Out of Uzbekistan: Where democracy is forced to wait its turn

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TASHKENT - Magnificent fountains still play evenly in the leafy squares of this Central Asian city. Underground trains disgorge hundreds of people every few minutes. In a multilingual inscription on a park statue, Karl Marx still makes his call: Workers of the World, Unite]

Such are the fruits of stability for the 20 million people of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. And President Islam Karimov, the republic's former Communist chief and its increasingly absolute ruler, has taken off the state's velvet gloves to deal with anyone who thinks it should be any other way.

'They hit me with an iron bar, cracked my skull and left me for dead,' said Abdurahman Pulatov, a dissident leader, showing the dent on his head. 'The hospital operated on me and looked after me for 20 days. Then the doctors told me they had been ordered to stop treatment. I had to escape to Azerbaijan and Turkey.'

Many Central Asian eyes are on Uzbekistan after the events last month in Tajikistan, where the shooting down of an Uzbek helicopter revealed the extent of covert Uzbek support for the return to power of a neo-Communist regime. Uzbek warplanes and, some believe, ground forces took an active part as an alliance of Islamic radicals and democrats was forced out of the capital, Dushanbe.

As the most populous country among Central Asia's 50 million people, and the historic centre of Turkestan, Uzbekistan's self-appointed role as a regional power may well define whether the five Central Asian states go down the path of democracy, Islamic fundamentalism or dictatorship.

Dissidents and diplomats say Mr Pulatov's beating in June was just the beginning. A crackdown on democratic and Islamic dissent has gathered pace since then, coupled with support for the once-Communist regime in Tajikistan.

Mr Pulatov's co-chairman of the democratic nationalist Birlik Popular Movement was thrown out of his university job as an 'enemy of the state'. In early December, just days after the Uzbek parliament adopted a new constitution committed to multiparty democracy and human rights, Birlik was banned.

The Uzbek KGB then took a van to Bishkek, capital of the neighbouring republic of Kyrgyzstan, where they kidnapped Mr Pulatov's brother and brought him back to jail in Tashkent, according to sources in Uzbekistan.

The Islamic directorate of mosques in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, based in Tashkent, was investigated for alleged 'use of money from Arab countries for its own goals'. The only independent newspaper, Businessman, was closed down for hinting that independent Uzbekistan was not unlike the old Soviet Union.

'The journalist was called in and told that in the old days he would have been shot, so he was getting off lightly,' said one Uzbek familiar with the case. Even the pro-democracy Russian daily Izvestia is now banned.

Officials do not deny that dissent is being stifled. But they say their actions are in the higher interests of a country that has no democratic tradition and is threatened by civil war and Islamic fundamentalism spreading from neighbouring Tajikistan.

'Diplomats try to teach us lessons, but our traditions are different. Uzbek people are very kind, but it is dangerous to give things like democracy. We have to practise how to be a democratic state,' said one senior Uzbek official.

In fact, Uzbekistan's source of inspiration is to be Tamerlaine, the ruthless 14th-century Turkic-Mongol raider who ruled Turkestan from his capital, Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan. Guides taking visitors to his solid-jade tomb have been told to present Tamerlaine as the first Uzbek hero.

'Of course we are going to use the legend of Tamerlaine. He fought for the independence of Turan (Turkic Central Asia),' said Jamal Kemal, president of the Uzbek Writers' Union. 'We are telling the opposition, please wait some years. We have no proper army. We have no strong borders. Help us build an independent state. First we must have independence, then democracy.'

The new constitution, based on a mix of European models, envisages a centralised presidential system, as well as strict separation of Islam and the state.

President Karimov, a trim, sharp-witted and restless man in his early fifties, frequently addresses the Uzbek people on television to call on them to unite behind him as he sets up the new state.

Many people, especially in the nervous Russian community, appreciate the fact that Mr Karimov has kept Uzbekistan working efficiently and on a short leash.

But opposition meetings are effectively banned and - although Mr Karimov won a presidential election last December - diplomats are uneasy about Uzbekistan being ruled by unrelenting ex-Communists.