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After Islam Karimov, Any Leader of Uzbekistan Would Be Forced to Liberalize [Interview]

“Certainly, [Uzbek society] requests better living conditions. At the same time, the society is very conservative, even the younger generation (especially outside Tashkent). Most still believe the affirmation that stability is the greatest value. There are even opinions that Mirziyoyev’s reforms are too rapid,” said Temur Umarov, an expert on Uzbekistan and consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He answered CABAR.asia’s questions.


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CABAR.asia: On December 22, parliamentary elections were held in Uzbekistan. The OSCE/ODIHR mission in the Interim Report recognized “visible progress in improving election legislation and practices”. How do you comment on this?

Temur Umarov: Indeed, the progress in the procedures and preparations for the elections cannot be denied.

First, the legal basis for the whole procedure was created. For the first time, a single Electoral Code regulates elections in the country. Earlier, there were five separate election laws in Uzbekistan; their points sometimes even contradicted each other. Second, a single electronic voters list was created (which included about 20 million potential voters). In addition, for the first time, people were able to vote in prisons. Special attention was paid to 1.8 million Uzbek migrants around the world.

Temur Umarov. Photo from Facebook
Temur Umarov. Photo from Facebook

There were other improvements: the number of electoral areas was increased and the population was evenly distributed among them; the quota for the environmental movement in Parliament was removed: they, like everyone else, have to contest a seat in the Legislative Chamber now. A lot has changed in the election campaigns’ financing: all expenses of election campaigns have been paid by the state; the gender balance situation improved in parties.

The wide media coverage of the election campaigning should be highlighted separately. The Uzbek society has never evidenced such a thing before. TV debates, campaigning on social networks, parodies of candidates on Youtube, bloggers’ interviews. This is good news.

On the other hand, there were still obstacles to registering new parties, and independent candidates could not be nominated outside the party lists. There were other problems (ballots stuffing, fraud attempts), but the fact that these problems were covered in the media and social networks is a positive trend.

What to expect from the results of the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan? Are the fundamental changes possible? Will the new Parliament become a tool for controlling the executive branch?

First, the elections were important experience for all the participants: candidates, parties, government agencies and the voters themselves. There was nothing like this for almost thirty years in the country. Therefore, initially, neither the authorities, nor the experts, nor the voters had any expectations of the results.

Only five pro-presidential parties, which were previously represented in Parliament, participated in the elections. The Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party traditionally won the election. In other words, the basics have remained unchanged. Even the CEC stated that it is necessary to wait several more electoral cycles for the realistic elections.

The real benefit, even though it is small, of these elections is the Parliament’s renewal: more young people and women are represented in it.

Parliamentary elections day in Uzbekistan. Photo: currenttime.tv
Parliamentary elections day in Uzbekistan. Photo: currenttime.tv

According to the Uzbek media, the registered parties have different views on the important for the country issues. For example, they have a different opinion regarding joining the EAEU. What does this mean?

We do not have to make a big deal of this, and here is why: indeed, parties are actively discussing the pressing issues: lack of electricity and gas supply in cities and villages, poor education quality; some interviews even raised very sensitive issues, for example, human rights. However, this is discussed within the framework of competition between parties. Not a single candidate opposed the authorities, criticized the government’s actions or disputed any reform.

Therefore, issues on which the country’s leadership has not yet expressed a clear opinion can be discussed. It would be hard to imagine big debates about joining the EAEU if the President, for example, had already announced his decision.

What do you think about Uzbekistan joining the EAEU?

Hard to tell. Joining the EAEU has both pros and cons. Those market segments that are better developed in Uzbekistan than in the EAEU countries will undoubtedly benefit (textiles, agriculture, car industry). However, less developed industries will not be able to compete; this is probably obvious. Definitely, it will be easier for Uzbek migrants to live in Russia, but this does not mean that joining the EAEU will solve all problems.

However, we should not forget about the political component of the issue. Joining the EAEU may prevent Uzbekistan from joining the WTO; US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross spoke openly about this. Do not forget about the Western sanctions against Russia; among all other things, it will badly affect the investment climate of the country, while increasing its attractiveness is the goal of the economy liberalization.

We must also understand the complexity of the situation for the country’s leadership. Moscow presses directly and indirectly: these debates started from the speech of Valentina Matviyenko, Russian Senate speaker.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been leading Uzbekistan for three years. What would you consider as his achievements?

As the achievements of the last three years, I would mention the loosening control over the media by authorities, unblocking media resources like Ferghana, improving relations with neighbors, rehabilitation of some political prisoners, closing the Jaslyk prison, and reforms course.

It is impossible to imagine that after the first President’s death anyone would take the lead and continue the Karimov’s policy: any leader would have to liberalize control for own benefit.

It is impossible to imagine that after the first President’s death anyone would take the lead and continue the Karimov’s policy: any leader would have to liberalize control for own benefit.

However, I would not give credit for these achievements to the President only. Moreover, for Mirziyoyev, liberalization is the main mechanism of legitimization and consolidation of his position in the opinion of Uzbek citizens and international community.

It is impossible to imagine that after the first President’s death anyone would take the lead and continue the Karimov’s policy: any leader would have to liberalize control for own benefit.

Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Salih said he was disappointed with the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s policy. According to him, the President spent three years on “populism” and did not address the influential representatives of the previous regime, who may influence him. Is this criticism justified?

Muhammad Salih contradicts himself in his statement. Although there is no agreed-upon definition of the “populism” concept, the most researchers emphasize a number of features. For example, if a politician does not divide society into theoretical “people” and “elite”, he cannot be called a populist. Populists also consider themselves people’s representatives, and oppose the elites, the establishment and the system. Shavkat Mirziyoyev represents the system and elites of Uzbekistan himself. Therefore, there is no point in labeling him as a populist.

I can only guess what exactly Muhammad Salih meant when he spoke of “populism”. I can only assume that he could mean that Mirziyoyev makes popular decisions in order to gain public support. Indeed, this is how the President (for personal purposes as well) makes such decisions, but this is normal: all politicians want to please people.

For Mirziyoyev, liberalization is the main mechanism of legitimization and consolidation of his position. Photo: president.uz
For Mirziyoyev, liberalization is the main mechanism of legitimization and consolidation of his position. Photo: president.uz

I do not understand the thesis “he did not address the influential representatives of the previous regime”, since Mirziyoyev himself is one of the influential representatives of the previous regime. Moreover, there were the purges in the power structures, prosecutors’ replacement, and cases against officials; of course, it is possible to replace everyone, but then there will be no one to lead the country. The problems cannot be solved that easily.

From the sidelines, it is noticeable that civil society institutions become more active in Uzbekistan. The freedom of speech horizons have expanded; a series of important bills are discussed. To what extent are these changes irreversible? Is there a chance that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will abolish reforms and resume his predecessor’s policy?

This is highly improbable. Returning to Karimov’s policy is almost impossible. All reforms today are the basis on which Mirziyoyev will rely; the stability of his policy in the future will depend on it. In this regard, Uzbekistan has just begun the path from hard authoritarianism to a hybrid regime.

What can you say about the freedom of speech in Uzbekistan?

Journalists’ safety is still a major issue. This leads to self-censorship and the emergence of unspoken rules and forbidden topics.

Qualifications like media communication skills, the ability to answer provocative questions, not letting the situation get scandalous do not emerge from nowhere; they require experience.

Qualifications like media communication skills, the ability to answer provocative questions, not letting the situation get scandalous do not emerge from nowhere; they require experience.

Media freedom is a very important issue and President Mirziyoyev has repeatedly spoken about this. Nevertheless, I am afraid that in the next few years we will hear a good many time about such cases in Uzbekistan (threats of violence and physical attack against the journalists of the kun.uz news agency from the mayor of Tashkent, Ed.). We already witness how the bloggers are attacked, journalists are sued, many damaging materials and biased texts…

Qualifications like media communication skills, the ability to answer provocative questions, not letting the situation get scandalous do not emerge from nowhere; they require experience.

Does the Uzbek society request the change?

Yes, but this is just my perception based on talking with my friends. There is a big problem in Uzbekistan with sociological research: nobody is researching. Therefore, all my arguments are based only on my own perceptions.

It seems to me that undoubtedly there is a request for better living conditions. At the same time, the society is very conservative, even the younger generation (especially outside Tashkent). Most still believe the affirmation that stability is the greatest value. There are even opinions that Mirziyoyev’s reforms are too rapid. “Could this possibly lead to a security weakening in the country?” some friends ask me. I have also met extreme conformist nostalgic for Karimov’s times and scolding Mirziyoyev for changing the policies.

At the same time, many support reforms and understand their necessity. Especially such opinions are often heard in the capital, big cities and among young people. There are those, of course, who are skeptical of what is now called liberalization. They argue that in reality the source of the problem is not addressed, while the struggle is waged only with the consequences.

On Uzbekistan’s relations with the neighbors in the region

Regional cooperation has become one of the President Mirziyoyev’s priorities. Photo: president.kz
Regional cooperation has become one of the President Mirziyoyev’s priorities. Photo: president.kz

Regional cooperation has become one of the second President’s priorities. However, I cannot tell about its duration; it still depends on many other factors: whether chronic issues between countries (borders, water supply) are solved, the way other countries of the region treat this, given the particular mood of certain leader or personal relationships of Presidents of Central Asian countries. So far, two Consultative meeting of the heads of states of Central Asia have been held; this noncommittal format has proved to be a very successful solution. Let us observe how this will unfold.

The last Consultative meeting of the heads of states of Central Asia in Tashkent did not become a game-changer. As the expert stated, the final statement is again declarative and there is no action plan for cooperation expansion. How do you assess the prospects for regional integration?

The fact that the leaders of Central Asian countries managed to gather in this format, after many years of lack of neighborly relations and even conflicts, is already a good trend. Of course, due to the complex history of regionalization in Central Asia, this attempt does not inspire much hope.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev is among the persons concerned in improving relations within Central Asia. Good relations with neighbors hold the important place in his vision of Tashkent’s foreign policy.

It is important that these meetings are not tied with personal relations between leaders of countries, but are institutionalized. Then we can talk about integration over the longer term.

It is important that these meetings are not tied with personal relations between leaders of countries, but are institutionalized. Then we can talk about integration over the longer term.

However, it is too early to talk about integration. Meanwhile, we can be content with such a format of Consultative meetings where the leaders of the Central Asian countries can simply communicate and talk without reproaches, obligations or supervision from the big brothers (whoever they are).

It is important that these meetings are not tied with personal relations between leaders of countries, but are institutionalized. Then we can talk about integration over the longer term.

What can you say about Uzbekistan-China relations?

Relations with Beijing are very important. Central Asia as a whole and Uzbekistan in particular, cannot escape it. Uzbekistan’s foreign trade turnover with China rose to $6.4 billion in 2018. China has become the No.1 trade partner for Uzbekistan: it accounts for 19% of the total turnover (Russia ranks second with 16.9%).

China has always been considered a convenient partner for the Central Asian countries, since it required practically nothing in exchange for its investments, only commitment to the “One-China policy” and the fight against the “the three evil forces” (terrorism, extremism, separatism). However, unlike Western countries, which preliminary discuss the terms of cooperation, there are unwritten rules with China. Among them is a taboo on admission of a problem in relations. As a result, fear of damaging relations with China leads authorities to self-censorship.

I hope that a situation in which Tashkent will have to sacrifice something will never happen. So far, we can talk about diplomatic concessions.

How does Moscow feel about China’s growing influence in Uzbekistan, a key state in Central Asia? Is the cooling in relations between Moscow and Beijing in the near future possible?

Moscow understands that the region has no other choice. Moreover, many overlook the possibility of cooperation between countries in Central Asia. The Russian economy in its structure is not complementary to the Uzbek, both countries export raw materials and import finished goods. Moscow understands that they cannot substitute China economically, just as they cannot invest in the Uzbek economy on such a scale. Therefore, an increase of China’s share in the economy of the Central Asian countries is beneficial to Russia. However, as long as interest is concentrated exclusively on the economy.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project

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