Uzbekistan to Vote for President

APUzbek teenagers walking past a poster of Karimov in Tashkent this month.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov seems certain of winning re-election Sunday, but his foes say the vote will be little more than political theater.

In a televised address in early December, Karimov dismissed criticism of the vote, saying the election would meet international standards, and he hinted that he expected a crushing victory.

"Certain politicians or those who look at us with distrust and doubt, should burst with envy after the results are announced," he said.

The Associated Press and several other news organizations have been denied accreditation by Karimov's government to cover Sunday's vote. But on a recent visit to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, an AP reporter saw a large number of police in green coats on the streets -- part of a show of force, critics say, meant to intimidate citizens before the vote.

In interviews, several Uzbeks harshly criticized Karimov, but few would allow their names to be used for fear of retaliation by authorities. "I never voted for him and never will," said Alisher Nizametdinov, 37, a schoolteacher, as he waited to board a flight from Moscow. "He's a small-time combination of Stalin and Saddam Hussein."

Surat Ikramov, an Uzbek human rights advocate, said the government had already begun pressuring people to vote for Karimov. Muslims pilgrims who sought permission to go to Mecca this month, he said, were pressed to cast absentee ballots for Karimov.

The pilgrims, he said, were also told to give authorities additional ballots signed by relatives.

A medical official in Tashkent -- who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety -- said young couples who show up for government-required premarital physical exams were also urged to vote for Karimov. The implication, he said, was that they might otherwise wait for weeks for the certificates.

Karimov has clung to power for almost two decades. He has won two previous elections, in 1991 and 2000, neither judged by international observers to be fair, and has had extended his tenure several times through referendums and votes by a submissive parliament.

In November, Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission approved Karimov's candidacy, although the constitution limits presidents to two terms.