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America walks diplomatic tightrope with pro-business, yet authoritarian Rwanda

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Eric Gaillard/AP

(Read caption) Rwandan President Paul Kagame shook French President Nicolas Sarkozy's hand during the 25th annual Africa-France Summit in Nice, France last week.

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From Reuters:

Three Rwandan opposition parties have asked the United States to use its influence to help resolve social and political tension in the country before the presidential election in August.

Rights groups say the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have become increasingly intolerant of dissent and criticism in the run-up to the vote, which President Paul Kagame is widely expected to win.

In an open letter last week to the U.S. ambassador in Kigali, Stuart Symington, and seen by Reuters on Sunday, the three-party coalition said: "We strongly believe that your leverage as the ambassador of the United States of America in Rwanda can help diffuse tensions as the presidential elections loom and... (the) military crisis deepens."

...The coalition asked for U.S. assistance in opening up politics, changing anti-genocide legislation and guaranteeing the security forces remained outside politics, and sought a postponement of the ballot, due take place on Aug. 9, to allow more time to ensure it is transparent and free.

"Unless (development) efforts are underpinned by democracy, freedom and the rule of law, the achievements in that area will not be sustainable," the parties said.

US policy towards Rwanda since the genocide has always been a mixed bag.

On the one hand, diplomats are constrained by the fact that the Clinton Administration chose not to intervene in the genocide – and deliberately prevented others from doing so.

Add that guilt to the tension between the Rwandan government and the French and Belgians and in many ways it made strategic sense for the United States to support one of the few bastions of stability and economic growth in a volatile region.

On the other hand, American diplomats are not stupid.

By and large, they don't blindly support Kagame while ignoring his undemocratic tendencies.

Most Western diplomats in the region have tracked these issues for years, along with Kigali's role in fostering conflict in and stealing minerals from the DRC. But they tend to walk a fine line and are rarely vocal critics of the regime.

In the past couple of years, however, we've seen US administrations become increasingly willing to call Kagame out, albeit in mostly muted ways.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson's recent testimony before Congress about the tightening of political space in Rwanda is the clearest statement to date that the U.S. is not willing to let Rwanda get away with repression.

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Let's hope that the follow-through - including the delegation of US observers who are to monitor the August 9 presidential elections - is appropriately forceful and sends a clear message that Rwanda's people are best served by a free, open, and fair political system.
On a related note, Jason Stearns' recent post on Rwanda-DRC-Uganda relations is a must-read for anyone interested in the Great Lakes' regional political dynamics.

--- Laura Seay blogs at Texas in Africa.

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