Uzbekistan post-Karimov: a real thaw or just a case of black ice?11 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Politics
Emerging as a new and independent state after the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has remained one of the world’s most isolated countries under the rule of President Islam Karimov. This month marks the two year anniversary since Karimov’s death, and the new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is putting a lot of effort into branding himself as a reformer. In 2017 he adopted a development strategy aimed at shaking up the system. The question that remains, however, is whether Uzbekistan is heading towards a real thaw or if recent developments will prove to be a slippery illusion, like a winter road glazed over in black ice.

This September marks the two year anniversary since Uzbekistan’s first President and long-time authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, died. At the time of his death, Karimov had been ruling Uzbekistan for 27 years, first as the Communist Party’s First Secretary and then as President of a newly established and independent country.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union it soon became evident that the Uzbek leadership would opt for a continuation of an authoritarian system, which, as the years went by, increasingly got shaped by the particularities of Karimov’s personality. While domestic politics have been defined by the elimination of all kinds of opposition – especially beating down on believers of Islam – foreign policy has become isolationist at best and characterized by personal feuds at worst.

In this setting, the unexpected death of Karimov two years ago had foreign diplomats and experts wondering if this would be the moment when we would see this tightly controlled country plunge into chaos as a result of an elite struggle, potentially destabilizing the whole region, or if business would continue as usual. The fact that it took days of confusion and rising suspense before the government officially confirmed the death of its leader added to a feeling of unease, as observers and spectators alike questioned what was going on in the corridors of power. While there had been no apparent successor in place, the position of Interim President was soon assumed by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a longstanding representative of Karimov’s inner circle, who in December 2016 became formally elected as the country’s new President.

Even before assuming office, Mirziyoyev vowed that this would be a time for change and reforms aimed at building a stronger and more prosperous Uzbekistan. In following up on this promise, Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy for 2017-2021 was adopted in February 2017. According to this document, the government is set to give highest priority to strengthening parliament and improving the judicial system, to develop the economy along with the social sphere, while conducting a constructive and balanced foreign policy. In itself an impressive reform agenda, it signals a break from some of the fundamental pillars upon which the old system has rested. However, it also casts Mirziyoyev in a favorable light for the public at home, while hoping to quiet some of the harsher critics on the international stage. Now, two years into Mirziyoyev’s presidency, it is time to have a look at what has been accomplished so far.

One step forward, two steps back

Although the development strategy wasn’t adopted by the time that Mirziyoyev won the presidential election (counting 88.6 percent of the vote), the fact that the OSCE deemed it rigged, without real political competition and lacking transparency, did not bode well for future development. In this light, it’s rather ironic that one of the key priorities of the Development Strategy is aimed at expanding the power of the parliament, strengthening the role of political parties and opening up for real political competition.

While there has been some uncertainties regarding the future role of the powerful and much feared State Security Service (SSS), the sacking of its long-time head in January 2018, Rustam Inoyatov, initially seemed to indicate a step in the right direction. Inoyatov, who not only ran an organisation infamous for its brutal methods of torture and killing for 23 years, was also considered one of the key players of Karimov’s inner circle and a potential successor to the throne.

However, rather than indicating that the current government would be ready to take steps towards liberalization and democracy, the removal of Inoyatov seems to have been part of Mirziyoyev’s consolidation of power, aiming to get rid of old Karimov loyalists that potentially could pose a threat to his rule (another Karimov loyalist and a strong candidate for the presidency, Rustam Azimov was removed from his post as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in June 2017). Judging from recent developments, it seems like the government is rather moving away from the goals stated in the Development Strategy; in April of this year, it was reported that the new head of the SSS, Ikhtiyor Abdullayev, using rhetoric reminiscent of the Karimov-years, lashed out against nationalist-minded opposition groups. He concluded that if non-state opposition parties such as Erk and Birlik would be allowed to legalize their activity, it would “disrupt peace and tranquillity in our country”.   

On the positive side, one of the most talked about reform measures taken by Mirziyoyev has been the establishment of a “virtual reception hall”, encouraging people to report problems and grievances regarding the conduct of state officials. Something that would have been unimaginable two years ago, the service has already registered 1.5 million reports. This might indicate an “Uzbek spring” in terms of new hope and trust for a government at the service of the people, and not the other way around.

Finally, it seems like the new government has taken some steps to ease up on freedom of expression. Some online magazines have begun covering topics such as forced labor (a tradition dating back to the Soviet days, when people would be forced to work on the cotton fields during harvest season), even daring to criticize the Karimov rule. What’s more, a tv-show tackling taboos and criticizing public officials is being aired, produced by a non-governmental body and giving further legitimacy to the government’s promise to strengthen the position of the country’s journalists and media. The new government also has released 16 prisoners of conscience including journalists, opposition figures and human rights activists since 2016 – a sharp contrast to previous decades, when one, maybe two would be released per year. Nonetheless, thousands of innocent people are still kept imprisoned, and new arrests of journalists and bloggers also continue to take place.

Improving the judicial system?

Another key priority of the new government is to reform the judicial system. This would focus on ensuring true independence of the judiciary, strengthening courts, guaranteeing protection of rights and freedoms of citizens, and strengthening the rule of law. According to the Minister of Justice, Ruslanbek Davletov, the main achievements regarding this sector so far has been the introduction of a new administrative court, allowing citizens to sue state bodies. Additionally, Davletov claims that more courts of different kinds will be opened, as a way of improving physical access to justice around the country.

In 2013 the UN Committee against Torture found that torture was “institutionalized, systematic and rampant” in the Uzbek justice system. However, as the new president has decried the use of torture, a resolution has been passed to introduce video surveillance in detention centers. Furthermore, a special mechanism that checks the validity of alleged torture claims has been introduced. Davletov also stated that there will be no impunity for security officers who use torture against prisoners. The fact that several officers were arrested after torturing a Bukhara entrepreneur, leading to the man’s death, seems to indicate a step in the right direction. However, only time will tell whether these changes will continue to stick. The fact that Uzbekistan is still ran top-down with a justice system that continues to score a clean 7 on Freedom Houses rating of Judicial Framework and Independence (on a scale where 1 indicates the highest level of democratic progress, while 7 is the lowest) might be an indicator that these changes are more cosmetique, arranged in way that make Mirziyoyev shine in a better light than his predecessor. The fact is that with regards to torture, no structural steps have been taken to indicate real change. In the two years that Mirziyoyev has been in power, Uzbekistan still has not signed the UN anti-torture protocol or allowed for international organisations to conduct independent prison monitoring.

Moving towards a market economy?

For what it’s worth, it seems like the economic sector is the one true beneficiary of Mirziyoyev’s reform program. While the overall objective is to move away from a highly state-controlled and nationalized system that has hampered both private entrepreneurship and foreign investment for decades, the government still has a long way to go. However, big changes are already taking place. In September 2017, restrictions on exchanging the Uzbek soum was lifted, making it easier and more attractive for foreigners to invest in the country. With Uzbekistan as the second largest economy of Central Asia and the fact that talks to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have restarted, it is clear that Mirziyoyev is preparing to open up to international markets. This is a big change considering that Uzbekistan has been one of the world’s most isolated and closed off countries for nearly three decades. In order to boost the development of private entrepreneurship, different economic zones and tax breaks for investors have also been established.

On a more cynical note, the fact that so much effort is put into the economic sector and generating growth makes it plausible to think that the reform agenda is really about legitimizing the rule of the new regime by capitalizing on Uzbek’s thirst for economic prosperity and change. As the living standards for ordinary people most likely will increase in the coming years, it will also be easier to forgive the fact that less will be done with regards to politics and human rights.

Additionally, Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters. Following in the tracks of the Soviet Union, the Uzbek cotton industry has mobilized over a million people annually in state-orchestrated forced labor. The fact that Mirziyoyev during his speech to the UN General assembly in 2017 publicly mentioned the existence of forced labor in the country can be seen as a step forward. As a further confirmation that things are changing, the US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report upgraded Uzbekistan from its tier III position to tier II, stating that even though much remains to be done before forced labor will be eradicated, the government is making significant efforts to do so. Some Human Rights activists have also stated that even though the practice is expected to continue, genuine and regular dialogue between government officials, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) and activists are now happening, something that would have been unimaginable two years ago.

During Karimov’s rule little to nothing was ever done to secure the well being of the population. According to statistics from 2016, around 12 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line. In part, this situation can be attributed the inefficient and harmful economic policies that have been guiding the country for decades. Additionally the scarcity of employment opportunities have resulted in large scale migration, with about 10 percent of the population living abroad. One of the greatest challenges that Mirziyoyev is faced with is to create jobs and increase real income, especially since 56 percent of the current Uzbek population is under 30 years old.

Mirziyoyev the reformer?

At first glance, it seems like Mirziyoyev indeed can be called a reformer. However, it is evident that more emphasis has been put on economic development than changing the political system. This is probably part of a bigger scheme that seeks to consolidate power around Mirziyoyev, boosted by popular support thanks the revenues that the new economic policy will bring back home.

As long as members of Karimov’s inner circle continue to rule the country, any radical reforms that would set the country on a different path are unlikely to materialize. What’s more, the fact that Uzbekistan has few well-trained civil servants, deeply rooted and widespread corruption on all levels of society and a collective mentality shaped by decades of authoritarian rule would make real reformation a nightmare for any kind of ruler. Rather, what is happening now should be understood as a strategy aimed at modernizing the authoritarian structures. This is the objective that is guiding Uzbekistan’s new economic policies as well as its foreign policy. As some observers have already picked up on, the most likely scenario regarding Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda would be to copy the Kazakh model, continuing to keep a tight grip over politics while experimenting with liberalizing the economy.

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