Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Sunday, 27 December 2009

Life in secretive Uzbekistan ahead of poll

Uzbekistan has a highly authoritarian political system and a poor human rights record. The BBC is banned from reporting inside the Central Asian nation, but our regional correspondent, Rayhan Demytrie, has been in contact with journalists on the ground to find out what life is like.

Main square in Tashkent
The government wants to show what it sees as its democratic credentials

Uzbekistan is holding parliamentary elections, but some people do not even seem to have noticed.

"Why are we re-electing our president again?" 35-year-old Olim asked a reporter in one of the Tashkent city markets.

When it is explained to him that the vote is for parliamentary candidates rather than a re-election of President Islam Karimov, his attitude is equally dismissive.

"In Samarkand, where I come from, there is one deputy who does what he wants," Olim said.

"He doesn't stop at red lights, and he doesn't pay for his restaurant bills. He says he's been appointed by the president himself. Why do we need these deputies?"

Nevertheless the streets of the Uzbek capital Tashkent are lined with banners, posters and flags to remind people that 27 December is election day, when up to 16 million eligible voters are being asked to choose members of the Oliy Majlis - the lower house of parliament.

Freedom to choose?

Uzbekistan map

President Karimov seems keen to use these elections to showcase what he sees as his country's democratic credentials.

"Freedom of speech and freedom of choice indeed exist in our lives. This process means that a multi-party system is gaining strength," he said in a national address in early December.

The authorities have proudly highlighted an increase in the number of parliamentary seats available, but 15 of these seats have already been reserved for one party.

And in reality, politics in Uzbekistan has been tightly controlled by the government since independence from the USSR.

There is no single opposition movement and no independent media, and none of the registered political parties in this election oppose President Karimov's government.

Uzbekistan's main opposition parties, Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom), have been denied registration since the 1990s. Their leaders live in exile.

Election campaign poster in Uzbekistan
Election posters are displayed all over Tashkent

The democracy watchdog the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is only sending a limited contingent of monitors, because it says it would not be "meaningful" to deploy a full observer mission, because the elections offer "no genuine choice of candidates".

Critics say the OSCE's view is broadly shared by the electorate.

"Parliament does not play any role in an ordinary person's life. People don't believe that their voice will matter or make any difference," says Tashkent-based journalist Sergei Ezhkov.

Daily struggle

While the government is seeking to ensure as full a turnout as possible other issues dominate the lives of ordinary Uzbeks.

The country's economy is struggling and high inflation has created surging food prices and a shortage of cash.

Felled tree in Tashkent

"If any of these candidates came to talk to us I would have asked them why my pension is not being paid on time and why half of it is being transferred to these plastic bank cards," 55-year-old Tashkent resident Galina told a reporter.

Most Uzbek citizens with state salaries or pensions are now paid with electronic credit.

But their bank cards only work in certain stores, and at the market - the traditional territory of the average shopper - most products can only be paid for with cash.

"And is there a single candidate who could have opposed the government's decision to chop down the trees in central Tashkent's square?" asks Galina.

A recent urban renovation project by the authorities involved the removal of Tashkent's famous circular boulevard of century-old sycamores, and was met with quiet sadness and disbelief by many of the city's residents.

Those who mourn the loss of their famous landmark say the changes here exemplify their sense of exclusion from the political process.

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