The election in Iran and its violent aftermath could create an undesirable precedent for authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union, according to a former Bush administration democratization official.
"What has happened in Iran is likely to intensify efforts by governments that have engaged in repressive tactics, authoritarian regimes, to make sure that they stay in power," said David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Kramer made the comments during a hearing of the US Helsinki Commission on July 16. The hearing was titled, "The impact of the Iran Crisis on its OSCE Neighbors." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"I fear that events in Iran are likely to reinforce pre-existing tendencies toward further cracking down and repression, not toward liberalization," Kramer said.
Kramer noted that presidential elections are being held in Kyrgyzstan on July 23, and that "developments in Iran will likely be on the minds of authorities" there. Kramer said that there have been "disturbing developments" in Kyrgyzstan, including the mysterious deaths of an opposition politician and a journalist, detention of other opposition figures and the shutting down of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"We should be stressing to the government that this election is a test of Kyrgyzstan's progress and that failure to pass that test will have a negative impact on our bilateral relations," he said in his written testimony.
Azerbaijan, however, is the country most likely to be affected by the events in Iran, Kramer said. Baku shares a border with Iran, and one-quarter of the Iranian population is ethnic Azeri, including the top losing candidate in the presidential election, Mir Hossein Moussavi. Azerbaijan has also seen backsliding on democracy-related issues, including shutting down foreign media broadcasts, and the harassment and detention of political opponents and journalists, including most recently two youth activists. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Strengthened in his position after the controversial referendum on ending term limits, President Aliyev should use his position to launch a liberalization campaign," Kramer said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "He should do so not because the West wants him to, but because such a move is in Azerbaijan's long-term interests and is the best guarantee against an Iran-like situation unfolding in his country."
Another witness at the hearing, Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, agreed that the protests in Iran are likely to cause autocratic governments in Iran's neighborhood to crack down more harshly on nascent democratic trends. "The lessons of Iran are nothing new to these regimes. But we may see a further exacerbation of trends that we've seen in this region so far," she said.
"Iran demonstrated that elections still may catalyze widespread public demands for genuine political accountability. This may cause regimes to move further in the direction that they are already going, towards turning the electoral process into a complete sham and upgrading their capacity to suppress demonstrations swiftly and comprehensively," she said.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.