Few doubt that the prolongation of the presidential term in Uzbekistan’s January referendum paves the way for presidency for life for Islam Karimov. The Uzbek regime is building a controllable democracy, combining the expansion of democratic-looking institutions with restricted civil liberties and human rights. All this is unlikely to affect Washington’s ever-strengthening ties with its newest ally.

Washington’s newest ally Islam Karimov comes to the White House on March 12 fresh from a stage-managed electoral victory in Uzbekistan. A referendum on January 27 asked the Uzbek electorate two questions: whether a two-chamber parliament should be introduced and whether the presidential term should be extended from five to seven years. According to Central Electoral Commission data, 91.58 percent of eligible voters participated. Of those, 93.65 percent said yes to the first question and 6.35 percent said no. On the second question, 91.78 percent voted in favor and 8.22 percent against. The overwhelming passage of the referendum did not surprise international election monitors, most of whom refused to send observers to watch the process of voting. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said US officials “did not observe prior presidential elections because preconditions for a free and fair election did not exist and do not see a need to observe this referendum.”

But two higher-ranking representatives of the Bush administration —  Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of CENTCOM, and Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones —  did pay important visits to Tashkent in late January. Two days before the referendum, Franks thanked the Uzbek government for the use of air bases in bombing Afghanistan, saying that “we look forward to being recipients of this continued support.” Two days after January 27, Jones promised the Uzbek foreign minister a tripling of US aid to Uzbekistan this year, to $160 million. Though Jones also proffered the obligatory rebuke for the referendum, the money surely spoke louder than her words.

Procedural Juggling

The artificially massive turnout and skewed results in the January referendum were constructed in a number of ways. Uzbek families have an average of six members, but cases where each eligible family member actually votes are rare. For many years, local electoral commissions have allowed one family member to vote on behalf of all the rest. Normally, the persons actually voting are heads of households belonging to the older generation. Probably two out of every five eligible voters delegate the right to vote to somebody else. These are usually young people, whose opinions are thus under-represented in elections and referendums.

Electoral commission officials could manipulate the numbers because only 130 independent international observers from 30 countries arrived to watch the balloting. The independent Uzbek NGOs that are registered with the government are usually not allowed to monitor the process. An unregistered NGO, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, which managed to visit two polling places in Jizzak province, found the same procedural violation: voting on behalf of others.

The very procedure of voting allows the authorities to juggle referendum results in their favor. To say “no” a voter needs to black out the question on the ballot, while to say “yes” a voter need only toss the unmarked ballot into a slot. Not many people can be found in Uzbekistan who will make the black marks under the authorities’ watchful eyes. Moreover, the ballots of those who did not come to vote can simply be thrown into the ballot box, and counted as “yes” votes.

A Well-Acted Play

Few doubt that the prolongation of the presidential term paves the way for presidency for life for Karimov. The only question is how the regime will achieve this by legal means, without directly contradicting the formalities of democracy. Such a stratagem may finally have been invented. Karimov’s presidency dates to March 1990, when the Supreme Council of the Uzbek SSR elected him. (He was then First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan.) In 1991, two months after Uzbekistan’s declaration of independence, the law of presidential election was adopted, and the first nationwide election for president was held on December 29 of the same year. Two candidates participated in that election —  Karimov and Muhammad Solikh, representing Erk (the Democratic Party). Karimov was elected with 86 percent of the vote. Solikh has lived abroad since 1993. Karimov’s presidency was considered to have started when Uzbekistan adopted a new constitution in December 1992. The law of elections stipulated a term of five years for the president. By the constitution, Karimov’s term should have expired in 1997. However, in February 1995 members of the newly elected Parliament voted to conduct a referendum on prolongation of Karimov’s presidency from 1997 to 2000. On March 26, 1995, 99.6 percent of the electorate voted to keep him in office.

No less notable was the well-acted play performed at Parliament’s second session in May of that year. Karimov generously offered to consider the prolonged period as the second official term of his presidency. In response to this request, parliamentarians formed a special committee to study the opinions of the electorate. The committee came to the unsurprising conclusion that the majority of the republic did not support the president’s proposal. Under these circumstances Parliament issued another resolution declaring the prolonged period to be the first term of Karimov’s presidency. Thereby he kept the right to run for president one more time.

Meanwhile, in December 1997 the law of presidential elections was “corrected.” In the initial version of the law the president could not serve more than two terms in a row. But almost nobody noticed that in the new edition of the law this stipulation was not mentioned. From a formally legal point of view, Karimov is not prohibited from running for a third term. Most likely, the regime regards this option as a last resort. Another way to secure the same aim legally is to establish a new type of parliament which would adopt a new constitution, setting yet another fresh starting point for the existing presidency.

An Advance?

Transformation of the current not quite professional parliament to a bicameral one where one chamber will work on a permanent basis, as in Russia, can be considered an advance toward controllable democracy. The model of the Russian parliament has probably impressed Karimov — there, one-man governance proceeds without being accused of a lack of democracy. On the exterior, everything looks like some Western democracies: the lower chamber is in the hands of professional politicians and political parties elected in competitive contests, while the upper chamber gathers just several times a year. If the president can control the majority of seats in the lower chamber, then his political superiority over all other bases of power is guaranteed.

It seems that a similar model is being introduced in Uzbekistan. Since all legally registered political parties in Uzbekistan answer to the president, no one questions the loyalty of future lower houses. The question is the loyalty of the upper chamber, which will certainly represent clan, corporate and regional elites. So far the latter have controlled the seats in Parliament.

Although politically loyal, these elites were not always satisfied with Karimov’s policy. Despite coming to power as a compromise political figure between regional bosses and the central government, later on Karimov distanced himself from the provinces and successfully redistributed power and national economic resources toward the center. He has managed to impose a strict hierarchy of executive power, to gain full control over the key export sectors of the economy and to subordinate all law enforcement agencies to himself directly. This centralizing shift has forced the discontented provincial elites to find indirect and hidden ways to resist the regime. One way was to challenge the president in Parliament. In 1991 the parliament even tried to throw Karimov out of office when he was openly criticized by some deputies loyal to Vice President Shukrullo Mirsaidov, who was later on sacked.

Since that time, Karimov has played a double game with the regional bosses. On one hand, the regional administrations were given the right to nominate their own candidates for the parliamentary deputies’ seats. On the other hand, Karimov tried to promote his loyalists into Parliament. But he has only partially succeeded: the last parliamentary elections in 1999 revealed his inability to impose his creature, the Fidokorlar party, as a major faction. The leader of Fidokorlar was accompanied on his campaign tours of the country by two of Karimov’s advisers. Surprisingly, this did not help. Fidokorlar won only 14 percent of the seats, while an informal union of another party and representatives of provincial administrations jointly garnered 63 percent of seats, maintaining a majority of sorts.

The results of the 1999 elections certainly did not satisfy Karimov and his circle. The failure of Fidokorlar necessitated the invention of a tool to gain control over the potentially rebellious Parliament — by politically legitimate means. A bicameral parliament appeared to satisfy at least two needs: restructuring the parliament and presenting a new step toward democratization to the outside world. The professionalization of the parliament may be a move in a desirable direction. But one should not underestimate the hidden political context of the bicameral initiative.

Tale of Two Portfolios

In recent years countries in the former Soviet Union have moved to a sort of controllable democracy. This type of regime combines the expansion of democratic-looking institutions with restricted civil liberties and human rights. Each country has taken a particular course, but in all countries the state bureaucracy is regaining control over the society and economy. From this point of view, Uzbekistan stands as an example of total dominance of the state and central government over society.

All this is unlikely to affect the ever-strengthening ties between the US and Uzbekistan. Too many benefits are promised by the sudden opportunity for the US military to penetrate Central Asia at a time when Russia, traditionally the main opponent of US policy in Central Eurasia, is obliged to contain its anti-Western rhetoric. At least until the end of the Bush presidency, US officials will probably travel to Uzbekistan with two portfolios: a thick one filled with gifts from business and the military and a slender folder of complaints from critics of Karimov and his cronies. Such a policy will certainly satisfy the Uzbek regime, which will endeavor where possible not to anger the international community with too harsh crackdowns on dissidents, and even to demonstrate good will, while remaining careful not to relax its iron grip on power.

How to cite this article:

Alisher Ilkhamov "Controllable Democracy in Uzbekistan," Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).
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