From email@example.com Thu Jan 13 14:03:25 2000
Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
More of the Same Isn't Stability, Critics Say
By Sergei Blagov, IPS, 11 January 2000
MOSCOW, Jan 11 (IPS) - The results of Uzbekistan's just-finished presidential election are heralded in Tashkent as another sign of the country's political stability, but for exiled Uzbek rights activists it is another step backward.
"We view the presidential election as illegitimate, because real challengers had no opportunity to run and Uzbek voters had no real choice," Abufattah Mannapov, co-chairman of the Moscow-based Central Asian Human Rights Society said in an interview right after the Jan 9 vote.
There were few doubts that Uzbek strongman and incumbent president Islam Karimov would win in the ballot. Karimov, 61, claimed a landslide win with 91.9 percent of the votes cast.
With that, 12.5 million Uzbek voters seemingly gave the incumbent another five-year presidential mandate in this country, the most populous of the five Central Asian states with 24 million people.
Abdulkhafiz Dzhalalov, leader of the Popular Democratic Party of Uzbekistan or "Fidokorlar", trailed a distant second with some 4 percent of votes, while another 4 percent of the ballots were declared invalid.
But analysts argued that Dzhalalov, head of pro-government and ex-Communist movement, played a role of a non-threatening challenger only to give the vote a semblance of democracy.
Dzhalalov, former chief propagandist of the Uzbek Communist Party, has publicly conceded that Karimov is worthy of getting elected.
Sources in the Uzbek capital Tashkent suggest that the percent margins in the presidential as well as in recent parliament elections were rigged, Mannapov argues.
In December, pro-president candidates won parliamentary elections with a similarly high rate of 95 percent of votes.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) lashed out the vote as non-democratic and declined to send observers to the election, arguing there was "no real choice".
Human rights activists say that ballot manipulation in Uzbekistan is not a sudden departure from a record of democratic reforms, but are fully in line with the Karimov's record of ruling by presidential decree.
President Karimov tolerates no opposition -- he appoints all ministers and Uzbek parliament is largely ceremonial.
A former engineer and Soviet Communist party cadre, Karimov started his rule a decade ago as Uzbekistan's Communist Party chief under Soviet rule. Elected president in 1991, his term was extended in a 1995 referendum.
Karimov's critics argue that his strongman rule has taken on the flavor of former President Suharto's Indonesia. Editors of state-owned media outlets impose direct censorship, in particular to enforce the taboo on any criticism of the President or his policies. Unrivaled access to the media, and influence over local leaders whom he himself appoints, underscores the comparison.
"Given all the circumstances, free and fair elections are absolutely impossible in today's Uzbekistan," Mannapov said.
Still, Uzbekistan authorities have vowed to uphold political stability in this landlocked former Soviet state. But recent tough measures against all forms of dissent are seen as part of a wider government crackdown to silence criticism of the arrests of religious Muslims by the government.
Uzbekistan's political concerns include an Islamic revival in Central Asia. In May 1998, Central Asian states Uzbekistan and Tajikistan formed a "troika" with Russia to fight fundamentalism and Wahabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam they said threatened Central Asia and Russia's North Caucasus.
Uzbekistan has carried out a tough campaign against alleged Islamic fundamentalists or Wahabis since four policemen were murdered in its Namangan region a year and a half ago.
Indeed, President Karimov told parliament last year that Islamist guerrillas should be shot, by himself "if necessary".
Furthermore, this Central Asian regime has launched an anti- Islamic crackdown in apparent response to the explosions in February that rocked Tashkent. Karimov has accused the head of Erk opposition party, Muhammad Salikh, of responsibility for the Tashkent bombings.
According to Erk News Centre, more than 2,000 people who were suspected of being involved in the attempt to assassinate the President have been put in detention.
These days Karimov's crackdown is directed mainly against his political opponents, notably Erk party and its leader Salikh, who now lives in exile in the West, Mannapov argues.
"Karimov's regime turns down any form of dialogue with the opposition -- despite the fact that without Salikh's or Erk's running, none of Uzbek elections could be viewed as free and fair," he said.
Uzbekistan held the last election - aimed at consolidation of Karimov's power - against the backdrop of increasing economic woes.
A downturn in raw material prices, wiped hundreds of millions of dollars off the value of cotton, copper, gold, and grains upon the country heavily depend. Sixty percent of its export earnings come from cotton.
Now Uzbekistan faces a hard currency shortage, which brought imports down by nearly a third.
"Bribery and corruption are foundations of Uzbek economy, while 95 percent of the population is mired in poverty," according to opposition leader Muhammad Salikh.
"Karimov relies on an autocratic style, a sort of East Asian type of government, and this country represents a widespread pattern of post-Soviet development," Dmitry Mosyakov, senior researcher of the Moscos- based think tank Institute of Oriental Studies told IPS.
Unfortunately, "the population of Central Asian states seems to accept paternalistic, autocratic governments in exchange of a measure of political stability," he said. (END/IPS/ap-ip-hd/sb/js/00)
[c] 2000, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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