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Qishloq Ovozi

No signs of "reform" in Uzbek politics as Shavkat Mirziyoev prepares for an election with little doubt about the outcome.

When the spokesman for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev told journalists recently that he was unsure if his boss would run for president in the October election, no one was buying it.

"We have to wait to find out [who will run first]," Sherzod Asadov said at a press briefing in Tashkent on June 21, reminding the media that candidates do not submit their nominations until the end of July.

Asadov's attempt to generate some suspense in a presidential election that the incumbent is not only sure to participate in -- but also to win -- was pointless. Everyone expects Mirziyoev to handily win a second term in office.

The deputy chairman of Uzbekistan's Senate, Sadyk Safaev, said in a March interview he "does not see any other candidate [winning]" except Mirziyoev.

There will be other candidates. But they serve as props in a carefully managed piece of theater Uzbek authorities will call an election. Even Safaev said that without real alternative programs and candidates, "elections cannot be assessed as complete, fair, and honest."

"Fair and honest" is an interesting choice of words as maneuvering by the authorities -- far ahead of the October 24 election -- suggests nothing is being left to chance to ensure Mirziyoev's reelection.

'Alternative Candidates'

"Alternative candidates" was also an interesting choice of words.

Uzbekistan has always had alternative candidates in its presidential elections, but only the first presidential election in December 1991 had a candidate who was a genuine opponent: Muhammad Solih, the leader of the Erk Democratic Party, who ran against the Soviet-appointed leader of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Islam Karimov.

Solih received -- officially -- 12.7 percent of the vote, making it the closest presidential election to date in Uzbekistan. But there were many claims then that the election was heavily rigged, so Solih's total could have been substantially higher if it had been honestly tabulated.

The next presidential election, in 2000, also had only two candidates, Karimov and Abdulkhafiz Jalolov, the head of the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (OXDP). That election was notable for Jalolov emerging from the voting booth and announcing to the press that he had cast his own ballot for Karimov.

Starting with the 2007 presidential election, the registered political parties in the government, all of which were pro-government, were able to field candidates.

The 2007 election was the last that had an "independent" candidate: Akmal Saidov, who in 2015, as head of the pro-government Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) party, ran against Karimov, coming in a distant second with 3.12 percent of the vote.

Saidov is currently the first deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament and, concurrently, the director of the National Human Rights Center. He remains the last person to run as an independent in a presidential election.

A genuine opposition figure, Sanjar Umarov, tried to run in the 2007 election but he declared his intention in 2005, was quickly charged with financial crimes, tried, convicted, and in prison by February 2006 on dubious charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and other financial violations.

Shortly after the 2007 election, the law was amended to remove the possibility of anyone running as an independent. Only registered political parties can participate in parliamentary or presidential elections and those parties are: Milli Tiklanish, the OXDP, Adolat (Justice), the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (OLDP), and the Ecological party, which had been a movement prior to the 2019 parliamentary elections.

In his March interview, Safaev said: "Our political parties do not work well enough today. Moreover, let's say they just don't work."

Two parties have been trying to register in time to take part in the upcoming presidential election -- the Erk party formerly headed by Solih and the new Truth and Development party led by Hidirnazar Allaqulov -- both have repeatedly had their attempts rejected by the Justice Ministry and been harassed.

The Erk party is now headed by former singer Jahongir Otajonov, who just returned to Uzbekistan from Turkey on May 12. Erk held a meeting in May 26 at Otajonov's home in Tashkent and put him forward as their presidential candidate.

But late in the evening, as party representatives discussed their plans, a group of some 20 people forced their way into Otajonov's home and broke up the meeting, screaming insults and throwing eggs.

Intruders break up the Erk party meeting on May 12.
Intruders break up the Erk party meeting on May 12.

Then, on June 15, many of the Erk members who had been at Otajonov's home for the meeting were summoned by police for questioning. Some believed the questions would be about the people who broke up the meeting.

Erk activist Abdusalom Ergashev was one of those summoned. He told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, that the inspector he met with was not so much interested in the intruders at the May meeting as they were in how long Ergashev had known Solih and other Erk members.

The situation is the same for the Truth and Development party, which had its meeting disrupted and its leader -- former Termez University rector Allaqulov -- detained and later similarly harassed at his Tashkent home by an unknown group of people, among other problems.

The Justice Ministry has not registered either party, even though both have submitted registration documents several times, only to be later told that the documents were incomplete or, usually, that not all of the minimum 20,000 signatures needed to register were valid.

Mahmud Yuldashev, one of the leaders of the People's Interest (Halq Manfaatlari) party, another independent party trying to gain registration, says he has received threats from people who said that if he did not cease his political activities they would end them for him.

Manipulating The Electorate

Meanwhile, Ozodlik reported that police have been warning university students against becoming involved with any of the new independent parties.

Students from universities in Bukhara, Khorezm, and Surhandarya told Ozodlik that police were warning students about political parties "who misinform the population with destructive ideas" and advised the students not to attend any of these party meetings.

Of course, a new law passed at the end of March makes insulting or slandering the Uzbek president "using telecommunications networks or the Internet...punishable by up to three years of correctional labor...two to five years of liberty restriction, or up to five years of imprisonment. That motivates citizens of Uzbekistan using social networks or YouTube to be careful what they post about Mirziyoev in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

And while there is unlikely to be any criticism of Mirziyoev's policies on social media, Ozodlik reported that ministries, state institutions, and commercial banks are obligated to contribute large amounts of money to a fund created by the National Association of Electronic Media that will disseminate flattering news about Mirziyoev's "ongoing reforms."

As for the "ongoing reforms," Uzbekistan has indeed taken some steps away from the repressive era of first President Karimov.

But it was clear when the country had parliamentary elections in late 2019 -- and is even clearer now -- that reforms in Uzbekistan do not include the right to participate in the country's political process.

Two wives of Islamic State fighters who were repatriated to Kazakhstan and who appear in the RFE/RL documentary Second Chance.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, recently released a documentary film called Second Chance, which dealt with Kazakh citizens who had travelled to territories in Syria and Iraq that were under the control of the so-called Islamic State (IS) extremist group, and who were later repatriated by authorities in Kazakhstan after IS had lost nearly all its territory.

To make this documentary, filmmaker and producer Shahida Tulaganova went to the camps in Syria and Iraq where the wives and children of IS fighters were held, and then went to Kazakhstan to meet with some of the women whom the Kazakh government had returned.

Kazakhstan is not the only government in Central Asia to bring citizens back home after they left to join IS and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

There has been praise for those governments for making such a move, but the guests in this week’s program say the results are mixed and far from everyone who has been brought home is reformed or repentant.

On this week's Majlis podcast, RFE/RL's media-relations manager Muhammad Tahir moderates a discussion that looks at the effectiveness, and lack thereof, of bringing back those who willingly left to join extremist groups in the Middle East.

This week's guests are: from Britain, Shahida Tulaganova who made the documentary; from Harvard University where she is a visiting fellow, Vera Mironova, author of the book From Freedom Fighters To Jihadists: Human Resources Of Non-State Armed Groups; and Bruce Pannier, the author of the Qishloq Ovozi blog.

Mixed Results For Women Jihadists Brought Back To Kazakhstan
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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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