The Uzbekistan government holds elections to the lower house of Parliament in a comparatively fair manner, though the country's democracy does not measure up to Western standards.in Tashkent and Samarkhand
THE elections in Ukraine in the last week of December received a lot of international attention. The former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan also went to the polls around the same time, though without such publicity.
As recent events have illustrated, Western-style democracy is yet to strike root in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In fact, the leaderships of many of these countries are wary of the West using "democratic elections" to topple governments and install regimes subservient to its interests. They have watched with increasing trepidation as the West went about methodically supervising "regime changes" in former Yugoslavia, Georgia and, recently, Ukraine.
Uzbekistan seems determined to chart out its own path as it tries to evolve into a multi-party democracy. Since Uzbekistan declared independence in 1991 in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, the country has known only one leader, Islam Karimov. Like his counterparts in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, he is a holdover from the Communist era. Karimov was quick to chart out an independent political path, taking care not to annoy either the United States or Russia on important policy matters.
Karimov believes that Uzbekistan is not ready for Western-style democracy. Neighbouring Tajikistan is only now emerging from a costly civil war. Afghanistan, with which Uzbekistan shares a border, continues to be volatile and remains a threat to the stability of the region. Karimov has repeatedly emphasised that "evolution, not revolution" is the answer to the country's political problems. Karimov obviously is wiser now, especially after recent events. He does not want a "rose revolution", which threw out Eduard Shevernadze in Georgia, or an "orange" version, which shook up Ukrainian politics.
The elections to the lower house of Parliament in December was a measured step forward in the democratic "evolution" of the country. The people will vote later this year to elect members of the upper house. The country will have a two-tier legislature (Oliy Majlis) similar in some respects to the Indian Parliament. The government had invited more than 200 international observers to witness the elections to the lower house. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also sent a "limited" observers mission. There was also an independent mission representing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Five parties participated in the elections to choose 120 members.
The five parties - The People's Democratic Party, the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, Milliy Tiklanish (National Renaissance), Fidokorlar (Self-Sacrificers) and the Liberal Democratic Party - have all pledged their support to President Karimov. The parties are also subsidised by the state. "Financing of parties will curtail corruption," said an official. Citizens' groups were also allowed to field candidates.
The Uzbek government did not permit the main Opposition parties, Erik (Freedom), Birlik (Unity) and Ozod Dehqoniar (Free Peasants) to participate. Communists also did not figure in the electoral fray. Government officials pointed out that each of the five parties had their own newspapers and were given free air time on radio and television. Thirty per cent of the seats in the lower house are reserved for women.
On an average, there were around three candidates competing for a seat. This correspondent witnessed heavy polling in booths in Samarkhand and surrounding areas. Party observers and citizens' groups kept a keen watch on the proceedings. Every voter had to carry his or her passport. Citizens over 16 years old are issued passports. Voters deposited the ballot paper in a transparent glass box. A senior official contended that it was the right of every country to choose its government in its own way. He denied that the government was going through the electoral exercise owing to "pressure from outside", though he acknowledged that some countries were trying to influence the course of events in his country "from outside".
The Central Election Commission described the vote as "open and honest". Its spokesman, Sherzod Kudratkhodzhaev, announced that the turnout was around 85 per cent. He said that 60 candidates had been elected. No party-wise break-up of the victorious candidates was given at the press conference, which was attended also by the international observers. The complaints of another 60 candidates were being investigated, Kudratkhodzhaev said.
The OSCE observers' group was critical about the way in which the elections were conducted but the head of the CIS observers mission, Vladimir Rushailo, said that the elections were "free and open". A senior diplomat based in Tashkent, commenting on the elections, said that perceptions were bound to differ. "You have to decide whether the glass is half full or half empty," said the diplomat.
The Islamic Opposition parties are all operating underground. Critics of the government say that the Islamist threat is being exaggerated by the government in a bid to get support and paint itself as a victim of international terrorism. However, for the first time, there were two suicide bombings in Tashkent in June 2004. The targets were the U.S. and Israeli embassies. Earlier last year there were bomb explosions in Tashkent and the historical city of Bukhara. According to government officials, they were carried out by activists belonging to the banned Islamist group, Hizbi Tahrir. Another group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has claimed credit for the some of the attacks.
KARIMOV's critics call him a ruthless dictator but he is credited with having provided stability to the country. Uzbekistan is geo-strategically important. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the government of Uzbekistan allowed the U.S. to open a large military base in the country. The base is crucial for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and is the largest in Central Asia, housing a thousand troops. Some analysts believe that this is the reason why the Bush administration is not exerting too much pressure on the Karimov government on the issue of multi-party elections and human rights. Most of the criticism on this score in recent times has come from countries in the European Union (E.U.).
There are indications that Uzbekistan is once again tilting towards Russia. Most of the lucrative energy and other business deals signed this year have gone to Russian companies. The U.S. wants Uzbekistan's oil and gas reserves to be routed to Japan. Japan is an important player in the region and has invested heavily in Uzbekistan. China is equally keen to tap the country's substantial energy reserves and Russia could lend it a helping hand in doing this. Uzbekistan, Russia and China are members of the closely knit Shanghai Cooperation Group.
Both Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin have viewed with growing suspicion the West's missionary zeal in imposing its version of democracy. Washington had cancelled a non-military aid of $18 million to Uzbekistan on the basis of the country's human rights record. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has scaled back its operations in Uzbekistan. Russia has refrained from criticising Uzbekistan's human rights record.
Uzbekistan is the Central Asian country with the biggest population (26.5 million). It is rich in minerals, especially oil and gold. Cotton continues to be its major agricultural produce; it is the second largest cotton producer in the world.
Tashkent, the capital, has received a facelift. This correspondent, who visited the country after a gap of seven years, saw new buildings housing multinational companies and government offices. The new Parliament building, designed in the Uzbek style of architecture, is a magnificent structure. There is no trace left of the innumerable statues of Vladimir Lenin that once adorned the streets of the capital.
Tashkent is the only Central Asian city with an underground "metro" system, which was built in the mid-1970s. The "metro" is being expanded. The streets are full of South Korean cars assembled in the country. Though salaries are low, housing, transport and energy are heavily subsidised by the government.
However, there are serious economic problems. Unemployment is one such. Analysts say that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are allegations of cronyism based on ethnic and clan linkages being encouraged by the government. Government officials admit that creating jobs for the burgeoning population is one of the main challenges. In the past one decade, the population has gone up from 22 to 26 million. The government hopes that the big joint ventures it has embarked on with Japanese, South Korean and Chinese companies will provide the bulk of the new jobs.