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Uzbekistan: Opposition Seeks To Renew Pressure On President

  • Julie Corwin --> Erk party leader Mohammad Solih was one of the three opposition leaders testifying before Congress (file photo) (RFE/RL) Uzbek opposition figure Mohammad Solih, the exiled leader of the unregistered party Erk (Freedom), is calling on U.S. legislators to adopt the same kind of sanctions they have imposed on Belarus and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime. Stronger sanctions would be effective because he believes Uzbek President Islam Karimov is more vulnerable to outside pressure. Solih was in Washington to testify before the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Joining him were Gulambek Umarov, the son of the jailed leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan opposition coalition Sanjar Umarov; and Abdurahim Polat, exiled chairman of the party Birlik (Unity). In calling for U.S. government support for their causes, the opposition leaders also made obvious some of their disagreements with each other.

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "The West did not even impose one-10th of the sanctions [on Uzbekistan] that it has imposed on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka," Solih said. "And, of course, it goes without saying that Lukashenka's regime is completely undemocratic. And if we were to compare Lukashenka to [former Czech President] Vaclav Havel, we would call him an autocrat. But if we compare him to [Uzbekistan President Islam] Karimov, he would be a democrat."

Solih made those comments at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on July 24. Solih believes the imposition of harsher sanctions on the Karimov government would result in a "completely different" situation in Uzbekistan.

"Erk and Birlik are veteran opposition movements which were born during [the] Soviet period of Gorbachev's perestroika. Consequently, their views on the problems [that] Uzbekistan faces today are rooted in that era."

Calls For Tougher Policy

The next day, Solih told members of the Helsinki Commission, a human rights monitoring group, that the United States should try a different approach in Uzbekistan.

"I would like to reassure my friends that the West has nothing significant to lose in Uzbekistan because it never gained anything tangible in the political, economic, or military fields," he said.

Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, did not recommend a sharp adjustment in U.S. foreign policy toward Tashkent. She noted that Karimov has already "found ways to minimize the damage to him personally, to his family, and to his regime" from U.S. and European efforts to isolate him. At age 67, he will have to leave office eventually as "old-age and ill-health" eventually overtake him, she said. In the interim, she said the main challenge for the United States will be to find way to "engage the Uzbek population" without reengaging with the Uzbek government. She said this could perhaps be done through education and media efforts.

Speaking for his imprisoned father, Gulambek Umarov seemed reluctant to wait for Karimov to leave power. Instead, he suggested that the "only practical way to build a better future" for the next generations in Uzbekistan is by "engaging the current regime in a dialogue about the reform of Uzbekistan."

Sun Still Shining For Coalition

"The members of [the] Sunshine Coalition have no illusions about how difficult it will be to engage the current regime in dialogue," he said.

Perhaps few people know better than the Umarov family about these "difficulties." Almost as soon as his father assumed chairmanship of the Sunshine Coalition, the government began a "coordinated and intensive campaign against him and all those associated with him." In March 2006, Sanjar Umarov was charged with financial crimes and sentenced to 10 and one-half years in prison -- a term that was later reduced to 7 years and an $8 million fine. The Umarov family is hoping the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan will dismiss the charges against him.

In the meantime, the Sunshine Coalition remains active.

"Despite Sanjar Umarov's continued imprisonment the work of the Sunshine Coalition continues through our programs, like the International Economic Advisory Council," Umarov said. "This council is assisting the coalition's leadership in defining a concrete set of reform proposals that serve as a basis for beginning a dialogue with the current regime. The Sunshine Coalition remains optimistic about the potential for reform in Uzbekistan, but at the same time understands how difficult the road ahead may be."

Gulambek Umarov did not confine his remarks to the situation inside Uzbekistan. He also addressed the issue of the divisions between Uzbekistan's opposition groups. While he declared that the Sunshine Coalition shares many of the concerns of Erk and Birlik, he hinted that their approaches may be stuck in the past.

A New Approach?

"Erk and Birlik are veteran opposition movements which were born during [the] Soviet period of Gorbachev's perestroika," he said. "Consequently, their views on the problems [that] Uzbekistan faces today are rooted in that era. However, the present crises facing Uzbekistan are very different from those of the Gorbachev era. Our coalition was created as a contemporary response."

Speaking to the commission, Abdurahim Polat, Birlik party chairman, also directly addressed the issue of fissures in Uzbekistan's democratic opposition. He insisted that there are no divisions among the democratic movements of Uzbekistan -- because he does not consider Erk to be a democratic movement.

The two men have been rivals since their opposition group split into separate parties in the early 1990s.

"So I want to say [to the] people who are supposedly uncomfortable about the disunity [among the] Uzbek democratic opposition and want to unite us," he said. "I'm saying [to] you [the] democratic opposition of Uzbekistan is united. And it cannot be together with these fanatics and idiots of this fraction of Erk."

Polat had harsh words not only for Solih, but also for U.S. policymakers. He said he was "skeptical" about the prospect of help from the West or the United States, which he suggested has an "excessive fear" of "rising Islamic fundamentalism." He also declared that this would be his last speech before the commission.

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