Prague, 10 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Political opponents of the Uzbek government suffered a series of reverses last week, seriously undermining their operations.
Perhaps the most important was the appointment (on March 4) of Usmon Khudaykulov to the position of Presidential National Security advisor. Khudaykulov, who came over from the prosecutor general's office, has the reputation of being a "hard-liner." His ascendancy suggests that the government could become much tougher in its dealings with the opposition.
Also last week Muhammed Salih, who was in self-imposed exile in Turkey since 1992 when the opposition party "Erk" which he chaired had been banned in Uzbekistan, was asked (on March 4) by Turkish police to leave the country. Salih ran for the presidency against current Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 1991.
Salih was immediately deported to Romania. This, at the very least, leaves him further away from the political arena at home. But members of Erk are also concerned that Uzbek security could conceivably attempt to spirit Salih away from Romania, as relations with that country are not as important to Uzbekistan as those with Turkey.
Those fears have may be justified, as the Uzbek security has a record of cross-border clandestine operations. The Erk activists recall, for example, that in January Uzbek security agents crossed to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, arrested Zakirjan Normatov in Osh and brought him back to Tashkent without so much as notifying the Kyrgyz government.
Observers suggest the Salih episode may also have a political aspect in smoothing relations between Uzbekistan and Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz is due in Tashkent later this month.
In another development, Uzbek police brought on March 5 two imams, Abid Nazarov, known more popularly as Obidkhan Qori, and Yoldash Ergashev, known as Tolqun Qori, for questioning about their connections with the Wahhabi movement.
Uzbek Deputy Interior Minister Kutbuddin Burhanov said the two were being charged with promoting Wahhabism and teaching it to the country's youth. Wahhabis are being investigated in connection with violent events in the eastern Uzbek city of Namangan last December. Wahhabis, an Islamic sect, are blamed for having instigated those events.
Nazarov is known to be an Islamic "purist" and is originally from Namangan. He was already at odds with the Uzbek authorities as recently as last summer, when they tried to evict Nazarov from his house. Prior to that, Nazarov had been relieved of his position as imam at the Tokhtabai Mosque.
But the most ominous for the political - as opposed to the religious - opposition were the recent (March 6) announcement of Shukrullo Mirsaidov that he was retiring from politics. Mirsaidov was one of the leaders in Uzbekistan's Democratic Oppositions Coordinating Council and the former Uzbek Vice President. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, he said he decided to leave politics and that the council, largely ineffective for a year now, officially had ceased to function, as of that day.
The council was established in 1992 after Mirsaidov's office as vice president was abolished. He set it up to coordinate the efforts of opposition groups, or what was left of them after most opposition party and movement leaders had fled the country. Still, the council's very existence has been used by President Karimov as proof that democratic opposition could exist in his country.
Mirsaidov said he decided to retire because opposition groups were so busy quarreling among themselves that "it was impossible" to coordinate their activities. He went on to say that the leaders of these groups were "out of touch with reality, and indifferent toward the majority of Uzbeks faced with enormous hardship and economic problems." And in an apparent about face, Mirsaidov added that "the Uzbek government has laid down the basic foundations for establishing a democratic and legal state, and implement reform programs toward a free market oriented economy."
Mirsaidov's comments amounted to almost an eulogy for Uzbekistan's political opposition. Already regarded by many as being ineffective with their leadership scattered throughout Europe and the U.S., opposition groups now have little chance of preparing to contest presidential elections in the year 2000.
But, the apparent decline of political opposition may only further open the door for religious opponents of the government. The religious revival in the country is noticeable almost everywhere and, combined with the growing public's discontent with the low standard-of-living, it could acquire an anti-government momentum.