IBRAHIM ISKANDEROV's office as the vice president of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences is decorated in the style of a successful Communist official. Brocade drapes hang in the picture windows. A long dark hardwood conference table stands to one side. A dozen telephones crowd alongside his broad desk. Above the desk, an oil portrait of Vladimir Lenin fills an entire wall. The former head of the state planning agency and ex-deputy premier of Uzbekistan peppers his conversation with references to Karl Marx's "Das Kapital."
But Mr. Iskanderov uses Marxism to make an argument no Uzbek Communist would even have whispered to his closest friends a few years ago. Uzbekistan suffers from a "colonial relationship" with the Soviet Union, he says. According to Marx's labor theory of value, he carefully explains, Uzbek cotton is sold for a mere fifth of its worth.
"We have remained a source of raw materials," Iskanderov says. "Today 90 percent of our cotton is exported to the center and the profit stays in the center."
New type of party emerges
Iskanderov is no dissident. He faithfully reflects the views of Islam Karimov, who became Uzbekistan's party boss in June 1989 and then republican president in March 1990. The former economic planner represents a new brand of Communist in this stronghold of party power - the "national Communist."
Here and in other parts of the Soviet Union, Communists are finding that to survive they must shed the rhetoric of "proletarian internationalism" and embrace the cause of nationalism. In the Baltic republics, not unlike in Eastern Europe, the national Communists have formally broken from the Soviet Communist Party, even adopting a new identity as social democrats. Others, such as Uzbekistan's Mr. Karimov or the Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk, have more cautiously endorsed the ideas of nationalist movements w hile avoiding an open split with Moscow.
The nationalist cause was first championed in Uzbekistan by Birlik ("Unity"), an anticommunist movement for democratization founded in November 1988. Birlik advocated a broad program, including democratization, providing land to peasants, ending military service outside the republic, and solving severe ecological problems. But it hit hardest by exposing the systematic distortion of the Uzbek economy through the cotton monoculture.
Until recently, about 90 percent of Uzbek farmland was devoted to cotton cultivation. Under the Soviet central planning system, cheap raw cotton is shipped to mills in other republics, forcing Uzbekistan to buy clothing from outside at greater cost.
"They were telling us that the motherland should be self-sufficient in cotton," recalls Academician Tashmukhammedov, the director of the Institute of Plant Physiology and a Birlik leader. "But we lost bread and meat independence."
With a touch of bitterness, Birlik leaders say Karimov has snatched many of their ideas. Karimov has opened the door to greater private use of land, on a lease basis. Most important, he has reduced cotton cultivation by about 20 percent in the last two years and got Moscow to pay a higher price for it. And among republican leaders, Karimov has emerged as one of the most forceful advocates of republican control over resources and internal affairs, within a Soviet federation.
Yet Karimov's role divides the ranks of the democratic and nationalist movement. Some democrats say he is a Communist wolf in nationalist clothing, one who suppresses the democratic movement to retain a Communist monopoly of power.
"Karimov is a Stalinist," the bearded Birlik co-chairman Abdur Makat Pulatov says angrily, replying in part to the less harsh views of his colleagues in the poster-festooned Birlik headquarters. "He is an advocate of the command-administered system, against privatization, for the kolkhoz [collective farms]. He wants the press to be controlled."
Mr. Tashmukhammedov sees Karimov more positively. "Karimov is like [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev: One can push him left. But we can't push the [party] apparatus left. They are our main target." And is Karimov truly a nationalist? "He would like to secede, without democratization," answers Tashmukhammedov.
"He is merely playing with the national feelings of the people," disagrees Mr. Pulatov. When the new treaty of union is ready, "he'll be the first to sign it."
Wherever the truth may lie, there is no denying that Karimov's national communism has been successful in gaining popular support, including from the Uzbek intelligentsia.
"Today [Karimov] would even win direct elections," says Timour Valyev, a cybernetics professor and former Birlik leader. He formally left the movement last fall when he became a member of Karimov's Presidential Council.
Karimov is an "honest person," says Mr. Valyev. "He is trying, using his own ways, to improve living conditions for the people of Uzbekistan. He may be mistaken on certain points but he is capable of learning and drawing lessons." In part, he says, Karimov is limited by the power of the party and state bureaucracy, particularly on the distribution of land for private farming.
Real reforms blocked?
The party bosses block real agricultural reform, agrees agronomist Mirza-Ali Muhammedjanov. He served as agriculture minister about 30 years ago, but was ousted for his opposition to the cotton monoculture. Agricultural land should be given to peasants on a permanent lease with the right to pass it on to their children, he says. At least 80 percent of state and collective farms are inefficient and should be disbanded, he explains. Collectivization is closely tied to the cotton monoculture and the severe agricultural crisis, he concludes. Full privatization is difficult in Uzbekistan because of the high ratio of population to land, he argues.
The Karimov leadership offers a moderate version of this view. The party has proposed long-term leasing of land but without inheritance. It wants to retain the collective farms that are its power base in the rural areas where about 80 percent of the Uzbek population lives. And while Karimov talks sharply about the need to gain control of Uzbek destiny, he steers far clear of any talk of independence.
"We gave it a thought," says Iskanderov. "But the economic connections with other republics are so deep-rooted that we cannot cut them today."
Economists such as Iskanderov want to reform the distortions that sprang from the myth that the Soviet economy is an integrated structure in which each republic has its specializations.
"In this republic, we should have been developing light industry and cotton mills," explains Iskanderov. "Instead they built jumbo factories with 37,000 workers, and built them in cities while there was no industrial development in rural areas."
Though independence is rejected, there are nascent moves to form an economic bloc of the four Central Asian republics and Kazakhstan, all of which share similar complaints of colonial exploitation by the center. Iskanderov chairs a study group that is developing plans for such a grouping.
Muhammedjanov, who proudly shows visitors his medal for 50 years of Communist Party membership, finds Karimov a refreshing change from the earlier leaders. "He can resist Moscow. He has his own opinion. Maybe he overplays it sometimes. Many say he has a dictatorial nature. Some elements of that are there. If he develops those, it will be too bad."