Central Asia

Islam Karimov set to reprise presidential role as Uzbekistan heads to the polls


Critics say incumbent, who is without a credible election opponent, is flouting constitution by standing again after 25 years in office

Joanna Lillis in Tashkent

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president, heads for the polls on Sunday, in a vote guaranteed to cement another five years in office for the septuagenarian leader who has ruled the repressive central Asian state with an iron fist for a quarter of a century.

Karimov is being castigated by critics for holding a sham election in which his rivals are effectively campaigning for him – but many voters are staunchly in favour of their authoritarian leader clinging on to power.

“We’ll all be voting for Karimov,” said Vasiliy, a 60-year-old fan of the president who, like many other interviewees on the streets of Tashkent, declined to reveal his surname. “He does everything for the people, and there’s peace and stability here.”

Guaranteed to win a landslide, the 77-year-old incumbent is set to rule into his 80s, though his age does not bother his acolytes. “I hope he lives to 100 or 200,” joked Vasiliy, who, like many other voters in this nation of 30 million people, finds it hard to imagine Uzbekistan without the man who has been at the helm for two and a half decades.

In the runup to the election, voters have been subjected to an onslaught of state propaganda eulogising the president and scaremongering about the horrors that a post-Karimov Uzbekistan may face without the strongman as a bulwark against anything from Islamic extremism to war and revolution.

With Karimov facing no real competition, the campaign has been a desultory affair – a “show”, in the words of one Tashkent businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity. It features four grey-haired, besuited men of a certain age distinguished only by the colour of their ties – and by the incumbent’s recognition factor.

“I’ll vote for Islam Karimov,” said Kabul, a voter in his 40s who showed no great enthusiasm for his choice. “I have no idea who the others are. They might be worse.”

There are no real challengers: Karimov faces three hand-picked rivals – Khatamzhon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov and Akmal Saidov, all apparatchiks from various pro-government parties who have spent their campaigns praising the incumbent’s wise leadership – and who may yet vote for Karimov, as competitors have openly done in past elections.

“Not a single opposition candidate was able to register their candidacy, because no opposition exists in Uzbekistan,” says Mutabar Tadjibayeva, a Paris-based Uzbek human rights campaigner and former political prisoner. “It’s either destroyed, or in jail, or driven into exile, or killed.”

Activists accuse Karimov of blatantly flouting the constitution, which limits presidents to two terms in office. “Islam Karimov doesn’t have the right to stand, and he’s standing for the fourth time,” says Tadjibayeva. “He’s already been running the country for 25 years.”

Appointed by the Kremlin to rule Soviet Uzbekistan in 1989, Karimov has been accused of clinging to power through a combination of factors: from harnessing the power of propaganda to rigging elections, ruthlessly suppressing dissent and violating the constitution. This time, Uzbek officials are arguing this will actually be Karimov’s first term of office, under a constitution that has been amended since he was last re-elected.

“History repeats itself as tragedy and farce,” sighs Sanjar Umarov, a US-based political exile, referring to the repeated stage-managed elections that have kept what Umarov calls an “illegitimate president” in power.

The ageing incumbent – who disappeared for three weeks during the campaign, sparking rumours his health was failing – has not commented on his right to run, but referred obliquely last year to his reluctance to relinquish the reins of power. “I am one of those who is criticised for staying too long … but I want to keep working,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”

Karimov’s challengers appear to share that view and are effectively campaigning for him. “The incumbent president is being portrayed by the other presidential hopefuls as the best candidate,” concluded election observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the region’s most credible election-monitoring body.

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Human rights campaigners say this election – in a country which has never held a vote deemed free and fair by the OSCE – is taking place in a stifling atmosphere: no opposition parties exist, the media is muzzled and thousands of dissenters are in prison, where torture is rife, because of their political or religious beliefs.

“Karimov’s well-orchestrated re-election – absent any opportunity for meaningful competition, discussion, or a free and fair process – is a traumatic reminder to masses of Uzbeks that their country has been transformed from a fledgling post-Soviet state in the early days after independence to a now quite confident police state on a par with the world’s worst human rights abusers,” said Steve Swerdlow, a central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Umarov, who spent four years in Uzbekistan’s notorious prisons on corruption charges widely deemed as trumped-up because of his political activity, describes the country’s human rights record as “atrocious”. Umarov – whose voice rasps as he speaks over Skype because his vocal chords were damaged when prison guards choked him – was one of the lucky ones, released under amnesty following an international outcry.

Campaigners accuse the west of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in exchange for security cooperation from Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan and is an ally in the “war on terror”. Recent donations by the US and UK of military hardware to Tashkent to fight terrorism and narcotics trafficking caused an outcry amid fears it may be used for internal repression. In Uzbekistan, memories are still fresh of the violent suppression of an anti-government protest in the city of Andijan a decade ago.

Karimov is headed for re-election after a tumultuous period in the usually staid world of Uzbek politics, sparked by a Shakespearean family feud which pitted his flamboyant eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, against her mother Tatyana (whom she once memorably accused of dabbling in witchcraft), her sister Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva and Uzbekistan’s powerful intelligence chief, Rustam Inoyatov.

Karimova – a former diplomat, businesswoman, pop diva and fashion designer once tipped as a possible successor to her father – is under house arrest facing corruption charges, her political ambitions well and truly buried. Karimova is also at the heart of a string of international corruption probes, suspected of taking massive kickbacks from international telecoms companies – up to £673m, according to a recent investigation – and laundering the dirty money in Europe . Karimova and the firms deny any wrongdoing..

The spectacular downfall of the president’s daughter was triggered by a high-stakes power struggle over who will succeed her ageing father – a question Sunday’s election puts on ice but does not resolve.

The vote is “about regime preservation, and ultimately about postponing a power transition that is currently unwanted”, says Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in central Asian studies at the University of Glasgow.

For Alexander Melikishvili, a Washington-based analyst at the research company IHS, Karimov’s re-election is intended to “safeguard the preservation of the political status quo and, more importantly, his personal political survival”. In the murky world of Uzbek politics, “stepping down would expose him and his family to the possibility of prosecution”.