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Uzbekistan: Karimov Seeks Extended Term

Uzbek analysts warn extension of Karimov presidency could derail the democratisation process.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbeks go to the polls this weekend to vote in a national referendum on changes to the country's presidential and parliamentary structures. At issue are the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and the extension of the presidential term from five to seven years.


President Islam Karimov, 63, has governed Uzbekistan for nearly 13 years, initially as general secretary of the Communist Party and from 1991 as national president. Instead of contesting elections in 1996, he held a referendum the year before to extend his mandate for another five years. And in 2000, he was re-elected for yet another term.


The decision to hold the latest plebescite was taken by the Oly Majlis, Uzbekistan's parliament, in December last year. Assembly chairman Erkin Khalilov argued the creation of a second chamber would improve the professionalism of parliament, while the extension of the presidential term would allow Karimov to push through reform programmes. The deputies in favour cited the examples of Austria, Finland and Turkey among others.


Indeed, Khalilov said the Oly Majlis had received numerous demands from Uzbek voters calling for Karimov to be made president-for-life.


At an IWPR round-table in Tashkent, attended by a number of local experts, Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, IOHRU, said plans to extend Karimov's mandate were hatched immediately after the 2000 presidential elections.


The decision to hold the vote now, he argued, largely stemmed from the fact that the West had warmed to Karimov in the wake of war in Afghanistan.


"Military partnership with the USA in the struggle against terrorism has cordoned Karimov off from criticism and he is now deemed a good friend of the West," said Ardzinov.


Political analyst Bakhodyr Musaev warned round-table participants that extending Karimov's term of office would put a stop on liberalisation and political change in Uzbekistan for at least ten years.


Musaev believes Karimov played an important historical role in the early 1990s by heading off religious fanaticism. His support for political stability helped consolidate Uzbek society. But in recent years he has exerted far to much control - and as a result political repression is on the increase.


Musaev argues Karimov has achieved all he can and that further development in Uzbekistan requires new people at the top. "Change in the country can only be achieved through change in the personnel of the authorities. The referendum leaves no hope of that," he said.


History professor Faizulla Iskhakov is also pessimistic. He told the IWPR event that he believes the last decade has produced a politically passive and indifferent electorate bogged down in the daily grind of making ends meet. Voters are too afraid and too burdened to challenge the authorities.


Meanwhile, the Uzbek authorities are busy campaigning for the referendum.Government- sponsored local meetings are being held across the country with students, agricultural and industrial workers to encourage people to vote and to explain why the poll is being held.


According to Iskhakov, the publicity campaign has been fairly modest because the authorities themselves have few strong arguments to justify the proposed changes and because they are afraid people might use public meeting to air social and economic grievances and to criticise human rights abuses.


Karim Bakhriev, a lawyer for the international organisation Internews, said a recent public meeting he had attended on religious extremism had been abandoned after the floor was given over to the audience. The first question put concerned the rise in the price of sugar.


A straw poll suggests people are less than enthused by the referendum. "It's a joke, they're just spitting in the face of the people," said Vladimir, a taxi driver. "People are getting poorer with every passing day and all they think about is power. "


Salomat, a teacher from the Samarkand region, believes the vast majority do not know and don't care what the referendum is about.


"In 1995 there was a referendum to extend Karimov's mandate and as a result his dictatorship went on," Davlatova said. "A two-chamber house won't change the situation. While there's no political freedom, there won't be any political opposition."


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR country director in Uzbekistan


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