Two "new" Uzbek political parties held congresses this month. It was a reminder that parliamentary elections are just over a year away now. It was also a reminder that more than 12 years after independence, Uzbekistan has just four officially registered political parties, all of which support the president.
Prague, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's parliamentary elections are still a year away, but an important deadline concerning the elections is fast approaching.
Under Uzbek law, to participate in the polls a party needs to be registered at least a year before elections, and the next parliamentary vote will be sometime in December 2004.
This might explain the rare occurrence this month of two political parties, as yet unregistered, holding congresses in Tashkent. The question now is are the two newcomers any different from the four parties currently registered -- all of which are on record as supporting the country's president and his policies.
The two new parties are the "Liberal-Democratic Party" and the "Free Peasants' Party." The latter existed prior to Uzbekistan's 1991 independence but has been dormant since independence. Both held congresses on 15 November.
What information there is available about the two parties is based mainly on the platforms the party themselves released to the press.
The Liberal-Democratic Party elected 46-year-old economist and member of parliament Kobiljon Tashmatov to be its chairman. Tashmatov gave a flowery description of where the party is seeking to find its supporters: "Our party supports and unites all citizens who are striving for personal and family happiness."
He said the Liberal-Democratic Party is a party of entrepreneurs and business persons, but promised it would represent first and foremost the interests of the people.
"As a political force, we will work as one in order to broaden the ability to conduct business and open new possibilities for the future, in theory and in reality, and to defend the interests of various segments of society and provide for a their future," Tashmatov said.
Figures differ on the number of delegates at the congress -- at somewhere between 100 and 300 -- but reports agree that all provinces of Uzbekistan sent delegates, and one report said 14 nationalities were represented.
Many of the promises of the Liberal-Democratic Party are the same as those of the other four parties -- the People's Democratic Party (once the Communist Party), the Adolat Social Democratic Party, Fidokorlar, and Milli Taklanish -- which, according to their platforms, also want better rights for the people and more reform.
The Free Peasants' Party -- Ozod Dehkon Partiyasi as it is known in Uzbek -- looks to present the stronger challenge to the government. Its statement released at the 15 November congress begins: "We, the citizens of Uzbekistan...united by common concern, pain, and misgivings about the fate of our common home." It continues, later noting that a "authoritarian regime is the path to nowhere."
The party is currently gathering signatures in preparation to attempt to register. It would be the party's second try. Ozod Dehkon Partiyasi was not registered by the Justice Ministry when the party attempted to do so shortly after independence.
The 52-person "initiative group" that presently runs the party is headed by Nigora Khidoyatova, the granddaughter of a well-known actor and daughter of a famous historian. It was unclear how a person with a background in Uzbekistan's urban, intellectual society became the leader of what -- at least in name -- appears to be a party representing rural laborers.
The party's platform practically guarantees it will encounter obstacles to registration. The experiences of the Birlik movement and Erk Democratic Party, both of which have only recently reappeared after maintaining a low profile for years, have demonstrated that critics of the government are not often given the legitimacy of official registration.
Neither Birlik nor Erk, according to Uzbek authorities, are officially registered.
International organizations and democratic Western governments have poured scorn on the country's previous elections. Criticism has ranged from "fell short of democratic standards" to simply "not free or fair."
But the region's willingness to play key roles in the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan by allowing the U.S.-led coalition to use military facilities has brought the country greater attention. For opposition groups this new attention may represent the best opportunity since independence to participate in elections.
(Oktambek Karimov and Zamira Eshanova of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report)