Unrest may mar Uzbek poll

Uzbekistan's authorities need not fear a Ukraine-style revolution at parliamentary elections on Sunday, but recent violent outbursts signal a rough ride ahead for this troubled country, observers say.

    Karimov has been condemned over human-rights abuses

    President Islam Karimov's hardline secular leadership faces

    little threat from the five parties participating in the elections

    to the 120-seat lower house of a new two-chamber parliament, or Oliy

    Majlis, which critics expect to be as toothless as the last

    single-chamber body.

    All five are loyal to Karimov and have done little campaigning,

    while secular opposition groups Erk (Freedom) and Berlik (Unity)

    remain unregistered and mainly underground.

    Karimov has clung to power since the Soviet era through

    elections and referendums judged by the West as flawed, has

    imprisoned or exiled opponents and has condoned the security forces'

    systematic use of torture, rights campaigners say.

    "I haven't met a single person who has a party preference unless

    they're running for parliament," said a representative of a Western

    non-governmental group.

    "For those who are running it's just luck of

    the draw which party they end up in."

    Crackdown

    Before polling the authorities have announced extra security

    measures to prevent attacks after a wave of blasts and

    shootouts in the spring and summer killed around 50 people.

    The attacks were blamed on Islamic opposition groups.

    "The government's still in control - there's just a sense that

    they're not sure how to react. The sense of potential instability

    has risen"

    David Lewis,
    International Crisis Group

    Shaken by the ousting of Georgia's post-Soviet old guard

    last year and by this winter's

    "orange revolution" in Ukraine, Uzbekistan has clamped down on

    groups it sees as fomenting discontent.

    It expelled the Open Society Institute of billionaire democracy

    promoter George Soros earlier this year, and there has been more

    pressure on other non-governmental groups before the elections.

    Diplomats and business people report a near-total ban on issuing

    Uzbek visas to foreigners in recent weeks.

    "Cars appeared outside my house on Sunday and a security guy

    asked if I would be protesting - I'm being watched at the moment,"

    Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent

    Human Rights Defenders, said.

    Bazaar unrest

    If the above-ground opposition is weak, Uzbekistan's teeming

    bazaars pose a more immediate problem.

    These draw traders from all backgrounds, including professional

    people unable to survive on their tiny state salaries, and have been

    linked by some observers to the spring attacks.

    Several bomb attacks have hit
    the Uzbek capital, Tashkent

    Two of the small-scale blasts in March were in

    Tashkent's main bazaar and reportedly followed the killing of a

    trader by police.

    This autumn the bazaars have seen a wave of unrest over

    government attempts to clamp down on imports, culminating in major

    disturbances in the historic Silk Road city of Kokand on 1 November

    when two police cars were set alight.

    More incidents have occurred before the elections as police

    have tried to root out Tashkent's unregistered traders and to force

    migrant workers out of the city.

    On 11 December a man carrying a home-made flame thrower

    allegedly attacked police in the central market, a day after Karimov

    had visited. He was charged with terrorism and attempted murder.

    Instability

    "I haven't met a single person who has a party preference unless

    they're running for parliament"

    Western NGO representative

    Next day police fought with traders at an intersection crossed

    daily by Karimov's heavily armed motorcade, witnesses said.

    "The police started beating up one woman and knocked out one of

    her teeth," Alima, a 28-year-old fruit seller at the intersection,

    said.

    "Then they dragged another woman along the ground - like a

    cow - and other women ran to help."

    And critics say things may not improve whenever Karimov, 66, departs

    .

    "The government's still in control - there's just a sense that

    they're not sure how to react. The sense of potential instability

    has risen," David Lewis, an analyst with the International

    Crisis Group, a security thinktank, said.

    SOURCE: AFP


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