Perspective
Volume XV Number 2 (February-March 2005)

 

ELECTIONS IN UZBEKISTAN:

Neither Orange Nor Rose

 

By Odil Ruzaliev

 

While the conduct of elections is viewed generally as a hallmark of democratic development, elections alone do not a democracy make.  In some recent instances, citizens of post-Soviet states have protested their leaders¹ attempts to prejudice or falsify election results, precipitating ³revolutionary² democratic change, as in Georgia and Ukraine.  Other former Soviet states continue to use an electoral veneer to maintain their regimes in power.  Uzbekistan¹s elections in December 2004 were overshadowed by Ukraine¹s orange revolution, but the Uzbek state remains a potential Central Asian powerhouse.  Its approach to elections and a democratic process, as well as its attitude concerning Ukrainian and Georgian events, are crucial to both short and long term developments across Eurasia.

 

This was the assessment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which found that once again, just as five years ago, parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan left the voters deprived of ³genuine choice.² In the run-up to the 1999 elections, the number of pro-government parties mushroomed. ³Fidokorlar,² the National-Democratic party, was registered just a few months before the elections and nominated President Islam Karimov as its candidate in the January 2000 presidential election. A few months later, ³Fidokorlar² merged with the pro-government party, ³Vatan Taraqqiyoti.²

 

Five years later the same scenario played out: The new Liberal-Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (UzLiDeP), created in 2003, increased further the number of parties loyal to the president in the new Parliament. The party was registered a year before the 2004 elections and, according to some experts, will be President Karimov¹s new party. A party of bankers and businessmen, UzLiDeP (1), was created to give the appearance of democratic change and divert critics¹ attention from the opposition parties, which once again, were barred from taking part in the elections. Well-known organizations with long standing, such as ³Birlik² and ³Erk,² have been denied registration repeatedly by the Ministry of Justice, as have newer opposition groups. Persistence on the part of the opposition has forced the ministry to invent ever more creative excuses for denying registration; new regulations require candidates to have resided in Uzbekistan for the five years immediately preceding the elections, thus excluding the most prominent members of the opposition who were exiled or forced from Uzbekistan under pressure from, and in some cases, persecution by the current authorities. President Karimov claims that these opposition figures have no support within the country, but is unwilling to have his assertion tested in freely-contested elections.

 

What have the December parliamentary elections created? This third parliament since Uzbekistan¹s independence from the Soviet Union has become bicameral. Uzbek officials seem to believe that changing the structure of the parliament would be an effective means of demonstrating their commitment to democracy, more effective perhaps than correcting their practice of democracy. The new bicameral parliament will consist of 220 lawmakers – 120 in the lower house, or Legislative Chamber, and 100 in the upper house or Senate. Lawmakers in the lower house are elected through a popular vote, whereas the law prescribes vague rules for elections/appointment to the Senate: each of the twelve provinces, the Republic of Karakalpakstan and the capital city, Tashkent, will send six delegates to the new parliament and another sixteen senators are to be nominated by the president. The parliament is meant to become a professional institution where lawmakers will work full-time instead of combining their attention to parliamentary affairs with outside primary employment. The current Uzbekistani leadership claims that it is trying to adopt the Western model of parliamentarism; the new parliament however, will represent the same groups that were served in the former system, those loyal to the Karimov regime. In addition to the sixteen senators selected by the president, Karimov¹s regime certainly will have significant influence in the choice of candidates in each region. The chairman of the senate also is ³elected² at the recommendation of the president. Key cabinet positions, like the general-procurator, Central Bank chairman and chief of the National Security Service (former KGB) are nominated by the president for senate approval, rather than facing the popularly elected Legislative Chamber for confirmation.

 

Several groups of observers monitored the December elections in Uzbekistan. Two of them neutralized each other: the 21-person OSCE Limited Election Observation Mission and the predominantly Russian 78-person CIS Election Observation Mission. Some analysts posit that the CIS electoral mission was created by CIS leaders primarily to countermand the criticism from international observers of elections throughout the CIS, and to mute international reaction to elections. Of the 18 elections held in the CIS, and observed by this mission since its creation in 2002, none (except for the second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine) have been declared undemocratic, fraudulent, or unfair, including the rather dubious referendum in Belarus. In several instances, observers from the OSCE and the E.U. disagreed strongly with the findings of the CIS mission. In the case of the elections in Uzbekistan, the CIS mission found them ³legitimate, free and transparent.²

 

The OSCE, in contrast, determined that the elections ³did fall significantly short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.²

 

³Regrettably, the implementation of the election legislation by the authorities failed to ensure a pluralistic, competitive and transparent election,² said Ambassador Lubomir Kopaj, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission in an OSCE statement. ³Fundamental principles for a meaningful democratic election process, such as freedom of expression, association and assembly, must be respected in future elections.²

 

The stark rhetorical contrast between the two observer groups, and specifically the Uzbek government¹s attitude toward each was evident on election day; Lubomir Kopaj complained that his group did not receive sufficient cooperation from the Uzbekcentral election commission, whereas the head of the CIS Election Observation Mission, (and Russia¹s former interior minister) Vladimir Rushailo, said that he was pleased with the election process and with the cooperation he got from the central election commission.

 

Reports from the November 2004 presidential elections in the United States, that claimed OSCE observers were denied access to some polling stations (apparently due to local regulations), were used against the OSCE: ³We¹ve been shown a Œgood example¹ by the country that advances its democratic principles in Central Asia through the OSCE,² President Karimov claimed sarcastically.

 

³We used to look at Europe every time we held elections and we were criticized for not having the type of democracy Europeans are used to. But this time we were smarter and invited observers from Asia as well. The OSCE cannot be an exclusive arbiter in this regard. It represents Europe while we are in Central Asia.¹¹

 

In 1999, the OSCE sent a limited number of monitors, but no observers. The United States government did not send its own observers but merely predicted that the elections would be ³neither free nor fair.² Head of the then-OSCE mission in Uzbekistan, Madeleine Wilkens, claimed that local and regional government officials used their influence to promote certain candidates, forcing some 228 candidates to drop out of the race the week before the elections. Even though the Uzbek authorities hasten to point out that several countries sent observers for their elections, in most instances these observers are either Uzbek émigrés, diplomats from friendly nations, foreign businessmen with special interests in Uzbekistan, or good friends of President Karimov. Despite the U.S. Embassy¹s informal protest that no official mission was present to observe the 2000 presidential elections, the Uzbek government media trumpeted that there were indeed observers from the United States present in Uzbekistan. It was a group led by Boris Kandov, leader of the American-Bukharan Jews association, who had emigrated from Uzbekistan several years ago. Kandov was invited to observe the elections this time too, but he apparently was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to be present in Uzbekistan for these elections.

 

Despite apparently successful calls from various opposition groups to boycott the elections, they were deemed valid nonetheless because the outgoing parliament had lowered the required voter turnout from 50% to 33%. The authorities¹ concern over low voter turnout appeared justified on election day, when polling stations did not seem particularly busy. The Central Election Commission however, certified that voter turnout reached 85.1%, far more than the 33% requirement.

 

Nigora Khidoyatova, one of the leaders of the opposition Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) party, alleged that the turnout had been falsified. ³Many polling stations that we visited were empty,² she said.

 

The government had plenty of reasons to fear a low turn-out. In the last few years the economic and political situation in Uzbekistan has worsened sharply. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) froze its credits to Uzbekistan; the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, reported on the ³systemic nature² of torture in Uzbekistan; and prominent journalist Ruslan Sharipov was jailed, tortured, and, eventually, released to seek political asylum in the United States.

 

At the same time, opposition groups have become increasingly more active. The opposition party Free Peasants with the exiled former minister of justice and first Uzbek Ambassador to the United States, Babur Malikov, as one of its leaders, has appeared on the political scene, although it was not allowed to register officially. Average citizens have begun to realize the extent of corruption in their political system, and active opposition groups have led minor, but public, protests in the past two years, which have served to spark more widespread calls for change. Some of the protests have even taken the form of suicide bombings, which target police officers considered to be corrupt and abusive.

 

Despite this relatively high activity, DavidLewis, project director in Central Asia for the International Crisis Group think tank, notes that it is too early to talk about a rose or orange revolution for Uzbekistan. ³The minimum requirements for some kind of public political opposition to have a chance at power [in Uzbekistan] are absent – some kind of independent media, a chance of semi-free elections,² Lewis noted to the Associated Press. His observations clearly undermine the leadership¹s democratic façade.

 

His view is supported by independent Uzbek human rights activist Surat Ikramov. ³Our people are not ready for this. Their political consciousness is not ripe yet. The opposition parties are too weak,² says Ikramov. ³For the Ukrainian scenario to repeat in Uzbekistan, there has to be at least one officially registered real opposition party and censorship must be abolished completely. May be then will we have an Uzbek Yushchenko.²

 

The ³political consciousness² of the people was tested during a series of interviews in one of the central markets of Tashkent – Chorsu – where all those questioned said they would go to the polls but could not name a candidate they would support. None of the interviewees knew the names of any of the five official political parties, let alone the names of the opposition groups.

 

Experts say that the authorities in Uzbekistan have learned well from the Georgian experience and have done everything to minimize its implications for Uzbekistan. The government¹s refusal to allow the annual re-registration of the Open Society Institute¹s office in Tashkent in 2004 provides one example of Uzbekistan learning its lesson from Georgia; President Karimov is convinced that the rose revolution was the work of U.S. billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Institute aimed at promoting democratic values throughout the world.

 

Karimov himself apparently does not believe in the possibility for a velvet revolution in Uzbekistan:  ³If such a thing has to happen in our country, then it will be the government¹s fault for failing to keep its citizens aware of the government¹s policies and to meet their needs. It will not happen in Uzbekistan.²

 

Karimov also seems to prefer that his regime stay closer to Russia than the United States, a stance hardened by the U.S. Department of State¹s rejection of an aid package to Uzbekistan because the latter did not ³mak[e] substantial and continuing progress in meeting its commitments, including respect for human rights, establishing a genuine multi-party system, and ensuring free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and the independence of the media.² The State Department¹s position is viewed poorly in Uzbekistan now, particularly as it was only two years ago that Uzbekistan was praised by the U.S. for its cooperation in providing an airbase to U.S. forces for the war on international terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

 

Strengthening the inclination toward Moscow, Uzbekistan was recently offered a $1 billion gas deal by Russia¹s energy giant LUKoil, and Russia is, of course, well-known for overlooking the human rights abuses of its allies. The real concern in Central Asia may be that Russia is no longer strong enough to support its regional partners in a domestic political dispute. As Russian political scientist Aleksei Malashenko put it, the failure of Russian diplomacy and its ³political technologists² to prevent the change of power in Georgia and Ukraine in favor of the opposition made the current Central Asian ruling elite worry about Russia¹s capabilities should the situation in their countries change dramatically. Some analysts believe that Kyrgyzstan could be the first Central Asian country to experience a velvet revolution; its national elections took place on February 27, 2005 with presidential elections are slated to follow seven months later.

 

Popular sentiment in Tashkent remains skeptical about whether a non-violent resistance like the one in Ukraine could work in Uzbekistan. The deeper concern, even among politicians, is that a rose revolution might result in bloodshed.

 

³It is interesting to watch these kinds of events happen in other countries and call them a manifestation of democracy. But I don¹t want it to happen in Uzbekistan. Imagine people spilling each other¹s blood in a struggle for power. Who needs it? I don¹t need that kind of democracy,² says Hurshid Dostmuhammad, the chairman of ³Milliy Tiklanish² (National Renaissance), one of the five Uzbek pro-government political parties. National Renaissance finished fourth in the December elections gaining 11 seats (over 10%).

 

These elections and the new Parliament are essential to the Uzbek ruling elite and especially to President Karimov, whose second and (officially) last presidential term expires in 2007. He will need the new parliament to prolong his stay in power. He has at least two avenues available to him, either amend the Constitution to extend his presidency from two to three terms, or augment the powers of the position of Senate president and assume that post after his retirement (according to the Constitution, a retired president receives a lifetime seat in the Senate). He would, of course, need to install a weak but favorably disposed individual as president, a role often filled by an heir, such as a son, or, in President Karimov¹s case, a daughter – Gulnara Karimova – who has begun her political career already, and at the time of her father¹s expected retirement from the presidency, will have reached the constitutionally-established minimum age for a presidential candidate, 35.

 

However, ³If this has to happen,² said a well-known female Uzbek journalist who asked not to be identified, ³It will be Uzbekistan¹s turn for a velvet revolution.²

 

 

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End Notes

 

(1) UzLiDep won more seats in the Lower House than any other party and independents – 41 seats or 34.2%. It is believed that some influential members of the party will be nominated to the Senate in order to retain their important government posts.

 

 

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Copyright ISCIP 2005
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
for Perspective.

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