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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Uzbekistan, Karimov Is All That Counts

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - When a delegation of foreign journalists arrived here expecting to meet the government, they instead learned that all of their scheduled interviews had been canceled except one - a meeting with the president.

This was only fitting for Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's all-powerful president who, through a tight grip over his government and people, has succeeded in becoming his country's sole voice.

A 55-year-old former Communist Party leader and finance minister, Karimov has, since becoming president in March 1990, established himself as an absolute ruler who controls even the finest details - sometimes including the design of his lunch invitations.

In a rare interview granted to a group of foreign journalists, Karimov justified his authoritarian rule by reference to the country's new constitution. It grants the president strong executive powers, as well as protecting him from "insults" or public demonstrations organized by the political opposition.

But Karimov has been widely criticized as the most hardline leader in the former Soviet Union, a man who has effectively silenced political debate by cracking down on those who would challenge him.

Uzbekistan today has an air of the cloaked world of the Soviet past. KGB agents are known to harass members of the opposition and visitors; people on the street are reluctant to discuss politics with journalists. Control over issuing visas has been tightened in recent months, and journalists who have met with opposition members have been searched and expelled.

This tightening of control, Karimov said, is justified by threats to Uzbekistan's stability from outside its borders.

Generally reserved, the Uzbek leader during the two-hour interview at times burst into diatribes against what he saw as a lack of understanding for his position.

"I am convinced that in this period of transition, of building our statehood, we need strong executive power", he said, sitting at the front of a hall at the Palace of People's Friendship. "If we don't observe the constitution, then there will be chaos".

With a worried eye cast toward the civil war in Tajikistan, the threat of encroaching Islamic fundamentalism from neighboring states, a growing drug and arms trade in Afghanistan, and Russia's political and economic turmoil to the north, Karimov has chosen a path of gradual economic reform with limited political freedom for his own country.

He banned one opposition movement in January - Birlik (Unity) was suspended for three months - has closed down newspapers, and put opposition leaders on trial for publicly insulting him. Another opposition leader, Mukhamed Salikh, said last week that he believed he would be arrested within days.

In the interview, Karimov accused his opponents of taking advantage of the "fragility of constitutional authority to establish parallel state structures", apparently referring to Salikh's party, Erk, which tried to challenge Karimov by creating its own popular assembly.

"We have witnessed the experiences of Azerbaijan and Tajikistan", he said. "It can only lead to violence and civil war".

His government has encouraged religious revival in Uzbekistan since the country declared its independence from the atheist Soviet Union after the failed coup in August 1991. But Karimov - whose political savvy led him to use a copy of the Koran when he was sworn in as president - said that fundamentalism now threatens to destabilize Uzbekistan.

"Islam and the rules of the Koran play a role in moral and spiritual revival", he said. But he said fundamentalism, which he defined as "religion interfering in politics", could only lead to anarchy like in Tajikistan, where he said over 30, 000 people have been killed since May 1992.

His voice rising and hands slicing the air, Karimov defended himself as a democratically elected leader who enjoyed the support of his people.

"You all love Akayev and Nazarbayev", he said, referring to the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. "But they got 99. 8 percent of their votes. Are those democratic elections? "

By contrast, Karimov said that he had run in "Central Asia's only democratic elections", where he won 86 percent of the vote. Salikh was the only other candidate.

Karimov, who said that multiparty elections will be held in 1994, has outlined a five-point plan for his country's transformation from a Soviet republic to an independent state. The plan calls for economic reform to take precedence over politics, a gradual transition to a market economy, and strong social guarantees to buffer Uzbekistan's largely Moslem population of 22 million from the shock of reform.

"Here, one person who works has five dependents", he said. "If we had taken the same path as Russia, we would have suffered a social explosion long ago".

Uzbekistan has about 200 joint ventures registered, but on the streets there are few signs of market reforms. Tashkent's thoroughfares are virtually bare of the kiosks that line Moscow, and locals say that the government has, for reasons unexplained, closed down a number of small businesses.

By keeping a tight rein over reform, Karimov said he has saved his country from the disastrous economic decline that Russia suffered last year. He said that industrial production fell only 4. 5 percent in 1992, compared with over 20 percent for Russia.

Although he said he sees "no other leader" for Russia except for Boris Yeltsin, he still sharply criticized the Russian president's reforms, whose effects, including inflation, have rippled into Uzbekistan. He said that food for his people was his government's first priority, while Russia should guarantee the security of all Central Asia.

"I want to cry when I see old people in Russia digging through the trash bins", he said.