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Elections and Oil Intertwined in Central Asia


U.S. President George W. Bush has made democracy a central theme of his foreign policy. While the Middle East has been the focus of much of these efforts, Washington has also been pushing hard for democratic reforms in Central Asia. VOA's Jim Bertel reports on the significance of the upcoming parliamentary vote in Azerbaijan (Nov. 6) and presidential election in Kazakhstan (Dec. 4).

At first glance, President Bush's energy policy and push for democracy would seem to have little in common. But world energy demand is on the rise, and securing reliable sources of gas and oil has never been more important to the major economies.

Mathew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia says the most stable energy partners are those that embrace democratic reforms.

"We believe countries that have achieved stability through internal reform are better partners, help us achieve our strategic energy interests, and will help us achieve our strategic security interests."

Ariel Cohen, a Eurasia Scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational institute, says that just as important are the internal benefits that come with democratic reform.

"We believe that through free and fair elections governments get legitimacy and legitimate governments are more stable and the conditions for the people and economic development improve as a result," said Mr. Cohen.

In Central Asia, the vast oil reserves of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have made the region a priority. Both countries are ruled by autocrats desiring strategic partnerships with the United States. The message from the White House to both has been clear: Hold free and fair elections and they can elevate their relationship with Washington to a new strategic level, including greater economic and military cooperation.

Zeyno Baron, an expert on Central Asia at the Nixon Center, a public policy institution in Washington, DC, says no one expects either country to produce perfect elections overnight.

"But the process needs to be better and there is political will. So I think already from the high-level visits from the U.S. government ranging from Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice to many other people, the U.S. government is working closely with those leaderships and trying to ensure that they will do a better election compared to the previous ones."

Since they are both former Soviet States, Russia is also pushing for greater influence. Ilam Berman, who studies the region at the American Foreign Policy Council, a foreign policy think tank, believes the alliances Baku and Alma-Ata choose now will ultimately decide how they emerge politically.

"So the choices they are making will dictate what it looks like -- what their politics look like, what their economies look like for the next decade or two.” said Mr. Berman. “And I think these politicians understand that these are very important decisions they are making."

Many observers of the elections in both countries believe from what they have seen so far, as long as the votes are counted in a free and transparent fashion, both nations are well on their way to achieving international legitimacy.

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