Over the weekend, an opposition politician in Uzbekistan was reportedly detained and his plans to host a congress for his unregistered party derailed. The events further dim already bleak hopes for a free and fair presidential election in Uzbekistan later this year.
According to a report in Eurasianet, citing the news website Eltuz and RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Khidirnazar Allakulov (also spelled Olloqulov) was detained on February 26. Allakulov, an economist and former rector of Termez State University, created his Truth and Progress party in June 2020 and he intended to make a presidential run.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reported that according to a police investigator, Allakulov has been accused of publishing information about a person without their permission. Per Eurasianet, Eltuz linked the detention to Allakulov’s plans to hold a congress for his party on February 26 at a wedding hall in Tashkent. Both Eltuz and RFE/RL are blocked inside Uzbekistan. Allakulov was reportedly taken to Andijan and then back to Tashkent. He was released after interrogation but charges are believed to still be pending.
“Detaining an opposition political figure who has stated his intention to run for the presidency is the wrong signal to send about the commitment to free and fair elections as well as to free speech and assembly,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and professor of human rights at the University of Southern California.
Uzbekistan is set to hold presidential elections in late October this year, after moving the mandated date for polls up from December. In writing about the decision to shift the election earlier this month, I concluded with this:
While it seems unlikely that Mirziyoyev will face any serious contenders, given the atrophied state of politics in the country, how the Uzbek state handles those who do throw their hats in the ring will be watched carefully by observers of the country’s reforms. Will challengers be permitted to step forward and present alternative views on Uzbekistan’s path forward? Will they be allowed to criticize the Mirziyoyev government in their effort to achieve office?
Even though, as Eurasianet notes, “Allakulov is a name largely unknown to the Uzbek public,” the chain of events cannot help but suggest an attempt at deterring independent challenges to Mirziyoyev. The hurdles are already, officially, high. Uzbekistan only has five registered political parties and while there were efforts at miming divergences between them in the parliamentary election of December 2019, the reality remains that they are all pro-government parties. Registering a new party requires 20,000 signatures, a high bar and unreachable if efforts by aspiring parties to organize are disrupted.
“Uzbekistan’s authorities have stated repeatedly the October presidential elections will be free and fair and they should uphold this commitment, especially as Uzbekistan has just begun its term as a member on the United Nations Human Rights Council,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbekistan’s authorities should make a clear statement regarding the rights of opposition parties and candidates to carry out their activities freely, without interference, and make sure the elections are conducted in accordance with international standards, including those outlined by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).”
The presidential election, scheduled now for October 24, is about eight months out. It seems unlikely a genuine challenger can emerge in such short a time period, and the detention of Allakulov may have a chilling effect on those considering it.