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Has Obama put human rights on the back burner?

Observers worry the administration is muting criticism because of Central Asia's strategic importance


ALMATY, Kazakhstan — As the United States re-fortifies its presence in Central Asia — planting military bases and extending supply lines to neighboring Afghanistan — many observers are asking if Washington's human rights agenda will take a backseat to a more steely-eyed realpolitik.

In Almaty and Bishkek and Osh, as well as other cities around this strategic but remote region, an impression is already forming that the Obama administration is softening its criticism of local authoritarian regimes so as not to risk annoying them and thereby jeopardizing the war against the Taliban.

"It now seems that the U.S. is very quiet on everything," said one Western official in Kyrgyzstan who wished to maintain anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "Their silence is striking." The five Central Asian states have flitted in and out of Washington's radar since the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991. First seen as free market democracies in the making, they assumed added importance with the recognition that their bountiful oil and gas reserves could supply Western markets.

Then, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Central Asia's position became important to the U.S. strategy for striking back. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan border Afghanistan and were used as transit points, while the U.S. also set up major bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. (Germany and France also established operations in the area.)

There were setbacks, however, in the strengthening of U.S. ties with the region. In May 2005, Uzbek government forces in the city of Andijan opened fire on a crowd of primarily peaceful demonstrators who had gathered after militants attacked a local prison and then took hostages. Hundreds were possibly killed. Washington criticized the government's actions and aided in the airlift of refugees from the region. After that, Tashkent kicked the U.S. from its air base in the country's south.

More recently, Kyrgyzstan announced the ejection of American forces from Manas Air Base, a major troop transit and refueling center. Bishkek however reversed its decision in June when the U.S. upped the total amount it was paying from about $17 million to close to $180 million.

Now the U.S. is sending more troops to Afghanistan, where the fight is escalating. At the same time, the main supply route through Pakistan's Khyber Pass is looking increasingly tenuous, making Central Asia more essential than ever. In addition to maintaining their grip on Manas, U.S. officials negotiated the opening of a new base in Uzbekistan, as well as transit agreements with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

But the increased American presence has been paralleled by an assault on civic freedoms. The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have never been the most democracy-friendly locations, and their governments now are either totalitarian or "authoritarian lite" — that is, with room for limited public debate, but still fully under the control of a supreme leader.

Kazakhstan recently introduced a draconian internet law, while Kyrgyzstan conducted by some measures the worst elections in the nation's history. Uzbek officials regularly jail and torture dissidents, and recently sentenced a leading independent journalist to 12 years in prison for forgery and extortion. Human rights defenders say the charges were politically motivated.

In general the U.S. reaction to the new round of abuses has been tepid, observers say.

"All this leaves the impression that pragmatic interests and concerns are contributing to a muted U.S. response to human rights abuses in the region, which is unhelpful and disappointing," said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocate for Human Rights Watch. Szente Goldston said that her organization was hoping for an improvement over the previous U.S. administration, which despite its pro-democracy rhetoric was also weak on human rights. "We hoped that this would change, but so far there has been no reset button of any kind."

"Human rights seem to have taken a back-burner position," she added.

(U.S. officials, despite numerous attempts, were not available for an on-the-record comment.)

For many, however, it is not as simple as trading human rights and democracy for landing and transit privileges. Analysts and officials, off the record, said that U.S. engagement remains strong, and criticism is voiced, if only behind closed doors. The enhanced U.S. presence increases leverage, they said.

"When dialogue is pursued by public statements out of the embassy and Washington, it means that dialogue is diminished," said one western official in the region, speaking off the record.

But others point to the fact that U.S. criticism of the Central Asian regimes since Sept. 11, 2001 has often been muted, seemingly in concern for the bases' continued existence. After Andijan, U.S. government officials were said to have preferred a softer line, but were pushed into action by their European counterparts.

In the end, however, the administration will lean toward accommodation of the regimes, simply because U.S. operations — and U.S. lives — in Afghanistan outweigh any other considerations, said Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"A response to human rights violations in Central Asia would be measured against the yardstick of increasing the risk of loss of American lives in Afghanistan — that's what it boils down to," she said.

"We would say things, but not do things," Brill Olcott added. "The question is whether we are capable of that kind of nuanced response."