Accessibility links

Breaking News

Uzbekistan: RFE/RL's Uzbek Service -- Conjecture Swirls Over Karimov's Plans

(RFE/RL) July 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Uzbek Constitution suggests that the end of this year should herald a round of presidential elections for the country. Many observers, however, say that there is an overwhelming probability that Islam Karimov, who has been ruling Uzbekistan since 1989, will not surrender his office anytime soon.

Karimov, arguably one of the most authoritarian rulers in modern-day Central Asia, has several options by which to secure his stay in power.

He could invoke a 2002 constitutional change that prolonged the presidential term from five years to seven to claim that he is justified in claiming a new term, his second under the amended constitution. That approach would require Karimov to hold a presidential election by the end of December to comply with the constitution and a legislative measure, then ride his unrivaled access to the state-controlled airwaves to victory and have himself announced the winner by the Central Election Commission, which was appointed by Karimov himself.

The second option, say analysts, involves following the example set recently by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who in May amended the Kazakh Constitution so that it would permit him to stand for office indefinitely.

Alternatively, Karimov could take a cue from Turkmenistan -- dispensing with elections and simply having a rubberstamp Uzbek parliament declare him president for life.

'Very Likely' To Stay

Shirin Akiner, a senior Central Asian analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that speculation at this stage about Karimov's actions is hindered by a lack of information. "But I think that it is very likely that he would stay for another term after this. It depends how you calculate these terms," says Akiner, referring to the 2002 constitutional amendments, which were regarded as deeply flawed by the international community.

Moscow-based independent analyst Sanobar Shermatova tells RFE/RL that she thinks a presidential election will be held at the end of this year, with Karimov running for and winning the office.

"I think that in fact there will be presidential elections this December as is required by Uzbek law," Shermatova says. "I believe that all other options -- such as announcing him a president for life or holding a referendum to prolong his term -- would not fit into the logic of current developments around Uzbekistan."

Shermatova sees a contrast with events in neighboring Kazakhstan, where Nazarbaev maintains a tight grip on power despite occasional eruptions of internecine fighting.

"Constitutional changes in Kazakhstan did not declare Nazarbaev lifetime president," Shermatova says. "Instead, they permitted him to run for office indefinitely, though he must go through elections each time. The main reason for such an amendment was an intensified power struggle within the ruling elite of Kazakhstan. The situation in Uzbekistan is totally different -- there are no strong personalities around Karimov to fight for the role of successor. And I also believe that Islam Karimov does not want to lag behind his Central Asian colleagues who were 'elected.'"

Martha Brill Olcott is a senior associate with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In recent testimony to U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee on international organizations, human rights, and oversight, Olcott predicted that Karimov might follow Nazarbaev's path of pursuing a lifetime in power.

"If the recent constitutional change in Kazakhstan is at all indicative -- and I think it is -- Karimov will also seek the amendment of his country's constitution to facilitate his stay in power for the rest of his life," Olcott told members of Congress.

Area Of Consensus

Most analysts believe that Karimov will do whatever it takes in the coming months to stay in power.

Some observers say there is a small possibility he might prefer the Yeltsin-Putin model, and step down after choosing a successor who would preserve his financial interests and protect him from prosecution.

RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier, an experienced reporter on Central Asia, says he is among those who would not rule out the Yeltsin strategy.

"I would hope that they would hold an election," Pannier says. "It is not probably going to be free and fair, but at least with candidates that are not Islam Karimov -- two or three people, it's hard to predict who they would be at this point. But Karimov should definitely decide to step down, and he would set a great precedent for the whole region. But more importantly, it might help to keep some stability because it is not in anyone's interest at all that there are stability problems in Uzbekistan. Because if Uzbekistan is unstable, the whole region is unstable. This is one of the key elections in Central Asia -- more so than in any neighboring countries."

But Muhammad Solih, an exiled Uzbek opposition leader, tells RFE/RL that this scenario is very unlikely.

"Karimov will never leave power of his own will, because he knows that the day he left the presidential office he would face trouble," Solih says. "The Uzbek people would prosecute him for crimes committed during his 18 years in power. It is impossible to negotiate with him on this matter."

Solih has called on the international community to take a firm stand toward Karimov and his protracted rule.

While discussing possible avenues for Karimov to maintain power, analysts point out that public participation in this crucial process is virtually nonexistent in Uzbekistan.

Karimov has sought to use his hold on society -- including a disciplined security apparatus -- to eliminate political dissent and muzzle the media. Real and perceived harassment appears to have left many Uzbeks fearful and apathetic.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on all five Central Asian countries by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Central Asia Report."