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How Uzbekistan Deals with the Pandemic Challenges: Lessons for the Future

Two regimes and standards have emerged in Uzbekistan since the beginning of the quarantine measures: one followed the logic of counteracting the spread of coronavirus, and the other followed the logic of economic calculation.


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The coronavirus pandemic has become one of the most serious tests for the strength of all mankind, as well as state and interstate institutions, since the days of two World Wars. After overcoming the current round of the pandemic, the world will have to undergo fundamental changes in order to be much better prepared for such crises.

Such changes should be undertaken by both, developed and underdeveloped countries, both by democracies and autocratic regimes. As for autocracies, the pandemic once again revealed a whole list of weaknesses, which have been demonstrated in the fact that the population of these countries suffered much more from the crisis, in comparison to Western societies. This is demonstrated both in terms of socio-economic and civil rights, and the freedoms of their population. The situation in this regard has worsened significantly in these countries during the pandemic.

Surely, Uzbekistan belongs to such autocracies. The weakness of the state structure was manifested in the fact that in its response to the crisis the government showed a tendency to avoid its legal responsibility for the consequences of the pandemic for the population and its well-being.

From legal regulations to management for reasons of expediency

When the quarantine regime was introduced by the authorities of Uzbekistan, not only the law was not adopted, but even a presidential decree, in accordance with which this regime would be introduced. There is generally no document signed by a responsible state official which would authorize such an important decision that had change the life of the whole country radically and would be available to the public.

Although, at the initial stage, the authorities acted in a legal regime. On January 29, 2020, by decree of the President No.P-5537, a Republican Commission was established to prepare a program of measures to prevent the entry and spread of coronavirus.[1] At the same time, special emergency powers were not transferred to this commission, it was only a matter of coordinating state bodies and monitoring the situation.

On March 23, another document was adopted, now Cabinet of Ministers Decree No. 176 “On additional measures against the spread of coronavirus infection”, according to which a special procedure was introduced related to the restriction of transport communications between Tashkent and the regions, as well as quarantine measures against people arriving in country from abroad.[2]

Literally a few days later, the National News Agency of Uzbekistan announced the Commission’s decision, according to which “a self-isolation regime is being introduced in Tashkent, Nukus and regional centers on April 1”.[3] However, none of these publications provided a reference to a specific government document that would be signed by an authorized person. It was only mentioned that this decision was taken by the Special Commission for Countering Coronavirus. However, this commission does not have a website where all legal information and related documentation would be collected. There is only a telegram channel[4], which contains an endless and not sorted stream of various kinds of information, including advice on adhering to measures against infection, answers to some questions of citizens and journalists, as well as some orders of the Commission. However, these orders are not dated and have no registration numbers, which is important for subsequent references in case of conflict situations and litigation.

It turns out that the Commission’s order on the introduction of a “self-isolation” regime, which would have been duly executed in the form of a legal document, is completely absent. The adoption of this decision in such an informal way marked the transition from legal forms of regulation of the epidemiological situation to non-legal ones, which are doubtful from the point of view of adopted laws and constitutional norms.

Another legal absurdity is to use the term “self-isolation”, which is absent in the legislation of Uzbekistan. Most likely, it was borrowed from Russia, where a universal quarantine regime with the same name, “self-isolation”, was introduced. In principle, the government could preliminarily introduce this term into circulation, giving it a legal definition and justification, describing the obligations of the parties that its implementation entails. However, it was not done neither on April 1, nor later.

For some odd reason, the government did not resort to the long-adopted legal documents that were quite suitable for this situation. This is the Law “On the Protection of the Population and Territories from Natural and Technogenic Emergencies”[5], which was adopted in 1999 under No. 824-I, as well as the Law “On the Sanitary and Epidemiological Well-Being of the Population”, adopted in August 2015 as No. ZRU-393[6]. The latter speaks of restrictive measures denoted by the word “quarantine”. In this disregard of the already adopted legal norms, one can see the government’s attempt to evade legal responsibility for its actions, since these two laws obliged the government to take measures to ensure the socio-economic well-being of the population during emergency situations.

Despite the absence of a government-approved provision on the “self-isolation” regime (and, in essence, a state of emergency), police patrols and units of the National Guard were taken to the streets of the cities, which began to detain citizens and collect fines from them in case of violation of this regime. Shortly afterwards, it turned out that in Tashkent the inspectors of the road patrol service had released a plan to detain at least one driver each day for “disobeying” the police officer and taking a fine from them[7]. That is, the police used the emergency situation to replenish their cash register and, possibly, for personal enrichment.

It is important to note that a quarantine regime adopted without providing conditions for the survival of citizens poses a threat to people’s lives, and therefore constitutes a violation by the state of the right to life, sanctioned by international and national legal norms. In such cases, citizens have the right to demand from their government that they comply with their corresponding obligations with respect to their own constitution and international law. Practice shows that such demands, if they are presented to the authorities persistently and tirelessly, give some results.

In this vein, apparently under the pressure of criticism from society and governments, finally, on May 18, after more than a month and a half after the introduction of the “self-isolation” regime, President Mirziyoyev began to take at least some real steps to alleviate the situation of the population, by signing the decree “On further measures to support the population and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.”[8] According to this document, from June 1 to September 1, 2020 small businesses, as well as markets and shopping malls, cinemas, public catering, public transport and other service enterprises, were exempted from property tax and land tax, and self-employed representatives of more than 60 professions were generally exempt from income tax.[9] Although these measures have become a step towards observing the human right to life, the position of the main part of the economically active population, namely employees of budgetary and private enterprises and organizations, remains without means of sustenance during the current quarantine regime.

Two parallel crisis management modes

Interestingly, by imposing draconian measures on citizens to restrict their freedom of movement, often going beyond the reasonable and proportionate risks of infection with the virus, the government simultaneously issued permits for the continuation of work to a number of enterprises and business facilities, even if they are not critical to maintaining the country’s life under quarantine conditions. Such permits were issued, as a rule, to large industrial and investment facilities, as well as for construction work, that is, based solely on economic considerations or the personal interests of decision-makers, and not because of a desire to allow part of the population to earn a living.

In this vein, on April 17, Radio Ozodlik published material on how (despite the ban on gathering more than three people in public places) workers at the Khorezm automobile factory, which employs more than a thousand people, were forced to come to the factory with their bed sets.[10] They had to resume work, while remaining at the enterprise after a working day for an overnight stay. Earlier, on April 11, AsiaTerra, a local independent publication, reported that construction of multi-storey residential complexes is fully active in Tashkent.[11] At the same time, some documents available to the public that gave permission to one or another construction company to resume work were not published.

In all probability, the government initially adopted a list of enterprises (not available for the public) that were issued such permits and even regulations. And only on April 14, the Special Republican Commission and the Special Headquarters for Combating Coronavirus decided to resume the activities of important sectors of the economy and large industrial enterprises, as well as construction, reconstruction and repair work at large facilities.[12] Appropriate permits were to be issued by the heads of the territorial headquarters of the Special Republican Commission. At the same time, again, no formal legal decisions on such permits signed by an authorized government official were published. The press referred to the same telegram channel, where the decision on the planned issuance of such permits was made public, and again without signatures, without dates and without outgoing registration numbers.[13] It was also not explained by what criteria such permits were given to some enterprises and not to others. Justifying this decision, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev mentioned: “We need to effectively continue to work in agriculture, industry and construction, other priority sectors of the economy, and in business entities in the regions. Since life does not stand still.”[14]

Thus, from the very beginning of the action of quarantine measures, two regimes arose, two standards, each of which followed a different logic from one another.

One mode followed the logic of counteracting the spread of coronavirus, and the other followed the logic of economic calculation, which takes little account of the health risks of people employed in authorized production facilities.

And in order to give this selective approach to permitting a legitimate basis, judging by some signs, the growth statistics of coronavirus infected people began to undergo correction.[15] This, apparently, was done in order to minimize the health risks in the eyes of society due to the continued work of some enterprises. In this vein, if from April 11 to April 15 the daily growth of registered infected persons was from 22.9% to 9.5%, respectively, then already on April 16 this indicator began to decrease sharply (see the corresponding chart below). Theoretically, such a trend is possible, but given the two-regime policy pursued by the government in relation to the epidemic, it can hardly be considered probable in practice.

Source: Ministry of Health of the Republic of Uzbekistan// URL: http://coronavirus.uz/ru

This sharp change in the statistical trend surprisingly coincided with reports of the resumption of activity of large enterprises and construction projects, as well as with the appointment of a new director of the Agency for Sanitary and Epidemiological Well-being under the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for these statistics.[16] Bakhodir Yusupaliev became the director, succeeding Bakhrom Almatov, and before that he had previously held the post of First Deputy Minister of Health. In his hierarchical rank, Yusupaliev is significantly higher than Almatov and, likely, should have brought more political considerations to the work of the agency. Statistics, apparently, also became an object of political significance and as such, to be coordinated with the general course of the government to support the activities of large production facilities.

Civil rights

Finally, another trend that characterizes the features of autocracies in the current crisis is a violation of civil rights. Autocratic regimes tended to limit civil liberties even more than they did before the pandemic. The repression against human rights defenders and journalists intensified.

At the same time, autocratic regimes use arguments to combat fakes, which spread panic among the population, to justify repressive actions.

It must be admitted that the problem of the distribution of fake messages on social networks that feed various conspiracy theories and mislead the population about the coronavirus epidemic is a serious problem, not only in developing, but also in developed countries of the world. This is evidenced by the BBC material, telling about the harm that such fakes bring to society.[17]

However, autocratic regimes sometimes use this real problem as a reason for reprisals against dissidents. Thus, according to the School of Peacemaking and Media Technology in Central Asia, pressure on freedom of expression in Central Asian countries more than doubled in the first months of 2020 compared to last year.[18] In Uzbekistan, there was also pressure on some bloggers.

However, we must give a credit to the fact that the situation in the sphere of freedoms in general in Uzbekistan changed during the pandemic, not very significant and not so dramatic than, say, in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (there has been a sharp jump in repressive actions of the authorities during the recent months). However, this area requires further observation, since the legitimacy of the ruling regime of Mirziyoyev in the eyes of society has significantly decreased over the past couple of months, and his criticism on social networks has increased as well. In response to this criticism, the regime can take as adequate measures, continuing the slowed-down course of reforms, or it can follow the course of “crackdown” that was used under the previous president.

Findings

In general, during the pandemic in Uzbekistan, as is obvious in some other post-Soviet states, the three most alarming trends began to be observed.

Firstly, it is the government’s departure from legal norms in solving problems related to the crisis, shifting responsibility for such decisions to a commission that does not have clearly defined responsibilities and powers. This commission, in turn, is limited to issuing instructions that do not meet the legal requirements for regulatory documents, with their dating, the signature of the person in charge and the presence of a registration number. The publication of such decisions by telegram channel is at least not serious. At the same time, such key terms as “self-isolation” that are used have not received preliminary development, definition and clarification either in the legal literature or in the legislation of Uzbekistan. There is a blind and thoughtless copying of terminology from other states that are far from best practice, in particular, the Russian Federation.

Secondly, the government has shown a tendency to relieve itself of responsibility for ensuring the basic socio-economic needs of the population sent to forced “self-isolation.” And this evasion of responsibility takes place despite the fact that the obligations to provide the population with basic conditions of existence are provided for by the laws of Uzbekistan, as well as international legal norms, which the government has committed to abiding by signing and ratifying relevant conventions. As a result, in practice, a significant part of the population appears to be without a means of subsistence during the quarantine regime, while experiencing a number of excessive administrative restrictions, for example, a ban on the use of personal vehicles, which further exacerbates the socio-economic situation. Moreover, on a massive scale, the labor rights of citizens are violated, who are forcibly sent on vacation “at their own expense.”

Finally, the government has shown a tendency to create two conflicting regimes, restricting the right to movement and labor of one part of the economically active population and forcing the other part to continue working in the midst of an epidemic, thereby exposing their health and the health of their families to an increased risk of coronavirus infection.

In this regard, it is recommended that the government and parliament of Uzbekistan consider the above-mentioned three problematic situations and provide explanations to the public, as well as make appropriate adjustments to the practice of managing current and possible future crises.

From the point of view of the post-epidemiological perspective, it is recommended to develop a government action strategy in the event of similar crises, paying particular attention to the following points:

  • legal support of this strategy, compliance with its international obligations of Uzbekistan, especially in the field of human rights;
  • distribution of roles and responsibilities between various stakeholders, primarily between government and the public; duties should be assigned not only to the population, but also to government bodies;
  • ensuring a minimum acceptable standard of living for all categories of the population during a crisis;
  • the consistency of this strategy and the equality of all categories of citizens before the law, as well as the state of emergency.

The above-mentioned is a list of measures specific to Uzbekistan. However, these measures do not eliminate the need to ensure the fundamental conditions for successful crisis management, such as transparent and accountable standards of public administration, the rule of law, effective anti-corruption mechanisms, and an administrative system based on the principles of meritocracy. All these conditions are also necessary to ensure economic growth, attract foreign direct investment, without which it is impossible to create an economic margin of safety, and therefore withstand a long period of quarantine regime, similar to the current one.

When allocating soft loans to Uzbekistan during the crisis period, international financial institutions should include in the conditions for allocating these loans and grants the solutions to the above-mentioned problems, as well as full transparency and accountability at the disposal of the allocated financial resources.


Данный материал подготовлен в рамках проекта «Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project». Мнения, озвученные в статье, не отражают позицию редакции или донора.


[1] Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan dated 01.29.2020 No. R-5537 “On the formation of a Special Republican Commission for the preparation of a program of measures to prevent the importation and spread of a new type of coronavirus in the Republic of Uzbekistan” // URL: https://lex.uz/docs/4720408

[2]  Decree of the Cabinet of Ministers dated March 23, 2020 No. 176 “On additional measures against the spread of coronavirus infection” [КОРОНАВИРУС ИНФЕКЦИЯСИ ТАРҚАЛИШИГА ҚАРШИ ҚЎШИМЧА ЧОРА-ТАДБИРЛАР ТЎҒРИСИДА] // URL: https://lex.uz/docs/477.

[3] Decision of the Special Republican Commission. National News Agency of Uzbekistan. 04/01/2020 // URL: http://uza.uz/ru/society/reshenie-spetsialnoy-respublikanskoy-komissii-0007-01-04-2020.

[4] Koronavirus Info | Uyda Qoling! // Telegram channel // See https://t.me/koronavirusinfouz.

[5] The Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan on August 20, 1999 No. 824-I “On the Protection of the Population and Territories from Natural and Technogenic Emergencies” // URL: https://www.lex.uz/acts/68553.

[6] The Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan on August 6, 2015 No. ЗРУ-393 “On the sanitary-epidemiological well-being of the population” // URL: https://lex.uz/docs/2732584.

[7]  Babadzhanov, Kh. “In Tashkent, traffic police inspectors were required to detain at least one driver each day for “disobedience” to the police.” Ozodlik. 2020. // URL: https://rus.ozodlik.org/a/30570967.html?fbclid=IwAR3Y-nDJXgrwtzulGwDFcvNQl8YmKfB7ws04yvghVBprS9sg0zwrvPTVcXQQ

[8] “The President approved a new package of anti-crisis measures.” NewspaperUz. May 18, 2020 // URL: https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/05/18/anti-crisis-measures/?fbclid=IwAR3oZ7dXxE9PK4fi6pvfWv2cMb9qspZeNNb70lKzXhqs4uP6nSVnIvUT.

[9] “More self-employed will be exempt from income tax.” NewspaperUz. May 19, 2020 // URL: https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/05/19/self-employed/?fbclid=IwAR0YItd_OF-MRyH4Yily_ZzNUsmNUkDazKS4dWzxK43P247nAcDq8Krqqic.

[10] Babadzhanov, Kh. “Despite the quarantine, workers at the Khorezm automobile factory are forced to work overnight.” Ozodlik. April 17, 2020 // URL: https://rus.ozodlik.org/a/30560862.html

[11] “In Uzbekistan, despite the quarantine, construction of multi-storey buildings continues.” AsiaTerra. April 11, 2020 // URL: http://www.asiaterra.info/corruption/v-uzbekistane-nesmotrya-na-karantin-prodolzhaetsya-stroitelstvo-mnogoetazhnykh-domov.

[12] “Construction at large facilities will resume.” NewspaperUz. April 14, 2020 // URL: https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/04/14/%D1%81onstr/.

[13]  See Telegram channel:  https://t.me/koronavirusinfouz/2529.

[14] “When to stop quarantine measures, we decide, in consultation with the people” – the president. ” NewspaperUz. April 14, 2020 // URL: https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/04/14/industry/.

[15] Ministry of Health of the Republic of Uzbekistan. “The epidemic situation in UZBEKISTAN // URL: http://coronavirus.uz/ru.

[16]  “The director of the Sanitary and Epidemiological Well-Being Agency has changed.” NewspaperUz. April 18, 2020 // URL: https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/04/18/agency/?fbclid=IwAR1pGKZFmXFu52bJJmduUn5gqSCPmgTZrtGUt7fCYR0bXlHJXpgNAumLxWM.

[17] Goodman, J., Carmichael, F. [Goodman, J. & Carmichael, F.] Coronavirus: Why ‘shark attacks’ won’t go down as Covid deaths. May 16, 2020. BBC News // URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/52665099.

[18] “Limiting freedom of expression during a pandemic will have long-term consequences.” School of Peacemaking and Media Technology in Central Asia. April 4, 2020 // URL: http://www.ca-mediators.net/en/ru_news/5370-ogranichenie-svobody-vyrazheniya-v-period-pandemii-budet-imet-dolgosrochnye-posledstviya.html.

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