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Central Asia: Uzbek Opposition Divided, Searching For Unifying Voice

  • Nikola Krastev

A recent conference sponsored by Columbia University in New York City brought together representatives of various political backgrounds from Central Asia. In a panel on Uzbekistan, the participants condemned as repressive the rule of President Islam Karimov but were not able to find a strong, unifying voice. In the first of a two-part series on opposition movements in Central Asia, RFE/RL looks at prospects for change in Uzbekistan through the eyes of several prominent activists.

New York, 24 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's opposition movement is fairly typical of the political situation across Central Asia.

The opposition is divided and, to a large extent, dependent on foreign support. And many opposition leaders are exiled. That means their activities have much less impact on the political life inside the country than if they were on the scene.

Still, speakers at a recent conference at Columbia University said that -- despite these problems -- now is a crucial time for the various factions in the country to pull together.

Conference panelist Abdumannob Polat is the younger brother of Abdurahim Polat, chairman of the popular movement Birlik in Uzbekistan, and directs the Central Asia Human Rights Information Network. He said the divided opposition groups in Uzbekistan must start searching for common ground.

"Any scenarios, any recipes should be based on some kind of consensus -- 100 percent of consensus is impossible -- but generally some kind of consensus because people and groups make their judgments based on their perception of their interests," Polat said.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov won Washington's political backing and generous aid in exchange for military bases and enlisting Tashkent in the antiterrorist coalition in Central Asia. But he has been charged by rights activists with the routine suppression of political dissent.

Farhod Inogambaev -- a researcher at Harvard University who until last year was the chief financial adviser of Karimov's daughter, Gulnora -- is now living in exile with his family in the United States and is strongly opposed to Karimov.

He said that Western states with ties to Uzbekistan should avoid investing their interests completely in Karimov.

"I believe that the West should not put all the eggs in one...basket. Because Karimov is not Uzbekistan, he is not the Uzbek nation," Inogambaev said. "I believe also that the West should also support and invest in a new generation of democratic opposition."

Arkady Dubnov, a participant in the conference and one of the few speakers not affiliated with any political movement, is a columnist for "Vremya novostei," a Moscow-published daily.

Dubnov, who has spoken on numerous occasions with presidents of all five Central Asian states, said there is a popular assumption that opposition movements in Central Asia are based on ideological or political differences. He told RFE/RL that this is not true.

"The opposition [movements] in Central Asia are, first of all, structured along the conflicts of interests and competition among clans. The clans may have different structures -- territorial, tribal, financial," Dubnov said.

After the terrorist acts in Tashkent in 1999, Karimov's government cracked down on opposition movements by labeling dissent as an expression of "radical Islam."

Karimov also warned that, if he is overthrown, the United States and its allies might have to face a radical Islamist state in the heart of Central Asia.

Some of the participants in the New York conference said that radical Islam could, indeed, one day become a formidable power in Uzbekistan.

Polat said that is because the Islamists are better organized than the democrats in opposing the government.

"If there will be free elections in about one or two years in Uzbekistan, in free environment, a coalition of moderate and radical Islamists will take power because they are much more organized [than democrats and nationalists] and they have much more influential people [in the government]," Polat said.

But panelist Inogambaev disagreed with that assessment, saying 70 years of Soviet-style communism has had a profound impact on Uzbek religion and society.

"It does not illustrate the population of Uzbekistan," Inogambaev said. "We are very secular, yes. [The] Uzbek nation -- we are Muslim but very, very moderate, and for the most part the Uzbek population is more Russified than Islamified. I think [the coming of radical Islam] is a total over exaggeration."

Suleiman Muradov, another conference participant, is cofounder of the ERK Democratic Party of Uzbekistan and a former head of ERK's Samarkand branch. He is now exiled in the United States.

Muradov, too, said he does not see religious radicalism as becoming the leading opposition movement in Uzbekistan. He told RFE/RL that there is no way a radical Islam could take over in Uzbekistan under current conditions.

"Do you remember how the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan came to existence? Karimov's regime created it," Muradov said. "All the young people who strived for justice and normal democratic life -- Karimov began to oppress them. At the same time there was a civil war in Tajikistan and [young] people began fleeing a peaceful country to go to war."

The ERK opposition party has announced it will boycott the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan scheduled for December.

It also has called on the international community to ignore the elections completely. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed concern that the elections will be rigged and has asked the OSCE not to send an election observer mission to Uzbekistan.

(The second part of the two-part series on opposition movement in Central Asia will focus on the Kazakh opposition.)
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