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Q&A: Challenge to Uzbek Govt Gathers Force

Interview with Bokhodir Choriyev, leader of the Birdamlik Movement

MOSCOW, Apr 2 2008 (IPS) - The Birdamlik Harakati (Solidarity Movement) is the strongest Uzbek opposition group that aims to unite all democratic Uzbek opposition parties. The Birlik (Unity) and Ozod Dehqon (Free Farmers) opposition parties support the Birdamlik Movement, transforming it into a formidable force over the past few years despite efforts by the government to eliminate it. IPS interviews its leader Bokhodir Choriyev.

Bokhodir Choriyev Credit:

Bokhodir Choriyev Credit:

IPS: What is the driving force behind the creation of the movement in Uzbekistan, and what are your aims?

Bokhodir Choriyev: Uzbekistan has developed into an authoritarian state. The government works to preserve its own status, and in order to accomplish this it acts purely in accordance with its own preferences and desires. The dictatorship of President Islam Karimov has proven time and time again that it will do anything to stay in control. The strong grip that the government has on communities has been very effective in creating a climate of fear. As a result, in the west a saying has appeared: ‘If a dictator brings stability, then Karimov is good.’

The current government’s strongest tactic is to brutally suppress dissent and to label any movement as “extremism”, “terrorism” or “instigator of strife against society” – and that has been the case since the Soviet collapse when the country attained political independence. This means that currently there are no alternative ways for citizens in communities in Uzbekistan to discuss their own problems.

There is absolute media censorship, political parties are under strict state control, and state officials are only concerned with their own interests in parliament. That is to say, there exist no political institutions through which the problems of people can be heard. Nowadays, Uzbek communities are in a state of deep distress, meaning that the quality of life and government performance is extremely low. This state of affairs is troubling, hence the creation of the movement. Our goals are not only to overthrow the dictatorial rule, but also to bring about a prosperous state in future and solve the current gamut of problems that have plagued the country.

IPS: How has the movement grown in structure and in numbers?

BC: Since it was founded by a few people in April 2004, the Birdamlik movement has grown today into a movement with over 1,000 executive members and a lot more supporters. We have branches in nearly every province in Uzbekistan. We are registered in the state of Missouri in the U.S. as a non-government, non-profit, tax-exempted organisation.

Today you can also find branches of the Birdamlik movement in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Canada and many countries throughout Europe, and we continue to broaden our membership throughout the world. All large-scale and peaceful protests held in Uzbekistan in recent years have been organised by members of the Birdamlik movement. Our movement has recently been able to attract the attention of all opposition groups towards the goal of civil disobedience.

Our membership consists of an amazingly young people and professionals who understand the deplorable situation. So the movement has achieved a status and position within the Uzbek opposition, and has grown larger as a result of this situation.

IPS: Where do you get financial help for the movement?

BC: Nowadays our movement doesn’t receive any financial or other sort of help from the state. All organisational activities are financed solely by members of the movement. For example, preparations for political protest and all work with other political parties. Sometimes, it’s done on a volunteer basis.

Every month, from the movement’s treasury, we give financial support to members’ families who are suffering in Uzbekistan, to human rights activists and so forth. It is extremely important that we raise the political awareness of our new members. We regularly finance public awareness and education.

IPS: What are some of the challenges you have faced, and how did you overcome them?

BC: The administration of Karimov has placed tight restrictions on opposition groups in parliament since 1992. Nearly all deputies elected to legislative assembly represent Karimov’s interest and always help to unanimously approve legislative bills. These are among the broad challenges for the movement, and how to change this established status quo.

At this moment, the Birdamlik movement is facing problems getting all the opposition organisations to meet. The first concern is the safety and security of our members. It goes without saying that the methods of repression employed by the government of Uzbekistan are incredibly severe, including detention and indiscriminate torture. We are fighting torture and unlawful detention by appealing to international institutions to get involved by isolating or sanctioning Karimov’s administration.

IPS: How do the authorities consider the movement?

BC: It is no secret that the relationship between the opposition members and the people in the highest positions of power, that is, President Karimov and his closest associates, is very bad. Yet at the same time there are a few middle and lower-ranking bureaucrats and officials who are displeased with the current political situation and deteriorating economy. It is natural for us to view the discontent among these bureaucrats as a positive force for the opposition.

The Birdamlik people’s movement is slowly gaining powerful supporters. Generally over the last two to three years we have increased our prestige and presence.

The political apparatus of Uzbekistan is destined to change. President Islam Karimov is over 70 years old and it is natural that his physical condition will become weaker. Karimov’s main concern is difficulty in finding a suitable successor to take over his administration. I think this will be a very difficult process, and the people of Uzbekistan understand only one thing about this scenario: that the repression and lack of choice will continue. But eventually, the patience of the Uzbek society will run out, and because of this the number of political protests is increasingly gathering momentum.

IPS: What stands out in your movement?

BC: First, this is a people’s movement. Our ranks unite members of a few political parties and we have activists from NGOs, meaning that our movement facilitates an open-door policy involving other political parties and rights activists. Our strength increases from sharing our ideas.

Second, since the movement was founded, the idea of a non-violent struggle has found increased acceptance within Uzbek society, and this is very important for the future of a democratic Uzbekistan. We would like to quickly transform the political culture into one based on democratic traditions. In this respect, it is important that the tradition of non-violence is instilled into the society beforehand. It is with these actions and aspirations that the Birdamlik people’s movement was founded.

IPS: Do you plan to contest parliamentary elections?

BC: The most important goal of the Birdamlik movement is to create a society that is democratic, free and prosperous. While the overthrow of an authoritarian system is our short-term goal, the creation of a democratic society is our long-term ambition. It is evident that the transformation of a country’s political and social culture is an arduous and complicated task, but we have faith in our genuine and legitimate activities. We have taken on these tasks as the long-term activity of our movement. For now, we are working on the activities of the people’s movement and to strengthen cooperation among members of the Uzbek political opposition.

As for the issue of political ambition, of course, political ambitions exist in our movement, but as I have said, we are trying to create a new political climate that will make life easier for the suffering majority. The country needs a liberal-democratic political system.

 
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