Karimov's Erk-some Critics Return to Fray

Huge challenges ahead for persecuted Erk party, operating unhindered for the first time in a decade.

Karimov's Erk-some Critics Return to Fray

Huge challenges ahead for persecuted Erk party, operating unhindered for the first time in a decade.

The long-suffering opposition party, Erk, last week announced plans to come in from the cold when senior party members met openly in Tashkent for the first time in ten years.

Speaking at a plenary meeting of the party’s central council on June 14, General Secretary Atanazar Arifov said, “The time has come for a constructive opposition in Uzbekistan. The government is in a dead end and it cannot lead the country out of the crisis on its own.”

The meeting was the first one in over a decade to take place without interference or intimidation from the Uzbek government, which has launched heavy crackdowns against Erk’s leadership and members in the past. Its chairman, Muhammad Salih, lives in exile in Norway, and in his absence the authorities alleged that the party joined forces with banned religious group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, to launch terror attacks in the country.

Last week, however, party activists and members were bold in their criticisms of the government, which they accuse of being estranged from the population at large. “The government and the people have become enemies,” said Arifov.

The party also laid out plans to hold its fifth congress this September, and to begin preparations for parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for late 2004 and 2007, respectively.

Observers have welcomed the opposition party’s return from obscurity as a sign that the Uzbek leader, Islam Karimov, is listening to some of his critics - but they caution that the true test of his tolerance for dissent still lies ahead.

Party leaders put Erk’s re-emergence down to three factors.

Arifov says the economic and social crisis in the country has galvanised his group, forcing them off the sidelines.

Jakhongir Shosalimov, a member of the party’s central council, agrees. “The economic situation in the country is worse than ever, and we see that our neighbours are starving, but the Uzbek press and deputies are silent about this,” he told delegates last week.

Secondly, the party says that relentless persecution from the state has been counter-productive, hardening them and helping them overcome their fears.

“We have passed through the stage of fear, we are not afraid of what the authorities might do to us, they have already done everything they possibly can,” said Salih, speaking to IWPR from Norway.

According to the party, the third factor underpinning its resurgence has been the attention of western governments and international organisations, who are no longer turning a blind eye to human rights abuses against opposition members.

“I have always been sceptical about America, knowing the double standards it takes towards different dictators around the world,” said Salih. “But nevertheless, their presence in Uzbekistan stops the Uzbek authorities from persecuting the opposition as freely as they did in the past. This is a positive aspect.”

Nonetheless, says Salih, Erk will need to painstakingly rebuild itself before it can mount a credible challenge to Karimov.

He acknowledges that the group that met in Tashkent last week is probably very different to the party he left behind in 1993, when he fled the country to escape trumped-up criminal charges against him.

Back in December 1991, Salih fought Karimov in the presidential election. In the years that followed, he said, “ we were worn down a great deal… and now we need to re-establish our structures in various regions of the country”.

Salih says that the party which was conceived in the name of Uzbek independence in the late 1980s, in the heady days of Gorbachev’s drive towards perestroika, must now accommodate a younger generation.

“Young people are the engine powering any political movement and our main task today is to work with young people and attract them to our party. We must increase our work with the electorate,” he said.

But the obstacles blocking Erk’s path to popularity are daunting - arguably far bigger today than they were in the post-Gorbachev years.

The authorities have successfully blackened its name over the last decade, to the point that what was once a popular opposition movement is now seen by many Uzbeks as a political front for militant extremism. Membership of the party has plummeted, from hundreds of thousands of activists to just a few hundred.

Linking Erk’s name to the radical IMU proved to be a propaganda masterstroke for the government. The authorities made their allegation in 1999, after a series of bombs went off in Tashkent - supposedly the doing of Erk and the IMU, working in tandem to oust Karimov.

Lengthy prison sentences were issued to the brothers and friends of the exiled Salih, and he was sentenced in absentia to over 15 years’ imprisonment.

“Our reputation has been dealt a serious blow and young people know virtually nothing about us,” he said, adding that the party’s international profile may be healthier than its domestic one.

Another problem facing the party is a lack of funds. Salih says that it did not have to go looking for money in the early days of its existence, when business and citizens were happy to contribute to its pro-independence mandate.

Today, he says, the landscape is different, “People in Uzbekistan do not have any money, the state has emptied out their pockets and there are no businessmen who are not connected to the government. Who will dare finance Erk today?”

In his interview with IWPR, Salih also ruled out his chances of returning to Uzbekistan, saying that his relationship with Karimov was too bad to allow an end to his exile.

“Karimov has a complex about me, he sees me as an enemy because he cannot stand people who want the power he has, and who cast doubts on his ability to run the country. But I am not his enemy, I am a rival who has never used dishonest methods against Karimov,” he said.

Despite the difficulties facing Erk as it cautiously returns to the political fray, observers see its recent activity as an encouraging sign that Karimov is relaxing his hold on the country.

“The necessity of an opposition is obvious,” said political scientist, Bakhodyr Musaev. “Only an opposition can provide dialogue, openness and glasnost in society.”

Musaev is, however, careful not to overstate hopes for a democratic revival.

“The plenary meeting of the Erk party has been held, but how it works in the near future, whether it is persecuted once more by the authorities, or given the chance to develop - this will be the test of the sincerity of the Uzbek authorities, and of their ability to hold true to their statements about building a democratic society in Uzbekistan.”

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project manager in Tashkent.

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