By Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL
Presented at the Central Asia Security Workshop, George Washington University, March 6, 2017
Barely six months have passed since Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power in Uzbekistan after the death of the country’s long-time president, Islam Karimov. Mirziyoyev inherited an entrenched and – more recently – nearly stagnant political and socio-economic system.
Six months is not much time to make changes in such a system. Karimov had been working to create balance within Uzbekistan’s various elite and other powerful groups since June 1989, when he was appointed first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
All the same, under Mirziyoyev there have been changes, though none have involved moving toward democracy or showing greater respect for human rights.
Small signs of changes in the media are noticeable. State television is broadcasting the comments of state officials other than the president. Over 25 years of independence, Uzbek State Television increasingly restricted its use of clips with accompanying audio for officials other than the president. The views of other officials were summarized by the newscaster.
President Mirziyoyev dominates news reporting but he does not monopolize television news the way his predecessor did.
The state news website Kommersant.uz has been able to publish articles with slight criticisms of Uzbekistan’s financial policies. In a likely related incident, in January a pensioners’ protest against the use of bankcards to withdraw pension payments in the southern city of Denau received an unusual degree of coverage.
In both cases, the person ultimately responsible for the criticisms and failures was Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, once seen as a potential successor to Karimov.
In late September, less than three weeks after parliament unconstitutionally named Mirziyoyev acting president (it should have been Senate chairman Nigmatulla Yuldashev), Mirziyoyev opened his virtual office on the Internet, a website where citizens could ask the president questions, express their concerns, or report abuses by local officials. Ministers have followed this example, opening their own online reception areas, as have other state bodies, including the penitentiary system.
Mirziyoyev has also made timid attempts at cultivating an image as a “man of the people.” He was shown on state television in early October saying there was an urgent need for reforms in the cotton sector, that hand-picked cotton should be reduced by 30 percent, and that the government had to work harder to improve people’s lives. However, rights groups like the Cotton Campaign continued to report that nearly one million people were conscripted into the cotton fields for the autumn 2016 harvest.
In the latter part of January 2017, during a tour of Uzbekistan’s impoverished western regions, Mirziyoyev hit on a new idea: chickens. Returning to Tashkent, Mirziyoyev announced that low-income families in rural areas would receive chickens. The new chicken-owners would be able to feed their families with eggs and sell off surplus eggs to make extra money.
A few future chicken-owners pointed out that they had little experience keeping chickens, and that there would be expenses involved in housing and feeding the birds. It was also unclear where new chicken-owners would be able to sell their extra eggs since everyone in their community would also have chickens.
The most hopeful signs from Mirziyoyev’s early months as Uzbekistan’s new leader were the releases of several political prisoners, some of whom had been imprisoned for many years. On October 25, 63-year-old Bobomurad Razzaqov was freed; a month later, former MP Samandar Kukanov, who had been in prison 23 years, was released; and in February 2017, activist Rustam Usmanov, 69, the founder of Uzbekistan’s first private bank – “Rustambanka” – was set free after 18 years in prison. Shortly after Usmanov left prison, Muhammad Bekjon, who had the dubious distinction of being one of the longest-incarcerated journalists in the world, was allowed to leave prison after being behind bars for 18 years. Bekjon is the brother of Muhammad Solih, leader of Uzbekistan’s opposition Erk party.
International rights groups and others welcomed the release of the four men, though some pointed out that all four were elderly and that much younger political activists, independent journalists, and devout religious believers still languish in Uzbekistan’s prisons.
Also released was the late president’s nephew Jamshid Karimov, an independent journalist and activist who had spent most of the last decade confined to psychiatric hospitals. He was freed at the start of March 2017. Meanwhile, activist Elena Urlayeva, who had been instrumental in documenting the use of forced labor, particularly child labor, in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, was put into a psychiatric hospital shortly after Jamshid was released.
While most of these signs have been positive, there have been several changes that do not bode so well for governance in Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev.
Some of Mirziyoyev’s selections for officials have raised concerns. The new prime minister, Abdullo Aripov, was the head of the information and telecommunications sector in Uzbekistan when Karimov was president. Aripov was sacked when the telecommunications scandal involving Karimov’s elder daughter, Gulnara, started to make international headlines. Swedish prosecutors investigating Gulnara Karimova’s connections to the TeliaSonera company said Aripov’s signature was on many of the documents authorizing unethical deals between Uzbekistan and companies in Europe and other places.
A week after he was named interim president, Mirziyoyev brought Aripov back to his old position in information and telecommunications.
Someone else brought back into government since Mirziyoyev took power is former Tashkent mayor Kazim Tulaganov, convicted of economic crimes in 2006 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Tulaganov was appointed head of the state construction and architecture committee on December 6, 2016, two days after Mirziyoyev was elected president.
Former GM Uzbekistan chief Tohirjon Jalilov, sacked in spring 2016 when it was discovered that new cars intended for the Russian market were being parked in Kazakhstan and brought back into Uzbekistan for sale, was released from custody in late September 2016 and eventually reinstated in his previous position.
Mirodil Jalolov, the former director of the Swiss-registered company Zeromax, another company connected to Gulnara Karimova, was arrested in 2010 for economic crimes and freed by Mirziyoyev in January 2017.
Alleged drug kingpin Gafur Rahimov was removed from the Interpol wanted list, apparently at Uzbekistan’s request, in late September 2016, and reputed mafia boss Salimbay Abdullayev was named deputy chairman of Uzbekistan’s National Olympic Committee after Mirziyoyev was elected president.
Some of Mirziyoyev’s early promises have stalled. Mirziyoyev moved to ease visa restrictions to give the country’s tourism industry a boost. It was announced in December that the visa regime would be lifted for 27 countries as of April 1, 2017, but in January it was announced that the decision had been postponed until 2021.
Similarly, plans to ease currency policies appear to have come up against opposition, and little has been said about the idea since it was first voiced in late November 2016.
Mirziyoyev’s vow to improve ties with Central Asian neighbors has shown more promise. His first visit as elected president of Uzbekistan was to Turkmenistan in early March and he followed up with a visit to Kazakhstan later that same month.
Tensions along Uzbekistan’s borders with its Central Asian neighbors have eased greatly since Mirziyoyev assumed power, something particularly welcomed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which had long and bitter border relations with Uzbekistan during the years Karimov was president.
Mirziyoyev’s government has also been active in promoting better trade relations with its Central Asian neighbors. Since Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country that has borders with all the other Central Asian states, this new policy brings the promise of increased trade among the five countries and easier transit terms for goods coming from outside the region.
Cynics point out that better trade ties with Central Asian neighbors are a practical necessity given Uzbekistan’s economic problems, but the moves toward enhanced regional trade are welcomed by neighbors all the same.