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Analysis: How Real Are Prospects For Free And Democratic Elections In Uzbekistan?

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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