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Uzbekistan: President Overrides Constitution So Bulgarians Can Play Football

Uzbekistan's Constitution prohibits Uzbeks from holding double citizenship. But President Islam Karimov has apparently shown he is willing to override these legal details so that two Bulgarian football (soccer) players can join the national football team for its World Cup qualifying matches this year. Correspondent Ronald Synovitz has the story.

Prague, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov this week issued a presidential decree that grants immediate Uzbek citizenship to Bulgarian football striker Georgi Georgiev and defender Alexsi Dionisiev. The decree allows both players to retain their Bulgarian passports so that they can continue to play with their Bulgarian club, Sofia Levski, after Uzbekistan's World Cup matches are finished.

Sofia Levski was the championship team in Bulgaria's first division football league last year. Georgiev also is the league's leading striker. Neither Georgiev nor Dionisiev has played for Bulgaria's national team -- leaving them eligible under FIFA rules to play for Uzbekistan as long as they have Uzbek citizenship.

Sofia Levski spokesman Konstantin Petkov says Vladimir Solkov, the coach of Uzbekistan's national team, became interested in Georgiev and Dionisiev when he saw both of them play last month in a tournament on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast.

Petkov told RFE/RL that the Uzbek team made the initial offer for the two players directly to the Levski club. He said there were no problems in the negotiations. He said the only obstacle to a deal was the citizenship issue under Uzbekistan's Constitution. But Petkov says the issue was easily resolved by Karimov's decree.

Bulgaria's Constitution allows dual citizenship for all except those serving as government ministers.

Georgiev told RFE/RL that he is aware of Karimov's decree. But he said the final agreement for his temporary transfer was signed between the Sofia Levski club and the Uzbek national team.

"They saw me. They like me. They made an offer to me and I accepted. I'm not wrong when I say I've never played for the Bulgarian national team. The reason I've never played for the Bulgarian national team is not my doing. This is a stimulus for me. This is a national team. It will be possible for foreign managers to see me and perhaps after all this it will be easier for me to get a contract outside of Bulgaria."

Karimov's office has offered no immediate comment, and the decree has yet to be officially published. The issue also has not been discussed in Uzbekistan's parliament -- a move that would be required for any permanent change to the Uzbek Constitution.

But RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reports that it is not the first time Karimov has issued a decree overriding the constitutional provision against dual citizenship in order to allow a foreigner to obtain an Uzbek passport.

Similar decrees have been issued by Karimov to grant citizenship to ethnic Uzbek businessmen from foreign countries -- including the United States.

RFE/RL correspondents in Uzbekistan report that Karimov has the power to issue such a decree in cases where a foreign individual has contributed to Uzbekistan's national interests.

Georgiev and Dionisiev are due to join the Uzbek squad at a training camp in Germany beginning 14 March. The top teams in the World Cup qualifying rounds will advance to the 2002 World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan. The Uzbek team's first qualifying match is in Tashkent against Turkmenistan on 23 April.

Until then, it remains to be seen what contributions Georgiev and Dionisiev have to offer to Uzbekistan's national interests.

(RFE/RL's Bulgarian and Uzbek services contributed to this report)