Alternative Political Voices In Uzbekistan

Over a decade of persistent repression in Uzbekistan has left the country’s political life under the firm control of President Islam Karimov. No political party or movement that can be classified as in opposition to Karimov’s administration is able operate openly today.

Karimov’s critics assert that the government crackdown on freedom of expression and religious worship is fueling instability. Anti-government activity is currently embodied by two radical Islamic organizations, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Uzbekistan has engaged in close strategic cooperation with the United States in prosecuting the anti-terrorism campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, while the United States has provided Tashkent with extensive economic and security assistance in return. At the same time, some U.S. officials have exerted pressure on Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record, as well as to take steps to open up the country’s economic and political spheres. Over the past year or so, Karimov has sent tentative signals that he may permit limited domestic political debate. However, many opposition activists remain doubtful about Karimov’s sincerity.

Background

Uzbekistan’s democratic political opposition has been effectively silenced over the past decade. In the early 1990s, two viable alternative parties, Birlik and Erk, were prominent participants in Uzbek political life. In July 1992, however, the government began to crack down on the political opposition. Citing concern for maintaining domestic stability while a civil war was raging in neighboring Tajikistan, Karimov announced: “it is necessary to straighten out the brains of one hundred people in order to preserve the lives of hundreds of thousands.”

Three days prior to Karimov’s statement, unidentified men attacked Abdurahim Polat, head of Birlik, leaving him hospitalized with a fractured skull. By the end of that year, government arrests and harassment of individuals connected to Erk and Birlik had made further open political activity impossible. Many opposition party leaders fled the country, seeking temporary refuge or political asylum abroad. For the past decade, the exiled opposition has limited its activities mainly to raising awareness about domestic developments and maintaining informational websites (which are inaccessible to most Internet users within Uzbekistan, blocked by government-controlled providers). Meanwhile, inside Uzbekistan, political repression intensified, with scores of arbitrary arrests and the eventual banning of Erk. Despite the existence of a number of parties, all political movements now active in Uzbekistan are supportive of Karimov’s government.

In recent months, there has been some discussion as to whether exiled political activists would be able to return to Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, Karimov’s most prominent political rival, Erk party leader Mohammed Solih, continues to hold the status of persona non grata. In the 1991 presidential elections, Solih garnered 12% of the vote as Karimov’s sole opponent. Solih claims that the election was rigged and that he actually won a majority of the vote.

Karimov’s government has cited a series of deadly car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 (which it labeled as an assassination attempt by militant Islamists in league with Solih) to characterize Erk as having links to terrorists. The government’s claim is based on reports that Solih led terrorist training for young Uzbeks in Turkey in 1994. Tashkent also claims Solih had contact with leaders of the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 2000, after a trial in absentia labeled by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as “unfair and unconvincing,” Uzbek authorities issued a warrant for Solih’s arrest and imprisoned his three brothers for terms of 15-20 years. Recently, Amnesty International, HRW, and other international observers have criticized the Uzbekistani government for using anti-terrorism as a cover for crushing legitimate democratic opposition.

Without any recognized political opposition, anti-government sentiment has often appeared in the form of radical Islamist organizations. The most prominent example is the IMU. Most of its leaders were jailed soon after the IMU’s founding, but the organization later regrouped, consolidating its forces in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and conducting armed incursions into Uzbekistani territory in late 1999 and 2000. At present, the IMU leaders are reportedly working to once again restore capabilities destroyed during the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Another radical Islamic group active in Uzbekistan is Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which advocates the nonviolent overthrow of the Karimov government and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. Hizb-ut-Tahrir disseminates anti-government literature and now operates underground, due to the Uzbek government’s campaign of repression against all unsanctioned forms of religious expression.

Recent Opposition Activity

Among the democratic political activists that have managed to remain in Uzbekistan, some are imprisoned for purported violations of article 159 of the criminal code (attempted government overthrow). Others remain on police lists, required to report on their activities to the authorities.

However, an announcement by Karimov on April 4, 2002 created what may have been a fresh opening for opposition political activity in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek leader stated that he was prepared to meet with exiled opposition members who wanted to return to Uzbekistan, provided that they were “constructive” and did not engage in activities that promoted the violent overthrow of the government. Karimov’s announcement left open the possibility that opposition parties could officially register at some point.

At about the same time, Birlik managed in April 2002 to hold a number of meetings–including seven regional congresses–without interference from the authorities. The party is working toward a national congress and official registration in 2003, backed by the public support of the U.S. government.

In August 2002, Birlik’s Pulat Ahun, the top party official who had served a two-year prison term prior to leaving Uzbekistan, returned to the country after seven years of exile in Sweden. Since returning, Ahun has not engaged in open political activity and it is uncertain if he will remain in the country. Despite their leader’s reticence, other Birlik officials have expressed a desire to come to Uzbekistan themselves and work with local party organizations. They claim that authorities’ reluctance to issue them visas has thwarted such efforts in the past.

Erk, less acceptable to the government due to its alleged terrorist associations, has not been as successful in reestablishing a presence inside Uzbekistan. The party attempted to have a meeting in May 2002 in Tashkent, but its Secretary General, Otanazar Aripov, was detained for the day at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. According to Matilda Bogner, a Tashkent-based observer for Human Rights Watch (HRW): “That [Aripov's detention] was a clear signal that the government doesn’t want Erk to reactivate.”

Of late, it appears that some Birlik and Erk leaders are willing to consider joint political initiatives. Closer cooperation, however, will require the two parties to surmount substantial obstacles. Despite having similar platforms, Birlik and Erk leaders have openly acknowledged differences in the past. Solih attributed them to personal rivalries among the two groups’ leaders, and not any entrenched mistrust. On the basic level, he said, activists from both parties “have always worked together and currently work together.” A recent example of closer cooperation is the election in September 2002 of Daynov Tashanov as chairperson of Birlik’s governing council for the Kashkadarya region. Upon his election, Tashanov, a member of Erk’s Central Council, appealed for the two parties to unite.

In addition to personal differences, critics within both parties advocate a turnover in leadership in the opposition movements. They say many current leaders have been out of the country for too long, and have thus lost touch with the concerns of those in Uzbekistan. At the same time, few potential successors have emerged. This lack of alternate leaders with less political baggage could be a hindrance if Karimov’s regime ever accepts the parties’ return as legitimate opposition groups.

Many Birlik and Erk supporters remain skeptical that Karimov’s government will actually permit open political activity by the opposition. According to Erk’s Otanazar Aripov, “if Birlik should become a real opposition group, then they won’t be registered under this regime.” Such comments reflect the common opinion that under the current authoritarian leadership, any sanctioned party would merely become another pro-government faction like the four that already exist.

Human Rights Groups

While technically apolitical, human rights groups have not been treated as such by the Uzbek government. Instead, the government views human rights groups through a political prism, often deeming their activity to be a threat to the incumbent authority’s stranglehold on power. For this reason, the regime’s attitude toward semi-official human rights groups active in Uzbekistan (and recent small signs of improvement) deserves attention.

The human rights movement emerged as Karimov asserted control in the early 1990s. Because many human rights defenders were once open political opponents of the current regime, the government still considers them as such. Much like the independent political parties of the early 1990s, human rights activists are subject to constant harassment, and often worse, at the hands of authorities.

Before March 2002, all but one human rights group had operated without official registration from the Uzbek Ministry of Justice. The lack of registration hinders the ability of rights groups to function, precluding them, for example, from being able to open a bank account. It also exposes human rights advocates to continuous police interference.

To the surprise of some observers, there have been some isolated positive developments in the Uzbek human rights sphere over the past year, due in large part to the increase in international attention to the region. In early 2002, for instance, a group of law enforcement officers was tried for the torture-related deaths of detainees in their custody. More significantly, in March 2002, the government officially registered the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan on the eve of President Karimov’s visit to Washington. Many observers attribute the recognition of the group, which had been attempting to register for five years, to pressure exerted on the Ministry of Justice by the international community, along with Karimov’s desire to polish his image prior to the U.S. trip.

The government’s tentative efforts in 2002 to permit activity by opposition political parties and human rights groups can be seen as a positive development. Yet, the Uzbek government continues to appear reluctant to broaden civic participation in the country. Instead, Karimov’s government seems intent on maintaining tight control over society, opening up only enough to ensure that Tashkent continues to reap the economic benefits of ongoing strategic cooperation with the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition.