Many feel alienated by election process and do not plan to lend their votes to anyone.
By IWPR staff
Members of the sizeable ethnic Uzbek community in Turkmenistan say they will not take part in the December 14 election since they have been given no stake in it.
The Uzbeks are the country’s second largest ethnic group after the Turkmen, numbering perhaps 300,000 to 400,000 out of a total population of 5.2 million and concentrated in the Dashoguz and Lebap regions, along the eastern border with Uzbekistan.
Ahead of a parliamentary election which Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov has said will mark a watershed on the road to a more democratic system, the newspapers published a list of candidates who had been approved to stand. Although Berdymuhammedov had promised voters a genuine choice and an opportunity to nominate candidates, those selected to stand mainly represent either the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the only party, or institutions affiliated to government like the women’s, youth, veterans’ and trade union movements.
Public selection meetings have been held, but IWPR investigations show that they are engineered by government. The audience is hand-picked and armed in advance with “spontaneous” questions to ask a candidate who has in any case been vetted and approved by the secret police. (See Turkmenistan’s Silent Election Candidates, News Briefing CentralAsia, 04-Dec-08.)
When people in Lebap and Dashoguz looked down the candidate lists for the people who would be representing them, it dawned on them that there was not a single Uzbek name among them.
Uzbeks might not have been expecting a real democratic choice, but were hoping for at least a few members of parliament who would be sympathetic to their community.
“This is not only an outrageous violation of our rights; it is an open insult to us,” said Abdul-Aka, an elderly Uzbek from a village in Dashoguz, angrily waving a newspaper containing the list.
“There are suitable people among the local Uzbeks who would have been able to represent our interests in parliament, and they are no worse than this lot.”
A young mother added, “We are very disappointed.”
A local election official confirmed this was the case, saying, “All the candidates are ethnic Turkmen.”
Disappointment among Uzbeks runs particularly deep as they had been expecting to see some change under Berdymuhamedov, who hinted at reforms after he came to power last year.
Under his predecessor, Saparmurad Niazov, who died in December 2006, the Uzbeks had a hard time and appeared to be discounted from the Turkmen nation-building exercise. From 2003 on, he seems to have viewed them as a fifth column, as he blamed the government of Uzbekistan of complicity in an attempt to assassinate him. As a result, Uzbeks were gradually removed from senior positions.
The new Turkmen leader has offered hope that things might change. For example, he and Uzbek president Islam Karimov have met and promised to improve relations.
Earlier this year, Berdymuhammedov pushed through significant changes to the constitution, almost doubling the number of seats in parliament to reach 125, which suggests there is more scope for nationwide representation.
According to one local journalist, “With the adoption of the new constitution, ethnic Uzbeks hoped that they would have some chance of nominating their representatives to the legislature. Under the dictator [Saparmurat] Niazov, parliament was homogeneous in its membership and consisted only of Turkmen.”
Even if it were possible to hold voter meetings freely, the Uzbeks do not seem keen to raise their heads above the parapet.
Analysts say ethnicity is one of the criteria the authorities have used to vet prospective candidates.
A lawyer, who asked not to be named, said any candidate who was nominated independently of the official selection process could expect trouble.
“The organisers of such [selection] meetings, along with their relatives, would be hauled in and intimidated by the security services, and that would knock any desire to show initiative out of them, even though that is their legal right,” he said.
The lawyer predicts that faced with few options, the Uzbek community will express its protest by quietly boycotting the vote.
“They intend to ignore the parliamentary election,” he said.
A straw poll in heavily Uzbek areas suggests that he may be right.
“I’m not going to vote for candidates who’ve been imposed on me,” said Qodirbergen, a 30-year-old man from a village close to the border with Uzbekistan.
“I am not going to the polling station at all on December 14, and many are intending to do likewise," said another man.
Analysts say a mass boycott could prove embarrassing, were the authorities planning to report accurate turnout figures. However, past practice in Turkmen elections suggests that results bear little relation to reality.
“The authorities will do everything possible, and even the impossible, to ensure that it is only Turkmen who get into parliament,” said a Dashoguz based-observer.
(Names of interviewees withheld out of concern for their security.)