Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Central Asia not realizing West's goals

NOT TO PLAN Despite Western governments pledging to encourage liberalization in the region, it is becoming increasingly authoritarian


It was staged as a mafia-style execution: the victims' hands were tied behind their backs, the shots fired from behind.

The bullet-riddled bodies of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a Kazakh opposition leader, his bodyguard and driver were then dumped in the mountains near the commercial capital of Almaty.

The Feb. 11 murder of Sarsenbayev -- a key figure in Central Asia's richest and politically most stable nation -- came as the latest blow to hopes for democracy for the former Soviet region's nearly 60 million people.

"If one wanted to shoot the country's future dead, Altynbek was the right target," said Oraz Zhandosov, one of the leaders of Sarsenbayev's Nagyz Ak Zhol party -- the strongest opposition group in the entire region.

Central Asia, seen for centuries as Russia's backyard, emerged as a vital strategic region after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US, becoming a staging base and transit corridor for US-led coalition troops fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.

The region is surrounded by China to the east, the Caspian Sea to the west, Russia to the north and Iran and Afghanistan to the south and possesses vast energy resources.

Increased international interest brought attention to the poor democracy and human rights situation here and Western governments pledged to encourage liberalization. But over the past year, the region has become dramatically more authoritarian.

The watershed was last year's March 24 uprising in Kyrgyzstan -- the most liberal of the five nations since the Soviet collapse -- that brought the collapse of the government of former Soviet-era president Askar Akayev.

The Kyrgyz uprising, inspired by the democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, buoyed pro-democracy forces in other parts of the region.

Agitated governments drew their own conclusions.

Just weeks after the Kyrgyz power change, an anti-government revolt broke out in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. Troops fired on thousands of mostly unarmed protesters without warning. More than 700 were killed, according to rights groups and witnesses.

Uzbekistani President, Islam Karimov ignored international calls for an independent probe and ordered US troops that were deployed on Uzbek soil to leave.

Karimov's government then closed down offices of international aid groups and media in the country. The handful of Uzbek civil rights activists faced fresh arrests and intimidation. Two leaders of the opposition Sunshine Coalition group were jailed.

Tajikistan, the region's poorest nation, which suffered a 1992-1997 civil war between the secular government and the Islamic opposition, is expected to hold a presidential vote in November.

The 2003 referendum laid a legal framework for President Emomali Rakhmonov to stay in power until 2020, if re-elected.

Over the past year, Rakhmonov has been meticulously removing all key political figures both in his own retinue and among the opposition. Yakub Salimov, a former leader of the Popular Front movement that brought Rakhmonov to power in 1994 and later turned into his critic, was sentenced in April to 15 years for state treason and banditry.

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Makhmadruzi Iskandarov, was sentenced in October to 23 years for terrorism and attempted murder.

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