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Uzbekistan 2020: new composition and drivers of development

“Multiple new departments and agencies, a lack of political will to loosen the grip on the non-state sector, conflicting gender policy, big decisions taken behind closed doors – all will endure determining political and economic trends in Uzbekistan,” notes political scientist Rafael Sattarov in his article for CABAR.asia.


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Uzbekistan remains the most dynamic country in Central Asia due to the abundance of events, decisions, and power reshuffles over the past year. The changes are not always positive and reshuffle gradually embodies a castling of old personnel for a shortfall of new ones. The third year of the reforms announced by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev concluded with controversial events and tendencies that complicate an unambiguous assessment of the governmental results. Almost every area had both its clear achievements and explicit disappointments.

The ongoing mass demolitions of houses across the country, often without due compensation and the consent of residents, openly discredit the country’s leadership and judicial system. Local authorities illegally issue construction permits contrary to the right to private property and considering the residents’ interests. Conflicting interests of developers and khokimiyats is one of the main topics of the past year and will remain relevant for the next years. Cutting down trees despite existing moratorium signed by the President of Uzbekistan demonstrates the actual priorities of local authorities, which run counter to the long-term societal interests and declared environmental obligations.

The parliamentary elections held at the end of 2019, despite the openness, reinforced skepticism regarding the prospects for Uzbekistan’s legislative branch. No systematic changes are foreseen: not a single real opposition party was formed, party ideologies did not differ from each other, independent candidates are not allowed to participate in elections by law[1]. The achievement of recent years is holding the party debates on television. However, they couldn’t be distinguished in relevance and in-depth knowledge of social issues among deputies.

Several events have shaken confidence in the unwavering reforms in the area of speech freedom. Leaked audio with threats from the Tashkent governor, Jahongir Artykhodzhaev, to journalists of the local newspaper Kun.uz (Kun.uz), as well as the harassment and torture of the blogger Nafosat Oloshukurova, have proven that despite major changes in this area, reporters are still not safe. In both cases, the perpetrators have not been taken to justice. At the same time, among the tangible changes is a simplification of the media registration procedure, which is still not the case for registration of independent NGOs[2].

“Year of developing science, education and the digital economy” as a failure testing

Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in his message to the Parliament of the Republic of Uzbekistan in January 2020, outlined several development areas in priority for this year[3]. Plans appear very ambitious, given that they target the most problematic areas, i.e. science, education, and digitalization.

There were 58 higher education institutes in the country in 2018, including 20 universities, 36 institutes, 2 academies, and 14 of their branches in the regions[4]. By 2019, the number has increased to 114 universities, including 93 domestic and 21 foreign universities and their branches. Higher education scope is still insufficient (20%), and the education sector is considered one of the most corrupt. Earlier, the president drafted the Concept for the Development of the Higher Education System until 2030, with goals to increase the scope by up to 50%, increase the competitiveness of local universities and develop public-private partnerships (PPP) in the educational field[5]. As a radical measure to achieve the affordability of higher education, the president proposed to double available scholarships and to provide additional scholarships for female applications on a competitive basis to achieve gender balance in education.

The quality and number of universities in Uzbekistan are generally escalating due to branches of foreign universities, while the local research system cannot compete even with regional higher education institutions.

There are systemic shortcomings that complicate for Uzbekistan the development of its school of scientific researchers, the teaching staff and a transparent system for applicants’ selection. Those are corruption at all levels of the education system, a language barrier due to a short-sighted strategy of switching to Latin, a lack of qualified personnel, insufficient financing, and inefficient development of PPP.

According to a survey of the popular Telegram channel Qoshni mahalla, Tashkent State Law University has topped the rating of capital’s corrupt universities (31% of respondents), followed by Tashkent State University of Economics (20%) and the National University of Uzbekistan (12%). About 29% of respondents admitted that they paid a bribe upon admission to college[6].

To combat corruption, it was proposed to increase funding for the education system, to introduce information technology for transparency of the selection and educational processes[7]. The process of digitalization of the education system is part of the Concept of the National Strategy “Digital Uzbekistan 2030”, which the president talked about during his message to the parliament[8]. The program comprises the improvement of the public administration system and creating a favorable environment for the development of innovative products and the formation of a digital economy.

Counting systems that were earlier introduced in the utilities and residential sector caused a flurry of indignation due to improper operation of the online payment registry and erroneous functioning of smart counters[9]. It was clear that the country was not ready for mass digitalization due to insufficient funds and the lack of qualified personnel. The suppliers of smart counters, which were introduced forcibly, were rather questioned. According to some unofficial data, companies owned by the governor of Tashkent Artykhodzhaev were importers of the machines, which could be a conflict of interest for the official.

Meanwhile, the Concept notes the increasing demand for IT-specialists and negative repercussions of their scarcity both on the financial sector and public administration. The established Mirzo Ulugbek Innovation Center for the development and implementation of ICT technologies, along with “Yashnabad” and “Khorezm” innovative technology parks, serve as the basis for IT technology development. Technoparks are established under branches of foreign universities.

One of the self-evident obstacles to innovative development is poor Internet quality. The state-owned company Uzbektelecom remains a monopolist in the supply of Internet services. Earlier in 2018, the company announced the Transformation 2020 project[10] through expanding the Internet site by 10 times and increasing the Internet speed by 10 times accordingly. However, according to Internet users, the quality has not improved by 2020. Speed issue is common to all Internet providers, and there has been no transition from counting megabytes to free billing. There are still complications with audio and video calls in messengers like Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp.

Lose an account to government departments and agencies

At the beginning of the year, the president announced the formation of an Anti-corruption body reporting to the parliament and the president. A draft should be developed by April. Shavkat Mirziyoyev indicated that entrepreneurs still encounter corruption in land provision, cadastral, customs, banking services, licensing, and public procurement[11]. Corruption is widespread in these areas due to unnecessary licensing of services and the thorny mechanism for the provision of public services. President instructed in February to improve the licensing and issuance of business permits. The procedure should incorporate the introduction of alternative regulation types like the abolition of licenses in areas that do not pose a threat to human health and life; reduction and simplification of the licensing process.

Meanwhile, 79% of licenses and 80% of permits are still issued in paper form. The “License” information systems complex was launched in 2014, but the portal is not functioning now properly. Over 4 thousand licenses were issued last year in no compliance with the “one window” principle[12].

We should also note that the transition to an online system in the social sector is a complex and costly process.

Health care, education, and social protection are not computerized to the proper degree, which complicates the transition to a more up-to-date system of registration and accounting of public services clients.

In 2019, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree on “On measures to radically improve the personnel policy and public service system in the Republic of Uzbekistan”. The decree issued an order to form a special body – the Agency for the Development of Civil Service under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The Agency’s tasks are rather abstract: to monitor the implementation of the civil service decree, to help create qualified human resources for the civil service (including through the establishment of the National Personnel Reserve) and make proposals to correct violations to the Presidential Administration and the Cabinet of Ministers.

Today, although the decree exists, the law on civil service is yet to be developed. This is considered one of the main drawbacks of Civil Service Reform. Two bills on public service were submitted to public scrutiny as early as 2018: from the Ministry of Justice[13] and the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of the Republic of Uzbekistan[14]. Both bills enclosed the clauses on conflicts of interest in the civil service. According to the investigation of Open Democracy and Professor Lassle,[15] The Tashkent City mega-project has inadequately transparent sources of financing: dubious offshore companies with foreign directors created a few months before the tender, as well as the participation of Tashkent hokim’s companies in the project investment, raise a conflict of interest[16].

The draft resolution on the mandatory declaration of income and property for state officials was published at the end of 2019[17]. According to the document, state employees of certain categories should declare their incomes from January 1, 2020. A phased transition to the declaration should be completed by 2023, while the circle of people is limited to deputy prime ministers, ministers, chairmen of certain departments and heads of upper and middle level in the legislative branch[18]. The State Tax Committee should act as the database operator for incomes, assets, and expenditures of civil servants and their family members, whereas the Department for Combating Economic Crimes under the Prosecutor General’s Office is entrusted with spot checks of the authenticity and completeness of the information. However, since in early 2020 we are not yet notified of the beginning of the declaration season, it is clear that the infrastructure has never been prepared.

Meanwhile, in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index for 2019, Uzbekistan improved its performance and climbed 153rd out of 180[19]. Thus, the newly created departments and legislative acts can have a positive impact on the general perception of corruption in the country, reduce the scale of corruption at the small and medium levels. However, the results run the risk of being superficial without systemic changes in the field of public service, the creation of transparent mechanisms for the selection and training of personnel, the transition to meritocracy, the liberalization of the licensing system, and the transition to digitalization in business and the social sector.

According to UNDP research, government agencies themselves have vague functions and often duplicate them from agency to agency, which deprives work efficiency. At the beginning of 2018 in Uzbekistan, about 10% of the local authorities’ functions had the same semantic load and the result of the implementation, i.e. they are duplicated within the department. The Ministry of Finance had 10.9% of such functions, while the Ministry of Economy and the Customs Committee had 22.8% and 34.6% of such functions accordingly[20].

Gender policy without gender strategy

The newly established Ministry of Mahalla and Family might be the “culmination” of 2020 with the most controversial composition and unclear tasks. Mahalla, the local government in Uzbekistan, which had significant state support and are accountable to the khokimiyats of the city and regions, has become a full-fledged structure of the executive branch. The ministry’s main functions are as following: comprehensive assistance in the full and effective implementation of the “Comfortable and safe mahalla” principle in society, the establishment of close cooperation with citizens’ self-government authorities to improve the social and spiritual environment in families and mahallas[21]. The ministry united the Mahalla charitable foundation, the disbanded Committee of Women and its regional divisions, as well as the Nuroniy Foundation, which was engaged in social support for veterans of Uzbekistan.

The material incentives and working conditions for employees of the disbanded structures are reported to significantly improve within the ministry[22]. The main functions of the mahalla were to ensure stability at the micro-level, monitor popular discontent, resolve family conflicts and prevent divorces. The appointment of prior law enforcement officials to senior positions raised many questions regarding the ministry’s basic functions (see Figure 1).

Source: Yuksalish Nationwide Movement

The work with women had to be one of the main functions of the ministry. However, such “work” might go against the intention to improve the status of women, given the role of the mahalla, which in some instances ignored the problems of the female population. The Mahalla Institute concentrated a clear contradiction between the patriarchal principles, the traditionalist attitude towards women and the modern vision of women’s rights. According to research, in most cases, attempts to save the family for the sake of state statistics were carried out at the expense of women’s health and well-being. Law enforcement agencies have ignored domestic violence against women in several cases[23]. Gender imbalance is also evident in the management of the ministry: out of 19 leadership positions, 16 are held by men and only 3 by women.

Registration: whether or not

The capital registration issue is one of the most discussed in contemporary Uzbekistan. Discriminatory measures against citizens registered in the regions cause corruption on a small and medium level, deprive citizens of their mobility within the country and create long-term issues, including the drain of qualified personnel and firming of localism in society. According to experts Khoshimov and Ikromov, abandonment of registration would lead to an increase in incomes and a strike on stereotypes[24].

At the beginning of the year, President Mirziyoyev for the first time openly spoke about registration as “legcuffs” and a negative factor for the development of society. Hence, hope for the abandonment of registration. In February of this year, the registration was announced to be replaced with a simplified procedure. Starting on April 1, the requirements for permanent residence in Tashkent and the Tashkent region for all citizens would be abolished when purchasing real estate in these regions[25]. In place previously was the procedure that allowed regional citizens to receive permanent residence in the capital after purchasing housing only in new buildings. This procedure was advantageous for developers who imposed dictated contracts with regional customers; this also led to non-market mechanisms of increasing demand for housing in the primary market.

The digitalization of the registration process shall accompany new measures to curtail corruption and improve living and working conditions in the regions. As part of the Urbanization Development Concept in Uzbekistan, up to 2030, the country plans to develop additional “attraction centers”, besides Tashkent, to relieve the capital.

Conclusion

2020 will not be an obstacle to promote the declared positive changes, nor will it be an exception to conflicting appointments and disappointments. Multiple new departments and agencies, a lack of political will to loosen the grip on the non-state sector, conflicting gender policy, big decisions taken behind closed doors – all will endure determining political and economic trends in Uzbekistan.

The abundance of departments with somewhat overlapping functions will require additional costs from the budget in case of low efficiency. In attempts to show results, the management of these departments will most likely concentrate on less significant tasks and work on imaginary problems. For instance, they might focus on school uniforms in the education system, discuss pompous weddings and introduce various administrative restrictions.

The authorities do not intend to give greater freedom to the non-state sector in solving the problems of youth and women, as well as in providing social protection. Registration of independent NGOs is still a problem due to numerous formal and informal procedures. Officials still have a subjective perception of non-governmental organizations (not to be confused with GONGO – state-organized non-governmental organizations) as foreign agents aimed at destabilizing the internal situation. Instead, the government will just use and strengthen the role of GONGO in a normal old-fashioned way.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] Economist.com, Uzbekistan holds a semi-serious election, https://www.economist.com/asia/2019/12/18/uzbekistan-holds-a-semi-serious-election

[2] Why is it difficult to open an NGO in Uzbekistan? 01/14/2020 // https://cabar.asia/ru/pochemu-v-uzbekistane-slozhno-otkryt-npo/

[3]  The “Pravda Vostoka” newspaper // https://pv.uz/ru/newspapers/pravda-vostoka-18-ot-24-janvarja-2020-goda

[4] Gazeta.uz, May 28, 2018, Shortage of higher education institutions, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2018/05/28/education/

[5] By 2030, higher education enrollment is planned to be brought up to 50%, October 8, 2019, // https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/10/08/education/

[6] Which Tashkent university is most prone to corruption and what is the cost of “entrance tickets”, August 11, 2019, https://uznews.uz/ru/article/16377

[7]  Anti-corruption in the field of education // https://www.minjust.uz/ru/press-center/news/98455/?print=Y

[8] Message from the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Oliy Majlis, January 25, 2020 https://uza.uz/en/politics/poslanie-prezidenta-respubliki-uzbekistan-shavkata-mirziyeev-25-01-2020

[9]  https://www.facebook.com/groups/Potrebitel.Uz/search/?query= smart%20 counters&epa SEARCH_BOX

[10] Uzbektelecom announced the beginning of the transformation, May 22, 2018 // https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2018/05/22/uzbektelecom/

[11] An anti-corruption body will be formed in Uzbekistan, January 24, 2020 //  https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/01/24/anti-corruption/

[12] https://uzreport.news/economy/do-1-avgusta-v-uzbekistane-zapustyat-edinuyu-elektronnuyu-sistemu-litsenzirovaniya

[13] Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan on public service, http://old.my.gov.uz/ru/getPublicService/332?action=view&item_id=1615

[14] A single portal of interactive public services, http://old.my.gov.uz/en/getPublicService/332?item_id=2373&action=view

[15] Breaking with the past? May 2019 // https://corruptionandhumanrights.org/app/uploads/2019/05/Breaking-with-the-Past-30-May-2019-FINAL.pdf

[16] The strange connections of Tashkent City’s British investor? February 21, 2019 // https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/strange-connections-of-tashkent-city-s-british-investor/

[17] From January 1, deputy prime ministers, ministers and khokims will declare income and property, October 11, 2019 // https://kun.uz/ru/news/2019/10/11/s-1-yanvarya-zamestiteli -premer-ministra-ministry-i-xokimy-budut-deklarirovat-doxody-i-imushchestvo

 

[18] The declaration of income of civil servants is planned to be introduced from 2020, October 11, 2019 // https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/10/11/income-declaration/

[19] https://www.transparency.org/whatwedo/publication/corruption_perceptions_index_2019

[20] Administrative reform – what does it include? March 14, 2019 // https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/03/14/administrative-reform/

[21] On the organization of activities of the Ministry to support the mahalla and family of the Republic of Uzbekistan, February 19, 2020 // https://uza.uz/ru/documents/ob-organizatsii-deyatelnosti-ministerstva-po-podderzhke-makh-19-02- 2020

[22] The head of the new ministry and its deputies were appointed, February 19, 2020 // https://uz.sputniknews.ru/society/20200219/13501943/Naznacheny-rukovoditel-novogo-ministerstva-i-ego-zamestiteli.html

[23] Women of Uzbekistan: Empowered on Paper, Inferior on the Ground, July 2019 // https://centralasiaprogram.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Davletova-CAP-Paper-223-July-2019. pdf

[24] Tashkent is a city of bread, April 16, 2019 //  https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/04/16/registration/

[25] The purchase of housing in Tashkent will be allowed regardless of registration, February 11, 2020 // https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/02/11/propiska/

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