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Uzbek leader rejects USSR-style blocs ahead of vote


zUzbek President Islam Karimov has ruled out joining any economic blocs led by “a bigger brother” ahead of a poll that is expected to see him extend his 25-year rule in the ex-Soviet nation.

Karimov, 77, made the thinly-veiled jab at Communist-era master Russia during a closely-controlled appearance in the run-up to a March 29 election he is the overwhelming favourite to win, a member of the public who was at the event told AFP on Wednesday.

“Today there are some initiatives to revive the old system in some other forms,” the source quoted Karimov, who appeared in good health, as saying at the event on Tuesday.

“I promise you Uzbekistan will never join such blocs aimed at bringing back old times with a bigger brother. Today Uzbekistan has its firm geopolitical position and we no longer listen to others.”

Direct quotes from the meeting were not given in the republic’s tightly-controlled national press.

While Karimov did not name specific countries according to the source, it is likely that he was reiterating his opposition to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union that also includes Kazakstan, Belarus and Armenia.

Although Russia is the Central Asian country’s largest trade partner, Uzbekistan is believed to have been unnerved by the Ukraine conflict.

Uzbekistan exited the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation in 2012, but remains part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which encompasses both China and Russia as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

According to the AFP source, Karimov, 77, appeared energetic for his years and frequently joked with voters, seemingly belying persistent rumours about his ill-health.

His ever-rarer public appearances have fuelled rumours about heart attacks in recent years.

Karimov faces no serious opposition in the upcoming vote that will extend his current term by five years and his re-election campaign has been low key, with limited press involvement.

An official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said that this was because of the “huge advantage” he enjoyed over his rivals.

“It was his decision to give less media coverage of his pre-election campaign and give his opponents more of a chance to gain popularity,” the official said

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