Uzbek Leader Shows No Signs of Vacating

The Associated Press
Saturday, January 27, 2007; 3:47 PM

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Nearly a week after his term elapsed, the former Communist strongman who has kept a tight grip on Uzbekistan for more than 15 years shows no sign of vacating the presidential office.

The clock ran out on Islam Karimov's second term on Sunday, but there has been no official recognition of the fact _ a sign his hold on power remains strong and that he has no intention of leaving, analysts say.

They say Karimov, who has eradicated opposition and silenced dissent in the Central Asian nation, appears to be exploiting a legal ambiguity.

While the Uzbek constitution limits terms to seven years, the country also has a law that says a presidential election must be held in December of the year in which the term expires _ in this case December 2007.

"There is no sign that Karimov is preparing to leave and he is apparently going to stand for and get another term in December," said Michael Hall, Central Asia project director of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Karimov, who will turn 69 on Tuesday, became the top Communist boss in this former Soviet republic in 1989. He has won two presidential elections since the Soviet collapse _ in 1991 and 1999 _ and had his term extended twice, once through parliament and another time in a referendum.

Both election victories were landslides with more than 90 percent of the votes, but neither was recognized by international observers as free or fair.

Many observers fear that the Karimov government's oppressive control of the country could radicalize Islamic fundamentalists and lead to an explosion of violence in an already troubled part of the world.

Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan and hosted a U.S. air base supporting the Afghan military campaign. But Uzbekistan closed the base in the wake of Western criticism over the government suppression of an uprising in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005.

Human rights activists say some 700 people were killed, including unarmed civilians, but the government says fewer than 200 people died. Karimov rejected criticism and calls for an independent investigation from the United States, the European Union and others.

Experts had predicted that the country _ Central Asia's most populous with 27 million people _ would become an engine for regional development because of comparatively well-developed industries and energy self-sufficiency.

But Karimov, seeing the economic chaos that swept other ex-Soviet republics when they started market reforms, maintained a centralized economy and imposed restrictive trade rules.

In recent years, after pro-democracy uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Karimov has shown increasing suspicion of the West. Along with evicting the U.S. base, he has evicted most Western media, aid agencies and non-governmental organizations.

"The atmosphere is stifling. There are no international organizations, no journalists to turn to," said Elena Urlayeva, one of a small number of rights activists who remain in the country despite harassment.

"Karimov is going to stay for an extra year, but he is a former president now. It's totally illegal, it's usurpation of power," Urlayeva said by telephone from Tashkent.

"But there is nothing we can do," she said. "To stage public protests would be the same as facing a firing squad."

© 2007 The Associated Press