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Jahongir Otajonov, a former singer, is withdrawing from Uzbekistan’s presidential race due to what he says is pressure put on his family.

Jahongir Otajonov just dropped out of the presidential race in Uzbekistan.

“My parents' tears are too high a price to pay,” Otajonov said on Instagram when he announced he was withdrawing as the unregistered Erk Democratic Party's candidate due to pressure on his family.

The obstacles to running for president in Uzbekistan, and in Central Asia, for genuine opposition candidates are formidable.

Incumbents in the region don't appreciate people with fresh ideas, and they tend to use law enforcement, the judicial system, and sometimes thugs to eliminate unwelcome competitors from elections.

Here's how.

Uzbekistan

Otajonov is a former singer who cast aside his career in December 2020, saying it conflicted with Shari'a law.

It was a bit surprising when he later announced that he would be the Erk (Will) Democratic Party’s candidate for president in the October presidential election.

Erk has been around for some 30 years but has never been officially registered.

Realistically, Otajonov and Erk had no chance from the start.

Incumbent Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is seeking a second term. And although Mirziyoev has said several times the country needs genuine opposition parties and candidates, he and his administration appear to believe that now is not the time.

A former rector of Uzbekistan’s Termez University, Khidirnazar Olloqulov, formed a new party called Truth And Development (Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot) and planned to run for president. But the Justice Ministry has repeatedly denied that party's registration.

Otajonov and Olloqulov have encountered other similar obstacles.

Unknown and uninvited individuals showed up at their parties’ public meetings and at the candidates’ homes, disrupting strategy debates and calling on Otajonov and Olloqulov to exit politics.

Otajonov’s vehicle was impounded by police, and when he complained about it on Instagram, police started an investigation into whether Otajonov's comments about police constituted an insult.

It recently became a crime to insult the president on social media. Apparently the same is true of insulting the police.

Meanwhile, Olloqulov was said to have been accosted in the stairwell of his apartment building by a group that was clearly trying to provoke a fight with the would-be candidate. Olloqulov publicly complained about the group, and they then successfully sued him for insulting their honor and dignity.

Court bailiffs showed up at Olloqulov's home and seized all his home appliances -- television, refrigerator, microwave oven, and other things -- to cover the fine.

Years ago, there was a case involving Sanjar Umarov, the leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan Coalition, who announced his intention to run for president in 2005 and was quickly charged and convicted of embezzlement, tax evasion, and other financial violations and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

He was freed amid international pressure in 2009 and left for the United States, where he remains.

Tajikistan

Authorities in Tajikistan arguably treat political opponents far more harshly.

Zayd Saidov was a businessman and government official, even serving as minister of industry from 2002-07.

But when he formed the New Tajikistan (Tojikistoni Nau) party, authorities launched a brutal campaign against him.

Zayd Saidov (right) talking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service in May 2013
Zayd Saidov (right) talking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service in May 2013

New Tajikistan submitted its registration application at the beginning of April 2013 and Saidov stated clearly that he had no intention of running in the presidential election scheduled for later that year.

It made no difference.

By May 12, the state agency for combating corruption had launched a criminal investigation against Saidov for allegedly falsifying figures and for polygamy.

Saidov’s home was searched.

The parliamentary newspaper Sado-i Mardom alleged that parties like New Tajikistan were created to protect certain individuals' personal interests, that Saidov “was able to become the owner of so much wealth and property because of such selfishness,” and that he had helped collect money for the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) that had fought against government forces during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.

The charges against Saidov piled up: bribe-taking, embezzlement, illegal privatization of state property, rape, and statutory rape.

Barely eight months after announcing the creation of his political party, Saidov was convicted at a closed trial of financial fraud, polygamy, and sexual relations with a minor and sentenced to 26 years in prison (three more years were added later).

After the verdict. Saidov’s lawyers and their families were harassed. One lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov, was later sentenced to nine years in prison after being convicted on fraud and bribery charges.

Saidov’s property was gradually seized and his family members evicted from their homes.

The same tactics were used in late 2015 to discredit and ban the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which had been the backbone of the UTO, and imprison many of its leaders.

Kazakhstan

Akezhan Kazhegeldin was Kazakhstan’s prime minister from 1994-97, leaving that post after coming into conflict with Kazakhstan’s president at the time, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazhegeldin intended to run for president in the subsequent election, scheduled for December 2000.

But in October 1998, Nazarbaev met with a group of deputies behind closed doors at which the MPs proposed changing the length of a presidential term in office from five to seven years. The move would give Nazarbaev two more terms in office, bringing the presidential election forward to January 1999.

A joint session of parliament approved the proposals within days.

On October 14, Kazhegeldin announced his candidacy. But on October 20, an Almaty court ruled that Kazhegeldin had violated a recently passed law on participating in “mass gatherings and sessions of an unregistered organization” when he showed up at a meeting of the For Free Elections movement at the start of October.

A portrait of Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, a prospective Kazakh presidential candidate, at his funeral in Almaty in February 2006
A portrait of Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, a prospective Kazakh presidential candidate, at his funeral in Almaty in February 2006

It was an administrative offense, but according to Kazakh courts, the new law provided sufficient grounds for barring Kazhegeldin from participating in the election.

Kazhegeldin tried to fight the decision. But as he did so, members of his campaign team were harassed, his public relations officer and press secretary beaten, and the offices of the 21st Century newspaper -- which supported Kazhegeldin’s candidacy -- were firebombed.

Kazhegeldin fled Kazakhstan soon after and has never returned.

Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly was another prospective presidential candidate.

He had been a longtime Kazakh politician, including roles as information minister and ambassador for Russia.

Sarsenbaiuly also criticized Nazarbaev and formed an opposition party called Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) in April 2005, with an eye to running against Nazarbaev in the presidential election later that year.

Sarsenbaiuly instead threw his support behind Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, whom several opposition groups calling themselves the For A Just Kazakhstan bloc agreed to support as their candidate.

Tuyakbai was attacked twice early in his campaigning, once while the bloc's members were meeting in a Shymkent hotel and a group of 300 or so unknown individuals entered to disrupt the opposition representatives.

Sarsenbaiuly was killed in February 2006. His body, and the bodies of his bodyguard and driver, were found on a roadside outside Almaty, with their hands tied behind their backs. They had been shot in the head.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is widely regarded as the only country in Central Asia to have held democratic elections, but even there some opposition presidential candidates have faced problems that one would expect to see in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan.

Feliks Kulov served in several state positions in the 1990s: vice president, minister of national security, governor of Chui Province, and mayor of the capital, Bishkek.

Like Kazhegeldin in Kazakhstan, Kulov was increasingly critical of the president of Kyrgyzstan, who until March 2005 was Askar Akaev.

Feliks Kulov
Feliks Kulov

In 1999, articles started to appear in state newspapers suggesting that Kulov had been plotting to oust Akaev, or even have Akaev killed.

An investigation was launched and Kulov resigned as mayor in April 1999.

By June, Kulov had formed his own political party -- Ar-Namys (Dignity) -- and it was clear Kulov had an eye on the presidency, with an election scheduled for October 2000.

But first Kulov wanted to be elected to parliament in the February 2000 national elections.

The investigation into claims Kulov had planned to overthrow Akaev picked up pace with added accusations that Kulov had somehow orchestrated an automobile accident involving National Security Minister Anarbek Bakaev in 1996.

Kulov took over the position after the accident and Bakaev remained in a coma until he died in January 1998.

Before Ar-Namys could be registered, amendments were adopted to Kyrgyzstan's electoral laws that required parties to be registered at least one year prior to elections.

The Party of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan allowed Kulov to run on its ticket, but the investigation of Kulov continued.

There were allegations he embezzled some $62,000 while he was governor of Chui Province, that he had illegally purchased equipment to tap the telephones of several government officials while he was minister of national security, and that the special Kalkan unit he formed within the ministry planned to assassinate Akaev.

Kulov ran in the Kara-Buura district of Talas Province and won the first round of the February 2000 parliamentary elections, but received only 36 percent of the vote -- not enough to win outright.

In the second round on March 12 his opponent Alymbai Sultanov, who had received 18 percent in the first round, received 56 percent of the vote.

Protests started and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its monitors reported numerous violations.

The chairman of the district election commission was said to have committed suicide on March 17.

Kulov was arrested on corruption charges on March 22 while he was in a hospital receiving treatment for a heart condition.

His closed trial started in a military court on June 27, although he was unexpectedly acquitted on August 7.

On August 9, Kulov announced his intention to run for president.

But on September 11, his acquittal was overturned and the Central Election Commission refused to register him as candidate for the October 29 vote.

In January 2001, a military court convicted Kulov of abuse of power while he was minister of national security and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

Kulov was freed from prison when Akaev was ousted in the Tulip Revolution of March 2005.

Those familiar with Kyrgyzstan’s presidential race in 2017 will remember Omurbek Babanov -- who led by a large margin in most polls ahead of the election -- was subjected to a widespread smear campaign and, after the election was over, had to leave the country temporarily to avoid facing charges that had surfaced against him during the campaign.

There are more examples in each country.

It has been almost 30 years since the Central Asian states became independent.

In all that time, with the exception of several elections in Kyrgyzstan, their elections have arguably been little more than exercises -- the form but not substance of genuine elections that, time and again, produce no real changes in policy or the system after they are over.

And still, these governments act offended when Western observers and governments criticize their elections.

An Afghan soldier stands guard at a checkpoint after security forces cleared the area of Taliban militants in Afghanistan's Laghman Province on July 8.

Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan have reached the borders of Central Asia and there is a familiar sense of urgency in the three countries in the region with an Afghan frontier: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Familiar because the Taliban have occupied many of the northern Afghan districts bordering Central Asia before, more than 20 years ago, and much of the response seen in the Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek capitals resembles the moves they made in the late 1990s.

And yet, much has changed since then also.

Refugees

On July 7, the independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus reported more than 1,000 Afghan refugees had crossed into Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region, fleeing the fighting between advancing Taliban forces and government troops in Afghanistan’s neighboring Badakhshan Province.

Barely two weeks earlier, Yodgor Fayzov, the head of that sprawling Tajik region, ordered local officials to prepare for the arrival of up to 10,000 refugees, though he warned that number could climb to as high as 30,000.

This is neither surprising nor an exaggerated figure.

In late September 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul and continued its drive northward.

On April 26, 1997, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (then called Rakhmonov) was hosting the head of Russia’s Federal Border Service, Andrei Nikolaev, and Rahmon said some 100,000 displaced people had fled to the border of Tajikistan.

The Tajik Civil War, which started in 1992, was coming to an end and on June 27, 1997, the government and its battlefield opponents signed a peace agreement.

The appearance of the Taliban in Afghanistan played a role in hastening the two sides -- pushed by mediators from Russia, Iran, and the UN -- to end the war.

More than 50,000 Tajik citizens, at least, had fled the fighting and crossed into Afghanistan during those five years. Among those 100,000 refugees Rahmon mentioned were several thousand citizens of his country.

The Tajik government needed the full force of its military for the battles inside Tajikistan at that time.

Russian border guards -- with some help from a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping force that included troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan -- were tasked with defending the Afghan border.

As peace took root, Tajik troops were gradually deployed to the Afghan border, joining the Russian border guards who ended up staying there until 2005.

In late September 2000, Tajik Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov warned there were again some 100,000 Afghan refugees massing along the border with Tajikistan attempting to escape the fighting.

Rahmon said Tajikistan would not accept any Afghan refugees and, until those 1,000 Afghan refugees crossed into Tajikistan on July 4-5, 2021, none ever did.

Afghan refugees had also crossed into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the 1990s.

Some 800 crossed into Turkmenistan in November 1996, and about 8,000 in June 1997, all of whom Turkmen authorities sent back after a few days.

WATCH: Taliban Seizes Civilian Homes In Kandahar As Government Forces Fight To Defend City

Taliban Seizes Civilian Homes In Kandahar As Government Forces Fight To Defend City
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Most were from Afghanistan’s Badghis Province, where on July 7, 2021, reports said the Taliban had captured all the province’s districts and a fierce battle for control of the provincial capital, Qala-e Naw, was being fought.

There were already an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Afghan refugees in Uzbekistan by 1994, but Uzbek authorities gradually sealed off the country’s relatively short 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

When the Taliban first approached the Uzbek border in 1997 and in August 1998 when they seized areas that border Uzbekistan, Uzbek officials did not allow Afghan refugees to cross.

So far, the only Afghan civilian refugees reported to have crossed into Central Asia are those in eastern Tajikistan.

For now, displaced Afghans in the north are gathering in Tajik camps not far from the areas they abandoned to escape the fighting.

But the camps are short of food, water, and medical care, and many people often have to live together in cramped rooms and tents. If this dire situation continues, it is only a matter of time before some try to cross northern borders, looking for better temporary conditions in neighboring countries.

Soldiers And Paramilitaries

Unlike the late 1990s, this time the Tajik and Uzbek governments are contending with the Afghan government troops trying to flee the fighting in Afghanistan.

On June 21, when Taliban forces took the border post at Shir Khan Bandar, 134 Afghan soldiers fled into Tajikistan.

By July 5, Tajik authorities said 1,037 Afghan soldiers in total had crossed into Tajikistan and were being allowed to stay “for humanitarian reasons," but on July 7 Afghanistan’s National Security Council said some 2,300 Afghan soldiers had been sent from Tajikistan back to Afghanistan, many via plane to Kabul.

On June 23, Uzbek troops stopped 53 Afghan soldiers and members of paramilitary forces who attempted to cross into Uzbekistan and sent them back.

On June 26, three Afghan soldiers tried to cross into Uzbekistan, and the next day 44 others showed up at the border.

All were sent back to Afghanistan.

WATCH: 'They Would Cut Us Into Pieces': Afghan Civilians Flee Taliban Attacks In Kunduz

'They Would Cut Us Into Pieces': Afghan Civilians Flee Taliban Attacks In Kunduz
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The Tajik and Uzbek governments did not have such a problem 20 years ago because the Afghan government they recognized was that of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the only “government” forces were the fighters under the command of Rabbani’s defense minister, Ahmad Shah Masud.

They controlled only limited areas in northeastern Afghanistan along Tajikistan’s border and Masud’s stronghold in the Panjshir Valley. Tajikistan did allow Masud to evacuate several warplanes to Kulob and Masud and Rabbani were frequent visitors to Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan’s government supported ethnic Uzbek Afghan field commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, and while he fled through Uzbekistan in August 1998 when the Taliban defeated his forces, Dostum’s forces stayed in northern Afghanistan to wage a guerrilla campaign.

Taliban Ties

In the late 1990s, the Tajik and Uzbek governments were openly hostile toward the Taliban, while Turkmenistan, guided by economic interests in exporting its natural gas and brandishing its policy of neutrality, engaged with the Taliban, even allowing the group to open a representative office in Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan still touts its policy of neutrality, but something has clearly changed.

Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was able to deal with the Taliban and the Afghan group was undoubtedly pleased to have one Central Asian neighbor staying out of Afghan internal politics.

Niyazov’s successor as president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who was practicing dentistry when the Taliban were neighbors in the late 1990s, seems less successful in relations with the Taliban.

A Taliban representative, Suhail Shaheen, leaves after a news conference in Moscow on July 9.
A Taliban representative, Suhail Shaheen, leaves after a news conference in Moscow on July 9.

Three Turkmen border guards and three Turkmen soldiers were killed in separate incidents along the Afghan border in February and May 2014, and it appeared the Taliban were behind those attacks, though the Turkmen government never admitted they occurred.

There has been information since then about other Turkmen soldiers and border guards being killed along the Afghan border.

Turkmen authorities have not commented about those reports.

But after the 2014 incidents, the Turkmen government started paying more attention to the country’s armed forces and purchasing weapons from several countries.

Turkmen authorities called up reservists in January 2019 to fortify positions along the Afghan border, and at the start of July 2021, Berdymukhammedov reportedly ordered more forces sent to the border area, including warplanes, tanks, and artillery, though officials later denied moving tanks and cannons to the border.

It seems clear Berdymukhammedov’s government is not as confident in benign relations with the Taliban as Niyazov’s government was, though a Taliban delegation did visit Ashgabat in February 2021 and again on July 11.

Tajik authorities have been quiet as the Taliban captured territory that took it up to their border. Tajik officials do not speak much about the Taliban.

But Tajik authorities have not invited Taliban representatives to visit, nor sent any officials to third countries to meet with Taliban representatives.

Uzbekistan probably currently has the best ties with the Taliban.

Uzbekistan hosted a Taliban delegation that visited for several days in August 2019.

Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov has met with Taliban representatives in several countries over the course of the last few years and it was Kamilov who was meeting with Taliban representatives in Pakistan in 2000 and 2001.

After Dostum fled in 1998, Uzbek authorities gradually and grudgingly came to accept the fact that the Taliban was its neighbor.

In October 2000, President Islam Karimov said “Tashkent is ready to recognize any government in Afghanistan, even if it is the Taliban government. It doesn't matter whether we like that government or not.”

The Uzbek government’s primary concern was the presence of militants from a homegrown group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had found refuge in northern Afghanistan and from which they crossed through the mountains into southern Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 1999 and again in the summer of 2000 when they also went to eastern Uzbekistan.

It is groups such as the IMU that the Central Asian governments fear, far more than an unlikely attack from the Taliban.

There are now several militant groups in northern Afghanistan with citizens of Central Asia in their ranks.

Back To The First Plan

Following the recent Taliban advances, Uzbekistan conducted tactical military exercises near the Afghan border in late June. On July 7, Uzbek troops conducted joint exercises with Russian troops in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand Province and Tashkent is sending additional forces to the Afghan border.

In October 1996, Uzbekistan moved elite forces to the Afghan border and sent more troops in August 1998 after the Taliban captured Mazar-e Sharif.

Some 23 years later, Tajikistan on June 26 put its forces near the Afghan border on heightened alert and on July 5 the Tajik government called up some 20,000 reservists to strengthen forces along the approximately 1,360-kilometer frontier with Afghanistan.

Elements of Russia’s 201st Division, which is stationed in Tajikistan, conducted military exercises on July 6 involving attack helicopters and tanks, specifically in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

Also on July 6, representatives of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) visited the Tajik-Afghan border area.

The following day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Russian troops based in Tajikistan and the CSTO would “prevent any aggressive encroachments against our allies."

In February 1997, Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov met with his Central Asian counterparts (except the Turkmen defense minister) in Tashkent and said the Russian government was prepared to step in to protect the southern borders of the CIS.

Over the next few years, Russian troops regularly conducted joint military exercises with all the Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan in Russia and Central Asia.

It seems all of the parties near Afghanistan's northern borders are well aware of the events that occurred in the late 1990s and 2000s in the war-torn country and are carefully preparing for a possible return to power of the Taliban and all of the possible ramifications.

Radio Azadi contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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