31 de maio de 2004

Central Asia: Not always a silk road to democracy: the view beyond the Hofburg

Painting a picture of each country in Central Asia with broad brushstrokes is fraught with risks. And so, together with four other OSCE Ambassadors, I set out to clarify the differences between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to examine their common bonds, with an eye to promoting regional co-operation and fostering synergies.
We could hardly follow the substance of the argument through the whispering of the interpreter, but, judging from the facial expressions and body language of the people in the audience, it was obvious that the Debating Club’s choice of topic of contention – to liberalize soft drugs or not – had succeeded in capturing everyone’s attention. Young students, acting the parts of “government” and “opposition”, exchanged opposing viewpoints. The public then voted for the team that convinced them the most.
This was democracy in the making, we thought. We were in Khujand, northern Tajikistan, witnessing an initiative jointly organized by the OSCE field office and the Open Society Institute.
A second story, though, is less happy and the place where it happened is not to be mentioned, for understandable reasons. We had just finished meeting representatives of civil society, who had brought up the severe restrictions imposed by local authorities on the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The speaker was no longer young, her face revealing traces of suffering. She had been unusually courageous and blunt in describing the difficulties of living in a repressive environment.
Lowering her voice, she said: “Now, please take note of my name and trace my future. I don’t know what will happen to me after this meeting with you.”
These brief incidents were just two of many sharply contrasting ones that made an impression on me during a two-week trip in May to the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
Getting better acquainted with the Central Asian reality and with OSCE field activities in the region was the idea behind the decision of our group – which, apart from myself, was made up of the Ambassadors of Belgium, Canada, Norway and Slovenia – to visit all five countries in May. We received outstanding support from staff in the OSCE Secretariat and in the five OSCE centres, and we experienced the sincere hospitality of local and national leaders, and various communities.
It is difficult, based on a stay of a few days, to paint an accurate picture of each country and the development challenges it is confronting. Societies in transition need to be seen in a dynamic perspective, taking account of their point of departure and the tangible factors driving their evolution.
All five countries we visited have a common legacy – Communist dictatorship. However, there are vast differences between the steps each one has already taken on the road to democracy. Some countries have laid a sound foundation with all the elements necessary for democratic values and tenets to take root: the rule of law, respect for human rights, an unthreatening environment in which people can organize themselves freely and without fear of political consequences. Others – and let’s be frank – still nurture some of the inherited habits of the old days.
We wanted to learn as much as we could about each national case, to talk openly with authorities about our main concerns and to listen to the simple hopes and dreams of civil society. We also wanted to sit down with OSCE field staff and explore how we could best help them attain their goals.
During our talks, we avoided preaching and lecturing or being judgmental. We made it a point not to adopt the artificial division of “East” and “West” of Vienna. We believe that if there is a division within the OSCE, it is between those who abide by their commitments and those who do not. This was our message.
Credible institutions
Viewed from the Hofburg, Central Asia often looks like a single entity, with merely idiosyncratic differences distinguishing one country from another. We know the names of places and political actors, we sit up and take notice when something comes up that threatens to weaken a country’s democratic credentials, and we welcome positive developments with pleasure.
On this trip, however, we set out to clarify the differences and to examine the common bonds, constantly bearing in mind our goal of promoting the great value of looking towards regional co-operation and fostering synergies.
In our contacts with officials, it was evident they had a keen interest in having their political institutions seen as actively engaged in the democratization process. This was an encouraging signal, but we also felt it useful to look more closely at the vital question of political succession.
We found that most of the countries had formal structures in place, with theoretical mechanisms for “checks and balances”. Laws and regulations essential to good governance had been approved, covering everything from elections, political parties and NGOs, to media and religion.
As everyone knows, however, the devil is in the detail of implementation.
In many cases, political pressure and hidden informal obstacles, helped by judiciary systems too close to the power centre, blocked citizens’ attempts to build independent initiatives aimed at winning public support, and at making a constructive difference in people’s lives.
As we travelled from country to country, I felt that the best proof of openness was demonstrated when political parties that wished to oppose the status quo were allowed to do so by being able to organize themselves, by being able to draw on simple registration procedures, and by being able to take part in unquestionably free and fair elections according to international standards.
In some countries, we saw prison and judicial systems in clear need of reform, with accusations of torture not throroughly investigated. Incidents of terrorism and violent expressions of opposition were sometimes used as a pretext for waves of severe repression and served as a convenient excuse to forget all about fundamental citizens’ rights.
All too often, NGOs were still considered a breeding ground for dissent. Control of the media by the Government sometimes reached scandalous proportions. Corruption seemed to have seeped into all areas of daily life. Transparency, accountability and good governance in economic and financial systems still had to be tackled head-on by many of the countries, especially those that have not yet won the full confidence of international finance institutions.
Reasons for hope
It bears repeating: The situation varies from place to place and it would not be fair to make the same diagnosis across the board. In fact, we noted that some Governments’ reform efforts had been considerable, steering their countries onto a steady course. We received positive signals that we will not fail to pass on to our colleagues in Vienna.
I urge the international community to make it a point to give these efforts due recognition and reward. Just to name one favourable trend that we discerned: All the Central Asian countries are moving towards a moratorium on the death penalty.
The level of interest in co-operating with the OSCE field missions remains a reliable barometer of the Governments’ desire to collaborate with the wider international community.
Throughout the trip, I kept asking myself: “What kind of impact can the OSCE have on this country’s future, given the Organization’s limited resources and insufficient structures?” Gradually, some answers unfolded, and I saw for myself how even less-than-grandiose activities using relatively modest resources can prove especially relevant to the general population.
In Kyrgyzstan, we soaked up the healthy atmosphere of learning that we found at the OSCE Academy, which brings together students from Central Asia with those from western countries. We also saw how the police assistance programme in Bishkek and the legal clinic in Osh were serving as effective tools for introducing people to the democratic way of exercising authority and administering of justice.
In Tajikistan, the OSCE’s support for an independent newspaper and news agency in Khujand demonstrated how much can be done with slim resources. In the capital, Dushanbe, we were present at the launching of a new phase of the OSCE’s first mine-clearing project, a joint activity with the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action.
Much, however, remains to be done. There is scope for the OSCE to play a vital role by giving some of its national projects a regional dimension, while also expanding into other areas of great concern such as combating trafficking in human beings, police reform, and border management, in co-operation with international partners. The security implications of the education system’s shortcomings, the impact of migration, the rights of minorities, environmental risks, property rights, and land reform must remain high on the OSCE agenda in Central Asia.
A visit to the Russian military headquarters on the southern border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan also enabled us to grasp the likely consequences of drug trafficking on the region’s destabilization.
Some lessons learned
Overall, I came away from my firsthand encounter with Central Asia and its people with some valuable lessons:
· “No duplication and no competition”: This, in my view, must be the guiding principle of OSCE field offices, which should maintain close and mutually reinforcing co-ordination and co-operation with international partners in the field. The specific character of the OSCE’s role must be stressed to avoid overlapping with the roles of development agencies.
· Let us not lose sight of the fact that the real test of efficiency is the impact of activities on people’s well-being and these activities’ sustainability. Let us be vigilant about the fact that a proliferation of meetings, seminars, conferences and workshops carries a risk of these being identified as the sole measure of field work. OSCE field operations should resist the temptation of engaging themselves in too many projects, or in activities with limited practical impact and a poor chance of becoming self-sustaining. However, I fully understand that this is often a by-product of attempting to balance activities in the politico-military, economic/environmental and human dimensions.
· We need heads of OSCE field offices who have energetic personalities, charisma, enthusiasm, and the ability to motivate and mobilize staff, and inspire teamwork. In many cases, I saw the right leaders in the right place. An OSCE presence is not a bilateral embassy operating with routine procedures. It must strive to be an agile operation dedicated to finding creative ways and means to carry out its mandate to the full. It must seek to interact with government and civil society through a dynamic agenda.
· Intense dialogue and ongoing co-operation with national authorities are crucial to the success of field missions. However, this should by no means be at the expense of the dynamic role that field operations are expected to play. Striking a healthy balance between these two sides of the coin is the only way for missions to fulfil their tasks and the only way for host countries to be helped to put into practice the norms and values they signed up to when they decided to become part of the OSCE community.
On a final note, I recommend that all my colleagues in Vienna should try to visit our field operations in Central Asia. Compared with what one learns on-site, Central Asia from the vantage point of the Hofburg is just virtual reality.
The OSCE Magazine invited Ambassador Francisco Seixas da Costa, Permanent Representative of Portugal to the OSCE, to share his personal impressions of Central Asia after visiting the region from 15 to 29 May. He travelled with Ambassador Mette Kongshem of Norway, Ambassador Evelyn Puxley of Canada, Ambassador Janez Lanarcic of Slovenia and Ambassador Bertrand de Crombrugghe of Belgium.
Ambassador Francisco Seixas da Costa assumed his post in Vienna in September 2002, when he also chaired the Permanent Council under the Portuguese OSCE chairmanship. He joined his country’s diplomatic service in 1975, and has served in Oslo, Luanda and London. Various high-level assignments at home and abroad focused strongly on European Union and United Nations matters. In 2001-2002, he was Portugal’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

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