A democracy of convenience

Democracy without independence. In elections, the opposition candidates vote for the incumbent government. These are just a couple of ways to describe the power structure in Uzbekistan; a country sandwiched between communist China and the arguably democratic Russia.

Located in the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan traces the route Ancient Silk Road traders once used to carry goods from the Roman Empire to the Orient. These same historically marvelled bazaars are now the sites of terrorist bombings and social uprisings. The majestic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand—once famed for their architectural magnificence—are now the holding place for American troops occupying Afghanistan, which lies just over the southern border.

The former Soviet State of Uzbekistan remains, as it was prior to the rise of communist Russia, largely unexplored terrain. News from the self-declared ‘democratic state’ rarely makes headlines. The capital, Tashkent, is a buzzing metropolis with a mixture of largely unfinished Soviet and Western architecture. The end result is a Gotham City-style urban landscape with searing grey city blocks and dimly lit streets. Yet at the same time, the cities are dotted with ornate turquoise and pearl coloured mosques and temples. Travel to the region is difficult for Westerners, as the government likes its travellers—as Lonely Planet describes—in the form of ‘pre-programmed, obedient pods’.

You get the feeling there is something to hide in Uzbekistan.

The republic is led by President Islam Karimov. There are five legal political parties, all of which publicly support Karimov, a former communist who has held power since just before the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In the early 1990s, Karimov outlawed the main opposition parties and forced their leaders into exile. As was the case with Chairman Mao in China, this was not uncommon during the communist era. However, since 1991, the Eurasia region has seen a massive restructure of borders, leaders and political systems. But 14 years on, nothing much has changed in Uzbekistan. In December, 2004, Uzbeks went to the polls for a presidential election where the only opposition standing against Karimov withdrew from the race two months before the election. As NewsObserver reported, ‘election officials have refused to let opposition parties run on the ballot, disqualifying their registrations on technicalities’.

Politics is not the stuff of dinner conversation in Uzbekistan. Chatter about political opinion or the local economy is met with downcast eyes and monosyllabic responses. According to one Bukhara man, individual names are required on electoral ballots.

So why the fear and secrecy? President Karimov has been criticised internationally for gross human rights abuses and one UN report described the use of torture in Uzbekistan as ‘systematic’. His state-controlled media has also been condemned for obstructing any independent reporting. Living standards are amongst the lowest in the former Soviet Union and outside the elite, (most of which derives from branches of the former communist party), there is no chance of a ‘fair go’ for workers. One catch-cry of the government has been ‘blessed are the obedient’.

In 2003, parliament passed a law granting Karimov immunity from prosecution for life and a referendum saw him extend his term of office by a mandated five years.

Central Asian politics expert Dr Sharam Akbarzadeh from Monash University believes Karimov uses a hard-line against terrorism and an alliance with America to justify his tyrannical domestic policy.

‘Karimov thinks an iron fist is required to fight terrorism and that justifies all the oppressive measures he has taken within his own country, both to stay in power and to strengthen his alliance with Washington and Moscow,’ Akbarzadeh said.

Along with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Karimov was an adamant opponent to the Taliban in Afghanistan. His hard line against terrorism won him praise from international counterparts.

The events of 11 September 2001 provided Karimov with another opportunity to flex his international muscle and to prove to Uzbek nationals why they cannot afford to vote him out of office.

‘September 11 was a blessing for Karimov because before then he had a terrible reputation with the United States as a tyrant. But September 11 changed all the parameters of the United States–Uzbekistan relationship. Fighting terrorism, as Karimov has been doing in the region for some time became of global importance’, said Dr Akbarzadeh. ‘Karimov basked in the glory of being a strong partner of the United States fighting against terrorism.’

While the United States is at pains to introduce countries like Iraq to Western-style democracy, the human rights abuses sustained and implemented under Karimov are tolerated by the Bush administration in exchange for the co-operation of a Muslim state in the ‘war on terror’.

But while Karimov may seem to be ‘fighting the good fight’, Dr Akbarzadeh believes he is a leader with two faces. ‘Is Karimov a good guy or a bad guy? You could write a thesis on that topic.’

Karimov’s militaristic approach to stopping terrorism at any cost is used internally on Uzbek nationals, both to satiate his desire to stay in power while stamping out any Islamic extremism simmering in Tashkent. The danger of this approach is that Karimov does not differentiate between his treatment of international terrorists and regular citizens.

‘Any threat to the established order is a threat to Karimov’s hold on power’, says Dr Akbarzadeh, ‘and the easiest way to label that and to deem it unacceptable is to call it terrorism’, he said. ‘Terrorism is a blanket term for everything anti-Karimov.’

In March 2004, the government blamed a series of bomb blasts in metropolitan Tashkent on members of a radical Islamic group, which authorities believed was linked to al Qaeda. In a letter to President Islam Karimov, the International League for Human Rights said the trials of the accused were ‘accompanied by harassment and torture of defendants while in custody’.

The US did order an independent inquiry into the sentences. However, according to Dr Akbarzadeh, a truly independent inquiry would be near impossible to conduct without government interference.

‘Independence, as we know it in Australia, does not exist in Uzbekistan. There is no way that anyone can be independent under Karimov’s current power structure’, Dr Akbarzadeh said.

So what of the future? Criticism from the United Nations and the European Union has done little to change Karimov’s mind. Dr Akbarzadeh believes when it comes to Karimov, the voices of the United States and Russia are the loudest.

‘The United Nations and the European Union do not have the political or economic muscle to force Karimov.’

The unfortunate reality for 26.5 million Uzbeks is that for the superpowers fighting the ‘war on terror’, any alternative to Karimov is too unpredictable to risk.

‘The United States and Russia have an interest in keeping Karimov in power because if he goes, the whole Eurasia region could be open to unpredictable terrorist forces, whether it be Islamic fundamentalism or another force that he has managed to suppress through his governance thus far.’

Internationally, either through fear or fellowship, Karimov’s domestic policy is tolerated. The United States is currently providing funding and training for Uzbek security forces in place of sanctions.

So while it may be a case of better the devil you know for world leaders and the ‘war on terror’, the people of Uzbekistan remain oppressed in the face of high taxes, no public representation or independent media.

Despite common use of the phrase ‘democracy’ when describing Uzbekistan’s political landscape, Dr Akbarzadeh describes it differently. ‘Authoritarian regime. There is no other way to describe Uzbekistan.’

Kate Stowell is a second-year journalism student at RMIT University. She visited Uzbekistan in 2004. Photographs by the author.



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