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Beyond Ukraine, a Grim Picture

Post-Soviet Democracy

Elections in the former Soviet Union are stolen all the time, but governments get away with it by stifling democratic institutions. Western leaders need to support struggling civil societies in the region, before there is nothing left to support.

The opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, appeared to have a clear lead, but the very fact that the vote took place was a victory for civil society. Across much of the former Soviet Union, however, the picture for democracy and institutions that protect basic freedoms is grim.

On Sunday, people in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state 3,000 kilometers, or 1,875 miles, east of Kiev, elected a new Parliament. Few people were watching what happened because there wasn't much to see. A victory for the pro-government party was a foregone conclusion because there were no opposition candidates. The government has stifled institutions that underpin a free and fair electoral process - opposition political parties, media freedoms, an open atmosphere for nongovernmental organizations and freedom of assembly.

This time last year, after reformists in Georgia staged the "Rose Revolution" that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, many wondered what lessons governments in the region would draw. No leader relishes political instability. But the question was, what would the region's leaders do to avoid it? Would they promote honest elections, greater accountability, better governance and peaceful transitions of power? Or would they ignore the issues that cause public discontent, such as entrenched, widespread corruption, and undermine the political opposition and democratic institutions in order to retain power at all costs?

Overwhelmingly, governments in former Soviet states have chosen the latter path, continuing policies that had started well before the Georgian revolt. Uzbekistan may be one of the more acute examples of this trend but it has plenty of company.

Azerbaijan's fraudulent presidential elections last year led to political violence, for which the government has imprisoned many opposition leaders. Public demonstrations in Azerbaijan by people seeking to express dissident views are nearly impossible.

In Armenia in spring the government tried to use a variety of arbitrary measures to prevent massive rallies protesting falsified elections the previous year. The police used excessive force on demonstrators, raided the headquarters of opposition parties, arrested a handful of opposition political leaders and rounded up hundreds of their supporters.

Two months ago the government of Kazakhstan created an unfair playing field for the parliamentary vote, resulting in only one opposition party member gaining a seat in the lower house of legislature. A couple of weeks ago not a single opposition candidate was elected in Belarus's parliamentary vote, after the electoral authorities used a combination of nonregistration of candidates and polling day fraud to keep the opposition out.

In Kyrgyzstan, the government has already taken steps to increase its control over the news media and other civil society institutions before parliamentary elections in February.

Throughout the region, governments control television and try to intimidate independent print media through punitive defamation suits and sheer bullying. In many countries, human rights and other civil society organizations are the targets of politically motivated tax inspections. Human rights defenders are unlawfully jailed by the authorities and subject to violent assaults by unknown attackers.

Russia's crackdown on civil society has been under way for the past four years. President Vladimir Putin's government gradually seized control over what had been a diverse, if not exactly free, broadcast media and began using it to promote pro-government political candidates and vilify the opposition.

Putin himself led a broadside attack on democratic organizations, accusing them in his "state of the nation" speech of serving foreign masters rather than the interests of ordinary Russians. Now new legislation will make the funding of nongovernmental organizations subject to government review.

In contrast to their response to compromised elections in other parts of the region, Western countries leaped to the defense of Ukrainians demanding electoral integrity in Ukraine. For the most part, they were not cowed by accusations, from Russia and other countries, that they were meddling. But what would Western leaders have done had it not been possible for Ukrainians to take to the streets? Would their defense have been as firm?

Elections in this part of the world are stolen all the time, but governments get away with it by stifling democratic institutions. Western leaders need to be every bit as supportive of the other struggling civil societies in the region, before there is nothing left to support.

(Rachel Denber is the acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.)

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