CABAR.asia: Assessment of elections in Uzbekistan: Expert opinions and geopolitical incision
“The fact that there have been no incidents and the elections were held in a peaceful atmosphere does not yet imply the transparency of the electoral process, and certainly does not show a high level of democratization of the Uzbek society”, – an expert from Tashkent, specially for CABAR.asia, forecasts further development of Uzbekistan led by a new president.
Presidential elections in Uzbekistan ended with a predictable result: by the evening of December 4, preliminary data were known, and with a landslide victory the current Acting President of Uzbekistan took the lead.
In the meantime, even before the elections, competent experts wrote that if S. Mirziyoev gained 70% of the votes, it would indicate that the latter will be an even tougher authoritarian ruler than the late I.A. Karimov.
Thus, the elections have passed, the results are declared. Naturally, there are those who saw positive trends in the past elections, just as there are those who negatively assessed the election process and further destiny of Uzbekistan as a whole. This article attempts to address the polar opinions of various experts, as well as forecast further development of Uzbekistan headed by the new president.
The divergence of opinions
The elections in Uzbekistan passed without any sensations. It is clear that no one expected from Uzbekistan scenarios like Brexit or the American elections, considering that Central Asia has its own specifics. It should be understood that over the past quarter-century, traditions inherent to Uzbekistan have developed that influence the process of transition of authority. Accordingly, when considering the election results in the Republic of Uzbekistan, it would be apt to consider these nuances. However, in reality the views on the election results in Uzbekistan are sharply divided among experts from different countries.
Naturally, most of the experts emphasized the successful holding of elections in Uzbekistan. And it is generally objective, because almost every year for the past 15-20 years all sorts of experts predicted chaos and bloodshed in Uzbekistan after Islam Karimov’s departure. Given these forecasts, the peaceful environment in which the elections were held, shows that the alarmist approach in this case was not justified.
Of particular note is that, despite the complexity of the situation, when the first leader died suddenly, without defining a clear mechanism for the transfer of power and determining a successor, the Uzbek elites were able to reach a consensus. The very fact of reaching consensus through peaceful means already suggests that the national elite formed certain values and a vision for further development of the country.
In Uzbekistan, where the personality factor in determining the course of the state played a huge role, the conduct of the elections and their results are quite objective. When talking about Uzbekistan, most experts emphasize the role of its first President. Thus, the Uzbek analysts wrote in one of their works: “I. A. Karimov was able to ensure political stability in the country, where there were all preconditions for civil wars such as in Tajikistan, or coups such as in Kyrgyzstan. Also, in contrast to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Karimov was able to avoid the aggravation of inter-ethnic conflicts in the country. The religious situation in Uzbekistan, despite the strong religiosity of the population remained stable. Karimov harshly suppressed the activity of religious fanatics and extremists on the territory, and as much as possible in the region. All this was possible owing to the personal authority of Islam Karimov and his policies“.
After the death of the first president of the Republic of Uzbekistan no politician in Uzbekistan enjoys equal respect and influence as Karimov did. This is an enormous weakness of the current situation in Uzbekistan, since everything in the country was heavily resting on one person that there was no room for anyone else on the political Olympus.
Under these circumstances, the authorities of the country, headed by the Acting President of Uzbekistan S. Mirziyoev were able to organize and hold peaceful elections.
Peaceful atmosphere = transparency?
On the other hand, the fact that there have been no incidents and the elections were held in a peaceful atmosphere does not yet imply the transparency of the electoral process, and certainly does not show a high level of democratization of the Uzbek society. Thus, for example, 88.61% of the votes received by S. Mirziyoev, confirmed the high level of ambition of the newly elected president of Uzbekistan. Some observers do not rule out the possibility of the authorities adjusting the results of the vote. Substantiating this thesis, some experts point out that during the last year’s elections in the summer of 2015 the late President Islam Karimov won 90.39% of votes at the 91% turnout of voters themselves. Probably S. Mirziyoev could not exceed this figure, because it would be fraught with accusations against him of being too overbearing and disrespectful of the first president.
Uzmetronom, a periodical known for its quite competent analytical assessments of the situation in Uzbekistan, is also doubting the reliability of the election results. In the article “I have come to give you free rein?” the author asked a reasonable question: “How can one believe that a man, while always in the shade under Karimov’s rule, was able to win such recognition and sympathy of the population within a matter of a month“. At the same time, in the same edition, the author notes that the possible answer to this question is related to the fact that people have immensely tired of their leader’s irremovability from office and the absence of any change in their life.
As for the elections themselves, then one must admit that the authorities were able to make every effort to ensure a peaceful voting process. Either there really was no incident in the country, or the authorities were able to prevent such cases from getting into the media. However, small irregularities could not be avoided. Thus, according to Russian media, despite the ban on the so-called “family voting“, a complete elimination of this practice and its components was not possible. As it is known, in previous years, citizens of Uzbekistan could vote on behalf of their family members, having their relatives’ passports on them. At that, the experts observed that women continue to vote on the advice of their husbands or fathers.
The evaluation of international observers was generally positive. However, according to Western media, including American, the elections cannot be marked as absolutely transparent. As noted in the publication, there have been vote buying and ballot-box stuffing. But, in contrast to the primitive forms of bribery, by transferring money to the voter, Uzbek spin doctors worked well. According to an expert from Tashkent, S. Mirziyoev’s team particularly relied on the mahalla (neighborhood) leaders. It is the heads of the mahallas who had the task of creating a positive image of the already president elect. This move, by the way, was also designed for prompt resolutions of force majeure situations. As it is known, the heads of mahalla in Uzbekistan are considered to be the most esteemed figures among the common people. People listen to their opinions with more willingness than to those of the authorities.
Apart from that, S. Mirziyoev’s team organized a big discount on food items in Tashkent, the most populous polling station. In some places, food prices dropped by 50% over the weekend. Also, public transportation on the day of elections carried passengers free of charge. Thus, the authorities gave hope to the population in the solution of pressing social and economic issues of millions of citizens.
Assessments by the centers of power
Noting the elections in Uzbekistan as successful, a major Chinese newspaper Huantsyu Shibao expressed the hope for the leadership of the Republic of Uzbekistan to change its position on foreign economic cooperation. In particular, the publication notes that Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov artificially slowed down the development of Sino-Uzbek economic relations. The Publication writes: “China’s interests would be in the expansion of Chinese investment in Uzbekistan, particularly in the agricultural sector“. The Sina.com periodical notes that the election results were predictable and did not bring any surprises. At the same time, Chinese experts have shown concern on the question of as to who will be the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan. There are opinions that Rustam Azimov will not be granted this post. Analysts of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences pointed out that further foreign economic activity of Uzbekistan will largely depend on the appointment of its Prime Minister. If R.Azimov is not appointed as the head of government, S. Mirziyoev will put his own man on the job. And this, in turn, can lead to an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the newly elected president. By the way, R.Azimov’s candidacy as prime minister is also not very accommodating for Beijing. It is believed that Azimov is strongly oriented towards the West. In particular, the Chinese experts believe, in case R. Azimov finds himself as head of government, he will maintain pro-Western (pro-US) course.
In general, the Chinese media analysis shows that the Chinese government (through the channels of expertise and controlled media) expressed great concerns about the future of their relations with Uzbekistan. In particular, especially perturbing to Beijing, judging from the publications, is Tashkent’s course on foreign policy. Thus, most threatening, in Beijing’s view, is the probable rapprochement of Tashkent with Moscow, for which, according to Chinese analysts, there are all prerequisites.
It is no secret that criticisms are already being directed at the newly elected president of Uzbekistan. Thus, some experts noted that S. Mirziyoev is particularly rigid, especially when it comes to domestic policy. In an interview, an expert on religion from Tashkent said that S. Mirziyoev, during the years of his premiership, had repeatedly demonstrated harshness in internal and religious policies. President-elect is described as cold-blooded, shrewd politician, who focuses only on the bottom line and one hundred percent loyalty. Noting the personal qualities of S. Mirziyoev and his management style, analysts predict that under the new president Uzbekistan will see plenty of new bans and tighter control over its own population.
In part, this side of the expert’s arguments is well-grounded. However, most likely, all this will remain at the level of discourse, as the real course of the state with the new administration under S. Mirziyoev will be based on existing objectives and problematic issues. In this respect, a strong power will ensure stability in society and durability of foreign policy positions. Otherwise, if the central government in Uzbekistan is weakened, the vacuum can be filled by religious extremists, whom Karimov was able to quell. Nobody is interested in underground extremists and terrorists turning the country into a battlefield. Such a scenario attracts neither the Uzbek elite nor the regional players – Russia, China and the United States. That is exactly why the latter, despite the fact that it has many an issue with Uzbekistan in terms of human rights, is unlikely going to be deliberately playing on the contradictions within the clans and take the course towards destabilization of the situation.
In speaking of the prospects of Uzbekistan, an edition of the Apostrophe openly states: “Karimov has left behind one of the most closed and unfree countries in the world. Despite the wealth of natural resources, the unenviable internal situation in Uzbekistan can be indicated by the place this Central Asian country occupies in the world rankings. Thus, Uzbekistan is on the 158 place out of 167 on the index of democracy, 153 place out of 167 on the Corruption Perception Index and 166 out of 178 on the index of economic freedom“.
With regard to foreign policy, it all became clear from the first days of S. Mirziyoev assuming the current position of Acting President. In other words, S. Mirziyoev will continue to adhere to the multi-vector policy of Karimov, trying to keep the balance between the main geopolitical centers: Russia, China and the US. At that, some Russian experts forecast rapprochement of Tashkent with Moscow on matters of military cooperation. For example, in the publication Svobodnaya pressa (Free Press) the Head of the Central Asian section of RISS, Dmitry Alexandrov, said that “it is unlikely that there will be foreign military bases on the territory of Uzbekistan. But revitalization of military-technical cooperation with Russia will occur“. In addition, Russian experts remind us that about 15% of the budget of Uzbekistan is comprised of the funds being sent to their homeland by Uzbek labor migrants from Russia. In this way, Russian experts suggest, there is a certain dependence of Tashkent on Russia.
At the same time, it is clear that it will be difficult for the Uzbek authorities to resist the expansion of Chinese economic influence. Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country that strictly localizes Chinese presence in its economy. However, recently the Uzbek authorities have also begun to open previously closed doors to Chinese investors. Thus, following the Dzhizak FEZ and a similar zone in Navoi, the parties are also agreeing on the opening of a new special economic zone. Moreover, Tashkent continues to sell natural gas to China and, apparently volumes of natural gas are going to increase. Finally, the new authorities in Ok-sarai will need to determine their position on the construction of the railway China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan. As it is known Karimov’s administration was able to slow down the project for years. Will the new authorities in Tashkent be in a position to do so, but most importantly, whether they will be interested in limiting Chinese influence in the country, remains to be seen.
On the whole, in conclusion I would like to note that the global and regional powers, particularly Uzbekistan’s neighbors are interested in maintaining political, economic and religious stability in Uzbekistan. Growth of terrorist and extremist activity in the Republic of Uzbekistan is highly unacceptable to the Central Asian region, as it will also affect the situation across the whole territory of Eurasia.
It is equally important for Uzbekistan’s neighbors in the region that Tashkent gradually changes its positions on regional cooperation. It is this very blockage that Uzbekistan maintained on a number of important initiatives over all these years, that prevented the opportunity to develop Central Asian integration. It is due to Tashkent’s obstruction of such initiatives as CAREC, CAEC, CAC and many other platforms designed to deepen integration among the republics of the Central Asian Region, that they have not yet moved into a practical stage. Meanwhile, as competition is growing among the world powers that have polar interests, increasingly evident becomes the fact that it is necessary and appropriate to form Central Asian integration without the involvement of any external forces.
 I have come to give you free rein? 06.12.2016 http://www.uzmetronom.com/2016/12/06/ja_prishjol_dat_vam_volju.html
 Shavkat Mirziyoev was the President of Uzbekistan http://greatest.info/shavkat-mirziyoev-was-the-president-of-uzbekistan/
乌兹别克斯坦总统大选初步结果：米罗济约耶夫当选 (Preliminary results of presidential elections in Uzbekistan: Mirziyoev elected President) http://world.huanqiu.com/hot/2016-12/9775146.html
米尔济约耶夫高票当选乌兹别克斯坦总统 (Mirziyoev elected President of Uzbekistan) http://finance.sina.com.cn/roll/2016-12-05/doc-ifxyicnf1647994.shtml
 On the threshold of a big bang: What awaits Uzbekistan under the new president 06.12.2016 http://apostrophe.ua/article/world/asia/2016-12-06/na-poroge-bolshogo-vzryiva-chto-jdet-uzbekistan-pri-novom-prezidente/8702
 Uzbekistan will cover for Russia from the south 06.12.2016 г. http://svpressa.ru/politic/article/162016/
The position of the author does not necessarily reflect the position of the CABAR.asia editorial board