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Barriers to Freedom

Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B06

ASKAR AKAYEV, the president of Kyrgyzstan who resigned on Monday, was a corrupt and autocratic ruler during most of his 15 years in office. Paradoxically, however, he helped make possible the revolution that ousted him, by tolerating some of its building blocks. Opposition parties operated under his regime, though some of their leaders were persecuted; independent media existed, despite sporadic attempts to shut them down. Western nongovernmental organizations with pro-democracy agendas were tolerated: The United States spent $12 million on such programs last year. Sadly, these facts have been quickly absorbed by the surviving strongmen of the former Soviet Union, which means that the hurdles to democratization in Eurasia are getting higher.

Two Central Asian colleagues of Mr. Akayev, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazahkstan, have made gestures at political liberalization in recent years, largely in the hope of pleasing Western governments. Now they are retrenching. Both have moved to shut down or inhibit organizations such as the Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy and the local civic movements they nurture. Mr. Nazarbayev dissolved the main opposition party and, to bolster his regime, has drawn closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been an unconditional friend to the post-Soviet autocrats.

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Mr. Karimov's closest foreign allies, disturbingly, reside in the Pentagon, which maintains a large air base outside the Uzbek capital. Last year the State Department suspended several aid programs to Uzbekistan because of its abuses of human rights and failure to move toward democracy. But Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, undercut this policy decision during a visit to Uzbekistan just weeks later, criticizing the aid cutoff -- which Congress had mandated -- and praising Uzbekistan's cooperation with the Defense Department. That alliance continues unabated, as does other U.S. aid to Uzbekistan, giving Mr. Karimov little reason to believe that his stepped-up repression will affect what he regards as a "strategic partnership" with Washington.

A third Central Asian ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, has responded to the regional turmoil by accelerating the transformation of his resource-rich state into a Stalinist enclave rivaling North Korea in its excesses. Mr. Niyazov, a "president for life" with a state-sponsored cult of personality, has dismantled Turkmenistan's educational system and closed most of its libraries while requiring students and most other citizens to study his own works. Several weeks ago he ordered all hospitals outside the capital closed. Shamefully, Western companies eager to invest in the country, including DaimlerChrysler, have catered to this madness, sponsoring the translation and publication of Mr. Niyazov's books.

U.S. policies helped lay the groundwork for change in Eurasia, but they need to be adjusted if democratization is to continue. A brutal tyrant such as Mr. Niyazov must suffer sanctions, not pandering, from the West; the suspension of visas and freezing of assets of his family and government would be a place to start. If the Kazakh and Uzbek governments are no longer willing to allow Western organizations to help civil-society movements openly, ways should be explored to provide help indirectly or covertly, as was done for the Polish opposition a generation ago. It is time for Mr. Bush to apply his democratic principles to Uzbekistan -- and put a stop to the independent foreign policy being conducted in that country by the Pentagon.

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