bne IntelliNews -
Uzbekistan's strongman president, Islam Karimov, is widely expected to be re-elected in the March 29 election and continue to rule Central Asia's most populous state with an iron fist. The presidential election, perhaps the last for the 77-year-old dictator, offers no hope for change both politically and economically, observers warn.
Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan brutally since before it obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is facing little more than stalking horse candidates from pocket parties, whose only purpose in standing in the election is to create an impression of a contest. Like previous presidential and parliamentary election campaigns in Uzbekistan, the current one has been exceptionally dry and drab. The only excitement has been the absence of something – Karimov himself, who hasn’t been seen on the campaign trail. "It's not like a real election campaign with proper competition – it's as if Karimov's so-called rivals are campaigning for him," an unofficial election observer in Tashkent tells bne IntelliNews. "Everyone says they're going to vote for Karimov, which isn't surprising since he's being depicted by all the candidates as the best choice."
Most voters who bne IntelliNews talked to say they will vote the incumbent because they see no alternatives. "People are buying state propaganda, which basically suggests that Karimov is the best guarantee of stability, and without him Uzbekistan would face an uncertain future," the observer says.
Even campaigners for other candidates say they cannot be certain that their candidates will cast their votes for themselves. A businessman campaigning for Narimon Umarov, the Adolat party's nominee, tells bne IntelliNews that although there was no chance his candidate could win, he encouraged his friends to vote for him because sooner or later Karimov would vacate the post and Umarov could be a suitable candidate to succeed him.
Apart from the incumbent, there are three other hopefuls for the presidency nominated by political parties officially registered in the country. However, "there is little competition between them, as the incumbent president is being portrayed by the other presidential hopefuls as the best candidate," the Organisation for Security and Cooperation Organisation's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), which deployed a limited election observation mission, said in an interim report published on March 20. "Since the last presidential election, the possibility to run as an independent candidate was abolished and the length of a presidential term was changed back from seven to five years."
Uzbekistan has four officially registered political parties and Karimov was nominated by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (UzLiDeP). Despite the fact that the Uzbek constitution restricts the president to two consecutive terms in office, Karimov is standing for re-election for the fourth time as head of Uzbekistan: he was elected as president of Uzbekistan in March 1990 when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. He then won the presidency in direct elections in December 1991 with 86% of the vote, in January 2000 with 95.7%, and in December 2007 with nearly 91% of the vote. In 1996, Karimov's first term was extended in a referendum until 2000.
The 2011 amendments to the constitution cut the presidential term from seven to five years, and this has enabled Karimov to stand for another term despite running the country for more than a quarter of a century since he was appointed to head Soviet Uzbekistan in 1989. Uzbek officials explained to the OSCE/ODIHR that this is Karimov's re-election for the "third term" under the current constitution, but since "the notion of 'term' means the exact number of years and, as the previous presidential term was seven years while the next will be five years, these cannot be considered as two consecutive terms."
With Karimov set to stay in office, there is little hope that anything will change in the country, observers believe.
Umida Niyazova, director of the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, who in 2007 was sentenced to seven years in prison for her critical journalism and human rights activities but was pardoned after several months in detention, tells bne IntelliNews that Karimov's re-election will doom the country to another five years of economic stagnation, frozen unresolved problems and the further impoverishment of an already poor people.
"There are no prerequisites for the country's development because there are no people in the government who would have or could have changed the country for the better," she says. "There isn't even the slightest reason to expect changes in running the country from one of the [world's] longstanding dictators. I don't believe there is such a force which could force Karimov to change."
The human rights activist's concerns are shared by ordinary voters. "I don't think this election can change anything, because the authorities don't need it," a young lawyer tells bne IntelliNews. "They've got used to keeping people under control."
Yelena Urlayeva, a Tashkent-based human rights activist who has also been persecuted by the Karimov regime, sees the only way that Uzbekistan can climb out of its misery is "to develop civil society". She believes that international financial institutions like the World Bank could bring about more changes to the country, but not Karimov. "Should Karimov allow in the World Bank and other financial institutions whose projects require acceptable working conditions without discriminating against human values, this would help normalise the situation in the country," she says.
The re-election of Karimov will not change his government's tight grip on the economic life of the country either, experts believe. The president's policies have resulted in isolationism, which limits economic activity in the country, pushing hundreds of Uzbek citizens to seek jobs abroad. "The Uzbek government suffers from institutional sclerosis and is incapable under the existing feudal political system of implementing any substantive changes to its isolationist economic course and negative business climate," Kate Mallinson, Central Asia analyst at the London-based GPW consultancy, tells bne IntelliNews.
According to the Russian Federal Migration Service, around 2.2mn Uzbek citizens resided in Russia as of February 5. According to the Central Bank of Russia, remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan dropped by 15.9% to $5.6bn in 2014. The drop in remittances from Russia to former Soviet countries and the economic slowdown in these countries are blamed on the recession in the Russian economy and the weak ruble because of the Ukraine crisis and the attendant economic sanctions and the low price of oil.
Mallinson believes that a reduction in remittances – which are estimated to constitute up to a quarter of Uzbekistan’s GDP – will have a dire effect on the Uzbek economy. Large labour migration has contributed to Uzbekistan’s GDP growth and balance of payments, as well as helping to mask growing unemployment. But migrant workers are believed to be leaving Russia because of the economic difficulties there.
Their real wages have lessened significantly owing to the ruble’s collapse and former Uzbek migrant workers can now earn sums equivalent to their earning in Russia in Uzbek bazaars, Mallinson believes. "The return of millions of economic migrants has the potential to create significant social unrest in Uzbekistan, a country where the socio-political situation is currently very brittle and vulnerable to external factors," she tells bne IntelliNews. "This large disaffected group of potentially unemployed individuals will constitute a ripe mobilisation tool to be deployed by any competing business group or clan wishing to oppose other members of the government in any eventual constitutional or extra constitutional regime change."
However, Karimov and his regime show no sign of wishing to give up control any time soon. "Uzbekistan has to do a lot and it should aim to build a decent democratic country but Karimov has usurped power and doesn't want to leave," Niyazova says. "He is the main barrier to change."
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