On November 6 Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov announced his decision to enter the upcoming presidential elections on December 23. Karimov’s choice to seek another term provides a short-term solution to the fears of potentially ruthless competition for state power among local politicians and business elites. Almost certainly Karimov will be returned to office for another seven years, and, at age 69, his health may enable him to hold on to power for even longer.
According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, the president is allowed to serve only two seven-year terms. Karimov assumed power as first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989 and was elected president of independent Uzbekistan in 1992. In 1995 Karimov extended his presidential term until 2000. He was reelected in 2000 for another five-year term, but prolonged his term to seven years at the national referendum in January 2002. The referendum allowed Karimov to remain in power until early 2007.
Karimov’s announcement came a day before the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) summit in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. The SCO members did not discuss the news about Karimov’s decision, but further cooperation prospects were the main focus of the event.
Although it has been unclear whether Karimov would run again, most local and international observers expected that no substantial changes in the government would occur before or after the elections. Some observers expected Karimov to prolong his presidency through yet another referendum. The situation also seemed somewhat unpredictable, because no obvious successor is evident in Uzbekistan. Karimov himself has been silent about whether he plans to designate a successor.
There are five political parties represented in the Uzbek parliament: Adolat (Justice), Fidokorlar (Selfless), Liberal-Democratic (LDP), Milly Tiklanish (National Revival), and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Most of these parties had been created by the late 1990s, except for the LDP, which was launched in December 2003 and won 34% of seats in parliament, more than any other party, in the 2004 elections. The LDP was also the main force encouraging Karimov to enter the December presidential elections. Each party claims to have its own niche in society, uniting intelligentsia, youth, farmers, artists, and lawyers. The PDP, a successor to the former Communist Party, identifies itself as being in opposition to all other political parties present in the government. However, like other political parties represented in the parliament, the PDP is loyal to the president.
A number of regional media outlets have harshly criticized Karimov’s “agreement to remain president for yet another seven years.” However, some local and international experts agree that changing leadership in Uzbekistan this year could lead to a prolonged, severe struggle among current political elites and the secular and religious opposition. But if Karimov and his government fail to generate a solution in the next few years for a peaceful transfer of power, escalating tensions and even armed clashes are likely.
Independent Uzbekistan has already experienced several incidents of politically charged violence. Explosions in Tashkent in February 1999 and the Andijan uprising in May 2005 revealed ongoing tensions among political elites. The Uzbek regime characterized the bombings, which took the lives of 16 and injured more than 100 people, as an assassination attack on President Karimov allegedly staged by his rivals in the government. Uzbekistan’s interpretation of the Andijan events and the February 1999 Tashkent bombings greatly deviate from those presented by international organizations.
With five active political parties, Uzbekistan’s political scene is a striking contrast with neighboring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, where one pro-regime political force dominates both the parliament and government. The Kazakh and Tajik presidents, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Emomali Rakhmon, respectively, were able to create strong pro-regime political parties to secure their continuous hold on power. Kyrgyzstan, another neighbor, has a more open political climate, and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power thanks to popular demonstrations in 2005, but the country has been plagued by continuous political turmoil since then.
Although Uzbekistan is a member of several multilateral organizations, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the SCO, Karimov’s government has been pursuing rather unilateral policies in regional economic and security issues. For example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been struggling to establish stable trade relations in the gas and hydropower sectors. Both countries have also been uneasy about Uzbekistan’s unilateral policies along its volatile border areas. At the same time, neither Kyrgyzstan, nor Tajikistan can afford to openly confront Uzbekistan, because of its greater military capacity.
Individuals affiliated with the government manage Uzbekistan’s main economic sectors—gas, cotton, and gold. The country has registered some economic growth in the past few years; however, poverty levels have not decreased and hundreds of thousands of Uzbek labor migrants are currently working in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Recently the EU relaxed entry restrictions for some Uzbek officials. These sanctions were introduced when Karimov refused to allow an international investigation of the widespread suppression of the Andijan demonstrators in May 2005. As one DC-based observer notes, Western sanctions in Uzbekistan will not contribute “either to democratization or to stabilization” but could further alienate the country from the international community. Today, Karimov’s regime is more concerned with its own survival amid strong domestic competition than meeting the expectations of local and international observers.
(Akipress.kg, gzt.uz, uzmetronom.com, November 6-7)