined to send observers.

Benighted Turkmenistan practically beggars description. This country, which has been blessed with large quantities of natural gas, has a political system that combines the worst traits of Soviet communism with a personality cult seen today in countries like Iraq or North Korea. No dissidence of any kind is permitted and the population enjoys no human rights. While his impoverished people barely manage to get by, President Niyazov builds garish presidential palaces and monuments to himself. The only registered political party in Turkmenistan is the Democratic Party, headed by President Niyazov. In late October he said the people of his country would not be ready for the stresses and choices of a democratic society until 2010, adding that independent media are “disruptive.” On December 12, Turkmenistan is holding parliamentary “elections,” which the OSCE will not bother to observe.

Finally, we come to Uzbekistan. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings on democratization and human rights in Uzbekistan on October 18. Despite the best efforts of Uzbekistan's Ambassador Safaev to convince us that democratization is proceeding apace in his country, the testimony of all the other witnesses confirmed the widely held view that after Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the most repressive country in Central Asia. No opposition political activity is allowed and media present only the government's point of view. Christian denominations have faced official harassment. Since 1997, a massive government campaign has been underway against independent Muslim believers. In February of this year, explosions rocked Tashkent, which the government described as an assassination attempt by Islamic radicals allied with an exiled opposition leader.

Apart from elections, a key indicator of progress towards democratization is the state of media freedom. On October 25-27, an International Conference on Mass Media in Central Asia took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Not surprisingly, Turkmenistan did not allow anyone to attend. The other participants adopted a declaration noting that democratization has slowed in almost all Central Asian states, while authoritarian regimes have grown stronger, limiting the scope for genuine media freedom as governments influence the media through economic means. I strongly agree with these sentiments. The concentration of media outlets in pro-regime hands, the ongoing assault on independent and opposition media and the circumscription of the media's legally-sanctioned subject matter pose a great danger to the development of democracy in Central Asia. Official statistics about how many media outlets have been privatized cover up an alarming tendency towards government monopolization of information sources. This effectively makes it impossible for citizens to receive unbiased information, which is vital if people are to hold their governments accountable.

Mr. Speaker, it is clear that in Central Asia, the overall level of democratization and human rights observance is poor. Central Asian leaders make decisions in a region far from Western Europe, close to China, Iran and Afghanistan, and they often assert that “human rights are only for the West” or the building democracy “takes time.” But delaying steps towards democracy is very risky in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious region of Central Asia, where many people are highly educated and have expectations of faster change. If it does not come, tensions and conflicts could emerge that could endanger security for everyone. To lessen these risks, continuous pressure will be needed on these countries to move faster on democracy. Even as the United States pursues other interests, we should give top priority to democracy and respect for human rights, or we may live to regret not doing so.

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    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists explored the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019. This briefing also explored implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption.

  • Ukrainian Elections Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: POWER AND POLITICS Implications of Ukraine’s Presidential Elections Thursday, May 9, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019.  This briefing will explore implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement Natalie Sedletska, Journalist and Host, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service Additional panelists may be added.

  • Hastings and Wicker Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “On World Press Freedom Day, we reflect on the importance of the free media to the strength of our own democracy and to the cause of freedom worldwide. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right we cannot take for granted. If we do, we weaken our ability to fight corruption, speak truth to power, and defend the disadvantaged and oppressed. “Throughout the OSCE region, journalists working in conflict zones or under authoritarian regimes regularly risk their freedom and their lives to show the world the truth. They persist in the face of intimidation, arrest, and even the threat of physical violence. We honor their work and pledge to protect journalists around the globe, to support independent journalism, and to foster transparency on the part of our government and governments worldwide.”

  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.1877, the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019. The bill would establish a U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide. “The vestiges of colonialism and slavery continue to negatively affect people of African descent around the world, resulting in continuing racial bias and discrimination,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must reverse these disturbing trends and facilitate the full and equal participation of people of African descent in our societies, promote knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contributions of people of African descent, and strengthen and implement legal frameworks that combat racial discrimination.” The African Descent Affairs Act would establish an Office of Global African Descent Affairs at the U.S. State Department to develop global foreign policy and assistance strategies beyond the African continent. The bill also would create a fund to support antidiscrimination and empowerment efforts by civil society organizations; require annual State Department human rights reports to include a section on discrimination faced by people of African descent; and create similar initiatives at the United States Agency for International Development.  Previous State Department initiatives such as the Office of Global Women's Issues, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and special programs focusing on disability, LGBTQ+ and other communities helped aid other vulnerable populations around the world and inspired Chairman Hastings’ measure. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing; this affects not only local populations, but also our diverse American military, diplomats, and students traveling abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders, and also strengthens black communities as they engage with their governments to address these issues.” In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to continuing issues of racism and discrimination in Europe and North America at a Helsinki Commission hearing on racism in the 21st century. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by diverse populations on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion

    WASHINGTON—As the world commemorates the International Decade for People of African Descent, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.Res.256, recognizing the achievements and contributions of people of African descent and black Europeans in the face of persistent racism and discrimination. H.Res.256 encourages the celebration of the collective history and achievements of those of African descent in Europe. It supports efforts by the European Parliament, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the U.S. Congress to promote racial equality and combat racial discrimination. It also encourages European governments and members of civil society and the private sector to work with black European communities to implement national strategies to address inequality and racism, and urges the U.S. government to support such efforts. “While the presence of blacks in Europe can be traced to enslavement, colonization, military deployments, voluntary or forced migration, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers, or educational and other professional exchanges, the story of Europeans of African descent and black Europeans still remains largely untold, rendering many of their past and present contributions unseen or forgotten,” said Chairman Hastings. “This is unacceptable.”   The resolution endorses recommendations to overcome racial disparities in Europe made at the 2018 People of African Descent Week. Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution recognizing that African descendants have long been a part of the fabric of Europe, and seeking to address findings on discrimination and harassment documented in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency report, “Being Black in the EU.” The European Parliament resolution calls on EU Member State governments to acknowledge and address the impact of enslavement, forced labor, racial apartheid, massacre, and genocide in the context of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and for the EU to develop strategies to address structural racism and underrepresentation in EU institutions. In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans during a Helsinki Commission hearing. In 2009, Chairman Hastings co-hosted the Black European Summit in Brussels, bringing together black and minority political and intellectual leaders to discuss barriers to political participation and strategies for inclusion. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by black and minority populations in Europe, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

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