Uzbekistan's opposition Erk Democratic Party held its first congress in 10 years yesterday in Tashkent, which was unusual in itself as government crackdowns in the early 1990s had effectively neutralized any opposition forces. But these are not usual times in Uzbekistan, and the Erk Party congress is only one of several events in recent weeks that may be an indication the Uzbek government is easing some of its restrictions on opposition political activity and social demonstrations.
Prague, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's opposition Erk Democratic Party held a congress yesterday in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, the first party congress on home soil in 10 years. It was an unusual event to happen in a country which has gained a reputation as having a strict government that keeps tight control over society. But lately there have been several unusual events in Uzbekistan that one year ago would have seemed foolish, if not impossible.
Some 80 delegates from around the country attended yesterday's congress, held in a hall with a sign posted outside reading "We are heading toward a democratic state in which every citizen is guaranteed their freedoms."
Erk leader Mohammed Solih, currently in exile in Europe, told RFE/RL the holding of the congress was made possible by two things.
"On one hand, the [Uzbek] government was forced to ease its pressure because the government itself was under pressure from international organizations. On the other hand, the opposition has grown weary [of waiting] and decided to move ahead and insist on our rights," Solih said.
Erk, which means "Freedom" in Uzbek, has an unclear legal status in Uzbekistan. The party was registered shortly after Uzbekistan became independent with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. But after student riots in Tashkent in January 1992, all opposition parties and movements became suspect in the eyes of the Uzbek government. Erk members and those of the Birlik movement that splintered off from Erk were often harassed. Their publications were shut down, their finances frozen, and eventually opposition leadership either fled the country or became entangled with the legal authorities at home to such a degree that serious opposition was no longer possible.
Erk leader Solih, who ran against incumbent President Islam Karimov in the December 1991 presidential election, fled into exile in 1993 but kept in touch with the leadership remaining in Uzbekistan. Still, the party lost much of what influence it had. Its activities were mainly confined to statements of protest from abroad and secret meetings attended by small groups of party supporters.
With that as the party's early history, it seemed amazing that, despite some problems, Erk's application for a venue for yesterday's congress was honored by the Tashkent authorities.
Erk held a public meeting in June, its first open meeting in 10 years. The Birlik ("Unity" in Uzbek) movement held an open meeting in Tashkent in May. Both groups speak openly about their aspirations for next year's parliamentary elections, and senior Erk member Atonazar Arifov said the party was looking even further ahead at yesterday's congress.
"We want to participate in elections at all levels, starting with those to local councils up to the presidential elections [in 2007]," Arifov said.
Opposition is not limited to just political parties and movements. There have been small protests in recent years held by family members of people jailed for allegedly belonging to radical Islamic groups. Such protests have mainly been held in the cities and towns of Uzbekistan's section of the Fergana Valley and involve no more than 30 or 40 people.
But earlier this month there were large protests, involving hundreds and possibly thousands of people, against new regulations the government imposed on merchants at the bazaars and markets across the country. At the start of summer many merchants in Tashkent's bazaars shut down their stalls for several days in protest against new taxation rules.
Also at the start of October, some 20 activists, mainly from the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, held a protest in Tashkent demanding that President Islam Karimov step down. A statement signed by many of the activists said there was "no hope for the restoration of justice and democracy under Karimov's authoritarian rule."
In an apparent government response, last week two members of Erk were detained by police and questioned about literature and documents police found in their car. The two were released the next day but during their detention police searched the home of one and seized books, a computer, a printer, and other equipment, which they still hold.
But the confiscation prompted an unlikely response, as some 20 Erk members gathered outside the Prosecutor-General's Office yesterday to protest the confiscation of party property.
The police said today that such literature was prohibited and is now officially confiscated. Arifov told RFE/RL that he expected some Erk members would be arrested soon for possessing the literature.
And there are still some major obstacles political groups like Erk and Birlik must overcome before they can compete in elections, such as clarifying their current legal status.
"We addressed the request to the Justice Ministry last month and asked them to send us a copy of the Justice Ministry's annulment of our certification in 1993, but we have not received the copy yet and we are sure that such a decision [on the annulment of the party] was never made," Arifov said.
With no clear decision on the status of either Erk or Birlik, it is possible that at any time the opposition groups could be forced to stop their political activities. But for now, that has not happened.
There are several possible explanations for why the authorities have not resorted to their traditional crackdown methods -- but it is certainly not business as usual in Uzbekistan lately.
(Shukrat Babajon and Oktambek Karim of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)