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Pro-Democracy Groups in Central Asia Struggle to Make Their Voices Heard

While non-governmental organizations, including local residents and foreigners, continue their work for a civil society in Central Asia, they are under increasing pressure from the governments that fear and resent their intrusion. Noting the overthrow of President Edward Shevardnadze in Georgia, the regimes say the NGOs may have a similar aim in Central Asia.

Human Rights Watch monitors abuses of citizens by governments throughout the world. Researcher Allison Gill says Uzbekistan, where she is stationed, keeps her very busy. Torture, in particular, is a problem.

"The use of torture is systematic, which means it happens throughout the country in many, many contexts," she says. "We document cases of torture being used as part of pretrial detention and investigation. We document the use of torture to coerce incriminating statements or confessions. We document the use of torture as kind of an extra-judicial punishment in prisons."

The Muslim Uzbek government also bans Islamist parties of all kinds, blaming them for the bombings at the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent in late July. According to Allison Gill, even those that are non-violent are considered a danger to the state.

"The government has been persecuting and prosecuting people who practice their religion peacefully outside of state regulated institutions, and that campaign has been ongoing for years," she says. "Here imams have to have their sermons approved by the state committee on religious affairs before being allowed to deliver them. It is illegal to pray in a mosque that is unregistered."

Such complaints are firmly rejected by the government. According to Ms. Gill, the civil society sought by Human Rights Watch and other groups is considered subversive to the regime. "We see that space shrinking and shrinking all the time," she says. "What civil society activity there is, is under tremendous pressure. Activists and NGO workers are harassed and investigated. They face bureaucratic hurdles. They face personal security risks. They face registration problems."

Others do not share quite so bleak an outlook. Mjusa Sever, director of the Freedom House program in Uzbekistan, says she can bring her problems to senior government officials who often respond. "I am very glad that it is the Uzbeks assessing the situation, the Uzbeks pointing out, yes, this is what we need more," she says. "After all, that is what our assistance should be all about. Although some signs prove that that they do not want us here, I do not have that feeling. I think they do want to be a part of the international community. They are just a little awkward at times in showing this."

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is considered a more moderate ruler in Central Asia, who is constitutionally required to give up his office in 2005. Whether he will actually do so is an open question.

In a recent article titled "Export of Democracy - Export of Revolution," he wrote that some critics from abroad are not sufficiently aware of our domestic realities: "In any case, we must patiently consider them. But at the same time, new international political technologies, wrapped in nice packages like a ‘velvet revolution,’ are causing alarms in our country. For a long time, I have believed that authentic democracy must mature specifically from the depths of a country's own experience."

That maturity may occur with the younger generation in any Central Asian country, says Eric Jacob, director of American Councils for International Education. Funded by his organization, some 700 Uzbek youths have gone to study for a year in the United States.

"One of the main goals of the program is to broaden perspectives and to give them a western view, a global view of the world and to try to institute some sort of motivation in their minds to create change," he says. "And in a young republic like Uzbekistan, for the most part, all of them come back very motivated with a very positive experience."

Tuychi Melibaev is one of these students. He attended a high school in Bixby, Oklahoma, and stayed with a local family. He remains in touch. "It was in a very crucial moment of my life when a person starts forming his values," he says, "and just a year in the United States of America really helped me see some of the things that I probably would not be able to see here in Uzbekistan. And it also gave me a chance to look at my own country from outside because living in Uzbekistan, the vision of the person is limited to the borders of the country and to what you hear and see in this country."

This attitude is not confined just to youth, says David Smith, director of the Civic Advocacy Support Program in Uzbekistan. "We have found there are a great many people in the government at senior levels who are very eager for opportunities to bring about change that makes life better for people. But given the way the system functions, sometimes that is hard for them to do," he says.

Mr. Smith and other NGO members are trying to make it easier for them, while also struggling to survive themselves.