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

Uzbek Opposition Party Awakes

Authorities seek to thwart first steps towards reviving Erk party as a political force.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

A leading opposition group in Uzbekistan, the Erk Democratic Party, has begun tentative moves to re-establish itself, but the detention of two of its activists suggests that the government will seek to prevent the revival before it gets off the ground.


Erk appears determined to go ahead with its first party congress in a decade, which is scheduled for October 22, and has staged public protests to demand an end to what it says is persecution by the authorities.


Together with the Birlik movement, Erk formed an active political opposition in the early Nineties, but both groups were forced underground when their leaders fled into exile and opposition party activity was stamped out.


Now, ten years later, Erk has been quietly trying to revive itself. But in a situation typical of Uzbekistan, it has been told it cannot hold a congress because it is not registered with the government. But it cannot get official registration unless it holds a meeting to reconstitute itself.


A first attempt to obtain official permission to hold a party congress in the capital Tashkent on September 27 fell through at short notice.


The party had planned to hire a hall belonging to the national railway company, but was told it had first to apply for permission to the city mayor's office. The latter did not respond for three months, and then - two days before the event was due to take place - refused a permit on the grounds that Erk lost its registration as a political party back in 1993.


The party has rescheduled the event for October 22.


Last week the Uzbek authorities made what looked like a preemptive strike. On October 13, police in Tashkent detained two leading party members, Oigul Mamatova, who heads the organising committee for the congress, and Abduhashim Ghafurov when they were carrying the materials that were to be handed out at the congress, and confiscated all of it - around 400 books, posters, badges and delegate invitations.


The same day police raided the home of Ghafurov, who is also chairman of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, and seized a computer holding the party's entire database, as well as a photocopier and printer. The police showed neither a search warrant, nor the authorisation from the prosecution service required for a search.


Commenting on the seizures, the head of the investigations department of the Sobir-Rahim police station, Dilmurod Nurmuhammedov, told journalists that no criminal case had been opened against either Mamatova or Ghafurov. But he said his officers would have to check the documents to see whether they fell under restrictions on importing and distributing written material.


The party immediately responded - Mamatova went on hunger strike the same day. She claimed that the authorities had seized the material to prevent the congress from happening, and said the way the police carried out their swoop suggested they had been following her and other party members.


"I don't think our materials will be returned before October 22. They have it all worked out as a way of stopping our congress," she told IWPR. "I will continue my hunger strike until Erk's property is returned to me."


Two days later, on October 15, about 30 Erk members organised a protest meeting - the first time they have done so in recent years. Gathering outside the prosecution service's headquarters in Tashkent, they demanded that the authorities "stop persecuting the Erk party" and "return the illegally confiscated party property".


"We are not fighting for Erk - we are fighting for the democratic future of Uzbekistan," said one protestor. "We will not back down, we'll keep standing to the end."


A group of protestors then set off to the Sobir Rahim District police station where the confiscated materials were being held. However, 14 of them were arrested on the way there.


All 14 came before a judge the same day, and most were charged with holding a demonstration without an official permit, and refusing to obey a police officer. Two of them, Ghafurov and party member Tashpulat Yuldashev, were jailed for five days and the rest were let off with a warning.


Despite this reverse, the party has refused to back down, and has continued to picket the prosecutor's office.


Atanazar Arifov, acting head of Erk in the absence of chairman Muhammad Salih, who has been in exile since 1994, insisted that the congress must go on.


"They want to hinder us in any way they can so that the Erk party is not allowed to take part in future elections," Arifov told IWPR. "We have been silent for a long time, but now we do not intend to back down. The party congress will be held whatever the circumstances."


Arifov says Erk needs to convene a formal meeting because its last congress was held in 1993, so it needs to update its policy programme and elect leaders.


Erk's one-time rival in opposition, Birlik, is also trying to revive its fortunes. On August 25, the movement met in the city of Kokand to declare its transformation into a political party so that it can take part in elections. A month later, on September 21, it submitted its documents to the justice ministry with a request for official registration.


Muhammad Salih was a founder member of Birlik when it began life in 1989 as a broad pro-independence movement, similar to those created in other republics of the then Soviet Union. He left to form Erk as a more focused political party in 1990. As Uzbekistan's first non-communist party, Erk was instrumental in calling for independence.


When the Soviet system fell apart soon after and independence was thrust upon Uzbekistan, the Communist Party under its leader Islam Karimov stayed in power, rebranding itself the People's Democratic Party and appropriating much of the opposition's pro-independence agenda. Karimov was duly elected president in 1991, in an election that fell well short of international standards.


Salih stood against Karimov, incurring the authorities' undying enmity for both him and the opposition generally. The campaign of repression that followed left many Erk and Birlik members in jail, and Salih was forced to flee in 1994, first to Turkey and later Norway, where he now lives.


By eliminating the secular parties, the government had inadvertently opened the way to the growth of a different kind of opposition, in the shape of political Islam. Despite this new threat, it remained unrelenting towards Erk. In 2000, Salih was given a 15-year sentence in absentia for what judges ruled was a conspiracy with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to carry out a series of explosions which had rocked Tashkent the year before.


Erk's policy now seems conciliatory towards the government. "I don't want to rake up the past," said Arifov. Instead, he says, the party will accommodate itself to the new realities, and ensure that it can play a part in political life.


However, commentators inside and outside the country are doubtful that the government will make any concessions in response to the new line from Erk.


"I think Islam Karimov's personal enmity and aversion to Muhammad Salih plays an important role here," said one international expert on Central Asia, who asked not to be named. "Recent events show that Erk has no future as long as Karimov remains in power in Uzbekistan."


Human rights campaigner Surat Ikramov agrees that Erk has little prospect of winning acceptance from a government hostile to the very principle of political pluralism. He thinks the party should concentrate instead on winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Uzbek citizens.


"By nature, the Uzbek authorities do not accept opposition or dissidents," he said. "But they can be compelled to reckon with a force - the force of law. Power is not granted, it is taken.".


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project director in Uzbekistan.


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