Uzbekistan: Karimov dispenses with rules to stand again

Other presidential candidates back incumbent as best man for the job

Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, faces another term following this weekend’s election. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, faces another term following this weekend’s election. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

If there ever was any doubt that Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, would win another term at this weekend’s election, it has been laid to rest by the other candidates who have been presenting the 77-year-old authoritarian as the best man for the job.

A former Soviet communist party boss who retained power after Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, Karimov rules the central Asian country with an iron fist.

International rights groups have described Uzbekistan as one of the most repressive countries in the world with an atrocious record on human rights.

However, Karimov presents himself as the guarantor of Uzbekistan’s security and says tough methods are needed to counter the threat of Islamist extremism at the strategic crossroads of central Asia.

Uzbek law bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms, but Karimov has sidestepped the rules on several occasions and is doing so again as he stands for re-election this Sunday.

No opposition candidates are participating in the election and the three – little-known – political figures standing alongside Karimov have all been handpicked by the president’s administration, according to the Paris-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia.

“It’s not an election. It’s a sham election,” says Alexei Malashenko, a central Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center who recently returned from a research trip to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. “Everybody is afraid to speak except in tete a tete where [secret police] informers are not listening,” he says.

Against the backdrop of the mind-numbingly dull campaign, Uzbek security services launched a massive anti-terrorist operation last week claiming that fighters from the Islamic State were planning to infiltrate Uzbekistan from neighbouring Afghanistan and disrupt the vote.

Karimov, who is renowned for the bloody crackdown on a popular protest in the Uzbek city of Andijan in 2005, has been criticised in the West for exaggerating the threat of Islamist extremism to justify his brutal methods.

Security

With independent media crushed in Uzbekistan, it’s difficult to gauge the extent to which Karimov is liked or loathed, but some Uzbeks genuinely see the president as the best guarantor of their country’s security, says Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. A combination of “fear and apathy” will ensure that the majority of the electorate votes for the incumbent on Sunday.

While flagging the Islamist threat, Uzbek authorities are likely to prevent an international report, alleging that Karimov’s daughter Gulnara enriched herself in a bribe-taking racket, from reaching domestic audiences.

The Sarajevo-based Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project said it had obtained financial documents revealing that Ms Karimova “received more than $1 billion worth of payments and ownership shares” from international telecoms companies. She “helped companies obtain operating licences that agreed to meet her payment demands and she squashed those that did not,” the report said.

A fashion designer, pop singer and one-time diplomat, the glamorous Karimova was considered a possible successor to her father until last year when details of her murky business dealings came to light. Uzbek authorities have charged the self-proclaimed “princess” with involvement in a criminal mafia group and placed her under house arrest in Tashkent. Karimova is also under investigation in Europe in a money- laundering inquiry.

Embarrassing

In Uzbekistan’s secretive environment it’s impossible to tell how Karimova dared to stray so far from the law. The allegations, in election week, would be particularly embarrassing for the Uzbek president, said Ilkhamov. “Karimov must have approved or at least turned a blind eye,” to his daughter’s illicit activities.

Because of the scandal, Karimov is unlikely to considering naming a successor. “He’s old. He doesn’t trust anyone and he is suffering from paranoia,” says Malashenko. “Karimov is a dictator and he wants to rule for life.”To tighten his grip on power, he has skilfully managed Uzbekistan’s rival regional clans offering the corrupt elite protection in exchange for political support.

He has also proved a wily operator in dealing with world powers Russia, China and the US that compete for influence in strategic, resource-rich Uzbekistan and see their interests best served for the time being by the incumbent.

Yet the toxic mix of an aging president, a rotten regime and escalating economic and security problems do not bode well for Uzbekistan. Large numbers of migrant workers fleeing the economic crisis in Russia are returning to face an uncertain future in Uzbekistan and could stoke social unrest, says Ilkhamov. Malashenko warns that Karimov’s ruthless crushing of religious freedoms could come back to haunt him.

In relatively liberal Russia, Uzbek migrants have become radicalised and will struggle to adapt to the stifling atmosphere in their homelands. The possibility of a disaffected Uzbek official or clan leader allying with the nation’s Islamist youths cannot be excluded and would have nightmarishly violent consequences for Uzbekistan, he says.

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