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Central Asia Report: January 31, 2002

31 January 2002, Volume 2, Number 5

RFE/RL's "Central Asia Report" will not appear next week but will return on 14 February 2002.

PRIME MINISTER REPLACED IN KAZAKHSTAN (PLUS CA CHANGE�). After months of rumors that his resignation was imminent, Kazakh Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev stepped down early on 28 January, and the whole government stepped down with him as required by the Kazakh Constitution, Reuters and AFP reported. Toqaev, formerly Kazakhstan's minister of foreign affairs from 1994 to 1999, had served as prime minister since October 1999. He had offered his resignation to President Nursultan Nazarbaev once before, in November 2001, but it was refused. Although no official explanation for his resignation was given, both the president and Toqaev himself emphasized that he was leaving his position without acrimony. Toqaev blandly asserted through a spokesman that "the time has come for the arrival of new people with new ideas and approaches," and that the departure of a prime minister and his cabinet was "a perfectly normal event considering that the presidency is strong" in Kazakhstan, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 28 January. He said further that the course of his future career depended wholly on Nazarbaev. Reuters noted on 28 January that Toqaev expressed a desire to be reassigned to his post as Kazakhstan's top diplomat. Whatever his motivations, he was duly reinstated as foreign minister on 29 January by Nazarbaev, who praised him to the parliament the previous day for his successful management of the economy and "constructive dialogue with parliament" as prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2002).

Within hours of Toqaev's resignation, Nazarbaev announced his replacement, whose nomination was immediately confirmed by a unanimous vote of both chambers of parliament: the 45-year-old deputy prime minister for social issues and interethnic relations, Imangali Tasmagambetov. In line with his portfolio while deputy premier, the newly-appointed Tasmagambetov promised on 28 January to promote democratization and social accord, Interfax reported. He also focused on the need to develop the oil and gas transportation sector. Before becoming deputy prime minister 13 months ago, Tasmagambetov served two years as governor of the oil-rich Atyrau region in the far west of the country. According to the constitution, he now has 10 days to assemble his cabinet. Many of the members of Toqaev's cabinet, including the ministers of defense, energy and mineral resources, and agriculture, have already been reappointed to the posts they held in the outgoing administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2002).

UZBEK REFERENDUM PROPOSALS APPROVED BY A LANDSLIDE (�PLUS C'EST LA MEME CHOSE). By overwhelming majorities Uzbek voters approved both proposals submitted to a nationwide referendum on 27 January, agreeing to the creation of a bicameral parliament at the next election and extending the president's constitutional term of office from five to seven years. Preliminary returns announced the following day by Uzbekistan's Central Election Committee (CEC) indicated that 93 percent said "yes" to a new parliament, while 91 percent said "yes" to extending President Islam Karimov's term of office, local news sources reported.

Interestingly, these numbers differed significantly from the results of a poll by the Ijtimoiy fikr (Public Opinion) analytic center, taken a few days before the referendum and reported in the newspaper "Halq so'zi," a government mouthpiece. That poll had predicted 77.7 percent in favor of a bicameral parliament (6.3 percent against), and 96.2 percent in favor of giving the president an extra two years (0 percent against). Possible explanations of the discrepancies could be the inaccuracy of Uzbek polling, a volatile electorate, or the CEC's massaging of figures in an attempt to make them seem more credible, yet robust.

CEC Chairman Abdurafiq Ahadov told a press conference on 28 January that 91.6 percent of the 13.2 million people eligible to vote participated in the referendum, Uzbek TV and radio reported -- although he informed ITAR-TASS on the same day that there had been a 94-percent turnout -- and that the largest turnouts outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent had been in the Ferghana Valley and in the Horezm region, in the country's northwest. On 25 January, the CEC had said that 2,000 local and 30 foreign observers would monitor the vote, but three days later Ahadov claimed that over 130 international observers from 32 nations had been on hand and that they had reported "no serious violations in how the referendum was organized or conducted," ITAR-TASS said.

Despite reports of the contrary in the Uzbek media, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States refused to send monitors to Uzbekistan, citing concerns that conditions for a free and fair vote were not present in the republic and that consequently the referendum would "not be consistent with international standards." But criticism from Washington was noticeably muted, AFP commented on 25 January, with both oral and written statements from the State Department careful not to mention Karimov personally now that he is a key ally in America's operations in Afghanistan. Admittedly, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that "past Uzbek elections were neither free nor fair and did not offer Uzbekistan's voters a true choice," and he defensively told journalists on 24 January: "I don't think that's particularly soft-pedaling." Independent watchdog groups and international organizations went much farther in their criticisms, however. For instance, a press release on 25 January from the New York-based Human Rights Watch suggested that the referendum was "fatally flawed" and "a blatant grab for power" by Karimov.

As an exercise in determining the will of the Uzbek people, the referendum was marred not only by a lack of public debate about the issues, but a general lack of information and understanding even about what the issues were. As a result, EurasiaNet reported on 28 January that "at polling places, most of the Uzbek electorate was confused, uncertain of exactly what they were voting for." Some voters gathered, correctly, that they were being asked about extending Karimov's present term of office by two years. Others, meanwhile, were led to believe that the new provision would kick in after 2005. Asked for clarification, some ballot officials admitted they were not sure themselves. Nevertheless, the voting procedure was arranged in such a way that Uzbeks were implicitly encouraged to cast their ballots in favor of the proposals, as Reuters reported on 27 January. "Yes" votes only had to be dropped into a box, whereas registering "no" votes necessitated going into a booth and specially marking their choice on the ballot.

Uzbek voters were apparently given even less information to judge the pros and cons of a bicameral versus a unicameral legislature. Since 6 December when the referendum was announced, local media touted the reform as an important contribution to the country's democratization process yet offered little explanation of why or how. The advantages of a two-chamber parliament have primarily been asserted by rough analogies with the vibrant democracy in the United States, France, and Germany, which have bicameral legislative bodies with full-time members. (By contrast, Uzbekistan's Oly Majlis follows Soviet practice in having 250 deputies who convene briefly three or four times a year and have other professions for the rest of the year, an arrangement modeled after Soviet parliamentary practice.) Perversely, Karimov sketched out a vague vision of a bicameral legislature to Uzbek TV on 27 January when most of the day's voting was already over -- in fact, immediately after voting himself at a Tashkent polling station (but well before there was an official confirmation that the idea had been popularly approved). Karimov told the TV that new laws setting out the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government had not yet been drafted, but assured viewers that "our parliament will be entering a new stage and its powers will be increased substantially." The lower chamber would become a permanent, standing body of legislators. As for the powers of the upper chamber, Karimov admitted there was a need to "rack our brains" on that question, implying there was still no worked-out plan, but foresaw that some of the president's power would be devolved to the upper chamber, which would also represent the country's territorial units. Otherwise he did not detail what powers he had in mind for the upper chamber beyond the right to appoint certain senior officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2002).

Karimov suggested that parliamentary reforms were intended to change the moribund political culture of the ex-Soviet republic. "Our political parties, which are asleep at the moment, will have completely changed priorities. They will begin to compete...and fight to win important seats in the lower chamber," he said, adding this would mean the beginning of true multiparty democracy in Uzbekistan. Currently only four parties are permitted to participate in the political process in Uzbekistan, all of them either created or approved by the president himself, and political opposition is banned. But while observers acknowledge that a standing body of legislators would be a democratic step forward, many doubt that Karimov would surrender much real power to parliament or allow deputies the freedom to express diverse political views. In fact the president, practically in the same breath, defended his undemocratic style of rule, opining that "At a certain stage of historic change you need a strong will and a certain figure...and you have to use some authoritarian methods at times," Reuters reported on 27 January. Reacting to Western criticisms of his dictatorship and the slow pace of political reform in Uzbekistan, he annoyingly said that "Nobody should press us into moving too quickly," and added, "We must take [from the West] only what suits us, keeping in mind thousands of years of history and our national mentality," according to Reuters. That said, Karimov asserted to Uzbek TV that he did "not approve of authoritarian methods," and promised that as the Uzbek people matured in political consciousness the hand of authoritarianism would become progressively lighter.

It is unclear how this idea will be squared with the second element of the referendum, the prolongation of Karimov's term of office from five to seven years. The Uzbek authorities' major argument in favor of the proposal -- first rehearsed by parliament speaker Erkin Halilov in December -- has been that two years of any democratically elected president's terms are wasted, since the first year is spent getting his administration in place, while the last year is spent preparing for the next round of elections (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 December 2001). Additionally, Tashkent officials have said that the president and legislators would be freer to act independently of one another if they were no longer elected on the same five-year cycle. However, many analysts suspect that this two-year addition to Karimov's term is the prelude to future changes in the constitution aimed at making him president-for-life -- especially if it produced only a minimal amount of official censure from Washington and its allies, as proved to be the case. Karimov, who turned 64 on 30 January, already called one referendum in 1995 to extend his first term by five years, was elected to a second term in 2000, and is now be due to step down in 2007. Both of his previous elections (in 1991 and 2000, when he garnered 92 percent of the vote) were criticized by Western watchdog organizations for allowing no possibility of a genuine contest. Currently, the Uzbek Constitution only mandates two presidential terms (of whatever length).