The former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan is standing against Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Blackburn. He was sacked after making complaints about the UK goverment using information obtained under torture by the Uzbekistan government. Stan Crooke reviews a new book by Shahram Akbarzadeh, Uzbekistan and the United States - Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington's Security Agenda (Zed books). It won't he says, answer all your questions about this former Soviet republic.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Uzbekistan has regressed from one-party rule to one-man rule - that of President Islam Karimov.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Uzbek Communist Party (UCP) was renamed the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (PDPU). The UCP General Secretary, Karimov, was elected leader of the PDPU and President of the newly independent Uzbekistan.
All political parties in Uzbekistan support Karimov. They do not challenge each other on the basis of political differences. They compete with each other in showing loyalty to Karimov. Political parties which do not support Karimov are simply banned.
Presidential elections are equally devoid of genuine democratic substance. In the 2000 elections, for example, PDPU First Secretary Jalalov ran against Karimov. But Jalalov had no policy differences with Karimov. In fact, Jalalov so admired Karimov that he voted for him in the elections.
This concentration of power in the hands of Karimov is maintained through attacks on freedom of the media, attacks on members of NGOs critical of the government, the imprisonment of thousands of political opponents, and the systematic use of torture.
The book's treatment of Islamism in Uzbekistan is far less clear-cut than its description of the authoritarian regime established by Karimov.
Reference is made to the Islamic Renaissance Party (founded in 1991, but banned and defunct by 1993), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (essentially a military organisation formed in 1998, but now apparently collapsed), and Hizb-ut Tahrir (the current level of support for which is unknown).
Despite the apparent weakness of these Islamist organisations - with two of them non-existent, and the third an unknown quantity - Akbarzadeh nonetheless concludes: "Within a decade Islamism in Uzbekistan has grown to be a real force with broad implications for that state and the region as a whole."
That conclusion also seems to be at odds with the more general argument raised by Akbarzadeh, i.e. that the influence of Islamism is exaggerated by the Uzbek authorities in order to justify its authoritarianism: "The history of Islamic activism in Uzbekistan does not support the official presentation of Islamic radicalism as an ever-present danger, requiring constant vigilance."
But this argument is contradicted by another of Akbarzadeh's (tentative) conclusions: "The (Uzbek authorities') fear of growing Islamism may be justified." At the same time, however, Akbarzadeh twice accuses the Uzbek authorities of "Islamophobia". (Bearing in mind that Karimov presents himself as the upholder of "real" Islam in Uzbekistan, this accusation seems particularly out of place.)
After September 11th Washington actively promoted closer ties with Uzbekistan - an eager partner in the American "war on terrorism" - and became less critical of Karimov's human rights record. Akbarzadeh's overall conclusion then that Karmov's heavy-handed suppression of Islamists and his close relationship with the US have provided a fertile ground for the growth of Islamist organisations such as Hizb-ut Tahrir, and have also pushed such organisations into more radical and uncompromising positions.
This may well be the case but the book is too short on substance to allow for a proper assessment of the author's conclusions.