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November 2004

The Hollow Refrain
 by Eric Chenoweth

A staple of President George W. Bush’s rhetoric in his campaign for reelection was that under his leadership “freedom is on the march.” In doing so, President Bush was pointing not just to political consequences in Afghanistan and Iraq but also to his more global policy in the “war on terror.” But the Bush Administration’s policies have reflected a quite different policy from the President’s rhetoric, a fact that may bode ill for U.S. foreign policy in George W. Bush’s second term. While justifying policies with grand visions of democracy, the Administration now trucks with any number of dictatorships and authoritarian leaders in order to gain their participation in the global “war on terror.” 

Nowhere have the bad effects of this policy been felt more than in Central Asia and parts of the Caucasus. Since 2001, with the exception of Georgia, countries in this region have moved farther away from political and economic reform and their governments have violated human rights on an even larger scale. U.S. policies have unfortunately reinforced the current trends. Of course, there continue to be pro-democracy programs within the U.S. government (my organization has received grants from such). But when democracy activists see U.S. air bases stationed in their countries and the repeated visits of high U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to praise their presidents for “cooperating in the war on terror,” they know that the weight of the U.S. government is behind their dictatorships, not them, much less in support of democratic change.

Among the clearest examples of this new double standard is Azerbaijan, which holds the proud distinction of being the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, from 1918-20, before being crushed by the Red Army. After Azerbaijan regained independence in 1992, a democratic government was reestablished but within a year the former Soviet KGB chief, Haidar Aliev, seized the presidency as a result of a coup backed by Russia. While putting up democratic appearances, Aliev built an efficient dictatorship using the country’s old power structures and new economic resources, namely its recently discovered oil reserves within its littoral boundaries on the Caspian Sea. 

In expectation of the October 15, 2003 presidential elections, the ailing Haidar Aliyev engineered a dynastic succession by his son, Ilham. The elections were a chance for the U.S. to reverse a decade of policy, begun under the Clinton Administration, that was based on supporting dictatorship in favor of stability for oil development and instead support the transition to democracy of an oil-rich Muslim country with a liberal tradition. A broad democratic opposition coalition put forward Isa Gambar, the leader of the pro-Western Musavat party, as a unified candidate. Gambar and Musavat had run strongly in previous elections in 2000 only to be denied victory through election fraud and repression. This time, mass rallies across the country indicated that Gambar had gained greater support. The Bush administration, however, decided to back the dictatorship.

October 15 was a sham election - one of the most blatant acts of electoral fraud ever witnessed in the region according to a statement of 188 seasoned Eastern European observers organized by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. In the face of brutal police attacks on opposition headquarters and members, including a huge opposition rally, the U.S. Ambassador was silent. Not bothering to meet the East European monitors its own government had funded, the U.S. Embassy announced support for the statement of the usually complaisant OSCE, which called the elections “generally well administered.” Two days after the elections, before the official result was announced, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, whose former business ties to Azerbaijan are well known, sent a letter of congratulations to Ilham Aliev. The State Department declared that despite “irregularities” Aliev had clearly won the election. Throughout Azerbaijan, democratic activists understood that the U.S. had forsaken them and was sending a message to the regime to do whatever it wanted. And so it did. The police rounded up more than 1,500 opposition supporters, many of whom were tortured, as reported, among others, by Human Rights Watch. Recently, the most prominent of the political prisoners - seven leading figures in Musavat and other opposition parties -  were sentenced to high prison terms after a staged trial.

The story of dictatorships being coddled by the Bush Administration in the misguided belief that this will aid in the “war on terrorism” is being replayed in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including Russia, where Putin’s brutal war in Chechnya and his steady seizure of dictatorial powers has been met with only the mildest criticism. (In the first presidential debate, when asked about creeping authoritarianism in Russia, George W. Bush pronounced a policy of appeasement in the most classic terms; in return, Putin openly endorsed “his friend” for a second term.)

What does the U.S. get in return for backing such dictators? Uzbekistan is a good example of what an alliance with dictators can lead to. This year, president Islam Karimov expelled the Open Society Institute, restricted the activities of most Western NGOs, and put all independent activists under great pressure. Recently, the British Ambassador Charles Murray was forced to resign for his outspoken criticism of Karimov for stocking his jails with more than 6,000 political prisoners. But the most proximate reason for the Ambassador’s sacking was that an internal memo he wrote became public stating that U.S. and British military officials had reaped large “rewards” from the Uzbek government’s torturing of prisoners. Of course, one cannot hope to reap such rewards in free societies.

One of the consequences of the West’s indifference to the democratic strivings of Azeris, Central Asians, and others is that people’s belief in elections as the right path to change has been greatly reduced. “People have seen that we won the elections but we have not gained power. People have lost trust in the West,” said Gambar. What is most odd about this U.S. policy is that Central Asia and Azerbaijan represent states with large majority secular Muslim populations with a history and tradition of moderation and separation of religion and state. Any extremism that has emerged is from outside and does not have the support of the population. If pressed in the right direction, these countries could be a strong force for promoting democracy and moderation in the Muslim world. The Bush Administration instead promoted “freedom in retreat” for the sake of temporal allies in the “war on terror.” We can expect that such a policy, if continued, will lead to increasingly tragic consequences. We can only hope that “freedom on the march” will not just be a hollow refrain.

Eric Chenoweth is co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe.

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