Beyond Ukraine, a grim picture

International Herald Tribune, France
Dec 27 2004

Beyond Ukraine, a grim picture

Rachel Denber
Post-Soviet democracy

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan On Sunday, Ukraine’s voters returned to the
polls to elect their president. Ukrainian society’s peaceful
rejection of last month’s manipulated vote and its demand for honest
elections and government accountability made the election a dramatic
break with the Soviet past.

The opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, appeared to have a clear
lead, but the very fact that the vote took place was a victory for
civil society. Across much of the former Soviet Union, however, the
picture for democracy and institutions that protect basic freedoms is
grim.

On Sunday, people in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state 3,000
kilometers, or 1,875 miles, east of Kiev, elected a new Parliament.
Few people were watching what happened because there wasn’t much to
see. A victory for the pro-government party was a foregone conclusion
because there were no opposition candidates. The government has
stifled institutions that underpin a free and fair electoral process
– opposition political parties, media freedoms, an open atmosphere
for nongovernmental organizations and freedom of assembly.

This time last year, after reformists in Georgia staged the “Rose
Revolution” that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, many wondered
what lessons governments in the region would draw. No leader relishes
political instability. But the question was, what would the region’s
leaders do to avoid it? Would they promote honest elections, greater
accountability, better governance and peaceful transitions of power?
Or would they ignore the issues that cause public discontent, such as
entrenched, widespread corruption, and undermine the political
opposition and democratic institutions in order to retain power at
all costs?

Overwhelmingly, governments in former Soviet states have chosen the
latter path, continuing policies that had started well before the
Georgian revolt. Uzbekistan may be one of the more acute examples of
this trend but it has plenty of company.

Azerbaijan’s fraudulent presidential elections last year led to
political violence, for which the government has imprisoned many
opposition leaders. Public demonstrations in Azerbaijan by people
seeking to express dissident views are nearly impossible.

In Armenia in spring the government tried to use a variety of
arbitrary measures to prevent massive rallies protesting falsified
elections the previous year. The police used excessive force on
demonstrators, raided the headquarters of opposition parties,
arrested a handful of opposition political leaders and rounded up
hundreds of their supporters.

Two months ago the government of Kazakhstan created an unfair playing
field for the parliamentary vote, resulting in only one opposition
party member gaining a seat in the lower house of legislature. A
couple of weeks ago not a single opposition candidate was elected in
Belarus’s parliamentary vote, after the electoral authorities used a
combination of nonregistration of candidates and polling day fraud to
keep the opposition out.

In Kyrgyzstan, the government has already taken steps to increase its
control over the news media and other civil society institutions
before parliamentary elections in February.

Throughout the region, governments control television and try to
intimidate independent print media through punitive defamation suits
and sheer bullying. In many countries, human rights and other civil
society organizations are the targets of politically motivated tax
inspections. Human rights defenders are unlawfully jailed by the
authorities and subject to violent assaults by unknown attackers.

Russia’s crackdown on civil society has been under way for the past
four years. President Vladimir Putin’s government gradually seized
control over what had been a diverse, if not exactly free, broadcast
media and began using it to promote pro-government political
candidates and vilify the opposition.

Putin himself led a broadside attack on democratic organizations,
accusing them in his “state of the nation” speech of serving foreign
masters rather than the interests of ordinary Russians. Now new
legislation will make the funding of nongovernmental organizations
subject to government review.

In contrast to their response to compromised elections in other parts
of the region, Western countries leaped to the defense of Ukrainians
demanding electoral integrity in Ukraine. For the most part, they
were not cowed by accusations, from Russia and other countries, that
they were meddling. But what would Western leaders have done had it
not been possible for Ukrainians to take to the streets? Would their
defense have been as firm?

Elections in this part of the world are stolen all the time, but
governments get away with it by stifling democratic institutions.
Western leaders need to be every bit as supportive of the other
struggling civil societies in the region, before there is nothing
left to support.

(Rachel Denber is the acting executive director of Human Rights
Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.)

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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