Uzbekistan is conducting a nationwide referendum on Sunday, 27 January, asking voters whether they approve of extending President Islam Karimov's term an extra two years and favor the introduction of a two-chamber parliament. Do the proposals indicate democracy is at work in Uzbekistan, or are they simply a way for Karimov to consolidate his power?
Prague, 25 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A nationwide referendum will be held in Uzbekistan on 27 January. Two questions will be put to Uzbek citizens: Do you support the election of a two-chamber parliament in Uzbekistan? And do you support extending the term of power of the president from five to seven years?
More than 13 million Uzbek citizens are eligible to participate in the referendum. An opinion poll conducted this week by Izhtimoiy Fikr (Public Opinion) shows that 85 percent of the people intend to take part in the referendum. Seventy-eight percent say they agree with the introduction of a bicameral parliament; 96 percent approve of extending Karimov's term in office.
The influential monitoring group Human Rights Watch calls the referendum "fatally flawed," while the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send observers. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says Washington is concerned the referendum will be not be any fairer than past votes in Uzbekistan.
Annette Legutke is a political officer for the OSCE in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. She tells RFE/RL there are two reasons for the OSCE's refusal to monitor the referendum. First, she says, the organization was invited to participate only three weeks ago. Secondly, she says the OSCE usually does not observe referendums, only parliamentary and presidential elections.
Uzbekistan's constitution provides the president with a limit of two five-year terms. Sunday's referendum will allow voters to decide whether Karimov's current five-year term can be extended to seven, allowing him to stay in power until 2007.
Karimov was named president of Uzbekistan in 1990. He became president of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991 following what observers called a "seriously marred" election. Karimov extended his term in office until 2000 through the use of a referendum in 1995. He was overwhelmingly re-elected for a five-year term in 2000. The OSCE boycotted the 2000 election, saying the political environment allowed "no possibility for a genuine contest."
Sultan Murat Alim is the head of an assistance group that is helping the Uzbek government prepare for the referendum. His opinion about the referendum reflects the official point of view. Alim says five years is not enough time for Karimov to carry out his planned reforms. He says he also believes the president and parliament should not be elected at the same time.
"The second sensitive aspect of the issue is that at present the parliament and the president are elected every five years, which creates some inconvenience," Alim says. "For example, if the parliament wants to adopt a law at the end of a five-year term, the president will be forced to agree with this law just to please the voters."
Paris-based Olivier Roy is an author and noted expert on Afghanistan and Islamic affairs. He tells RFE/RL that the proposal to extend Karimov's term is in line with the political situation in neighboring countries in Central Asia.
"We have a tendency...to permanent presidency in all the [Central Asian] countries," Roy says. "And as you know, there have been no changes of president anywhere since 1992."
Roy says the extension by just two years of Karimov's term -- and not for life -- is a "pragmatic" decision intended to avoid criticism by the West. This is why he says he believes the decision to extend Karimov's mandate will go "almost unnoticed" by the West.
"I think that the decision to extend the mandate for just two years is a combination between the will to have life presidency and the will to keep a more positive image for Uzbekistan for Western public opinion," Roy says.
Elizabeth Andersen is the executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. She says the timing of the referendum is no coincidence. She believes Karimov is testing the international community to see what he can get away with in his position as a partner in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Tashkent has allowed the U.S. to use its airspace and military bases in its war in Afghanistan, including the stationing of some 1,500 American soldiers at a base in the south of the country.
Coincidentally, top Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. Treasury officials are scheduled to arrive in Uzbekistan on the same day. They are in the country to attend the first meetings of the newly formed U.S.-Uzbek Joint Security Cooperation Consultations, which are designed to assess bilateral relations.
As for the creation of a bicameral parliament, Uzbek officials are presenting it as a step toward political reform and democracy. They say this system has served democracy well in the United States, Germany, and France, for example.
According to Alisher Ilkhamov, a social researcher in Uzbekistan, the experiences of bicameral parliaments in other CIS nations have been negative. Some CIS governments that have adopted bicameral systems -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, for example -- have disbanded their parliaments when they have failed to comply with presidential policies.
Otanazar Oripov is general-secretary of Erk, the main opposition party in Uzbekistan, which was banned in 1992. He tells RFE/RL that structural changes alone will not guarantee a more independent legislative process in Uzbekistan: "In my opinion, the transition to a two-chamber parliament system is not a step forward because, before making any reform in the parliament, fundamental democratic principals should be fulfilled. The first principle is political pluralism, the second is alternativeness."
Regional expert Roy does not believe the idea of creating two chambers is aimed at getting a "more loyal parliament." Indeed, he says Karimov's re-election in 2000 through direct popular vote makes him even less dependent on parliament. "Maybe it's just a way to give more seats to notables or cadres or to well-known people in the country. But I don't think it's a real way to increase the power of the president. The president already had most of the power."
The OSCE's Legutke believes it is important to replace Uzbekistan's current "part-time" parliament -- which only holds three or four sessions a year -- with a permanent working body to increase its "effectiveness and professionalism." She adds, however, that the parliament's "rights and obligations" still have to be defined.
Legutke points out that it is still not clear which constitutional powers will be attributed to the new parliament, particularly to the upper chamber.
"We were told, for example, that some of the powers of Karimov may be submitted to the upper chamber, but we do not know what kind of powers and whether it is true or not," Legutke says. "This has to be seen. As long as we do not have a new law on parliament, we cannot make speculation about that."
(The Uzbek Service's Billoliddin Hasanov contributed to this report.)