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

Uzbeks Shed Few Tears for Outgoing Parliament

Lack of public awareness about what the legislature actually did is matched by pessimism about its replacement.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

After 10 years in existence, Uzbekistan’s parliament – which critics say does little more than rubberstamp decisions by President Islam Karimov – has closed its doors for the last time, to make way for the all-new legislature that will be elected on December 26.


Officials are playing up what they see as a major constitutional development from a single-chamber body to a modern bicameral institution.


But outside the ruling elite, many people interviewed by IWPR think that the change will make little difference, and that the next parliament is likely to be as inconspicuous as the last. Political analysts say the creation of a new legislature has got more to do with creating an outward show of democracy than with any real intention to pursue substantive political reforms.


The new body will have a lower house with 120 deputies elected on a constituency basis, less than half the 250 who sit in the current parliament’s single chamber. The upper house will consist of 100 senators, 16 appointed by President Karimov and the rest picked by regional councils.


According to media expert Alo Khojaev, the Uzbek leadership is playing the numbers game in an attempt to pass off quantitative changes as qualitative improvements.


“If we had 500 media outlets a few years ago and now there are 1,000 of them, the authorities see it as a step forward,” he said. “And if we’ve previously had a single-chamber parliament and now we’re to get a bicameral body, it’s a democratic breakthrough.”


The present members of the old parliament – called the Oli Majlis or Supreme Council, a name its successor will inherit – were voted into office in 1999, and the body was first established by an election in 1994, Before that, the country had a Soviet-era assembly elected in 1990, even though Uzbekistan became an independent state in 1991.


The parliament’s last sitting was a typically swift affair, getting through its agenda in a mere two days, beginning on December 2.


In a speech lasting more than an hour, President Karimov bade farewell to the outgoing deputies in unusually effusive terms, telling them that since 1999 they had carried out “immense, historic work” and “laid the foundations for a life of ease in the future”.


People interviewed by IWPR were less enthusiastic about the achievements of the old parliament, and voiced few hopes for its replacement.


“I don’t even want to talk about elections,” said Samarkand resident Dilbar, exasperated at what she said was the failure of elected politicians to do anything about the high unemployment and frequent electricity and gas supply cuts in her city.


“Where are they, all these deputies?”


Unlike many people IWPR talked to, one 35-year-old man in Samarkand was able to name his local member of parliament, although he had little positive to say about him.


“He promised to install supply systems, repair the roads and make a good life for people in rural areas,” said this voter, who asked to remain anonymous. “But we haven’t seen him since then [the election] – it was all fairy-tales.”


In the capital Tashkent, most people interviewed in the street were unable to think of anything that parliament had achieved. “Nothing” was a common response. One man recalled the lasting image of rows and rows of well-dressed politicians, sitting mutely.


Professor Sharof Ubaidullaev of the journalism faculty at the Tashkent Institute for World Languages said it was natural that parliament’s achievements were less than impressive, given that its lawmakers were not so much elected as appointed.


“All the deputies are the same; you never hear debate or discussions. Uzbek citizens know Russian parliamentarians better than their own ones. Our deputies are always afraid, and they cannot speak freely, let alone criticise,” said Ubaidullaev.


Opposition politicians say President Karimov was one of the few people to have genuine reason to be pleased with the outgoing parliament.


Vasila Inoyatova of the Birlik party noted that the legislature extended the president’s term, arranging a national referendum in 2002 which gave Karimov seven years in office, rather than the original five which would have required him to stand again in January 2005.


Atanazar Arifov, general secretary of Erk, another opposition party, noted that in the end, parliament awarded Karimov almost eight years by scheduling the presidential ballot for December instead of January 2007.


Arifov recalled that in the 15 years of President Karimov’s rule, he has been elected twice, and on two occasions he has engineered the postponement of the next vote by several years. “All this would have been impossible if Uzbekistan had an independent parliament,” he said.


On the government side, Alisher Sharafutdinov, who heads the criminal investigation department at the interior ministry, said parliament had passed some useful legislation reducing excessively harsh sentencing for petty theft, so that the punishment better fitted the crime. At the same time, Sharafutdinov expressed the hope that the next parliament will not just make laws but also ensure that they are put into practice.


Alo Khojaev is less optimistic that the new parliament will bring meaningful change. Recent steps by the authorities to prevent opposition parties fielding candidates and to control who gets selected as independent candidates do not bode well for a fair ballot in December, and Khojaev predicts that President Karimov will continue to exert an iron grip on lawmakers in the lower house.


Other analysts doubt that the indirectly elected upper chamber or Senate will do much for democracy.


Holikul Nazarov, who lectures at Samarkand university, notes that the Senate will be drawn from the ranks of the hakims – the regional governors and lower-level local government chiefs with an unenviable reputation for running their areas as fiefdoms.


“When the president sacks yet another governor, we usually read in the press that he was corrupt," said Nazarov, asking, "How can we entrust the Senate to these people who have no concern for their region or the people?”


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's programme director for Uzbekistan. Malik Boboev is an IWPR contributor in Tashkent.


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