Tashkent, 17 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nigora Hidoyatova says the question she is asked most often by ordinary citizens is whether she is afraid to confront Uzbek officials.
She says she's not afraid and that she does receive a lot of support. But she notes it is important for people in her position in Uzbekistan to be careful. A number of opposition figures, human rights activists, and independent journalists in Uzbekistan have been beaten or jailed in recent years.
Hidoyatova asked to meet with RFE/RL in a public place in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, not in the radio's bureau there, nor in her own office. She says she is followed by Uzbek security officers everywhere she goes.
"Because it is an agricultural country, the first issue to be solved is land privatization. But privatization isn't possible without liberalization, democratization, and overall openness."
Most Uzbeks first heard of Hidoyatova and her Ozod Dehqonlar political party last year, as the country was preparing to hold parliamentary elections in December. Ozod Dehqonlar first declared its opposition to the government of President Islam Karimov at its first party congress in December 2003. It joined Uzbekistan's two more established opposition parties -- Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom).
All three parties attempted, unsuccessfully, to register with the Uzbek Justice Ministry ahead of the December parliamentary polls. None of the parties was allowed to participate. All five parties that did compete for seats had publicly expressed support for Karimov.
All have continued their activities after the polls, and Ozod Dehqonlar has been particularly vocal.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Hidoyatova says her party is now focused on developing a clear strategy. She says it plans to issue a manifesto by the end of March. She claims the party has 30,000 supporters and 200 activists at its core.
She says the party's main goal is to privatize land. "Because it is an agricultural country, the first issue to be solved is land privatization," Hidoyatova said. "But privatization isn't possible without liberalization, democratization, and overall openness."
Hidoyatova says the Uzbek government has ignored the country's farmers and peasants, despite the fact that 65 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. She says Uzbek farmers need a party that will defend their rights and lobby for their interests.
Hidoyatova speaks of the importance of collaborating with the country's other opposition groups and parties. But she says her party's manifesto is unlikely to mention similar collaboration with the authorities. Hidoyatova believes the Uzbek government has exhausted all of its political capital. She sees no opportunity to start liberalization under Karimov's rule.
Hidoyatova's opponents, including Karimov, say she's not qualified to lead the country's farmers and peasants. They say she wouldn't know the difference between a ketmon -- an Uzbek spade -- and a plough and has never planted anything herself.
The accusations make Hidoyatova laugh: "No, I have planted. [Laughing.] By the way, I set up a farm called Ozod Dehqon in the Ferghana Valley recently. I am going to work there with a ketmon and a plough. [President] Islam Abduganievich [Karimov] brought us to the state in which we have to distinguish a ketmon from a plough, not a tractor from a combine machine. [In better days,] we were used to differentiating a tractor from a combine. "
In December, Karimov asked, "How can a woman who doesn't speak Uzbek lead a peasants party?" Hidoyatova does not speak fluent Uzbek and preferred to conduct her interview with RFE/RL in Russian.
Hidoyatova believes a "farmers' revolution" in Uzbekistan is just a matter of time. "Change is unavoidable," she said.
Ozod Dehqonlar plans to publish its own newspaper, called "Our Tribune," in a neighboring country. The party is also collaborating with an opposition youth organization called Shiddat, which has been operating underground for some time:
"Shiddat means 'breakthrough,'" Hidoyatova said. "Members of this organization work actively now. It's very hard to work with youth because there should be some ideas to attract [young people]. Youth needs hope about tomorrow. Today, the only goal of our youth is to go abroad. The difference between rural youth and youth in Tashkent is that rural youth want to live in Tashkent, while Tashkent's youth want to live abroad. Young people need an idea that will give them hope for tomorrow and hope that they will be able to be proud of their country, to live here, and be proud of it."
Hidoyatova believes Shiddat could evolve into an organization similar to Kmara or Pora, and play the same kind of role in Uzbekistan as those groups played in the recent "velvet revolutions " in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively.
Ozod Dehqonlar also has established contacts with opposition parties in the Commonwealth of Independent States, particularly in Ukraine.
"The head of a faction of [then Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor] Yushchenko's bloc, Our Ukraine, Lyubov Mayborda, [visited Uzbekistan last May and November] and provided us with technical support," Hidoyatova said. "I'd like to mention that they are very strong, competent in politics, and very assertive. She gave training [on electoral campaigns], and we got more members, because many people were interested in that training. We have very good contacts with her. "
Hidoyatova says her party has as yet had no contacts with the West. Nor, she says, has it received money from abroad.
But the activities of any political party require significant financial support, all the more so if a party plans to bring radical change to a country. Where does Ozod Dehqonlar get its financial support?
A historian by education, Hidoyatova -- who is in her 40s -- became an entrepreneur in the early days of Uzbek independence. She became successful in the cotton business, one of the country's most profitable spheres. The cotton business requires connections with the authorities, as the state controls the entire industry.
Hidoyatova says she made many friends in the cotton industry, who now support her party financially. She says many involved in state-run enterprises in Uzbekistan are unhappy with what they believe is the government's draconian tax and legal measures. She says they are willing to support an opposition party that calls for political and economic changes.
Hidoyatova would speak about many of her party's plans only off the record. She says she doesn't want to reveal them because of the government's possible interference.
But Hidoyatova is clear about her political ambitions. When asked if she will run for the presidency in 2007, she replied: "Why not?"