Massive mandate

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

Islam Karimov is re-elected President of the country for another seven-year term with an overwhelming majority.

recently in SamarkhandPresident Islam Karimov,

PRESIDENT Islam Karimov, representing the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, won a new seven-year term in office after the people gave him an overwhelming mandate in the presidential election held on December 23. There were three other candidates but they lacked the stature of Karimov. Mirza-Ulugbek Abdusalomov, the head of Uzbekistans Central Election Commission (CEC), announced that Karimov had polled over 13 million votes, 88.1 per cent of the votes cast. Karimovs closest challenger was Asliddin Rustamov of the Peoples Democratic Party, who received 3.7 per cent of the votes. Diloram Tashmukhamedov of the Adolat Social Democratic Party polled 2.94 per cent of the votes. An independent candidate and human rights activist, Akmal Saidov, came fourth with 2.85 per cent of the votes. The CEC said that more than 90 per cent of the electorate had cast its ballot. The polling stations were open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This correspondent visited polling stations in the province of Jizzax. Despite the biting cold and continuous snowfall, people were steadily queuing up to cast their votes. Election agents of all the candidates were present at the booths. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which otherwise was critical of the election, underlined some of its positive aspects, including the fact that there were four candidates for the presidency. Uzbekistan is a member of the OSCE.

Election monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) described the election as free, fair and transparent. The head of the CIS observer team, Sergei Lebedev, told the ITAR-TASS news agency that the election proceeded in line with the countrys election legislation and universally recognised norms for holding democratic elections. He stressed that the election was a major factor in the further democratisation of social life in Uzbekistan.

The campaign was low key in comparison with elections in South Asia. There were no big rallies or poster campaigns. All candidates were given time on national television and radio to expound their views. Ideologically, there was nothing much to differentiate the candidates from each other. The Communist Party of Uzbekistan no longer exists. Karimov, who will be 70 this year, has been at the helm of affairs since 1991, the year when the country emerged as a sovereign state following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was the Communist Party boss before that. The Uzbek Constitution was amended following a referendum in 2002, which extended the Presidents term in office from five to seven years. Similar amendments to the Constitution were made in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, allowing the long-serving Presidents, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Enomali Rahmanov to continue in office. There was little criticism from the West when these countries rewrote their Constitution.

Uzbekistan, like most of the newly independent Central Asian countries, had become a close ally of the West in the war against terrorism. An important factor that influenced Karimov to strengthen ties with the United States in the 1990s was that the Taliban was in power in neighbouring Afghanistan. Uzbek extremists, especially from the Fergana Valley, had made common cause with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In fact, Uzbekistanis are reputed to be among the most fearless Al Qaeda fighters holed up along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Neighbouring Tajikistan was also teeming with Islamists out to destabilise the region. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had set up bases in the remote areas of Tajikistan. It later shifted base to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Uzbek authorities have clamped down heavily on the Islamists inside the country. All the mosques are under state control. The Uzbek authorities expected Washington to give their country the kind of preferential treatment it accords to states such as Israel and Pakistan. Tashkent had bent over backwards in the 1990s to please Washington: it even supported the economic blockade of Cuba. For a couple of years, Israel and Uzbekistan were the only two countries supporting the U.S. in the United Nations General Assembly on the issue. Bilateral relations had become so close that the Americans had started training elite units of the Uzbek army. However, the economic benefits that Tashkent expected from the relationship also did not materialise. Instead, Washington started putting pressure on Uzbekistan to implement radical economic and political reforms within a specified time frame.

The final break came after the events in Andijan in 2005. Washington led the protests against Karimovs handling of the unrest in the town situated in the Fergana valley. The Uzbek authorities said that the brief uprising in Andijan was the handiwork of hardline Islamists and accused the West of trying to foment a colour revolution in the country by using the incident as a pretext. Around 180 people were killed by Uzbek security forces. Russia and China accepted the Uzbek governments contention that it had no other option but to use force. Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan had experienced a tulip revolution, which had sent President Askar Akaev packing. A rose revolution in Georgia had led to a regime change in the country with a pro-Western government replacing the one led by Eduard Shevernadze.

President Karimov did not take kindly to what was being perceived as blatant interference in the countrys internal affairs by the West. Karimov ordered the Americans out of the key military base of Karshi-Khanabad, which was being used in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the last two years Uzbekistan has strengthened its relations with Moscow and is among the most active members of the SCO. Karimov recently described Russia as his countrys most reliable partner. Many of the key energy deals Uzbekistan has signed recently are with Russian companies. In late 2005, Russias President Vladimir Putin and President Karimov signed a strategic alliance pact, paving the way for Uzbekistans entry into the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth (EEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Both these groupings are under the effective leadership of Moscow.

A local election

Uzbekistan is a country that all the major powers would like to befriend. It lies between Asia and Europe on the ancient Silk Route. It boasts of magnificent cities such as Bukhara and Samarkhand. It is one of the worlds 10 largest gas producers and is the second largest cotton exporter. Uzbekistan possesses large deposits of gold, uranium and other important minerals. More than half the population of Central Asia reside in the country. Its political stability is crucial to the energy-rich region. The George W. Bush administration had identified Central Asia as an alternative to West Asia for the sourcing of oil and gas for the American market.

Energy deals Uzbekistan signed recently favoured Russian and East Asian companies, leaving the West in the cold. Russian officials say that Uzbek natural gas exports could exceed 20 billion cubic metres (bcm) by 2014. Currently, Russia imports around 9 billion bcm of gas from Uzbekistan. However, the Uzbek government has always extracted a good price from its customers. Unlike some of its neighbours, it is also not in a hurry to get all its vast hydrocarbon resources exploited immediately to fuel development.

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