Initial moves towards reform have not convinced observers that the new leader will end a quarter of a century of dictatorial rule.
There was little surprise when Uzbekistan´s interim president Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the country´s presidential election on December 4. He will now serve a five-year term as Uzbekistan´s only second head-of-state following the death of Islam Karimov three months ago, the autocratic leader who had ruled the country since before independence and ran it as a police state.
Although there were a total of four candidates, the outcome of the vote was widely expected. According to the constitution, Senate speaker Nigmatullah Yuldashev should have been taken up the role of acting president. He instead cited Mirziyoyev’s many years of experience before ceding the role to him.
This was reminiscent of the transfer of power in neighbouring Turkmenistan in 2006, which also circumvented constitutional requirements.
The resounding victory of 88.6 per cent of the votes, just slightly less than the 90 per cent received by Karimov in March 2015, was not a good sign. It can be seen as a continuation of the previous regime.
(See also Uzbekistan: Karimov’s Legacy).
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent a full observer mission, criticised the vote as “devoid of genuine competition” and noted “significant irregularities” on election day, including ballot box stuffing and widespread proxy voting.
“The 4 December presidential election underscored the need of comprehensive reform to address long-standing systemic shortcomings. The legal framework is not conducive to holding democratic elections,” the OSCE said in its preliminary findings.
Mirziyoyev, 59, had been Uzbekistan´s prime minister since 2003 and was formally nominated by the Karimov’s Liberal Democratic party of Uzbekistan (LDPU). Mirziyoyev was Karimov´s loyal ally, but always remained in the shadows.
When he became acting president in early September, the public knew exceedingly little about him beyond his past reputation of having treated farmers, governors and ordinary people very harshly. Expectations were fairly low that he would push for political and economic reforms.
It is still too early to tell in which direction Mirziyoyev will lead the country, the most populous in Central Asia with more than 31 million people.
But there has been some cause for guarded optimism.
On December 6, in a surprising and bold move, Mirziyoyev signed a decree scrapping tourist visa requirements for citizens of 27 other nations. It will go into effect on April 1 and allow 30 days of visa-free travel to Uzbekistan for citizens of countries including Australia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Uzbekistan, with its Silk Road history and ancient cities, has long been Central Asia´s biggest draw for tourists. However, obtaining a visa to this tightly controlled country has been a cumbersome process.
Removing bureaucratic obstacles will indeed contribute to opening the country to the outside world.
In fact, during the past three months of his acting presidency, Mirziyoyev has already taken several other measures that broke with longstanding policies.
He started out by taking steps towards repairing Uzbekistan´s deeply strained relations with other Central Asian states, marked by border crossing disputes and skirmishes. There have also been disagreements over cross-border trade as well as water and energy flows.
For instance, a longstanding dispute with Kyrgyzstan over border demarcation, which for years had caused bilateral tension and hardship for citizens on both sides, was resolved in just a few weeks.
Four Kyrgyz workers detained by Uzbekistan on a stretch of contested border territory were released in September. The following month, a Kyrgyz government delegation visited Andijan and an Uzbek delegation then went to Osh. These talks led to a provisional agreement on non-demarcated sections of the countries´ joint border.
Then, last week, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan signed an agreement to resume flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe for the first time in 24 years. Regular flights are to begin in January.
Mirziyoyev has also taken initial steps to boost business, which had been held back by the country´s Soviet-style command economy maintained by Karimov.
The national currency, the som, has an overvalued official exchange rate. There is also a thriving black market rate, from which certain members of the Uzbek elite are believed to profit.
He recently unveiled a proposal to liberalise the country´s strict currency market, which may reassure much needed foreign investors.
Lastly, a few days before the election, political prisoner Samandar Kukanov – who has spent more than 23 years behind bars – was released.
Although these new developments are clearly positive, there is no certainty at all that Uzbekistan is on the verge of undergoing sustained fundamental changes.
Releasing one prominent political prisoner is no indication that one of the world´s most repressive regimes is about to be dismantled.
Under Karimov, thousands of people were detained on politically motivated charges. Torture became common in prisons and police stations.
Millions of Uzbek citizens, including children, were forced to pick cotton in abysmal conditions. According to Human Rights Watch, it was Mirziyoyev, in charge of agriculture, who used to make sure the daily production quotas were met.
Other issues remain unresolved. The touchy question of the construction of the Rogun dam in Tajikistan, vehemently opposed by Uzbekistan, has not yet been addressed.
And as for the détente with Kyrgyzstan, Crisis Group reports that high-ranking Bishkek officials are deeply suspicious and stress the agreements made this autumn are provisional, warning that Uzbekistan could yet renege on them. There is also concern by international observers that the Uzbek government could begin to lose interest in its pre-election initiatives.
In Turkmenistan, the thaw that accompanied the transfer of power in 2006 was short-lived. It remains to be seen whether Uzbekistan will be different.
Birgit Brauer is an IWPR contributor and was previously its Caucasus editor. She is also a former Central Asia correspondent of The Economist.
This publication was produced under IWPR project Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.