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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 21:34 GMT
Uzbeks resigned to Karimov re-election
By Natalia Antelava
BBC Central Asia correspondent

Samarkand

Amid the tangled alleyways of Samarkand and inside its blue-domed mausoleums, the sense of history is overwhelming.

This ancient Silk Road city was once the capital of the Tamerlane Empire, named after a conqueror whose 14th Century Central Asian realm extended from modern-day Iraq to China.

But for modern-day Uzbekistan, the significance of Samarkand goes beyond the legacy of Tamerlane and the great Mongolian leader, Genghis Khan, who destroyed the city in 1220.

The patience of people is running out, just like it ran out in Andijan
Professor Jamal Mirsaidov,
University of Samarkand

Across the street from one of the mosques stands a newly renovated school.

Next to it is a museum dedicated to an orphan from Samarkand, who quickly climbed the Communist Party ladder and became Uzbekistan's first Soviet leader and later its president.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Islam Karimov promised the country's people that they would soon be living prosperous lives.

'Slaves'

Twenty years on, President Karimov is still promising a better life - but in the streets of Samarkand poverty and decay surround the fading turquoise of the ancient mosques and mausoleums.

[President Karimov] did not even bother to change the constitution, which would at least give it some resemblance of legitimacy - he simply decided to stay on
Student in Tashkent

Electricity and gas are in short supply, many buildings do not have running water, but the scarcest of all commodities here is freedom.

"Islam Karimov has turned people into slaves," says Jamal Mirsaidov, a professor of Tajik literature at the University of Samarkand.

For Prof Mirsaidov, speaking to a journalist carries an enormous risk, but he says he has got little left to lose.

A few years ago, his teenage grandson was murdered, his body dumped on the professor's doorstep.

"Half of the population is forced to live, to work abroad, families have fallen apart. And what does he do? He is running for president, even though his last term has already expired," Prof Mirsaidov says.

"But he is running and he is telling all of us, again, that he is going towards democracy."

Iron rule

Election officials in Uzbekistan have never explained how Mr Karimov has qualified to run for re-election, given that he has already served two consecutive terms - the maximum allowed by the country's constitution.

A young boy sits on the streets of Samarkand
Poverty and unemployment are widespread throughout Uzbekistan

"He did not even bother to change the constitution, which would at least give it some resemblance of legitimacy. He simply decided to stay on," says one student in the capital, Tashkent.

"That's because he can get away with it," his friend adds.

In this country of 27 million people, there does not seem to be a single person able to challenge the president's iron rule.

The last time people tried to stand up to the government in Uzbekistan was in 2005 in the city of Andijan.

Government troops opened fire on thousands of demonstrators. Eye witnesses said hundreds of civilians died at the peaceful protest but Mr Karimov insisted the security forces had killed only 189 Islamist militants.

Since the events in Andijan, thousands of people charged with Islamic radicalism and terrorism have been arrested and thrown in jails, where many have been tortured.

Torture

Surat Ikramov, one of the few human rights defenders still working in Uzbekistan, says at least three people died of torture in the past month alone, although he fears the number could be as high as 20.

I don't know what will happen to people like me - he can kill me very easily and no-one here will say a word
Surat Ikramov

One of the bodies, he says, was brutally mutilated with his buttocks sliced off.

Like many, Mr Ikramov does not see any prospects of change in Uzbekistan.

"Karimov will become the president again and things will again get worse," Mr Ikramov says.

"I don't know what will happen to people like me. He can kill me very easily and no-one here will say a word, because he is the only one in charge," he adds.

"If the president himself, the head of the country, is violating the constitution, what can we say about a policeman who beats those he arrests, or a prosecutor who can be bribed into imprisoning the wrong person, or a judge who takes orders from the government?"

In this election, Mr Karimov's opponents are little known, mid-level bureaucrats, whose campaign consists partially of hailing the president's achievements.

There are no other candidates, at least not officially.

Candidate

With his broad smiley face under a fur hat, Johangir Shosalemov does not look like a campaigning politician.

And even though he spends his days selling sewing goods at a huge, sprawling market in the centre of Tashkent, zippers and buttons are not on his mind.

He had tried, unsuccessfully to register as a candidate in the election.

"Now I get threats all the time: they tell me they will kill me, or kick me out from the house. They try to pressure me through my wife," Mr Shosalemov says.

"All I wanted was to challenge Islam Karimov - ask him why he has ruined this country's economy? What has he done to the farmers, to agriculture? I asked him to have a debate with me on television, but instead he sent troops from the anti-terrorist unit."

Economic development

In a busy cafe in the centre of Tashkent, Sergey Yashkov, editor of the Uzmetronom.net website, tries to defend the president.

Poster of Islam Karimov in Tashkent (21 December 2007)
Karimov has been in power since before Uzbekistan's independence

"He is a man who is genuinely obsessed with the idea of becoming the founder of a strong, independent Uzbekistan. That's his goal in life," he says.

Mr Yashkov believes that in the past two years life has become easier for many in Uzbekistan because the government has allowed the black economy to flourish.

And there are signs of economic development, especially in the capital - there are more cars in the streets; cafes and restaurants stay open late into the night.

At the heart of this development, however, are millions of Uzbek migrants who are working illegally in Russia, South Korea and Kazakhstan.

"It's ironic because they are the people who hate the regime the most, because it forced them to leave the country. But they are also the ones who are helping the regime by feeding millions of people back home," says a resident of the capital, Tashkent.

For now, with no political opposition and almost guaranteed re-election, President Karimov looks set to continue his rule over Uzbekistan.

But back in Samarkand, Prof Mirsaidov has a warning for the president.

"The patience of people is running out, just like it ran out in Andijan," he says.

"Karimov got scared and thought the rest of the country would rise up and he killed people. He thought, 'what's a few lives for the sake of overall stability?'.

"But the calm he has established is a temporary calm. A hungry slave will at the end rise up."



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