JOURNALISTS harassed and sued. Two activists jailed for distributing a leaflet insulting the president. A government-sponsored referendum passed by a 95-percent "Yes" vote reminiscent of the Soviet era. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, the freest country in the ex-communist Central Asia.
Such heavy-handedness is the exception rather than the rule for the small nation's relatively liberal regime. But then again, Kyrgyzstan itself is an exception in a region where democracy is just a rumor. In neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the government's political opponents get framed and beaten. In Tajikistan, they get killed.
"In reality, if you want to talk about basic human rights and liberties, they don't exist at all," says Madamin Narzikulov, head of the independent, Moscow-based Central Asian Human Rights Network.
The United States State Department's annual human rights report released March 6 is not much cheerier. "A one-party state dominated by the president and his closest advisers," it calls Turkmenistan. "In practice, President [Saparmurat] Niyazov's power is absolute." As for Tajikistan, "members of the security forces and government-aligned forces committed several extrajudicial killings, were responsible for disappearances, and regularly tortured and abused detainees," the report said.
The same report lauds Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Kazakstan for tolerating opposition politics and respecting basic human rights. But it also cites their presidents for restricting the freedom of the press and manipulating judges and lawmakers.
"There is a certain freedom of association, of the press" in Kazakstan, says Evgeny Zhovtis, executive director of the independent US-Kazakstan Human Rights Bureau. "But Kazakstan is absolutely authoritarian when it comes to the ability of people to influence their country's policies. This ability has been liquidated," he says.
Uzbekistan, in the middle of the region, also occupies an intermediate place on the repression scale. Real opposition is banned and the press censored. Dissidents' phones ring busy round the clock. But the government of President Islam Karimov is slowly abandoning police-state tactics in favor of the more sophisticated restraints applied by its northern neighbors.
Two opposition activists charged with murder were released last year under international pressure. The government seems to have ended its practice of kidnapping political opponents from neighboring countries. The media have lately been allowed to blast bureaucrats, though political bosses remain off limits.
The State Department's report aside, Western governments have muted their criticism of human rights abuses in the region. Most complaints are made in private if at all. And the occasional public objection gets drowned out by praise for Central Asian nations' efforts to reform their economies and maintain independence from Russia.
All of the countries in the region receive some US aid. Though officials say that human rights is one factor considered, they add that the small amounts of Western aid do not give them enough leverage to demand rapid liberalization. Some of them argue that it's not even desirable.
"We have to go at it slowly and incrementally," says a diplomat based in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. "We want a reasonably democratic nation with a free-market economic activity where there is generally acceptable respect for human rights. That's our goal - do we have to have that tomorrow? Wouldn't it be just as good really if we had that five or 10 years from now without all the intervening difficulty and violence and disruption that might come about if we try to force-feed it?"
IT does not help that opposition activists in Central Asia are in some cases no more liberal and often less economically literate than their governments. Even local human rights activists acknowledge that the regimes' political and media critics have often behaved irresponsibly.
But that has also been the case in the European part of the former Soviet Union, where the West has been far more vocal in demanding that the newly independent states hold free elections and dismantle restrictions on political activity. Diplomats based in Central Asia use terms like "the Asian mentality" in explaining the different approaches.
"It's probably counterproductive to assume that you can take a single standard and apply it without any change from one area to another," says a senior Western diplomat in the region.
Such attitudes rankle some Central Asians. "The Asian model would be deadly dangerous for us," says Natalia Ablova, director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law. Educated Kyrgyz "are oriented toward Europe. They've traveled the world and have seen that Europeans have stability, tolerance, and a certain independence from the state, whereas Asians have nonstop coups, ethnic, and religious clashes."
In December, Kyrgyzstan flouted regional convention by holding a contested presidential election that was judged to be fair despite irregularities. But elsewhere in the region, changes have come more slowly. One example cited by foreign observers in Uzbekistan as evidence of the regime's softer line is the appointment of a previous strongman's daughter to head the government's agency on human rights. In Central Asia, that qualifies as progress.
*Part 1 in this series ran Tuesday, March 19.