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Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan: Serious Opposition Absent In Upcoming Elections

Prague, 22 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are both scheduled to hold elections to parliament at the end of this year.

Unlike parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan or the presidential elections in Tajikistan -- which will also be held at the end of 1999 -- the elections in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are characterized by their lack of any serious opposition parties.

Both governments are promising free and fair elections in the democratic tradition. But with less than six months to go, none of these elements appears to be figuring into pre-election preparations.

Before taking a closer look at the races in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, it is worth noting the similarities between the governments in these two countries.

Though all of the Central Asian states of the CIS are ruled by strong presidents, this is especially true in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the concentration of power in the executive branches in these two countries has come at the expense of strong parliaments or significant opposition.

There is some Uzbek and Turkmen opposition activity outside the region. But opposition parties led by leaders in exile will not have any meaningful roles in the upcoming elections. In fact, most will not even be registered and won't take part in the elections.

Though few outside Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan believe truly democratic elections will be held in these two countries this year, both countries will likely make at least some effort. That's because of the considerable criticism leveled at Kazakhstan after a presidential election earlier this year.

The Kazakh election was moved forward by nearly two years. The leading opponent to the incumbent president was barred from the race not long after elections were announced. And there were numerous reports of bias by local government officials and the state media. In the end, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) refused to recognize the results.

So, despite the "iron hands" both Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbek President Islam Karimov rule by, both men likely feel some pressure to allow movement toward democratic standards.

In Uzbekistan, there is more than one party, but these alternative parties -- the Peoples Democratic Party, the Homeland Progressive Party, the National Revival Party, the Justice and True Path Party and the Self-Sacrificers Democratic Party -- are actually loyal to President Karimov.

Real political opposition parties in Uzbekistan -- such as the Erk (Liberty) and Birlik parties -- remain banned and their leadership has lived outside the country for several years. There are also Islamic opposition groups in Uzbekistan, but their numbers have dwindled in the last two years.

The crackdown against Islamic elements inside Uzbekistan, which began in late 1997, intensified recently following terrorist bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in February. Those bombings were blamed on Islamic extremists. No Islamic opposition group would dare to advertise its presence in Uzbekistan, let alone forward a candidate for the upcoming elections.

So far, there has been little public evidence that parliamentary elections are planned in Uzbekistan this year. Government officials mention the event in speeches from time to time, and President Karimov has pledged that the elections will be free and fair. But with less than six months to go, no candidates have come forward and no parties seem to be active in planning.

In Turkmenistan, President Niyazov is the only government official who mentions the upcoming elections. Admittedly, this may be because Niyazov is practically the only government official any journalist ever sees.

Niyazov has mentioned the December 12 elections in remarks to parliament often. Niyazov -- like Karimov -- promises that free and fair elections will be held. Certainly, Turkmenistan's upcoming parliamentary elections will likely be different than the country's last attempt. On December 11, 1994, 51 candidates ran for 50 seats in parliament. There is one political party in Turkmenistan -- the Democratic Party -- headed by Niyazov.

According to the OSCE office in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's Central Elections Commission only became active several weeks ago. Piotr Iwaszkiewicz of the OSCE office in the Turkmen capital tells RFE/RL that proper election legislation is one of the first problems for the election commission to address.

"In our opinion, the Turkmen election law, such as it is, does not correspond to all the OSCE commitments and principles."

Iwaszkiewicz said there is no indication any alternative parties have begun the registration process.

One opposition leader who would like to take part in the December elections is former Turkmen foreign minister Avdy Kuliev. Kuliev has been in self-exile for several years and leads an opposition based in Moscow. Kuliev wrote to the OSCE's chief representative in Turkmenistan, Paul Ulman, in late April and said he and other opposition members wish to return to Turkmenistan to take part in the parliamentary elections.

Kuliev appealed to Ulman to act as a mediator for securing their safe return so they can take part in the election.

Ulman's carefully phrased response to Kuliev last month gives a hint about the current situation in Turkmenistan. Ulman wrote, "I have raised your question with Turkmen personalities, but I got no signal that could indicate your return would be welcomed by Turkmen authorities."

Kuliev has been outspoken in his criticisms of the Turkmen government, so such a response was not unexpected.

Concerning participation by Kuliev's opposition group in elections, Ulman wrote, "Regarding your expressed wish to participate in the upcoming election campaign, the reaction of Turkmen authorities to your return to the country could be an indicator for the degree of openness in the election process."

Two final points to keep in mind about elections in Turkmenistan:

First, Niyazov -- who has the final word in all matters of state -- has promised to relinquish some of his powers to parliament following the December elections. It is out of character for Niyazov to give anyone or any group significant power. This leads to speculation that the incoming parliament will not be comprised of deputies who could be expected to challenge Niyazov's decisions.

The second issue is trust. Niyazov has said he does not want foreign election observers in Turkmenistan during the elections. The Turkmen president as much as said it is insulting that anyone should feel there is a need to monitor what Niyazov himself has promised will be free and fair elections.

The OSCE's Iwaszkiewicz:

"The [Turkmen] president said at the end of April the Turkmen side will not invite international observers, but if they come they will be welcomed. So it is not very clear as you see."

In the end, the worst the thing that can happen in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan's parliamentary elections is exactly what many predict will happen -- that the elections will be fraudulent and plagued by irregularities and criticized by the West.

Ironically, however, with this as the expected outcome, both countries may be able to impress the democratic world with even the slightest signs that some democratic standards were observed.

(This is the second of three features on elections in Central Asia this year. Part two looks at upcoming parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Yakub Turan of the Uzbek Service and Mohammed Zarif Nazar and Ayna Khallyeva of the Turkmen Service contributed to this story.)