Ex-Soviet States Stay Soviet on Rights Central Asia Clings to an Authoritarian Rather Than 'European' Approach to Human Rights Series: CENTRAL ASIA: EMPIRE'S ORPHAN

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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. …