28 July 2004, Volume 4, Number 29
THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Parliamentary elections scheduled for 19 September loomed large in Kazakhstan, with a focus on party slates and media coverage. The pro-presidential Asar party held a congress on 21 July to select a slate of 13 candidates and 40 candidates for single-mandate constituencies, while the Communist People's Party picked a five-person slate and 11 single-mandate candidates at an 18 July congress. President Nursultan Nazarbaev exhorted regional governors to ensure "democratic, transparent, and fair" elections. The president also called on the media to provide balanced coverage, while reminding them to stress positive information in their reports. For his part, the director of Microsoft Kazakhstan promised that electronic voting would bypass the Internet to avoid any risk of infiltration and falsification. Other news was tragic: four days after he was struck by a car while crossing the street, opposition journalist Askhat Sharipzhanov died in Almaty on 20 July amid calls for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
In Kyrgyzstan, Deputy Prime Minister Ular Mateev became the president of state-owned gold producer Kyrgyzaltyn on 21 July. President Askar Akaev signed a bill into law reducing the term of compulsory military service from 1 and 1/2 years to one year as of 1 January 2006. And imprisoned opposition leader Feliks Kulov accused penal colony authorities of preventing him from filing a petition for early release and threatened a hunger strike.
Heavy rains and mudslides created water-supply problems in the Tajik capital. The Socialist Party accused the government of Trojan-horse meddling in the form of an unauthorized party congress held by former party members who are now government officials. President Imomali Rakhmonov blasted officials in the south for their poorly coordinated narcotics interdiction efforts, and the chief doctor at a tuberculosis prevention center warned that the disease poses a serious threat to Tajik society. On a brighter note, the Energy Ministry announced that Uzbekistan will let Tajikistan export 1.4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to Russia through Uzbekistan's power network.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development released a strategy paper on Turkmenistan, citing "serious concern" at the country's "lack of progress in transition toward multiparty democracy, pluralistic society, and a market-based economy." In the unlikely event of progress on the aforementioned fronts, the bank will consider expanding its current small-scale, private-sector program.
Uzbekistan's Election Commission approved a three-stage program to ready the nation for 26 December parliamentary elections, and an election official said that Uzbekistan has invited OSCE monitors to attend. Elsewhere, Uzbek officials heard complaints from their Kazakh counterparts at the slow pace of border demarcation, even as Kyrgyz and Uzbek working commissions failed to resolve disagreements over disputed sections of the two countries' border in the Ferghana Valley.
U.S. AID TO UZBEKISTAN: CARROTS AND STICKS (Part 2). The previous issue of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" examined the recent U.S. decision to freeze $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan (http://www.rferl.org/reports/centralasia/), using it as a window on the broader issue of leverage and engagement. The report surveyed critical, and at times contrarian, views on such actors as international financial organizations and NGOs. It concluded that while engagement and leverage are important, the domestic political situation in Uzbekistan remains the single most important factor in any discussion of possible or probable change.
The first problem that confronts any would-be analyst of Uzbek politics is a fundamental clash of interpretations. Official Uzbek sources, while not devoid of critical remarks, generally hew to the slogan "O'zbekiston -- buyuk kelajagi davlat" (Uzbekistan is a state with a great future). Opposition sources, as represented by the websites of the Erk and Birlik parties (http://www.uzbekistanerk.org and http://www.birlik.net) and MuslimUzbekistan (http://www.muslimuzbekistan.org), invert the paradigm, depicting a dictatorial regime that maintains control through repression while presiding over a precipitous social and economic decline.
A similar, if less strident, dissonance is evident even in the mundane matter of statistics, as illustrated by the United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) 14 July news conference in Tashkent. Held on the 10th anniversary of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, the news conference focused on social issues, highlighting significant discrepancies between official and unofficial statistics. For example, Health Ministry statistics show that the number of infant deaths per thousand has declined from 28 in 1994 to 16 in 2002, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. But Nesim Tumqoya, the UNFPA representative in Uzbekistan, said that independent studies put the number at 37 deaths per thousand (presumably for the later date). Similarly, official statistics show that the number of women per 100,000 who died during childbirth fell from 38 to 33 between 1994 and 2000, while independent studies show that 60 women per 100,000 die during childbirth. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service quoted Tumqoya as saying on 16 July that "UNFPA studies have shown that 52 infants per 1,000 die. Government statistics put the number of infant deaths at 16 [per 1,000]. To be honest, I'm disturbed at the way statistical studies are conducted in the country. Statistics help to solve well-known problems. Unfortunately, in Uzbekistan this is considered confidential information. It is never presented or discussed openly." For the independent observer seeking to assimilate a wide array of data, the contradictions are virtually impossible to resolve.
Fundamental differences exist even among outside views of Uzbekistan's system of government. The U.S. State Department's 2003 report on human rights, released on 25 February 2004, presented what might be termed the consensus view among critics. Calling Uzbekistan "an authoritarian state with limited human rights," the report states that "President Karimov and the centralized executive branch that serves him dominate political life and exercise nearly complete control over the other branches [of government]." An alternate view, advanced by Kathleen Collins in a number of published papers and a forthcoming monograph, describes Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries as pervaded by clans, with the latter defined as informal networks based on ties of real or imagined kinship. In this model, the formal institutions of power are largely a facade behind which even a seeming strongman like Karimov must act as a broker to balance the interests and ambitions of competing clans. The political style that emerges from this push and pull is anything but transparent, as rival clans exert a centrifugal force in their battle for control over cash-generating resources while the broker -- Karimov -- struggles to play them off against each other and consolidate the power of the state. The resulting tensions hamper the country's movement either toward meaningful democratization or true authoritarianism. Moreover, the evisceration of formal political processes and virtual impossibility of obtaining accurate information about behind-the-scenes power struggles render analysis problematic.
While these issues cannot be definitely resolved here, they remind us that official and unofficial views of Uzbekistan differ profoundly, basic facts are often difficult to ascertain, and critical views sometimes diverge in their understanding of how the country is governed. What, then, can recent political events tell us?
The 28 March-1 April series of explosions and clashes with police in Bukhara and Tashkent remains the signal event of 2004. Nearly 50 people died, including 10 policemen and 33 militants. To date, no viable claim of responsibility has emerged and no entirely convincing explanation exists. Some credible reports, most notably by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 20 April, strongly suggest the involvement of a radical antigovernment Islamist group. But even if such a group perpetrated the violence, its motivating ideology and political goals remain unknown. At present, the only conclusions supported by what we actually know are that the violence broke out unexpectedly after an extended campaign by Uzbek authorities using police methods to prevent violent unrest, particularly of the Islamist variety. Only a protracted lull can now dispel the suspicion that opposition willing and able to resort to force is latent in society, even if its prospects for garnering mass support appear dim.
The authorities' initial reaction to the attacks demonstrated a certain awareness of possibly widespread dissatisfaction with heavy-handed police tactics. A 23 April report by IWPR noted, "There have been arrests following the clashes, but people are also reporting a marked difference in the police's behavior towards the general public." The report went on to state that "policemen appear to have received instructions to behave more civilly to the public." Uzbek television tried to show the human side of police losses, broadcasting an interview on 30 March with the brother of a slain policeman. He said, "[My brother's] children are now orphans.... We'll make sure that nothing bad happens to them, but we still can't replace their father." Subsequent reports, however, have not demonstrated any significant continuation of these tendencies.
President Karimov offered unusually candid criticism of Uzbekistan's lackluster political arena at a 29 April press conference, saying, "[Uzbek political parties] have no independent platform or ideology and, regrettably, are still weak in terms of winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people and informing them of their aims, principles, and ideas. That is, now our country has no political parties like those in Europe, and in the East, for instance, Japan, South Korea, and others." On the social front, Karimov later ordered a pay hike for public-sector employees and an increase in social benefits. As Uzbek TV reported on 1 July, "As of 1 August 2004, salaries for public-sector workers, all types of pensions and social benefits, and stipends for students at higher, specialized, and vocational educational establishments are to be increased by 30 percent." Salaries and pensions remain low, however, with some unofficial estimates putting average wages as low as $20 a month.
Other moves appear calculated to tighten controls. A 20 July report in tribune.uz, an independent website funded by the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, noted that veterans of the police and security forces are increasingly being appointed mid-level administrative positions in "potentially unstable areas." Iskandar Khudoiberganov, the director of the Democratic Initiative Center, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 21 July that the recent appointment of security veterans to administrative posts shows that the government understands that the "profound economic crisis in Uzbekistan" could cause "serious dissatisfaction."
The import of several top-level administrative reshufflings appears similar, if somewhat less clear. Regional governors have been replaced since the beginning of the year in the Tashkent, Andijon, Surkhandarya, and Samarkand oblasts. In some cases, the publicly stated reasons have included harsh criticism from the president himself. When Andijon Governor Qobiljon Obidov was sacked on 25 May, official news agency UzA quoted President Karimov as saying: "In recent years, cases of corruption and personal connections have intensified in the region. This injustice has given rise to people's discontent." And when Samarkand Governor Rustam Kholmuradov followed in early July, Uzbek TV quoted Karimov as criticizing him for allowing "unworthy tendencies, criminal activities, abuses of power, violations of justice and, worst of all, clannishness, regionalism, and serious errors in the training, selection, and assignment of staff."
Sociologist Bahodir Musaev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 21 July that the dismissals are a band-aid on a bleeding wound. He said, "In essence, this regime is based on a lie because, up until now, elections have been conducted only on paper. The [governors] the president appoints merely go through the motions of governing. They lack the competence to exercise the authority entrusted to them. Moreover, the governors are clearly despotic and violate the basic principles of social justice." The report quotes other observers as saying that the moves are an attempt by the country's leadership to conceal its own failings and shift the blame for sputtering economic reforms to allegedly incompetent governors. A 21 July article in Tribune.uz sought other explanations, albeit without much success, attributing the removal of Governor Obidov to a misbehaving son and describing the firing of Samarkand Governor Rustam Kholmuradov as "shrouded in mystery."
These events suggest an ongoing and somewhat tentative attempt by a central authority that has less than absolute control to consolidate power amid competing interests -- quite possibly clan-based -- and to palliate, or stifle, latent social unrest. Thus far, the authorities' actions have proved relatively successful -- the country has been calm since the outbreak of limited violence in late March/early April. But the enterprise remains fraught with contradictions, and the achievements could prove short-lived. In this context, with the maintenance of stability on the domestic front now, more than ever, the primary concern for President Karimov and his inner circle, the international community's leverage is likely to remain minimal. Sticks in the form of reduced aid will have to be accompanied by carrots that take into account both this primary concern and the conditions that produce it if they are to stand any chance of being effective.