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U.S. Programs Aided Kyrgyz Opposition

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://apnews.myway.com/article/20050401/D896HE380.html U.S. Programs Aided Kyrgyz Opposition Apr 1, 4:40 AM (ET) By STEVE GUTTERMAN BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) -
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      http://apnews.myway.com/article/20050401/D896HE380.html

      U.S. Programs Aided Kyrgyz Opposition

      Apr 1, 4:40 AM (ET)

      By STEVE GUTTERMAN

      BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) - The speaker of Kyrgyzstan's
      new parliament traveled to the United States last year
      on a U.S.-government-funded program to observe the
      presidential election. So did the acting president.

      Newspapers that railed against President Askar Akayev
      in the months before his ouster last week at the hands
      of opposition protesters were printed on a U.S.-funded
      press. Kyrgyzstan has received more U.S. assistance
      per capita than any other ex-Soviet republic in
      Central Asia.

      The upheaval that swept Akayev's foes to power last
      week struck a country once squeezed by Akayev's
      increasingly control-minded regime and now emboldened
      by a promise of change championed by forces that
      benefited from U.S. funding.

      Among them: a handful of opposition newspapers that
      have been rolling off a truck-sized printing press
      marked "United States Government Department of
      Democracy, Human Rights and Labor," housed at a former
      laundry on a remote stretch of road in the capital,
      Bishkek.

      The press has operated since November 2003 under a
      program of the New York-based rights and democracy
      group Freedom House. The project has received more
      than $1 million in U.S. government funding.

      At least three of the printing press' 60-odd clients,
      project director Mike Stone said, were opposition
      papers that fueled growing public anger at Akayev amid
      the campaign for the late-winter parliamentary
      elections - a vote whose flaws fueled the opposition
      push for his ouster.

      Those publications embroiled the printing press in a
      dispute with Akayev's government, which responded with
      a power cutoff, police surveillance, the confiscation
      of a truckload of papers and suggestions of censorship
      from board members close to the president.

      The press, meanwhile, received generators rushed over
      by the U.S. Embassy after the electricity was cut off,
      allowing it to print 182,000 copies of an opposition
      paper ahead of the first round of voting Feb. 27.

      The battle became part of a war of words waged by
      Akayev against the West, in which he claimed
      opposition forces were getting international funding.

      The rhetoric is familiar from Russia - where
      politicians claimed U.S. money was a major force
      behind the protests that swept Western-leaning
      opposition leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine in
      the past two years.

      "Akayev in his waning days was just as anxious to feed
      that thesis ... because it made him seem blameless,"
      said an informed Western observer who spoke on
      condition of anonymity. According to Akayev, "it was
      these pernicious outsiders led by the Americans who
      were undermining a perfectly happy country," the
      observer said.

      As Kyrgyzstan's biggest donor, the United States is a
      fat target. U.S. assistance since the 1991 Soviet
      collapse has totaled nearly $800 million, and funding
      for democracy development last year was $13.3 million.

      The money went in part to U.S. government-funded
      groups such as the National Democratic Institute and
      the International Republican Institute. U.S. democracy
      programs in Kyrgyzstan "focus on improving political
      processes and accountability of government
      institutions, strengthening civil society and public
      advocacy, and supporting independent media," according
      to a State Department statement.

      Those goals dovetailed with the aims of opposition
      leaders fearing electoral fraud. They also ran up
      against a government that seemed bent on strengthening
      its grip in the parliamentary balloting - and possibly
      even retaining it indefinitely despite term limits
      that prevented Akayev from running again.

      American-funded programs provided training in
      political organization and campaigning, but the U.S.
      Embassy stressed that the main pro-Akayev party also
      took part along with opposition groups. The embassy
      said U.S. money could not have been used to feed,
      clothe or transport protesters who seized and swarmed
      his office because it does not go to specific parties
      or individuals.

      Edil Baisalov, head of a non-government group called
      For Democracy and Civil Society, stressed it was
      Kyrgyz people who forced Akayev out, not U.S. cash,
      but acknowledged that Western democracy groups have
      played a "very important role" in creating an
      atmosphere conducive to change. The group worked with
      the National Democratic Institute and monitored the
      parliamentary voting.

      "The West and the United States were big sponsors of
      our democratic path of development, supported our
      democratic aims," Roza Otunbayeva, a former ambassador
      to the United States and Britain and now acting
      foreign minister, said Thursday.

      Omurbek Tekebayev, the parliament speaker who visited
      the United States last year under the State
      Department's International Visitors Program, said
      other opposition leaders who went included acting
      President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and a top aide to Felix
      Kulov, a politician released from jail during the
      takeover.

      "I'm not sure how much this trip influenced us, but I
      found that the Americans know how to choose people,
      know how to make an accurate evaluation of what is
      happening and prognosticate the future development and
      political changes," Tekebayev said Thursday.

      Stone suggested the influence of the printing press
      was indirect.

      "Perhaps the papers - the fact that they existed and
      were on the street - may have been a sign of hope for
      the opposition," he said.

      He stressed that U.S.-financed groups were promoting
      "the rule of law, transparent, free elections, free
      media: a handful of things that we all take for
      granted."

      "That's the goal of these projects - it ain't regime
      change," he said.

      But the regime did change, leaving one end of a
      cavernous room at the printing press piled nearly
      ceiling-high with dozens of huge, half-ton rolls of
      newsprint.

      With the opposition claiming Akayev would seek to stay
      in power past the October election or engineer a
      succession, the towering stacks are the products of an
      effort to ensure there was enough paper on hand to
      prevent the government from shutting the press down
      ahead of the vote by blocking deliveries from Russia.

      "We anticipated supply problems," said project
      assistant Ruslan Yakhtanigov.
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