Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karimov Tightens His Grip in Uzbek Election Run-Up

The hard-line president is taking no chances as he prepares to secure another mandate.
By IWPR Central Asia
Uzbek president Islam Karimov leaves nothing to chance. In the run-up to an election in which he is standing yet again, the security services have been placed on maximum alert.



The country’s Coordination Council, which links Ministry of Interior officials and the National Security Service, held a meeting in late October at which the green light was given for police to increase surveillance and strengthen their presence on the streets.



Officially, the heightened security was to counter crime and Islamic extremism. In practice, the alert reminds potential opponents of the regime of what they can expect if they cause trouble during the December 23 polls.



Observers in Uzbekistan have reported a major build-up of police in cities and villages. Guards at government buildings have been reinforced and there are more police on the streets.



“The number of police on the streets is three times more than usual, and it is especially visible in Tashkent,” said one Uzbek journalist.



Voters are in no doubt what the message is - there is no alternative to Karimov.



“When people came to us and forced us to submit our signatures in support of Karimov’s candidacy, it was clear the authorities would stop at nothing to achieve their goal,” one potential voter in the Bukhara region told IWPR. “They want everything to go according to their scenario.”



A crackdown on suspected opponents of the authoritarian regime in Tashkent has been going on for several weeks. In mid-October, police arrested five people suspected of ties with the banned Islamic organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Karasuv, which lies on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border near the city of Andijan.



Evidence of their involvement in the group was far from compelling, observers say. Police used ashes from allegedly burned leaflets as evidence to detain them.



Many people suspect the campaign against alleged Islamic militants is a cover to round up anyone suspected of anti-government sympathies.



“I heard that the brother of an acquaintance of mine was arrested on suspicion of belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, though he certainly wasn’t one of their supporters – he was just critical of the government,” said an Andijan resident.



“Karimov is afraid of protests and demonstrations because during events in Andijan, people were able to mobilise,” the same person added, referring to the May 2005 demonstration which security forces fired on civilians, causing large-scale bloodshed.



The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Centre has already reported a crackdown on anti-government Uzbek exiles in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakstan.



In late October, the human rights group reported that the Ukrainian security service, was grilling Central Asian migrants living in Kiev in order to track down Shukhrat Goziev, an asylum-seeker from Kokand.



Goziev is on the Uzbek government’s wanted list for ties with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, though many believe he is unconnected with the group.



On November 23, sources reported that another Uzbek refugee, Khurshid Shamsutdinov, who fled to Kazakstan in August after Tashkent police charged him with Islamic extremism, had disappeared in Almaty. Friends of Shamsutdinov have expressed concern that the Uzbek security services may have abducted him.



Experts say that inside Uzbekistan, the authorities started hiking up the pressure several months ago. The drive began with special directives sent to all provincial administrations to ensure the public was made aware of the need for a “peaceful situation” – and to head off possible trouble in the run-up to the polls on December 23.



Although Uzbekistan’s constitution prohibits the head of state for more than two consecutive terms, Karimov, who has run Uzbekistan for the last 18 years, is standing once again. The justification appears to be that when the constitution was changed in 2002 to give presidents seven rather than five years, he should be considered to be starting again and his many previous years in office were irrelevant.



In theory, he is running against three alternative candidates: Diloram Tashmuhammedova from the Adolat party, Asliddin Rustamov from the People’s Democratic Party and Akmal Saidov, director of the National Centre for Human Rights.



But seasoned observers say the three contenders are there purely to create the appearance of pluralism, and that Karimov will secure an easy win.



The elimination of serious political opposition began soon after Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, and the Birlik and Erk parties were driven underground within a few years. Their leaders are in exile, and they never had the slightest chance of fielding candidates in this election; nor did the more recent Ozod Dehkonlar (“Free Farmers”) Party.



“Karimov’s unchanging thesis is ‘stability at any price’, which he declares during his many public speeches,” said a local commentator. “For the people of Uzbekistan, it has come to mean the start of a new campaign to crush any form of dissent.”



Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the French-based Human Rights in Central Asia association, believes the crackdown is evidence of Karimov’s paranoia, as there is no serious threat to his regime – certainly not from the political opposition.



“Karimov can rest easy,” she said. “He’s got a free hand.”