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Uzbekistan: The Iron Leader

With Islam Karimov determined to keep his country “stable at any price”, reform and democracy look as far away as ever.
By IWPR Central Asia

To the applause of the crowds, after finishing his election speech, he bows, clasping his right hand to his chest in traditional Uzbek manner, and smiling mysteriously. 

The gesture of humility is for just show. Islam Karimov presides over one of the harshest regimes in Central Asia, and after 18 years in power he is not about to abandon his post just yet.

After serving two terms in office, he is embarking on a third even though the Uzbek constitution says presidents can only serve twice in succession. No official justification has been given, but the reasoning appears to be that when the constitution was changed in 2002 to give presidents seven rather than five years, what was then his second term should count as his first under a new system.

Last month, the Central Election Commission registered Karimov as a candidate for the December 23 polls, nominated by the Liberal Democratic party, the latest in a clutch of parties he has favoured over the years. They also registered three other contenders nominated by other pro-government parties and civic groups.

No one was fooled by this pretence of competition. Most Uzbeks accept that Karimov will govern the country for the rest of his life. 

Ironically, Karimov rose to power in the era of “perestroika”. In 1989, at a time when reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was installing new leaderships in the constituent republics, Karimov was able to consolidate himself as Uzbekistan’s top man.

Formerly Communist Party chief in the southwestern region of Kashkadarya, he manoeuvred himself to prominence just as party bosses in Moscow were searching for a new compromise figure. 

Soviet Uzbekistan’s leaders were particularly closely monitored by Moscow because of the “cotton scandal” presided over by long-time leader Sharaf Rashidov a few years earlier, and because of the proximity of this mainly Muslim republic to Afghanistan, where Soviet troops were pulling out after years of occupation and war. 

Karimov’s background in Soviet economics – he led Uzbekistan’s Gosplan or State Planning Committee for several years – made him look like a safe pair of hands. 

By 1990, Karimov was president of the Soviet Uzbek republic, and the following year he was elected president of what was now an independent country.

Communism was ditched in favour of a new emphasis on Uzbek nation-building, and the local party branch was quickly transformed into the People’s Democratic Party. 

At this crucial turning point, “Karimov had a great chance to become a national hero,” according to Tolib Yaqubov, leader of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, who now lives in exile in France.

“The Uzbek opposition in the shape of the Birlik People’s Movement and the Erk Democratic Party met him and encouraged him to start democratic reforms and renounce authoritarian rule.

“But that is not what he wanted.” 

Karimov subsequently forced both Birlik and Erk underground and hounded their leaders out of the country.

Other observers, too, recall the initial months of independence as a time of hope. 

“At the time, Karimov had big ambitions, he enjoyed the confidence of most of the population and he was not afraid of communicating with ordinary people,” said an observer in the northwestern region of Khorezm. 

“But that merely enabled to him to start relying on the use of force, and to manipulate the public.”

It may sound ironic, but many other commentators agree that the high degree of public trust the new national leader enjoyed helped untie his hands.

Even before his first election as president in December 1991, he began tightening the reins, issuing a decree banning demonstrations and introducing tough penalties for anyone who violated the ban.

He won that election with 86 per cent of the vote, if the official count is to be believed. He did face one real challenger for the first and last time, in the shape of Erk leader Muhammad Salih, who now lives in exile.

In February 1992 the new regime showed its teeth after the police opened fire on a demonstration by Erk supporters in the centre of Tashkent. This event marked the start of the truly repressive Karimov epoch.

“It has to be said that this man was initially a very hypocritical politician because he said one thing and did another,” said Yoqubov. 

“At the beginning of the Nineties, Karimov talked about democracy more than anyone else,” Yakubov added. “I was surprised that a man who talked about democracy and the supremacy of the rule of law later became so oppressive. Later I realised that it was in this man’s nature not to take any dissent”.

At the start of his political career, Karimov often showed his face in public. Wearing his familiar blue suit and red necktie – the favourite attire of a Soviet party functionary - his slogan was “stability at any cost”. 

Initially, the president said stability was necessary to provide a basis for democratic progress down the line. As other former Soviet states embarked on chaotic political transformations and economic reforms, and neighbouring Tajikistan plunged into civil war, Uzbekistan remained largely unchanged, with only limited private sector development and the retention – at least in theory – of the Soviet-style welfare state. 

Later on, the concept of stability was pursued as an end in itself, providing a justification for a campaign against dissent of any kind. 

After 18 years, Karimov’s administration has not changed its spots. There is the same blue suit and red tie, and the same calls for stability “at any cost”. 

The president still speaks a lot, but these days mainly on TV. He has started smiling more often and likes to use the word “aytaylik” - “let’s say” - which sounds folksy in Uzbek.

Karimov will be 70 at the end of January, but shows no signs of wanting to give up. 

“From his very first days in power, Karimov has been doing his best to hold on,” said an analyst in Andijan. “He has proved a great master of intrigue, managing to create a purposeful team around him and organising and concentrating its work.” 

His principal instruments for maintaining control are the interior ministry, which manages the ubiquitous uniformed police, and the National Security Service, SNB, the successor to the KGB, which has undercover agents throughout the system. 

“Karimov mainly depends on the SNB as his source of power,” said the analyst. “It is a state within the state.”

Meanwhile, Karimov has changed the constitution to ensure he can never be impeached and that he can only be relieved of his post in the case of serious illness.

The struggle against religious extremism has become his trump card, and kept foreign critics off-balance. Prior to Andijan, Karimov had aligned himself with the West in the “war on terror”, presenting his country as the last bastion against the emergence of Taleban-style militancy in Central Asia.

After the secular opposition, in the shape of Erk and Birlik, was squeezed out of existence, Karimov took on Islamic groups which offered the only other organised avenue for expressing dissent. 

Many thousands of real or alleged Islamists have been arrested over the years. Human rights groups say the torture of detainees and the fabrication of cases are routine. Yet despite such strong-arm tactics, radical Islam – currently in the form of the banned group Hizb-ut-Tahrir – remains a force to be reckoned with. 

Some maintain that Karimov deliberately exaggerated the threat of radical Islam in the early days.

“In the early Nineties, Karimov made up this myth of Islamic terrorism and this allowed him to suppress any dissent,” said an Uzbek political analyst. “This myth still helps him to cling to power.”

The president cited the spectre of Islamic extremism after his security forces opened fired on a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005, causing what local and international human rights groups said were several hundred civilian casualties including women and children. Karimov said afterwards that less than 200 people died and most of them were armed Islamists. 

He refused point-blank to countenance the United Nations’ request to allow an independent investigation, and rejected criticism from the United States and other states, forcing the closure of a US airbase in southern Uzbekistan and turning towards Moscow. 

At home, the government response was increased pressure on human rights group and foreign media. 

In this isolated country, some voters are convinced Karimov is their only chance for certainty and stability. The intensified propaganda in the state-run media encourages such sentiments.

“Our president has done a lot for stability in Uzbekistan,” said one young housewife from Khorezm. “Television shows explosions and terrorist acts all over the world. May Allah and the president save us from this. He is a great man.” 

One journalist from Tashkent argued that in the run-up to the polls, Karimov had begun engaging with the outside world again. 

“For two years [since Andijan] Uzbekistan has faced international isolation,” he said. “But recently there have been signs of the economic contacts are growing with other states. That inspires hope. I think the current situation will make the president think about the realities inside the country, and about possible changes.”

Others dismiss this rosy prognosis as unrealistic. One Uzbek political emigre told IWPR that Karimov was fundamentally fearful of reforms as he believed any change would work against him.

“He’s unable to launch any reform,” said the émigré. “He’s already had opportunities to start economic reforms but he hasn’t done so because he’s worried that any reform will bring freedom, and if any section of the population acquires freedom, it could ruin him.”

Insiders speak of Karimov as a man with a strong personality who can take independent decisions based on his own judgement without consulting with his entourage. 

Life has taught him to trust no one, they say. 

Arkady Dubnov of the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostey, says one negative consequence of this character trait is that no one wants to tell the president the truth. 

“People are afraid to tell him anything unpleasant or to inform him about the problems facing the country in case they lose their jobs,” said Dubnov. “This is a tragic characteristic not only of the president but also currently of Uzbekistan.”

Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR editor in Bishkek.

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)

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