Islam Karimov—President for life?
Will the population of Uzbekistan again vote for Islam Karimov, who is again nominated for presidency in an apparent and brazen violation of the Constitution? Having analyzed the current situation in the country and the local population’s attitudes, a Tashkent-based observer arrives at the following conclusion: Yes, candidate Karimov will enjoy the electorates’ support again despite rampant corruption, lack of natural gas and electricity in homes, high unemployment, miserable salaries and pensions. Because Karimov’s stay in power is beneficial for quite a large part of the population.
Rights watchdogs urge boycotting elections
During its January 15 session, the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (abbreviated as UzLiDeP) nominated the incumbent President Islam Karimov as its candidate for the upcoming presidential elections on March 29. Karimov has been at the helms of the Uzbek republic for 26 years already; his nomination, therefore, violations a norm of the Constitution. It is no surprise human rights advocates are bewildered by the decision the liberal democrats adopted in this case; after all, they are the frontrunners in the official political life in Uzbekistan.
The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan (HRAU) lodged a complaint on February 2 against “the anti-constitutional decision” the UzLiDeP adopted with the office of the Prosecutor General, and the chairpersons of the Senate, the Constitutional Court and the Central Electoral Commission. In it, the activists of the Alliance cite Article 90 of the Constitution—“no person shall hold the office of the president for more than two consecutive terms”—and ask the annul the decision the liberal democrats adopted in violation of said norm, thereby not to register Islam Karimov as a presidential candidate.
The Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Advocates of Uzbekistan (IGIHRAU) made a statement in early February as well. Having lost any hope in the government bodies, they appeal directly to the citizens of Uzbekistan, urging them not to vote for Islam Karimov in the upcoming elections or simply boycott them altogether.
Long story short, rights watchdogs categorically refuse to have Karimov as president for yet another term. While the former are doing their job by criticizing apparent lapses in the authorities’ actions, the commoner has varying opinions in regards with their head of state—the only one they had since gaining independence in 1991. Some call him “a bloodthirsty dictator,” while others are more lenient and see him as a quite descent person who gathers his classmates from school and university once a year in his dacha house. We, on the other hand, shall shun any and all rumours. Instead we will attempt to analyse all the shortcomings Karimov’s opponents accuse him of. We will also attempt to identify those who do not mind at all if he stays in power as long as he can.
According to many analysts and observers, the main feature of life in Uzbekistan at this point in history is total corruption. It is especially manifest in the judicial and legal systems, primarily in the civil courts. The absolute majority of verdicts are issued after bribes are paid, parts of which are “kicked back” to those in higher echelons of power.
That said, the corrupt judicial system is improving year by year. In early 2000s, the appellate courts would usually cancel the first instance courts’ rulings and rule to re-try the case. But now no appeal is taken into proper consideration and every ruling of lower courts is upheld. In case local prosecutor’s offices do protest some rulings under the pressure of insistent and educated citizens, that protest is brought to naught at either district or city level courts. The prosecutors’ offices only issue those only for the sake of doing it, not because they believe in it. After all, they have a share in what is “kicked back” to courts, so they are interested in covering up the mess in the judicial system instead of ensuring the legality of adopted rulings and verdicts.
But that is not easy. Because the corruption system is so well greased that neither prosecutors nor judges feel ashamed to drive those luxury vehicles or to live in those big mansions that cost billions of Uzbek soums. Very recently a prosecutor had the audacity to claim that 200,000 dollars were stolen from his house. Nobody thought of asking, “Wait a minute, where did this prosecutor get so much money from?” Well, everyone knows where… And see it nothing but order of business.
Judges and prosecutors in Uzbekistan are sometimes arrested for bribery and some even get imprisoned; quite often, too. However, according to those privy in such affairs, only those who “forgot” to grease the spoons of those up there and brought “little grease” get imprisoned.
Stealing = Loving Your President
In order to be able to see the amounts, sizes and magnitude of corruption, one does not need to be involved in judicial matters; instead, just take a walk in Tashkent. The pile-up of various vending points and dining facilities—erected next to each other with no consideration of architectural ethics whatsoever—makes one think such ugliness could only be allowed for larges sums of money, which those responsible for issuing permits certainly did not use to improve the city’s outer look or make it convenient for residents.
When it come architectural and construction projects funded by the state, the amounts of embezzled money are counted in billions of US dollars. Throughout the country one can see architecturally beautiful and relatively new buildings torn down to free up space for expensive and absolutely unnecessary constructions. Just look at the Bunyodkor football stadium in Tashkent’s Chilanzar District. A very large sports complex used to be here, which was enjoyed by many nearby district residents. Now it became a high-security facility that can only be used for international football matches. That said, such games only take place maybe once a year. Meanwhile, one can only image how much money was embezzled during its construction.
These are only a few examples of corruption and embezzlement taking deep roots in Uzbekistan lately. The common citizen dislikes both corruption and embezzlement, obviously. However, judges, prosecutors, officials and businesses closely linked with the former very much enjoy that same corruption. They all apply efforts to maintain and uphold the system that is now ubiquitous throughout the country. So these people will most probably throw their electoral support behind candidate Islam Karimov, since he is the guarantor of the system in question that they are benefiting from. To be sure, the numerous children they gave birth to will also vote for the guarantor of their parents’ jobs. In case they don’t vote for Karimov Senior, they would certainly cast ballots with Gulnara Karimova’s name—is she not the “idol” of these “elite” youth?
The Uzbek Economy
It is an established fact that corruption can bring any society to its demise. In Uzbekistan, corruption also brought the economy down to its knees.
If an uninformed reader opens local newspapers or listen to and watch mass media, they would be very delighted to learn that Uzbekistan is a steadily developing country that enjoys economic breakthroughs day on day. In such a situation, those rights activists and opponents of officials could be characterized as simply blind or outright jealous.
However, the real indicator of economic success is not victories and pompous statements on newspaper pages, but the numbers of labour migrants. If there are labour migrants leaving their own home country, well, that is because its economy is not stellar.
In its appeal, the IGIHRAU reports that around 8m citizens of Uzbekistan left the country to seek jobs abroad—yes, almost one third of the entire population. One could dispute these accuracy of numbers—could be exaggerated; however, not even the local pro-government mass media dispute that their numbers amount to several millions. That said, these labour migrants do not travel to the prospering USA or Europe; no, they travel to Russia, which is, too, falling under corruption and embezzlement. Yes, the Uzbek economy is not just in trouble—rather, it is in deep and stinky… trouble. And this is no surprise given that a big number of successful industries have been demolished in Uzbekistan.
The destruction of plants and factories were both part and result of the system of corruption. Let’s take the Tashselmash Factory that once manufactured cotton-picking vehicles. By the way, they produced very good quality combine-harvesters, which were sometimes better than U.S.-manufactured ones and were procured by many countries of the world. This factory was shut down after independence; about 1 000 CASE combines were leased from the USA instead.
These U.S.-made agriculture vehicles did not live up to expectations in Uzbekistan because they were quite expensive and farmers refused to utilize them. Obviously, this outcome was no remedy for the demolished enterprise that once produced competitive product. I would not be surprised if foreign competitor popped a bottle of champagne. I would not be surprised, on the other hand, if local officials received “something” from these very foreign competitors.
Perhaps the same reasons could be brought up in the case of the destruction of the Tashkent aircraft construction giant and many other factories and plants. Officials in Uzbekistan prefer buying expensive imported goods instead of local and affordable products. While they do end up costing more for the local consumer, those “up there” get good kickbacks. Nothing personal, so to speak, only business. It is too bad there is a very limited circle of those who actually benefit from the status quo.
Corruption and embezzlement that sucked the state budget’s blood dry also establish the population’s income levels. More or less good salaries—hence, good pensions—are given to police and military. There are many people who are well-off at successful companies that have by some miracle escaped forced takeover or harassment by the government’s fiscal arms. They, too, get good paychecks; let’s not even talk about the owners of such companies. So it would not be a stretch to say the majority of people in these categories would not mind to see Karimov in office for another term.
But everybody else receives such salaries and pensions that are not enough to live for by een most stringent and conservative estimates. Especially given the ever-rising prices for staples and services. Perhaps the following example may suffice to drive our point home: meat in Tashkent is two to three times more expensive than in Europe. So all those elderly men and women who counted on their pensions alone must have all died by now—if not from hunger, then from lack of money for medicine.
At the same time, one would have a hard time finding a person suffering from hunger pains. People are not suffering from famine; they are pretty well dressed; city streets are full of personal vehicles and not all of them are luxury vehicles owned by embezzlers and corrupt officials.
The reasons behind such “prosperity” are pretty simple. First, families receive monetary assistance from those members who are working their tails off abroad. The money they earn are remitted to Uzbekistan, where their next of kin can then afford buying food, clothes, building new homes and buying cars.
And those who do not have any family members working abroad have to misappropriate here and there in various sectors of economy.
Any Replacement for Karimov?
This paradox of economy establishes the population’s attitude in regards with their president, who doesn't even think of stepping down. Things seem to have found their places and the corruption processes are now smooth; so people are not afraid their president will extend his term again so much as they are afraid of changes that his demise may entail.
It is telling that none of the rights advocates mentioned in their February 2 appeal an alternative for President Karimov when they were enumerating the violations of the Constitution and all the sins and shortcomings the current head of state committed. Because there simply is no other worthy candidate. The oppositionists abroad only cause serious suspicion. Those potential alternatives around Karimov himself, on the other hand, cause even more suspicion, if not spite.
Thus, many in Uzbekistan want to believe that those in the highest echelons of power have embezzled enough and have no more room or need for further embezzling. On the other hand, a new head of state and his numerous relatives and friends, who will undoubtedly be appointed to important state offices, would be power and money-hungry. So should a new a person come to the highest office, they would all rob the country like dogs scouring a bone.
Furthermore, Karimov’s departure from office would most probably trigger power struggles in the upper echelons. Such an outcome could potentially bring about anarchy, rampant crime, terrorism and rivers of blood. Obviously, the common citizen does not want anything of this sort, and especially in the light of current events in once peaceful and prosperous Iraq, Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
By the way, based on these very events, some layers of population are actually reconsidering their attitude toward the president’s actions in regards with the supressing of opposition to his power. The issue at hand is not only [the exiled opposition] Birlik Party or any other similar party, whose representatives visited houses door-to-door in early 1990s, and urged citizens to call for expelling the Russian, just like Hitler called for exterminating Jews, to fire them from jobs, seize their houses and property, and Heaven on Earth would unfold in Uzbekistan.
At the same time, there are a big number of people in the country, who believe that even the violent crack down on a rally in Andijan in May 2005 was quite justified. No matter how hard some foreign mass media try to convince otherwise, what transpired in Andijan was an apparent beginning of a well-planned “colour” revolution in Uzbekistan. Any revolution in Uzbekistan, should it be allowed to unfold in Uzbekistan stitched from a dozen of regions with local attitudes and opinions, would most probably lead to big troubles and tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of victims.
To be sure, nobody says what the state did in Andijan was correct. After all, the state troops killed a thousand peaceful citizens, on top of terrorists, for no reason whatsoever. But that outcome is perhaps not Karimov’s fault, but is an idiotic move on the part commanders at the scene. It was suffice to send a few snipers onto nearby building rooftops, who could be taking down, one by one, those brandishing guns in the crowd. Those would subsequently start collapsing, thereby scaring the crowd into dispersing. Instead, the state committed what is widely known as a war crime.
But many citizens would still forgive Karimov for the Andijan massacre, if the military commanders guilty in this case were publicly tried and harshly punished, and the deceased ones’ relatives were granted compensations.
Majority To Vote “Yes”
A certain portion of Uzbek citizens still harbour hope in Islam Karimov. Their hope, in its turn, is based on fairy tales about good kings and horrible lords. The president made several public statements, which may have led people to think so. President Karimov once claimed the average salary in the country was 500 USD, while in a different case he was surprised to hear an Uzbek labour migrant was earning 1 000 USD in Moscow working as a janitor, saying “Why? Could he not earn that money here at home?”
These and other similar statements were not made in private conversations with some foreign dignitary; on the contrary, he made them publicly on state TV channels. This can only mean, the belief goes, that those around him provide false reports about the situation in the country. So the fairy tale about corrupt and evil lords in regions is not just a fairy tale, but also the “realistically real reality” in Uzbekistan.
This way or another, but the majority of the Uzbek electorate will still definitely vote the candidacy of Islam Karimov come elections in March. I would even look forward to the arrangement of a referendum on extending the ruling president’s term in office, which will probably be organized soon.
The commoner will continue hoping that the “good and kind king” will finally punish those “evil lords” and will establish peace and justice in the country; that the judicial and legal systems would take bribes every other time, not every time; that the prosecutors would at least sometimes think of fulfilling their direct duties—defending interests of the commoner; that electricity and gas would finally be uninterruptedly supplied in regions, which are now exported and bypass the taxpayers’ houses for some reason; that officials would start embezzling less money, which would leave enough for sufficient amounts for good salaries and pensions; that officials would finally stop calling human rights activists and independent journalists “the enemies of the state,” and will start listening to their opinions as well.
It is a great pity that this sincere hope the common citizen harbours will never reach the ears of the permanent President Islam Karimov.