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Central Asia Report: December 17, 2004


17 December 2004, Volume 4, Number 45

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev tended to political reforms, signing a decree that provides for mayoral elections in Astana and Almaty in 2005 and the election of oblast, town, and village heads starting in 2005. At a meeting with members of the ruling Otan party, the president proposed increasing the number of deputies in parliament and giving the legislature greater control over the country's budget. The president's Commission on Issues of Democracy and Civil Society met to discuss political reform plans, albeit without the participation of opposition parties Ak Zhol, the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which have spurned the commission because they do not consider it a dialogue of equals. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, former speaker of the Mazhilis and former member of "Nazarbaev's team," was elected chairman of the opposition's Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces. In money matters, Nazarbaev presided over the 12th session of the Council of Foreign Investors, calling on investors to put money into the "chemical industry, transportation infrastructure, agricultural sector, and construction." On the international front, Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov visited to mark the end of the Year of Russia in Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan and the United States signed an amendment to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to expand cooperation against bioterrorism.

Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly decided to put off ratification of a treaty with Kazakhstan, arguing that it fails to take into account Kyrgyz interests on issues of labor migration and joint use of water resources. Jean Lemierre, head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, met with President Askar Akaev, and an International Monetary Fund delegation headed by Tapio Saavalainen visited as well.

Russian border guards completed the handover of the 881.6-kilometer Pamir section of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajik jurisdiction. The embassies of France, Germany, and Great Britain expressed regret at Tajik authorities' decision to impound the print run of the independent newspaper "Ruzi Nav" in early November. A five-day exposition of Iranian-made goods opened in Dushanbe featuring products from 50 companies. The heads of antidrug agencies from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization met in Dushanbe to discuss greater cooperation in their drug interdiction efforts. And Russian police arrested Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, head of Tajikistan's opposition Democratic Party, in Moscow; Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov said that Tajikistan intends to seek his extradition on charges of embezzlement and links to terrorist groups.

Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that Niyazklych Nurklychev, Turkmenistan's former ambassador to Belgium, is under house arrest in Ashgabat, contradicting earlier reports that the errant envoy had sought political asylum in a European country. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov appointed Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhammedov minister of national security and Akmammed Rakhmanov minister of the interior. Niyazov described the outgoing security minister, Annageldy Gummanov, as too "soft-hearted" for the job. Finally, Niyazov reburied his parents and two brothers in a mausoleum specially constructed by the French firm Bouygues in Niyazov's native village of Kipchak.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov lauded the nation's achievements on the eve of Constitution Day, 7 December, declaring 2005 the Year of Good Health. He also lambasted irresponsible officials for "brutally violating the law and abusing their power for their own interests." Several dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the British Embassy in Tashkent to demand the reinstatement of former British envoy Craig Murray, who made a name for himself with harsh criticism of the Uzbek government's disregard for human rights issues.

AFGHAN HEROIN ENGULFS CENTRAL ASIA. When the United Nations issued a report on 18 November warning that Afghanistan risks becoming a "narco-state" where opium serves as "the main engine of economic growth," it drew international attention to a problem that is painfully familiar in Central Asia. The region's role as a conduit for a burgeoning supply of drugs to reach a voracious market has enriched a few and imperiled many. Efforts to combat the drug-induced ills beyond Afghanistan's borders increasingly demonstrate that the greatest hope for solution will have to emerge where the problem itself begins.

The phenomenon of drug trafficking in Central Asia emerges from three root causes -- Afghanistan's enormous production capacity, ravenous worldwide demand for the product, and Central Asia's geographic location. Contributing factors include poverty, which leaves many Central Asians with few viable avenues for economic advancement; corruption, which hinders the fight against drug trafficking and at times threatens to turn it into a virtually state-sponsored business; and labor migration, which sets vast numbers of people in motion amid legal uncertainties and provides ready-made channels for the clandestine transport of illegal substances. Among the side effects are a rising tide of drug addiction, a widening plague of AIDS/HIV, and an increase in interethnic and geopolitical tensions.

The United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provided a general overview of drug trafficking in Central Asia in its 2004 "World Drug Report" (http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/world_drug_report.html):

"If heroin is considered by itself, Central Asia accounted for about a third of all seizures in the countries surrounding Afghanistan. This proportion was twice as high in 2002 as in 2000, indicating greater use of the Central Asian trafficking route in recent years. There is also evidence that much of the opiates smuggled through Central Asia are in the form of heroin while more of the exports through Pakistan and Iran are still in the form of opium and morphine. This is consistent with reports of several dozen clandestine heroin laboratories in Afghanistan, concentrated in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, often close to the border. In Southwest Asia, heroin constitutes about a third of the opiates seized; in Central Asia the proportion was as high as 94 percent in 2002. In Tajikistan, which accounted for 78 percent of all the heroin seized in Central Asia in 2002, heroin seizures rose by 80 percent in the first 10 months of 2003."

Local reports confirm the UNODC findings. Kamol Dustmetov, head Uzbekistan's National Information and Analytical Center for Drug Control, said on 7 October, "There has lately been a noticeable rise in the illicit drug flow through Uzbekistan," Uzbek Television Channel 2 reported. Dustmetov noted that not only are seizures growing larger, but the proportion of heroin is also increasing. Interfax quoted him as saying on 4 September: "In the past the correlation between opium and heroin was three to one, and now it is absolutely different.... 607 kilograms of drugs were seized in the first half of 2004. Nearly 300 kilograms were pure heroin, which is 160 kilograms more than a year ago." The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) described a similar trend in Turkmenistan on 22 June, writing, "Increasingly, the traffickers bring in processed heroin rather than raw opium."

Seizures provide a rough guide to the quantity of drugs on the move, with standard estimates putting seizures at no more than 5-10 percent of the total, and sometimes less. By any standard, the sheer amounts of drugs seized across Central Asia are impressive. Kazakhstan's National Security Committee announced in late September that 2004 seizures included 154.5 kilograms of heroin, 80 kilograms of opium, 66 kilograms of hashish, and 32,500 ecstasy tablets, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 30 September.

A source in Kazakhstan's Prosecutor-General's Office said that the amount of smuggled drugs is up 300 percent, "Izvestiya-Kazakhstan" reported on 19 November. Kurmanbek Kubatbekov, chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Drug Control Agency said that police seized 500 kilograms of heroin and opium in the first 10 months of 2004, "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 2 December.

"Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 9 November that 3 tons of heroin were confiscated in Russia in January-September 2004, more than in the last two years combined. Viktor Cherkesov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, confirmed to Radio Rossii on 1 November that heroin seizures in the first half of 2004 equaled the totals for 2002 and 2003.

Avaz Yuldashev, a spokesman for Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency, announced in late November that 2004 seizures totaled 6,776 kilograms of drugs, including 4,460 kilograms of heroin, Interfax reported on 24 November.

Turkmenistan has not provided data on drug seizures since 2000, but Aleksandr Manilov, deputy head of Russia's Federal Border Service, said that the amount of drugs transported through Turkmenistan may be larger than the amount moved through Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 October.

The economic inducements for shipping heroin from Afghanistan through Central Asia to markets in Russia and Europe are ample. Exact prices are difficult to gauge, as reports often fail to indicate the purity of the heroin and offer only a rough guide to actual "street" value, but the profit potential is clear. A 2001 Russian police guide quoted in "Rossiiskii sledovatel" on 23 August 2004 provided the following description:

"In Afghanistan, for example, 1 kilogram of heroin costs $700. Once it crosses the border into Tajikistan, the price rises to $1,200-$1,500, and then to $2,300-$2,500 in Dushanbe. In Kazakhstan, the price is around $15,000, and in Turkmenistan up to $25,000. In Russia, depending on the region, the price is $20,000-$35,000. As it moves into Western Europe and the United States, the average wholesale price for 1 kilogram of pure heroin rises to $50,000 and $150,000, respectively."

More recent information from the press painted a similar picture. A kilogram of heroin on the Tajik-Afghan border costs $1,000, but rises to $25,000 in Moscow when packaged for retail sale, "Gazeta" reported on 20 October. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 24 November that a kilogram of heroin costs $2,000-$3,000 in Tajikistan, $6,000 in Kazakhstan, and $10,000-$12,000 on the Kazakh-Russian border.

The real profits come in Western Europe. The 2004 "World Drug Report" noted that the average price of a kilogram of heroin in the European Union in spring 2003 was $30,473, a price that has changed little since 1998. Austria's "Kurier" reported on 8 December that a 0.2-gram dose of heroin in Vienna costs 20 euros ($26.60), or 100 euros per gram, making a kilogram of heroin sold by the dose worth 100,000 euros ($133,000).

For impoverished residents of Central Asia, the lure of any profits from the drug trade, which are usually meager for low-level players, are often irresistible. In Tajikistan, for example, the average wage is now roughly $17 a month, "Ekspert" (No. 44) reported on 22 November. As the resident of a Tajik village on the Afghan border put it to a "Novaya gazeta" correspondent on 11 December 2003: "To be honest, every man in the village dreams of saving up enough money and leaving to work in Russia. How can you save it up? Either you borrow from the rais [boss] with interest, or you cross the [Panj] river." On the other side of the river lies Afghanistan and its heroin, and a trip across the river earns villagers $50.

Others are paid more, albeit not much, to serve as drug mules. A spokesman for the Russian Federal Drug Control Service told ITAR-TASS on 14 October about the desperate souls who transport heroin in their stomachs: "People are ready to risk not only their freedom but their life for the sake of money -- the standard rate for transporting drugs in a 'live container' is about $1,000 per kilogram." Less dangerous modes of transport can also bring in a tidy sum by local standards. In Uzbekistan, where average wages are only slightly higher than in Tajikistan, a young man was arrested in Surkhandaryo Province with 4.7 kilograms of heroin. He had received $300 to transport the shipment within Uzbekistan, Uzbek television reported on 11 November.

As the young man in the Tajik village indicated, many Central Asians see labor migration as their best economic hope, and the sheer numbers of people on the move create an ideal environment for trafficking. Numerous estimates put the number of Tajik migrant workers in Russia at around 1 million. Migrant workers in Russia from Kyrgyzstan may number 300,000-500,000, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 5 November. Borders are often porous. When Kazakh police arrested a 35-year-old resident of Ingushetia in Almaty with 24 kilograms of heroin bound for Novosibirsk, Russia, they noted that "traffickers succeeded in moving the shipment across three borders, crossing unhindered through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and part of Kazakhstan," "Kazakhstan Today" reported on 8 November.

Widespread corruption is a crucial factor in the unobstructed passage of drugs through borders. A 19 August report by IWPR described the situation on the Kazakh-Uzbek border: "Locals describe an atmosphere in which the law is ignored by all sides, as people feel they can buy their way out of any problem. They regard police and border guards not as enforcing the law, but simply preying on people to extract as much money as possible."

More pernicious is corruption among the law-enforcement personnel who are supposed to be fighting the drug trade. Viktor Cherkesov, chairman of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, said that in 2004, around 100 law-enforcement officers, mainly mid- and low-level, have been charged with involvement in the drug trade, Regnum reported on 2 November. Reports from Central Asia show similar low- and mid-level corruption among law enforcement. For example, "Izvestiya-Kazakhstan" reported on 19 November that the head of the East Kazakhstan police directorate for fighting drugs was himself convicted of selling heroin, and two officers from the police in Sairam were convicted of selling 5 kilograms of heroin.

Most pernicious, of course, is corruption at the highest levels. "Ekspert" (No. 44) reported on 22 November that the drug trade in Tajikistan provides troubling examples. A former police officer in Kulob told the Russian magazine, "Large shipments [of narcotics] are moved from the border to Shurobod and then to Dushanbe and Khujand, accompanied by officers from Tajik state security. The authorities of the Moscow region on the border are involved -- the regional head of the Interior Ministry, state security, the prosecutor, and other law-enforcement personnel."

Another former police officer painted a picture of increasingly organized corruption: "Up until about 2000, every other inhabitant in the border region was involved in drug trafficking. Then the controls were tightened, prices went up, and a hierarchy emerged -- things came under the control of certain influential businessmen who worked with large shipments. They don't work without the cover and escort of law-enforcement personnel."

More specific allegations have targeted Ghaffor Mirzoev, the former head of Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency, who is currently facing murder and corruption charges in Tajikistan. Russia's "Vremya novostei" reported on 11 November that Russian security forces intercepted phone calls in 2003 indicating that Mirzoev was behind a 340-kilogram shipment of heroin that was seized in Russia at that time.

Some suggest that money from the drug trade could affect political processes in the region. Kurmanbek Kubatbekov, chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Drug Control Agency, recently warned that money from the drug business may go to fund election campaigns for February 2005 parliamentary elections, Interfax reported on 26 November. Boris Tselinskii, a colonel in Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, wrote in "Gazeta" on 20 February, "There is reason to believe that drug structures have their own lobbying groups in Russian state institutions, as well as their own intelligence and counterintelligence services in order to buy out officials, acquire confidential information, and counteract law-enforcement bodies."

Isolated Turkmenistan occupies a special place in the annals of corruption and the drug trade. The International Crisis Group stated in a 4 November report entitled "Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan" that the country is "more like a mafia-run enterprise than a normal functioning state." The report noted that Annadurdy Hajaev, former deputy director of the Central Bank, has said that bank vaults were used in the 1990s by the presidential administration to stash what he was told were "confiscated drugs," possibly for trafficking with official involvement. Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova was briefly arrested in December 2003 for attempting to cover up her husband's involvement in the purchase of 15 kilograms of heroin. And several Turkmen opposition leaders in exile have provided worrying, albeit unverified, accounts that Turkmen officials may be helping to smuggle 90-120 tons of drugs through the country each year.

With such large quantities of drugs moving through Central Asia, addiction is a growing problem. Tajikistan's government-run Khovar News Agency reported on 20 October that while official data list a mere 3.7 drug addicts per 100,000 people, unofficial estimates put the number of drug addicts at 50,000 in a country of 7 million. IWPR reported on 30 November that with heroin abundant and cheap, the number of addicts is rising by 10-15 percent each year. Kurmanbek Kubatbekov, chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Drug Control Agency, has said that his country is home to 6,000 registered drug addicts, and that the real number is 10-15 times larger, Kyrgyz Television reported on 1 October. Uzbek Television Channel 2 quoted an unidentified doctor on 2 November as saying, "Over the last 5-10 years, [drug addiction] has reached such a level that a decisive fight should be launched against this disease."

Turkmenistan suffers similar problems. An anonymous Turkmen policeman told IWPR on 22 June: "Since independence, Turkmenistan has taken the path of drug addiction rather than democracy. Drugs are sold everywhere in Turkmenistan, with heroin the most popular, and young people are drawn actively into the trade." A breakdown of drug use in Russia compiled by the Federal Drug Control Agency published in "Profil" on 9 February confirms the regional dominance of opiates, with 40.2 percent of drug users taking heroin, 28.7 percent opium, 15.1 percent cannabis derivatives, 11 percent "other drugs," 2.8 percent other opiates, including synthetics, and low single digits using other substances.

With the needle comes the danger of HIV infection. The UN Global AIDS report for 2004, released in July, stated that 50,000 people in Central Asia are HIV-positive; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated 90,000 HIV cases in the region, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on 8 July.

Alexander Kossukhin, the UNAIDS national program officer for Kazakhstan, told IRIN that injecting drug usage is "the main mode of HIV transmission in the region." In the Kyrgyz section of the Ferghana Valley, for example, injecting drug usage accounts for more than 85 percent of HIV infections, IRIN reported on 27 July 2004. And while overall infection rates remain low, specialists warn that Central Asia could be on the verge of a ruinous HIV/AIDS epidemic. Merrell Tuck-Primdahl, a senior external-relations officer for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank, told IRIN on 4 March 2004 that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Central Asia calls to mind the situation in Africa 15-20 years ago. Tuck-Primdahl said, "It may seem that the prevalence is low now but it's at the point where it could explode."

The drug trade also has negative implications for interethnic relations in the larger region. Officials in Russia's Federal Drug Control Service have confirmed that organized-crime groups in the drug trade are often structured along ethnic lines, "Profil" reported on 9 February. In Russia, the perception that Tajiks are inextricably linked to the drug trade has led to rising ethnic tensions. In Yekaterinburg, Russia, which hosts a large number of Tajik migrant workers, the organization City Without Narcotics has organized demonstrations against local Tajiks it claims are selling drugs and "terrorizing the population" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 May 2004). Shamsiddin Nuriddinov, the leader of a Tajik community organization in Russia, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the leaders of City Without Narcotics are simply using xenophobia to advance their political careers. Yevgenii Roizman, a State Duma deputy and former director of City Without Narcotics, has made anti-Tajik statements a core part of a platform with geopolitical implications. A 14 April article in "Literaturnaya gazeta" quoted Roizman as arguing that the United States is ignoring drug production in Afghanistan in order to flood Russia with heroin. An 8 December 2003 article in "Stringer" quoted an unnamed source in Russia's Federal Security Service as saying, "It benefits America to have Russia addicted to heroin."

Yet, as the seizure statistics quoted above indicate, regional antidrug agencies are not standing idle. They are, in fact, trying to increase cooperation and boost interdiction efforts. Oleg Kharichkin, deputy head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, announced at a 10 December meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) drug-agency heads in Dushanbe that SCO member states plan to sign an agreement that will significantly ease cooperative investigative activities, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Russia's Federal Drug Control Service intends to open offices in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Europe in 2005, Interfax reported on 1 December. And Tajikistan and Afghanistan recently carried out their first joint counternarcotics operation, seizing 21 kilograms of heroin in Afghanistan with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Interfax reported on 27 September.

The evidence shows that Afghanistan's production potential, the market's insatiable demand, and Central Asia's location have combined to create a maelstrom that draws on the contributing factors of poverty and corruption, exacerbates the attendant ills of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS infection, and ultimately threatens to overwhelm the region's ability to stem a rising tide. The international community's increasing awareness of the extent of the problem in Afghanistan gives some cause for hope, for if an effectively implemented policy begins to have a tangible impact there, regional interdiction efforts could develop a more positive dynamic with benefits across the board. For now, however, the storm rages on.

HOW REAL ARE PROSPECTS FOR FREE AND DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS IN UZBEKISTAN?

By Adolat Najimova

Uzbekistan will hold parliamentary elections on 26 December. At President Islam Karimov's initiative, the newly elected legislature will be bicameral. But many Western and local observers believe that these elections will be neither fair nor democratic because no opposition groups and parties will be represented.

The Uzbek authorities began their efforts to bar the opposition well before the elections. On 21 May, Justice Minister Abdusamat Polvonzoda announced that the Birlik Halq Harakati (Popular Unity Movement) party and the Free Farmers Party had forged signatures of their respective party members in order to obtain registration. The minister also claimed that another opposition party, the Erk Democratic Party, had not even applied for registration.

In response, both Birlik and the Free Farmers Party asserted that the signatures were genuine and accused the Uzbek government of attempting to prevent them from participating in upcoming parliamentary elections. Erk leaders confirmed that they had not, in fact, applied for registration, but only because the authorities' annulment of the party's initial registration was an illegal and anticonstitutional act.

Opposition parties, which did not obtain registration and were therefore legally ineligible for participation in parliamentary elections, decided to make one more effort. They nominated party members to participate in upcoming elections through so-called initiative groups. The Uzbek government had introduced the initiative groups in order to demonstrate that the elections are democratic. These groups largely represent neighborhood communities in cities and villages and consist of representatives of various professions. The groups themselves did not encounter any difficulties in registering for the upcoming elections. Independent observers in Uzbekistan, however, noted that over the last two months the Uzbek authorities have done everything possible to prevent the registration of candidates and groups representing the opposition. As correspondents from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported, in a number of regions, members of initiative groups were harassed, beaten by unknown people, and denied meetings with local election-commission officials. In several instances, local election officials requested documents that were not required by law.

In a climate of growing intimidation and harassment, Erk and the Free Farmers Party announced their decision to boycott the upcoming elections. Several human rights groups in Ferghana Valley cities followed their lead. In mid-November, the Davra Kengashi, an NGO that represents a number of opposition parties and human rights activists, announced that it would boycott the parliamentary elections to protest official efforts to block opposition candidates from participating.

According to representatives of the Uzbek opposition, the authorities use various methods to damage the reputation of opposition parties and sow dissent among them. One of these methods was the creation of a new branch of the Erk party with a new leader. Currently, Erk's elected leader, Mukhammad Solih, lives in exile in Europe. Another method is the infiltration of agents into human rights groups, who often incite scandals and further the image of a disunited opposition incapable of organizing its own affairs.

Only five parties, all of them pro-government, will be able to participate in the 26 December parliamentary elections. They are:

-- The Popular Democratic Party of Uzbekistan. It was founded on the initiative of President Karimov and is considered a successor of the Communist Party.

-- The Fidokorlar (Self-Sacrifice) National Democracy Party. This party was created by the president in an effort to attract young people and garner their support for the government's policies. This party nominated Karimov in the most recent presidential elections.

-- The Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party. This party also supports Karimov's policies.

-- The Liberal-Democratic Party of Entrepreneurs and Businessman. Many local observers see this party as pro-government by definition because only those few who have connections with the authorities can do business in Uzbekistan.

-- The National Revival Party. The party's legal founders are Uzbek intellectuals. Many local observers believe, however, that the government itself created the party in order to show political pluralism in the country. They note that the party consists of conformist intellectuals who support Karimov.

Martti Ahtisaari, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairman in office's personal envoy to Central Asia, visited Uzbekistan in early November. In his meetings with Uzbek officials, Ahtisaari expressed regret that a variety of political views will not be represented at the 26 December parliamentary elections. He also stressed that none of the registered parties views itself as an opposition party. Ahtisaari also said that elections are either free and fair or there are no elections at all. The OSCE representative expressed concern at the absence of a genuinely free media in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek media has provided subdued coverage of upcoming elections. Independent observers describe media coverage as toothless, with stories focusing on the importance of elections as such and the advantages of a bicameral legislature. Local independent journalists believe that government regulations on election coverage have an impact on the media. In particular, several Uzbek observers pointed out in interviews with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that some rules on election coverage, in effect, entail censorship. For instance, Article 15 of the election law states that "information disseminated in mass media should be truthful and should not violate the rights and interests of candidates, political parties, and initiative groups." Observers believe that the concept of "truthful information" advanced by the government could stop healthy debates and effectively prevent any kind of criticism of the current political and economic situation in the media.

Meanwhile, the Uzbek authorities continue their efforts to shut down independent sources of information, including Western NGOs and radio stations. Over the summer, the authorities closed the offices of the Open Society Institute and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Tashkent, and accused the U.S. National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch of supporting groups that engage in illegal activities. In response, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent issued a statement that U.S. government-funded NGOs, in accordance with the bilateral U.S.-Uzbekistan Agreement on Strategic Partnership, are helping Uzbekistan to promote civil society and democracy. Many human rights activists in Uzbekistan believe that recent events in Georgia, where opposition forces came to power in 2003, and Ukraine, where similar events are under way, have frightened Uzbek authorities and led them to tighten their grip not only over local human rights groups, but also over foreign NGOs operating in the country.

Harassment of Western media outlets has also increased. In October, the Uzbek authorities suspended the activities of the Tashkent office of Internews, which held seminars and training sessions for local journalists, conducted media monitoring, and provided legal assistance for journalists. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and the BBC have also faced accusations of biased, unobjective coverage of events in Uzbekistan.

As for ordinary Uzbek citizens, many of them know little or nothing about parties, groups, and their candidates. The electorate appears to demonstrate a lack of interest and trust. In interviews with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, people said repeatedly that no matter which candidates are elected, they will not genuinely represent the people and will not try to solve their problems. According to Otanazar Oripov, the secretary-general of the Erk Democratic Party, interest in the upcoming elections among Uzbeks is so low that the authorities have said that 33 percent turnout of eligible voters will be sufficient for elections to be valid. This is the lowest-ever required turnout in Uzbekistan.

Some international and local human rights organizations believe that monitoring and covering elections that they say will be neither free nor fair will grant them undue legitimacy. On 18 October, Human Rights Watch asked the OSCE not to send even a limited number of observers to legitimize "what is essentially an empty exercise." There is some truth in this. But by calling attention to the central problem -- that the elections are not free and fair -- the international community can help Uzbekistan to promote real democracy.

Adolat Najimova is the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

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