Washington — Groups paid by the United States to promote democracy in Central Asia are under sustained assault, not only from those governments but also from Russia, which is locked in conflict with Washington for dominance in the region’s former Soviet republics.
The United States needs military bases and permission to use the airspace in the region to service its forces in Afghanistan, and it holds large oil and gas investments in some of the countries. But the United States also pays a handful of organizations to aggressively promote democracy in Central Asian nations, many of which are ruled by longtime presidents who do not allow competitive elections. Several also have close ties to Russia.
The nongovernmental organizations — and American diplomats supporting them — are under near-constant harassment from their host governments and from Russia.
Russia has always looked askance at democracy programs, but following popular uprisings that led to changes of government in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the last year, it began inveighing against them, saying the United States was trying to create “franchised revolutions,” as Tass, the Russian government news agency, put it recently.
The United States spent $75.6 million on programs promoting democracy in Central Asia in the most recent fiscal year for which figures are known. In Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, American-financed groups gave training and assistance to opposition groups that ousted leaders.
In Moscow, the lower house of Parliament gave preliminary approval late last month to a law that would, if put into effect as written, severely restrict, if not close down, many nongovernmental organizations working in Russia, including the pro-democracy groups. American officials and other experts said Russia was pushing Central Asian states to enact similar laws.
Russia worries not only about growing American influence along its southern border but also about change, a senior State Department official and an expert on the region said in an interview. He spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with departmental ground rules.
The official said that among the countries debating restrictions like Russia’s were Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The official said a bill that was “analogous to the Russian approach” came close to enactment in Kazakhstan this summer, but President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev pulled it back. The United States had made its opposition clear.
As a result of these and other pressures from Russia, said Nelson Ledsky, a former State Department official who now leads the Central Asia programs for the National Democratic Institute, “we have run into considerable difficulty in the last six to eight months, everywhere, because the Russians have mounted an organized campaign wrongly accusing” the United States of working to foment revolution.
The institute is a government-financed, semiprivate agency established by Congress and often working under government mandates. In many foreign countries, it is regarded as a branch of the United States government.
Russia places accusatory news articles and commentaries in Russian-language newspapers across the region, American officials and officers of the pro-democracy groups said. One in Kazakhstan asserted recently that Mr. Ledsky’s organization, and others like it, “are like secretive, revolutionary spies.”
Russian commentators are invited to appear on government-controlled television news shows in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and other states, to rail against the American efforts at promoting democracy. Many of those working for the groups are under constant scrutiny of their host governments, which harass them to show their displeasure.
In Kazakhstan, as an example cited by nongovernmental groups, tax authorities conduct surprise weeklong audits that paralyze operations. Immigration officers sometimes seize workers’ passports. In other countries, including Tajikistan, citizens hired to work for the organizations receive threatening visits and phone calls, telling them to quit.
Officers working for Freedom House, a private agency working under a government contract in the region, are on trial, in essence, in Uzbekistan, as the agency faces accusations of violating a variety of arcane regulations governing its work.
“The Russian press and the coverage in the region are incredibly misleading, but they are having a tremendous impact in Central Asia,” said Paula Schriefer, program director for Freedom House. The regional news media “is echoing what is on the air in Moscow,” saying “we are a nefarious force.”
United States government officials, current and former, express some wonder that the authoritarian leaders in these states put up with the American democracy programs at all, given that the programs’ ultimate aim is to remove these leaders from power.
Mr. Ledsky said he believed the states had an interest in “professing to the West that they have an interest in democracy,” even if it was not heartfelt.
The international rules have changed, said Lorne W. Craner, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights and now the head of the International Republican Institute, another of the government-financed organizations dedicated to advancing democracy. “To be a part of the club” of respectable nations, he said, it is necessary to hold elections.
The American organizations can help create credible opposition candidates, the present and former officials said, so that the leaders can offer at least the appearance of competitive elections. But, they said, even that can give a nation a taste of democracyTop