A smoldering Caucasus and the quiet Americans

President Bush has declared that the time is ripe for a new strategy to foster democracy in the Middle East. If it ends up looking anything like what the US has done lately in the Caucasus, we might as well not even try. Caspian oil reserves - an alternative that could reduce US dependence on OPEC - seem to count for more than human rights and democracy in US policy toward the region.

The Republic of Georgia is but the most recent example: Its Nov. 2 parliamentary elections were such a sham that the country's Central Electoral Commission invalidated the results at a number of polling stations and held a repeat election at those stations Sunday - but even that turned into a fiasco when several polls didn't receive ballots in time.

There have been widespread calls within Georgia to scrap all the Nov. 2 election results and start again; President Eduard Shevardnadze has refused. Now thousands are taking to the streets in protests that bear a striking resemblance to antigovernment protests in the 1990s that swept Mr. Shevardnadze to power, but not before the country descended into civil war.

And what is the US government's public position on this crisis? While Western observers describe the elections as blatantly manipulated by the Shevardnadze government, the State Department has been studiously low-key, sending high-level representatives but withholding significant public comment. And Mr. Bush has said nothing at all.

The Georgian situation practically replicates what happened with the Armenian presidential elections earlier this year and the elections in Azerbaijan last month. In both cases, widespread fraud elicited only a mild rebuke from the US.

The political sovereignty and economic stability of the three Caucasus states are very much in the national interest of the US, which has cultivated them as allies since the breakup of the Soviet Union loosened Russia's hold on the region. The relationships paid off after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Caucasus states allowed US flyover rights on the way to the war in Afghanistan.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has allocated substantial human and financial resources to sustain these nations and preserve their viability as independent states. Its efforts to develop civil society include funding nongovernmental organizations, promoting development of political parties, and supporting a free press. But for what, if the US fails to show some backbone about ensuring free and fair elections?

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are ruled by presidents who lack legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of their citizens. Widespread ballot irregularities in Armenia have led to charges that the election was stolen. In Azerbaijan, authorities acted openly to secure President Ilham Aliyev's victory by excluding the opposition from the electoral process. Without a broad mandate from their respective electorates, neither Mr. Aliyev nor President Robert Kocharian will be able to steer his nation toward economic prosperity, let alone end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that has damaged relations between them for a decade.

The lack of democracy and civil society will also prevent the Caucasus from tackling the post-Soviet brand of corruption now endemic to the region. The exploration and transport of hydrocarbon resources from the Caspian Sea to Western markets must continue, but this development must proceed in an equitable manner benefitting all citizens of the producer and transit counties. A failure to fully promote democracy will ensure that the profits from oil production will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt leaders and government officials.

While it's true that the US has to work with the Alievs, Kocharians, and Shevardnadzes of this world to continue protecting its interests, at the very least the State Department should openly hold these leaders' feet to the fire on democracy. More important, though, would be a ringing rebuke from the secretary of State himself, or even Bush.

When the three countries of the southern Caucasus gained their independence in 1991, they inherited abysmal economies, corruption, ethnic and territorial conflicts, and weak civil societies. But they also had a highly educated populace, hungry for democracy and economic freedom, and strong secular traditions separating religion and state.

Since then, the US has made a significant investment in the region in hope of building stable democracies based on the rule of law and market economies. Recently the US has reinforced their sovereignty, minimized Iranian and Russian influences, and secured the support of all three governments in the war against terrorism. But in respect to the most fundamental value of American foreign policy - promoting democracy and human rights - the US has fallen short in the Caucasus.

The highest levels of US government must hold the leaders of these countries accountable until they demonstrate they can lead in an enlightened way consistent with their international commitments. Otherwise, the Caucasus may disintegrate into a string of failed and authoritarian states, and no amount of Caspian oil will save the US from the result.

US Rep. Tom Lantos of California is the ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee.

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