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Uzbekistan: Signs Of Democracy Show Promise

By Zamira Eshanov And Bruce Pannier

Prague, 27 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Uzbekistan and President Islam Karimov have received charcoal black marks from organizations which have monitored human rights since the country's independence in 1991.

Uzbek officials always say the country is democratic but the foreign press continues to report that it is a "democracy" which does not tolerate opposition, and has banned parties it considers to be such. Karimov from the early days of independence has justified such policies by saying that economic reform must precede any political reform.

Based on available information, it appears Uzbekistan has not had to suffer many of the socio-economic problems evident in the other CIS Central Asian states. From Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there are reports of homelessness, hunger and unpaid wages and pensions; Tajikistan hasn't yet recovered from the damage of five years of civil war; and reports from Turkmenistan have spoken of extremely low wages and shortages. But Uzbekistan has avoided much of the misery, and there are indications which suggest Uzbekistan could now be experimenting with the idea of tolerating a political opposition. There's certainly no "Great Leap", but it's unusual that various meetings have been held recently in Tashkent, with the government's knowledge.

Uzbekistan's main opposition parties were all banned shortly after independence. Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom) were not allowed to register officially and most of the leadership from these two parties eventually fled the country. In the case of the other nascent party in early post-independence Uzbekistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party, it is more correct to say it was run out of the country.

However in early September, the Independent Human Rights Society, led by Mikhail Azdzinov, met in Tashkent. In early October, about 30 members of Erk were allowed to meet in Tashkent to elect their secretary and were apparently undisturbed by the authorities. The Coordinating Council of the Democratic Opposition of Uzbekistan also met in October. Dissident figure Shukrullah Mirsaidov also can again freely receive visitors at his home outside Tashkent. After his dismissal as vice president in 1992, and after he began to criticize government policies, a series of charges were brought against him. Although most were later dropped Mirsaidov was forced to vacate his Tashkent apartment and move to the outskirts of Tashkent. There, he lived under house arrest for several months and was denied access to a phone and visitors were discouraged.

None of these recent meetings received any republican press coverage on television or in print, but that they happened at all represents, on the surface at least, a marked improvement in a generally intolerant attitude by the Uzbek government toward any manifestation of opposition.

However, at this stage it is difficult to say whether these events represent a policy change or merely political expediency. The recent leniency came during the two-month period prior to a visit by the wife of the U.S. President, Hillary Clinton. Last year Karimov pardoned a large number of prisoners in early June, and at the month's end was shaking hands with American President Bill Clinton in the White House. The Uzbek government has proven it takes measures to win America's friendship. A clear example is the UN vote on Cuba embargoes. The United States is virtually alone in calling for measures against Cuba and in voting has found only two supporters of its cause -- Israel and Uzbekistan.

Considering the bad press Uzbekistan has received in regard to human rights policies, the events of September and October are a welcome change. It remains to be seen if this process will continue.

It's worth noting that nothing which has happened since early September has had anything to do with religious groups. As mentioned, the Islamic Renaissance Party was ejected from Uzbekistan and efforts are made to ensure the party's supporters do not return. This November, President Karimov said in an interview with Russia's daily newspaper "Izvestiya," that he didn't consider Uzbekistan was presently an "Islamic" state though the vast majority of its citizens are Muslims. There is little chance Uzbekistan will be an "Islamic" state in the near future because of the watch the government keeps against perceived radical elements at the mosques and medrassahs.