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Central Asia news

Ajdar Kurtov: Five naive questions concerning presidential election

11.10.2007 16:41 msk

Feruza Jani

Interview Uzbekistan

Practically all experts, observers, and even participants of the forthcoming presidential election in Uzbekistan in December 2007 admit that its outcome is essentially a foregone conclusion. Ajdar Kurtov, an expert with the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, is convinced that the population of Uzbekistan should postpone its expectations of changes in the country for after Islam Karimov's demise. Here is an interview with Ajdar Kurtov.

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Question: Any thoughts on nomination of Islam Karimov for president?

Ajdar Kurtov: His nomination was quite predictable. There were no doubts that the Uzbek authorities would engineer it somehow. Uzbekistan has been strengthening the monocentric system since the late 1980s and all through the years of sovereignty. It has come up with what it has now - a stiffly authoritarian regime.

Sure, this regime is somewhat preferable to what we are witnessing in Turkmenistan, but... Compared to the systems established in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and even Tajikistan, the one Uzbekistan has developed concentrates around one individual only. Karimov himself, of course. Whenever any such system is established and everything is focused around a single individual on the pinnacle of political power, the rest of the political terrain promptly becomes barren. I mean that no more or less prominent politicians are permitted there. Whoever shows the potential for gaining prominence is either removed from his position of power or jailed. Or yes, sometimes men like that are sent out as ambassadors. In any case, the political lawn is regularly mowed down.

Opinion polls conducted in Uzbekistan inevitably show that the population there does not know any names in domestic politics but the president's. It means that the whole propagandistic potential of the local media is also focused on promotion of a single individual only.

Question: But how come it was the Liberal Democratic Party that nominated Karimov?

Ajdar Kurtov: I'd say it was only logical because the Liberal Democratic Party has the largest faction in all of the national parliament nowadays. There is another nuance here that I think should be taken into account. A new phase of the political reforms was proclaimed in Uzbekistan not long ago, one where political parties are supposed to start playing a more important part in the life of the country. The Constitution and some laws were amended. It is therefore only natural for the regime to organize the presidential election in accordance with the amended legislation, i.e. with the political reforms allegedly under way. Every party represented in the parliament nominated a candidate, and Liberal Democrats nominated Karimov.

Consider this particular episode carefully, will you? I mean, Karimov's nomination. It was definitely a step forward because Karimov had been nominated by different political forces in the past. In other words, it all looked like kind of evolution of his political preferences and sympathies. Still, appearances are deceptive. The president-political party connection in Uzbekistan is not as fixed as it is, say, in Russia or Kazakhstan. I hesitate to assume therefore that Karimov has cast in his lot with the Liberal Democrats. He may be charting some plans for the future, for example, in order to follow in the steps of Kazakhstan and set up some powerful political force that will nevertheless be absolutely controllable and obedient to his will. Still, it's too early for assumptions of this sort.

It may be added as well that Karimov will apparently poll an overwhelming majority of votes. At least, that's what I expect. The remaining four nominees will poll but a pittance, 5-7% all together. It will mean a gap between what is said and done. What I mean is this. Several political parties sit on the national parliament. There is an alleged multiparty system in Uzbekistan whose society supposedly upholds different sets of values. And yet, purporting to uphold these different sets of values, society will be voting for one person only. People will be voting Karimov, not even leaders of their political parties. The inescapable conclusion is that the whole system is based on some principles that are not what is normally known as transparent or democratic. The predictable outcome of the presidential election shows a rift between the principles that are only mouthed and the ones that are adhered to. Between word and deed, to put it differently.

Question: Do you think the Uzbek Central Electoral Commission will register the candidates nominated by spearheads?

Ajdar Kurtov: So far as I know, the acting legislation allows for nomination by spearheads. Saying if they are going to be registered or not with any degree of accuracy is, however, impossible at this point. As for representatives of the human rights community who applied for registration, I suspect that the Central Electoral Commission will do everything in its power to leave them out of the process.

Generally speaking, acting legislation of absolutely any country stipulates a great deal of purely bureaucratic hurdles in registration of candidates. The less democratic the state, the better the chance to pull it off. I hope, however, that the authorities will refrain from being too rough. They do want an emphasis on the allegedly democratic nature of the election and not on mistreatment of political adversaries.

On the other hand, the Uzbek regime will be inevitably rough in dealing with attempts of the opposition from abroad to participate in the election. The acting legislation is rigged in such a manner that Muhammad Solih, for example, cannot run for president.

In any case, I suspect that the Uzbek regime will allow for more candidates for president this time than ever before. Two nationwide elections took place in Uzbekistan so far (discounting the very first election when the president was elected by the Supreme Soviet, that is), and the population was offered practically no choice on both occasions. Solih was running for president against Karimov in the 1990s and Jalolov in 2000. There were two names on the bulletins then. There will be five or even more in December 2007. Since we agree that all of that is being done for the sake of appearances only, I'd say it will profit the authorities to put on the bulletins a couple of names nominated by spearheads. As long as the authorities are sure, of course, that these candidates stand no chance against the existing establishment i.e. against Karimov himself.

Question: How do you think they will circumvent the constitutional provision permitting one and the same person only two terms of office?

Ajdar Kurtov: No problems here. Authoritarian regimes never encounter any difficulties with that. Consider the examples of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan whose constitutions included similar restrictions but also offered various loopholes. All in all, these loopholes come down to the existence of the Constitutional Court, a structure that carries out orders from its political masters and interprets the Constitution the way they need it interpreted. Verdicts are usually based on the assumption that since the Constitution (of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Uzbekistan) was amended over 16 years of sovereignty, then the count of the terms of office should begin with the moment of the latest amendment. The Constitution of Uzbekistan was amended when the term of office for presidents was extended from five to seven years. There is therefore nothing to prevent the Uzbek Constitutional Court from saying that Karimov's terms of office should be counted from the latest amendment of the Constitution by a referendum in 2002, and not from the early 1990s. It will offer Karimov an opportunity to run for president for at least one other seven-year term.

Question: Will this assortment of candidates for president make the election more democratic?

Ajdar Kurtov: I won't go so far as to deny the fact of changes that are under way in Uzbekistan. Some changes are taking place. Still, they are not radical and they are taking place under the regime's rigid control. What I mean is that several names of candidates for president on the bulletins are not going to bring the election closer to the internationally accepted standards of free and fair elections. Democracy is a government by the people. The people or electorate is therefore expected to visit polling stations and decide who it wants as the hired manager - because that's what the president essentially is. A hired manager. The people elects this man (or hires, if you prefer) for a definite period only.

On the other hand, we all know that a wholly different approach to elections is practiced in non-democratic states. Whoever reaches the pinnacle of political power there inevitably decides that he is above the people or its wishes. Trust this man to do everything in his power to safeguard his future from the whims of the population. He may have the acting legislation amended, or have a political structure established (political party, front, and so on) that will second him and create the illusion that this is the only man the population wants.

It should be noted that it is practiced in many countries, and Uzbekistan is not a sad exception at all. I'm not saying that the situation in Russia is absolutely analogous to that in Uzbekistan, but neither would I call it particularly democratic. What I'm referring to are the suggestions made every once in a while to abolish the two-term restriction specified by the Constitution. Or the statements that President Putin (the man whose accomplishments in improvement of the situation in Russia I'm not going to dispute or question) must remain for another term of office. People tend to forget, I think, that constitutions are not written to suit an individual. Ask the men who make all these statements, suggestions, or whatever if they want the third and perhaps even fourth term of office for Boris Yeltsin (for example, as opposed to Putin), and I think they will shudder at the idea. What I'm saying is that people do not understand, or forget, that the Constitution is a set of rules everyone must follow.

Generally speaking, democracy is a form of government calculated to prevent some untoward developments but expecting it to make everyone happy is of course a folly. Neither are democratic procedures a universal cure. When, however, everything in a given state depends on an individual no matter how talented he is, it is just an indication of weakness of this state. Its population counts on a deity or hero who will turn up to make everyone happy. It has no faith in itself.

We see a wholly different situation in other countries, in West and Central Europe, where leaders come and go but the countries survive it, where the population does not become impoverished and where the growth of the GDP is provided by people who represent different political parties. Parties come and go, ditto leaders and presidents, but societies and states continue to prosper.

Regrettably, things are frequently different in the post-Soviet zone. We remain in the grips of the archaic, Soviet notions where the regime is perceived as something that is above the people and the people itself is perceives as not smart enough to understand something or other with the inevitable conclusion that its opinion may be safely ignored. Take a look at any newspaper (Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh - no matter), and you will see its opening pages full of materials presenting the head of state as a hero taking care of everyone and everything. The impression is that not a single more or less major accomplishment is possible without this leader's wise instructions. All successes are inevitably associated with the current state of head. This personification of the regime is implanted in conscience, the population becomes indoctrinated.

That is why I do not expect any surprises from the forthcoming election of the president of Uzbekistan. Karimov will come in first. As a matter of fact, he may even end the race with less votes cast for him than ever before but it is not going to change anything. Vector of development of Uzbekistan is firmly set for the duration of this man's life. Immortality remaining an unattainable dream, the population of Uzbekistan had better store its hopes for changes away and retrieve them again when Karimov is gone.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult for man to step down. What makes things even worse is that the authoritarian system itself drives the man at the top into a corner where he is morbidly afraid to turn the power over to someone else and inevitably comes to the conclusion that he had better stay where he is, i.e. at the top. Because he may find himself in a situation otherwise where the successor dismantles or amends whatever he accomplished in his time and he himself will be but a helpless observer. It does not take a genius to see that no authoritarian ruler will put up with it.