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Uzbekistan: Five Potentially Tough Years Ahead For President

The re-election of Islam Karimov as Uzbek president on Sunday (Jan. 9) was easy. But the road ahead for the leader of this Central Asian country may not be so smooth. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the prospects for the Uzbek leader's next five years.

Prague, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It was a foregone conclusion that Islam Karimov would be re-elected president in the election this past weekend. The only opposition was a weak candidate who said he voted for the incumbent. And Karimov walked away with nearly 92 percent of the vote.

Such overwhelming victories are common in Central Asia. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev got over 80 percent of the vote in his re-election in January 1999. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov was re-elected with 97 percent in November. And Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov need not worry about re-election since he was named president for life last month.

Yet the Uzbek results may have a different meaning. Karimov received another five-year term in office, but the conduct of Sunday's presidential election -- which was criticized as unfair -- is fuel for the fire to his domestic critics. The other CIS Central Asian presidents have suppressed their oppositions, or kept them at such distance that they pose little threat. Karimov's opponents, however, are making their way back into the country. Among them are some who have already demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence.

The chairman of Uzbekistan's Human Rights Association, a Washington-based organization, is Abdumannab Pulatov. On election day, he could find only one bright spot in the elections.

"The difference is in Soviet times there was only one candidate in an election, but in Uzbekistan [this time] there were two. This is a minor good point in those elections."

More typical are the remarks of Vasila Inayatova of the banned Birlik Popular Movement. Speaking from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, where the party maintains a small office, she told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service recently:

"In an undemocratic country there will always be undemocratic elections."

And some, such as Abduwahid Fattayev, a former member of the Uzbek parliament who is now in exile, believe the elections were actually a step backward compared with the only other presidential election in 1991.

"Everyone immediately understood there was a big difference between this and the 1991 election. In 1991, the [other] candidate for the presidency, Mohammed Solih, even with a lot of obstacles, received 12 percent of the vote. This pointed to a victory for the political democrats."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed that Sunday's elections were not democratic. In a statement released yesterday, the OSCE said it "regrets that democratic competition was absent during the presidential election." The OSCE said Uzbekistan, as a signatory to the 1990 Copenhagen Document, is required "at a minimum" to hold competitive elections, but that this weekend's exercise "fell far short of this commitment."

Still, criticism of election practices, while it may sting, does not seriously threaten Karimov's political power.

But there are political challenges ahead for his next term. His pledge to liberalize the economy and make the currency, the sum, convertible will be difficult to keep. Uzbekistan has set the course of its currency, and as a result the black-market rate is nearly four times the official rate. The Uzbek government still subsidizes key industries such as food and gas. It would be a great shock to this nation of 24 million if the value of the national currency dropped by 50 percent or more. It would be as great a shock if those key state-owned industries were privatized and costs increased.

Karimov said he hopes to attract more foreign investment. Uzbekistan already has a good amount. But in August 1998, troops of Afghanistan's Taliban movement captured towns in the northern part of their country just across the Uzbek border. Alarmed, the Uzbek government froze hard currency accounts instantly and used the money to upgrade its armed forces. It took months for foreign companies to get their money out of Uzbekistan.

The Taliban are still across the river Amu-Darya from Uzbekistan, but they are no longer considered by the Uzbek government to be the primary threat. Instead, a group of Uzbek citizens are. A group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has demanded Karimov's ouster. The Uzbek government says the group includes criminals and terrorists, including some who tried to kill Karimov last February. The group has killed some law enforcement officers and briefly invaded southern regions in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to return from exile to Uzbekistan.

So Karimov's overwhelming re-election may yet prove pyrrhic. To the political opposition, it is a sign that change via the current political system is nearly impossible. If hard economic times hit Uzbekistan, more people may listen to these voices of opposition. And for those who have already taken up arms against Karimov, his victory may be just another example that they are pursuing the only course left to them.

(Arral Azizullo of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)