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Uzbek: Opposition Meets Openly For First Time In 10 Years

Something that has not happened in Uzbekistan in 10 years happened on 14 June when the opposition Erk Democratic Party held an open plenum in the capital Tashkent. Erk's leaders, coming back into the limelight, are making it clear they have their eye on the 2004 parliamentary elections.

Prague, 20 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-three members of Uzbekistan's opposition Erk party met in the capital Tashkent on 14 June to hold a party plenum.

It was the first time the party has met openly in 10 years. Moreover, they invited members of another opposition party, Birlik, to join them. Surprisingly, Uzbek authorities -- who have actively sought to repress the political opposition, did almost nothing to prevent it.

Human rights organizations and democracy advocates say that government opposition has not been tolerated in any form since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991. Erk was Uzbekistan's first official opposition party, registered just months before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Both Erk and Birlik, an Erk splinter party, were briefly active after independence. But the parties, both secular, were reportedly banned along with a number of Islamic groups before two years had passed.

Uzbekistan currently has five registered political parties. But all of them derive from a single party, the Halk Demokratik Partiyasi (People's Democratic Party), which itself is the direct descendant of the Soviet-era Communist Party. The current five parties are nearly indistinguishable from each other, particularly in their support for President Islam Karimov.

Erk takes a dimmer view of the country's political affairs. Here's First Party Secretary Atonazar Arifov at the 14 June plenum:

"Many specialists [and] experts say constantly that there is a gap between the people and the government. There is a growing conflict. The people and the government are enemies. Society and the government are enemies."

Arifov also said that instead of giving the people freedom, the government had turned them into slaves.

Such comments in Uzbekistan are made at the risk of a visit to the police. But neither Arifov nor any of the others in attendance were apprehended in the days following the meeting.

Erk's founder and party leader, Muhammad Solih, was not in attendance at the plenum. Solih, once a candidate for the presidency against Karimov, fled the country in 1993 during the government's crackdown on opposition groups.

Solih is unlikely to return to Uzbekistan anytime soon. Tried in absentia for allegedly orchestrating a February 1999 assassination attempt against Karimov, the Erk party leader faces a long prison term should he ever return home.

Solih remains actively engaged in Erk affairs. He spoke to RFE/RL from Norway, where he has been granted asylum. He said the party session was planned well in advance and that he is in daily touch with party leaders in Uzbekistan.

"I lead the party, but of course, in Tashkent it is Atonazar Arifov, who as first secretary of the party, is in charge. But I am still the chairman of the party, of the Erk Party."

Solih said the Erk plenum did not come as a total surprise to the authorities: "They would not want us to hold the meeting. The first place where we planned to meet was a hotel, but they did not allow [Erk] members in because law enforcement organizations warned [the hotel] not to allow us in, and we were forced to hold the session in a different hotel."

Independent journalists invited to the Erk plenum confirmed the change of venue in their reports.

It is out of character for the Uzbek government to permit such a meeting. And Erk is not the first opposition party to hold a session in Uzbekistan this year. Birlik held a meeting last month.

Uzbek authorities have been targeting Islamic groups for the last several years. That campaign was stepped up after the assassination attempt on Karimov, and two straight summers of incursions by armed militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government's problems with Islamic groups remains a heated issue. Human rights organizations, major international bodies like the UN and OSCE, and individual states have urged Uzbekistan to allow registration of secular opposition groups as a "release valve" for growing discontent in the country. The logic is, if people have a legitimate means for expressing their views they will not be tempted to join radical groups promising quick change through violence.

It is far too early to judge if the Uzbek government may be experimenting with this advice. The Uzbek government has resisted advice from financial institutions, human rights, and media freedom groups, international organizations, and individual states since independence.

Erk leaders were cautious in their comments about what Solih called the "success" of the plenum. But they clearly were planning for the future with the hope the party would be able to continue its activities openly.

One problem will be clearing up Erk's legal status in Uzbekistan, as Solih explained: We have been waiting for reregistration for several years now. We have all the documents prepared. But reregistration does not mean we are a new party. We were registered as an official party in 1991. The government never said we were 'unregistered,' that [our] registration was revoked. I never read anything in the state newspapers saying the party's registration was canceled."

Looking ahead to the scheduled December 2004 parliamentary elections, Arifov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the party needed to seek new members from the youth of the country. He dismissed critics who have accused Erk of being too passive, saying Erk's activity will see a noticeable rise in the coming months.

Solih said elections could be held tomorrow and Erk would be ready. But to win, outside influences were necessary:

"We are always ready to participate [in elections], but that doesn't mean we don't have a lot to do. Even in the current semidemocratic situation we are ready to participate in elections. And I am sure we will receive a majority of the votes. If there is an international commission and if independent observers monitor the elections, we will win. That is not just my opinion, this is the opinion of our people."

An electoral victory for Erk seems a long way off at present. The party's official status is unclear at best. It no longer has a newspaper. Arifov says its bank accounts are frozen. And its leader is considered a public enemy who would be taken to jail as soon as he stepped on Uzbek soil.

But in a country where there have been few indications of political reform for a decade, the Erk and Birlik meetings could be taken as a small sign of encouragement.

(Shukrat Bobojon of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)