TASHKENT (AFP) — Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov won another landslide victory, election officials said Monday, but former Soviet states and Western observers were split over whether the vote had been fair.
Karimov won a new seven-year term with 88.1 percent of the vote in Sunday's elections, the Central Election Commission said, compared with 91 percent in 2000.
While Russia's President Vladimir Putin and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) welcomed the result, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it had not met democratic standards.
Karimov, who has led Uzbekistan for 18 years, faced three opponents, each of whom were credited with three percent of the vote. The 69-year-old leader had banned independent media and political parties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned Tashkent to congratulate Karimov on his victory, said a statement from the Kremlin.
The two men "greatly appreciated the level of relations between Russia and Uzbekistan and said they were ready to resolve all questions in the spirit of partnership.
The observer mission of the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which includes several ex-Soviet countries criticised in the West as authoritarian, offered its own endorsement earlier Monday.
"The elections were a very important factor in the further democratisation of society in Uzbekistan," the CIS mission head Sergei Lebedev said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
But the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to give the Uzbek election a clean bill of health.
"The election generally failed to meet many OSCE commitments for democratic elections," said an OSCE statement.
Because the three nominal challengers to Karimov "publicly endorsed the incumbent, the electorate was deprived of a genuine choice", said the OSCE monitoring mission's chief, Walter Siegl.
"The hardly visible election campaign was characterised by the absence of any real competition of ideas and political views," the OSCE statement said.
The statement also questioned the "unusually high" turnout of 90.6 percent.
Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov, president of the Central Election Commission, insisted that no fraud claims had been reported.
"The elections took place in line... with democratic principles, in an open and transparent way," he added.
However, only a handful of independent election observers were present and few foreign journalists were given permission to enter the country.
A sprawling country of deserts, mountains and oases, Uzbekistan boasts Samarkand, one of the world's oldest cities and the burial place of legendary medieval conqueror Tamerlane.
The country is one of the world's biggest producers of cotton and has extensive natural gas and mineral reserves. But it has been slow at reforming its economy and unemployment is widespread.
Karimov sees himself as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. He has been denounced by human rights groups for imprisoning thousands of his own people for their political and religious views.
He is best known in the outside world for a bloody crackdown in 2005 on unrest in the eastern city of Andijan in which human rights activists say hundreds of civilians were killed by Uzbek security forces.
Journalists witnessed soldiers firing directly into a large crowd of unarmed demonstrators.
But Uzbek authorities blamed the violence entirely on Islamist rebels and said 187 people died. It was followed by a trial in which Western journalists and officials were also accused of plotting against the regime.
In a speech earlier this month, Karimov sought to mend ties with Western countries, which he has previously accused of waging an "information war" against Uzbekistan.
"Uzbekistan in its foreign policy has always been and remains an advocate of mutually beneficial cooperation and mutual respect with all neighbours... including the United States and Europe," he told foreign diplomats.
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