Uzbek Opposition Party Leader Makes Surprise Return

Uzbek Opposition Party Leader Makes Surprise Return

Monday, 9 November, 2009
The return to Uzbekistan of Bahodir Choriev, leader of the Birdamlik (Solidarity) opposition movement, after five years in self-imposed exiles has caused a stir among politics-watchers in the country.

Some commentators hope Choriev’s reappearance will prompt the authorities to take their opponents more seriously, while others believe he would have done better to remain abroad, where he could at least run his group without hindrance.

Choriev, 40, arrived in the capital Tashkent on October 16, after living in the United States as a political refugee since 2004.

When he landed at the airport, officers from the Uzbek security service confiscated his passport and his US Green Card, and made him sign a written pledge not to travel outside Kashkadarya region, his place of origin in southwest Uzbekistan.

He traveled to the region immediately, and on arriving in Shahrisabz, the first major town there, he was taken by local police to Kamashi, a village where he owns a small house.

"Bahodir is under house arrest,” said his brother Botir. “There are police cars stationed outside the house, and no one is being let in to see him, not even to bring him food. We’ve been told not make a noise about it or else there’ll be trouble."

Choriev was unavailable for comment as his mobile phone was switched off.

The Birdamlik leader moved to the US in 2004, after receiving repeated threats from the security service, which wanted to foil plans for a demonstration demanding that President Islam Karimov resign.

When he came into conflict with the Uzbek government in 2000, he was not involved in politics, but instead the head of a farming business called KESH. In that role, he spoke out about the need to give farmers greater independence from government and to end the practice of enforced government procurements for cotton and grain.

His outspoken remarks led to prosecution and conviction on charges widely seen as politically-driven, and his business was seized. In 2002, he was released under an amnesty.

Choriev set up Birdamlik in 2004, with the stated aim of reducing poverty by creating democratic systems and introducing effective economic management.

The group currently has around 1,000 members inside Uzbekistan, who operate underground and are frequently harassed by the authorities.

In a statement placed on Birdamlik’s website on October 31, Choriev said he had come back to Uzbekistan “to continue the struggle side by side with like-minded people in Uzbekistan".

Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek political commentator based abroad, told NBCentralAsia that Choriev’s return had thrown the authorities into a state of confusion. “They don’t know what to do with him,” he added.

Yoldashev is sceptical about Choriev’s chances of being allowed to work with Birdamlik or hold a meeting of its activists.

From the government’s perspective, that would be “a sign of weakness”, said Yoldashev.

Some commentators believe Choriev timed his return with a view to the parliamentary election scheduled for December 27.

Under new legislation, this election will be based proportional representation for political parties. Birdamlik will not be able to field candidates, as it has no official registered and thus no legal status.

According to a Birdamlik member who requested anonymity, Choriev plans to spend his time monitoring the electoral process, and “to show the world the real face of the regime".

Some argue that the authorities would be wise to become more conciliatory towards their opponents, given that people in Uzbekistan are aware of the existence of groups like Birdamlik and the Erk and Birlik parties, both of whose top leaders are abroad.

"What if all Uzbek dissidents were to decide to return? That would be disconcerting for the authorities," said a Samarkand resident with opposition leanings.

At the same time, Birdamlik’s leader within Uzbekistan, , Diloram Iskhakova, is pessimistic about the value of Choriev’s re-emergence in the country, arguing that he would be safer remaining abroad.

"Choriev would be able to do more good for our common cause if he were abroad," she said.

(NBCA is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)
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