A choice for democracy
utocratic leaders are cracking down

The Washington Post, 1 May 2001

Russian president Vladimir Putin is not alone in the post-Soviet world in his assault on a free press, environmental organizations and other independent voices. In the five republics of Central Asia, autocratic leaders also are cracking down. Because their countries did not benefit from the years of relative freedom that Russia enjoyed under former president Boris Yeltsin, Central Asia's potentates tend to meet with less resistance, though everywhere some brave people resist. A case in point, both sad and inspiring, is Kazakhstan, after Russia the largest republic of the former Soviet Union.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who made an effortless transition from Communist boss, was seen in the early years of independence as a potential moderate. Over the years, though, he has grown less tolerant of dissent or pluralism, even as stories of corruption at the highest levels multiply in his oil-rich republic. His decade in power has been marked "by rigid control of independent expression," the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists noted recently. Prosecutors routinely harass and investigate newspapers that dare a smidgen of independent reporting. "Infringement of the honor and dignity of the president" is a crime. Only the biggest television stations are not bothered, but this is small comfort because, as the Committee to Protect Journalists noted, "the most influential stations are under the direct or indirect control of the president's family."

This spring the official crackdown has extended to many nongovernmental organizations in addition to the press. These groups helped organize opposition to a new law on the media that will further tighten government control over Internet sites and small broadcast outlets. Grass-roots opposition managed to delay, though not prevent, adoption of the law, mustering an impressive number of petitions and public meetings. In retribution, prosecutors and tax police have raided groups, forced them to shut down and seized documents and equipment, according to Eric Kessler, a staffer with the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute.

The institute, like other pro-democracy organizations, has helped Kazakhstan's small civic groups, often with small grants from the U.S. government. Resistance to the media law shows that their work is not in vain. But overall the fight for democracy is not succeeding, and America's split personality on the subject may be one reason. While backing democracy in a small way, the Clinton administration was more than willing to welcome and forgive Mr. Nazarbayev, because he controls substantial oil and gas wealth, and because his country's independence is seen as a check to potential Russian expansionism from the north or Chinese pushiness from the east.

Mr. Nazarbayev may expect the Bush administration, with its concern for expanding sources of oil and gas, to be even friendlier. But President Bush and his team also have stressed the importance of values in foreign policy, particularly the values of freedom and free markets -- neither of which is embraced in Kazakhstan. Mr. Nazarbayev's strategy of hoarding power and oil wealth for a small elite is not a recipe for long-term stability. The Bush administration ought to help those inside Kazakhstan who continue to struggle for a different kind of future.

The Washington Post, 1 May 2001