Central Asia is region that has not had a democratic past, says Rice

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday the United States is taking the high road in pressing for democracy among former Soviet states historically unfamiliar with political liberty. "Central Asia is a region that has not had a democratic past," Rice said after a meeting with Tajikistan's authoritarian president, Emomali Rakhmonov, who has maintained a tight grip on power and shown little tolerance for dissent. He has jailed several former loyalists and opposition leaders in recent years in what critics say is an attempt to secure his position.

"The important issue is to take these countries where they are and see them make progress," Rice said.

Impoverished Tajikistan suffered five years of civil war between pro-Moscow and Islamic forces, which ended in 1997 with a U.N.-brokered power-sharing agreement. The country is a main channel for drugs transported from neighboring Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.

Earlier Thursday, Rice met with Kazakhstan's strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

At a press conference afterward, she said the United States presses a consistent message of democracy for all, whether the audience is in the Middle East or Central Asia.

The U.S. top diplomat denied any suggestion that the main U.S. interests in Central Asia are oil and strategic leverage in the war on terrorism.

"We will press for free and fair elections here just as we press for free and fair elections everywhere in the world," Rice said, reports the AP. I.L.

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