of the CAP workshop Towards a New Uzbekistan? The Magnitude, Impact and Limitations of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s Reforms,
January 24, 2017
Sean Roberts, GWU
Navbahor Imamova, Voice of America
Sebastien Peyrouse, GWU
I don’t really have a fancy PowerPoint, it’s just a way to help me organize my thoughts. I’m going to be talking about what I see as some of the limits in the reforms happening in Uzbekistan now. And in particular, how they relate to what I think is really the lack of development in the civil society sector.
So first of all, I think there are reasons to be optimistic about what’s happening in Uzbekistan a year and a half after Mirziyoyev has taken over. One of the most positive things to me is that the impetus for this reform has come from the government itself. It doesn’t seem to be trying to impress international donor sources, it doesn’t seem to be a part of courting the West, it’s certainly not courting the United States, which doesn’t really seem to be noticing any of it. So, I think that already speaks a lot to the sincerity of the project.
Then there’s also been progress already. There’s been, I think, a serious movement towards converting their currency, which is one of the biggest issues in terms of economic development, for sure. And there’s been a lot of changes in terms of the foreign policy, engaging other countries … there’s been some movement in the rule of law, movement in terms of human rights issues to a certain extent. So, it does seem to be a process that is real and it’s moving forward. It’s certainly not a replication of Turkmenistan after Turkmenbashi died, where there was some discussion of reform and then nothing really happened.
And then, you know, I think a lot of people thought it was a very positive development in this kind of state of the union annual speech that Mirziyoyev made that he kind of called out the security service, which a lot of people see as potentially the real block to serious change in the country.
So, that’s the good news. I think there’s a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the extent of reforms, at least in the current situation. First of all, it’s unclear to what extent the president and government want to reform the country. There hasn’t … there is a reform program, but there’s not really a vision provided of what Uzbekistan is going to look like in the future. Is this really just about fostering foreign investment and economic development? I think there’s a case to be made that that’s the biggest priority with the government is that they want to bring in more foreign investment. They need economic development. They have a huge unemployment problem. And I think there’s a sophisticated recognition of the part of the government as to the different things that go into attracting foreign investment. But you do have to deal with things like human rights. You do have to deal with things like the accountability of the government, and so on.
Is it … is this an attempt to create a softer authoritarianism in Uzbekistan? Is Mirziyoyev … does he imagine Uzbekistan in ten years looking like Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan? That is very possible. But again, we don’t really know. And finally, there’s the possibility that the government really wants to liberalize society to a large extent. I think … it’s more likely that their vision of what a liberal … more liberal society and I more vibrant economy looks like is more like that of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Which of course, I think would be a serious improvement for the people of Uzbekistan.
But what I want to talk about today is … it’s unclear whether they can really make even the steps to liberalize to the extent of some of the other countries in the region that have been successful with the present situation in the civil society, which is really dormant. And there are no signs that anything is changing on this front as of yet. This is an area I think … there’s a lot of reasons potentially why nothing is happening in this area. But I think it is a critical part of reforming the country.
And just to be clear, I wanted to mention what I mean by “civil society” because there’s obviously a lot of different conceptions of civil society. And by a lot of standards, there is a vibrant civil society in Uzbekistan, in kind of informal sectors and so on. But here I’m talking really about organizations of citizens independent of the government which are interested in being involved in the politics of society, at least as we understand that with a little [inaudible 00:05:58]. So, not necessarily vying for being a part of the electoral system, but at least being involved in policy discussions …. and helping hold the state accountable for its policies. Some cases, maybe even implementing policies or certainly helping to realize policies. And so you can see where this is a real need if you have a state or part of a state that is proclaiming it wants these major changes, and by all counts is starting to feel frustrated that it’s not that easy to just change things even from the top-down. It would be very helpful if there were organizations independent of the state that could be involved in this process.
And of course, such organizations could be informal, but to really have serious impact, I think you need more formalized, more professional type organizations. So, to talk more specifically about why I think this is important to the reforms … without a more vibrant civil society, the country’s population will not increase its involvement in reforms and the country will experience less innovation. I think that that’s the case. It’s difficult to just kind of mandate people: “please participate in governance”. I think that’s something that is not going to result in much change.
In terms of the agenda of accountability and making government more efficient, which has been a big part of what the president of Uzbekistan is trying to do, civil society organizations can play a very significant role in that. And in terms of being watchdogs, etc. And then I think to a certain extent Mirziyoyev’s own political power base is fragile. It’s very difficult to see inside the black box of Uzbekistan’s elite politics. But there are assumptions that there are parts of the elite that are not entirely thrilled with all of these plans.
And so having organizations that aren’t identified as just proxies of the president, but are actually independent organizations that would support the reforms I think would go a long way to increasing his own popular base and ensuring that his power is consolidated.
So, I think it’s worthwhile to explain for those of you who haven’t followed the evolution of Uzbekistan civil society over time just to talk a little bit about what has happened in the past in Uzbekistan that leads me to say that right now there really is no independent civil society in the country. So, in the 1990s, emerging from the Soviet Union obviously most citizen organizations were connected to the state in some way or another. This began to change somewhat in the 90s throughout Central Asia. It was both fueled by international development organizations and their funding, and also by the government’s actual allowance of the appearance of these organizations.
Now, I think nowhere in Central Asia were the governments very thrilled about the emergence of these organizations, or willing to allow them to become serious political actors. But you did see them emerging as a force in society that was able to engage on various policies. And in Uzbekistan, in the 90s, you didn’t see the same degree of development as you saw in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, but there were organizations … you know, within certain limits that the government was very quick to shut down … any activity as human rights organizations, organizations that were specifically focused on democratization, but when it came to organizations that were focused on women’s rights, healthcare issues, on domestic violence, these type of issues, there was a plethora of groups developing in the 90s. And if this had continued to exist, at least right now the Uzbek government would have something to kind of work with. Some people who have some expertise and some skills in trying to engage policy and possibly trying to help the government realize reforms.
However, this changed a lot in 2005. When I was in Uzbekistan last April, meeting with government officials, I found myself frequently bringing up 2005, you know, which is kind of a euphemism for Andijan. But, everybody knew what you’re talking about. Things changed drastically in the country in 2005. It actually started before Andijan, because following the colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the government already started cracking down on civil society. There was a general idea throughout the whole former Soviet Union that was also further propagated by Russian media that these revolutions were basically a conspiracy of the West, that it was all about the West supposed development of civil society, and this is what their actual plan was.
And so there was already. I was working for USAID at that time, and before Andijan, I was actually in Tashkent the day of the massacres in Andijan, and I was there because they had arrested one of the local employees of an international organization that USAID funded. And it was dealing with him in the street justice, and so on. So there was already this crackdown, but then after Andijan, things really changed significantly. International NGOs, working with civil society were for the most part, with a very few exceptions, banished from the country. Local organizations were forced to re-register and most of them were denied registration. And there was a monitoring system set up to regulate all international organizations that were providing support to civil society organizations. They had to report to the Ministry of Justice about any activities they were doing with local organizations, they had to get approval from the Ministry of Justice for any grants that were given to organizations, and they had to go through these state bank accounts. And there was created this network of government organized NGOs, or GONGOS, that were created essentially as gatekeepers to deal with international organizations that were doing work in the country.
And they generally were also kind of a net for capturing foreign aid that was aimed at civil society. So, that was 2005, and the thing is, right now the situation is almost identical to that. Very little has changed. And I want to focus in particular on these GONGOS because I think that they create a serious problem, because it’s in their interest now to not change the situation, because they have a monopoly on any kind of foreign assistance that’s targeting civil society. And, you know, even if the government told them that they should try to drop a plan on how to create a more independent civil society, in all likelihood they would not really want to do that.
But, that said, these organizations are not evil. I think they actually are playing a major role in the reform process. I’ll just put up some of their names. This one will be familiar … NAEMM, or the National Association of Electronic Media, which is kind of the gatekeeper of anything dealing with quote unquote “independent media” in Uzbekistan. NANNUZ, the National Association of Non-Commercial and Non-Governmental organization. Nimfogo, which is my favorite, is the Independent Institute for the Monitoring of the Formation of Civil Society. And then in addition, there’s the Union of Women. And when I was in the country in April, I met with actually all these organizations as I was doing some work for USAID and international donors … basically, you have to meet with these organizations if you want to try to talk to anybody in the quote unquote “civil society.”
And they were under a lot of pressure to come up with actual plans about how to realize the president’s reform agenda. And they were swimming, you know, not having the capacity to actually do that. But to a certain extent, I think they were … you know, they were playing an important role. And they were playing a role that’s probably more suited to them as essentially state-supported think tanks, which is what they really are. And to a certain extent, that’s an important function. But they’re not independent civil society voices that are going to provide any kind of linkage to the population writ large.
So, I’ll just end my talk with how can Uzbekistan revive its civil society? It’s going to sound simple, but then I’ll also explain why it might not be so simple. So, first of all, they need to remove restrictions on international organizations funding local organizations. I mean, if they really want to get international development assistance with the reform agenda, you can’t really implement foreign assistance without this, unless you’re just … you know, the World Bank, providing a loan and individual expertise. But most development organizations work in conjunction with local organizations. And without removing these restrictions, it’s just too onerous to really do anything or have any really significant results.
But I should mention that one of the reasons that this is the problem is the Ministry of Justice has vested interest in the situation not changing, because they have a ton of power in terms of being the gatekeeper to deciding what kind of work is done with local organizations, what funding goes to which organizations. There’s a reason that you don’t see this changing immediately. Now making the registration of a civil society organization easy again, and just allowing people to start registering organizations. It sounds simple, of course, I think given where Uzbekistan is coming from, that’s a big leap for them to just say “Well, all right, we’re just going to let citizens organize.” That doesn’t necessarily fit in with the top-down reform program that’s been presented so far. But I think it could be a really positive thing overall for the reform agenda.
And then you know, encouraging donors to support the development of new organizations, and establish processes where local organizations can engage with the government on the reform process. You know, right now they have established a very interesting … again, it’s called an NGO, but it’s really a government-linked think tank, the Center for Development Strategy. But they’re trying to do it all on their own. And they’re too close to the government to really be able to get down into the grassroots, so it’s a real challenge unless you allow people to actually organize themselves.
And then finally, they’re going to have to deal with these GONGOS. They’re going to have to … they’re going to try … I imagine they’re going to resist changing the situation where they have a complete monopoly over the concept of civil society in Uzbekistan. And they could be reformed into think tanks, they could be dissolved, they could just be cut off for funding. But, I think these are the things that have to happen, and I think this is a real bellwether issue in terms of seeing where the government wants to go and how risky they want to be in terms of engaging the citizens of the country.
Now that we have established what’s going on with the civil society, talking about media will be easy. There is a lot to cover, so I have my notes here. I hope I’ll have enough time to go over all of them. It’s great to be a part of the panel, both as an observer of the media and environment in Uzbekistan, but also as a player. I work for the Voice of America, so I target Uzbekistan and Uzbek speaking audiences on a daily basis. I’m not talking on behalf of the Voice of America, but I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about our work, about our content.
Obviously, the main question I think everybody wonders about is how free are Uzbek media today than they were, let’s say, a year ago. I’ll be blunt, this is really the central question because professional journalism, as many of you know, requires a minimum degree of freedom. You know, the freedom to choose a story, to choose a topic, the freedom to research, to interview, the freedom to process that information, the freedom to broadcast it or publish it. And if somebody tells you that this or that story is off limits, obviously that’s a constraint on you, and thus, you cannot be a professional journalist.
So, there have been some short periods of awakening and hard-hitting coverage in Uzbekistan. But in general, the country doesn’t really have much … journalists in the country don’t really have much experience with freedom. Uzbekistan doesn’t have much know-how when it comes to media. And we have to be really honest about it, because Uzbek journalists have always been the obedient followers of the political leadership. And … you know, so the history of them being as the agents of change or, let’s say, in a media serving as the “watchdog” trying to hold people responsible … you know, let alone accountable for their actions, you don’t see that much, because it’s been so deeply conditioned to serve as the mouthpiece of the government that even when now some of the leaders in the country are challenging the media by saying “You’ve got to be more professional, you’ve got to be hard …”
Media either don’t dare do that, or they just don’t know how to do it. And some of them are very open about that, because the news for them is still what the authorities say is news. So when you watch Uzbek television, when you listen to Uzbek programs … when you read news in Uzbekistan, or about Uzbekistan, coming out of the country, you see the coverage of meetings after meetings, forums, gatherings, where people are really talking about what the government has been saying, what to do, and how to be [inaudible 00:24:23] on how the state is outlining things for them.
There are many critical thinkers in Uzbekistan among journalists, but you don’t see that in their work because they are afraid. They are afraid of the implications, they are afraid of their management, they are afraid of the regime not liking their work. But we have seen a lot of change over the past year. Tiny steps. But I think these are remarkable developments in media. From my own experience, I can tell you that the Uzbek media … which ones wouldn’t even dare to touch our content. And we’ve always been seen as the softest if we were to be compared to BBC in Uzbek, and Radio Liberty, our sister organization. They wouldn’t even touch our content. Now, sometimes they are publishing our content in full.
I mean, the latest example would be our interview … my interview with Ambassador Pamela Spratlen of the United States, when she came here recently we got to talk. It was a very open, candid conversation with her. And the Uzbek national news agency decided to post that interview in full, with full credit to the Voice of America. They didn’t edit it, they didn’t cut anything out. They actually even teased and promoted it ahead of time. And they have, at times, been publishing comments … words basically out of my mouth as it goes on the air, you know, on [inaudible 00:25:50] Uzbek. So obviously, I like that, but it’s not just us. BBC Uzbek and our RFERL gets quoted, gets referenced a lot nowadays, and journalists make references to our work. They touch … whenever they are talking about some of the most sensitive issues, they always attribute it.
So, we see some signs of professional approach … professional attempt. But of course, they’re very careful. They’re very careful, they’re very tactical in some ways, but they have been indicating to us that they want to connect. Basically, they want to connect with Uzbek journalists outside Uzbekistan. They want to have a professional relationship. And to me, that is the most significant change. You know, as someone who started her career in Uzbekistan, I come out of Uzbek broadcasting company, and I know that a lot of journalists in Uzbekistan … they strive to be professionals. They want to be professionals. And I think this is one of those historic periods when they are trying to basically reach out and say, “Hey, help us.” And then our response of course to them is “Help us help you. What can we do? And what can we do together? What are our common values? What are our common interests?” How can we do things together with them?
I think the critical question for organizations like the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and BBC is that … do we want to work with the state media specifically? State media especially if when the national news agency is reaching out or other state channels are reaching out to you. They want to interview you, and they want to feature you, for example, as someone who’s doing things outside of the country. So I think that’s something for us to figure out. I think each organization is really sitting and wondering about that.
And that I think is the necessary prerequisite for establishing a more professional media in Uzbekistan. I think it’s time to be really constructive, it’s time to be really strategic. Myself and my colleagues at the BBC and Radio Liberty were recently asked to do a video address to a group of journalists who were gathered in Fergana. And this workshop was organized by Fergana journalist unions, speaking of some of the civil societies in the country. So they wanted us … each of us to do fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes is a long time, you know, to do a video address. And they said, “We’ll run it as it is, and this is your chance to talk to your colleagues at home.” And we did it. It went very well. Our video address has been made public, the feedback has been incredible, I’ve gotten dozens of letters from journalists who were both critical and of course, complimentary. And I think this kind of constructive engagement is a development. And I think we need to welcome that.
And when I was in Uzbekistan this summer, I spent a lot of time talking to journalists who seemed very energized and inspired in this new age as they said. But they’re still very much constrained, and they say “We need training, we need expertise, we need resources of course.” And many of them do not hide the fact that they’re more comfortable working within the limits that they’re so used to. So going beyond the limits actually makes them very uncomfortable. They’re used to that comfort zone. It’s so much easier to go to a government, yep, another event in Tashkent and talk about how 40 people gathered today to basically cheer yet another new policy by the government.
So, what specifically has been the nature of change thus far? We see more local coverage, more focus on domestic issues in Uzbek media such as the economy, specifically employment and pay, government services such as supply of energy, water, gas, education access and quality, healthcare access and quality, and one of the most covered issues is also the lack of housing in Uzbekistan. So these are really sensitive issues that no media were talking about a year ago. There was increasing focus on migrant work, export of labor force. And the media are asking some elemental questions that were not really part of the discussion previously. For instance, why are people seeking jobs abroad? How much are they making? Is it worth it? How much are they contributing to the local economy? The struggles of the migrant workers in Russia and elsewhere, and I’m sure many of you have heard what happened in Kazakhstan last week when 52 Uzbeks died in this bus fire … tragedy in Kazakhstan, and then of course the president of Uzbekistan comes out and says, “You know, we also should feel responsible. We failed at providing opportunities for our citizens, and this is the reason why people are going to far away places to make a living.”
I mean, to me, as a journalist, I’m like, “Wow.” I mean, isn’t that something that we wanted to hear from Uzbek government a century ago, you know? And of course, that sparks heated debates and more open conversations, specifically online, about where the country was today. And to me, I think that’s a really good positive development. Of course, presidential speeches and remarks continue to drive the content and debate over pretty much every issue in the country. His remarks, his voice, is the green light to basically talk about any sensitive issue. You know, and people are getting more expressive and daring as his remarks are getting more expressive and daring.
So Mirziyoyev, to my mind, is going to be the most crucial element in this. You know, in determining the scope, depth, and pace of change. And of course, this opening in Uzbekistan observing. Online Uzbekistan is very vibrant now, with many sources inside the country. Until recently, there was this virtual Uzbekistan where we had a lot of critical voices, and there was real Uzbekistan where a lot of people chose not to say anything. Either they were afraid, or they were just angry with all the critical voices in virtual Uzbekistan. And I think for the past one year that gap between virtual and real Uzbekistan has been shrinking. Again slowly, but it’s been shrinking. You see incredibly heated, interesting, constructive debates between bloggers and activists. And in some cases, they end up blocking each other. But what happens in that process is a lot comes out. Grievances come out, ideas come out, thoughts come out. And this is a good therapy for a society like Uzbekistan where … to be yourself informed is very difficult.
If the government wants to succeed in these reforms, it needs an informed public. And obviously informed public then requires informed government. So I think that is something for the government to recognize and I think there is a slow recognition of that bitter truth, but they’re moving obviously very, very slowly. The society in many ways I think is learning to communicate with itself. And you know, when we hear for example today’s news … well, yesterday’s news was that the governor of the Fergana region is reported secretly in a meeting where he’s screaming and cursing the people who are related to the victims of what happened in Kazakhstan last week, and he was calling them bastards. You know, and this is all coming in ugly … Uzbek … it’s made public and people are really discussing this. And a lot of people feel very uncomfortable hearing this.
And to me as a journalist, I’m like, “Good! Feel uncomfortable.” You know? This is what a lot of you have been saying for a long time. Hear each other. Hear each other, and then that pushes people I think to look at themselves. I think it really encourages critical thinking, because at the end of the day, to be able to answer to that question like how free are Uzbek media today … the preliminary question before that is what does freedom mean in that context, and what does critical thinking mean in context in Uzbekistan? And I think there is … we see the beginning of that … that really sensitive process in the country.
Of course, key issues, fundamental problems remain. When Uzbek officials talk about media freedom, they always talk about how thousands of media outlets are there in the country. But they too know that it’s actually about content, and it’s about the resources. It’s about the level of freedom these organizations have. But they think they can get away by bragging about the numbers. And I think many journalists inside the country are reminded of this now that “You know actually, good content matters.” Because we see many good content providers inside the country now. And I think that’s really nice. I’m going to talk about them a little bit later, but media organizations obviously lack expertise. They need training. We cannot stress on this more. Uzbekistan lacks journalism schools and programs.
Uzbekistan lacks real civil society and proactive trade organizations that can actually fight for the interests and rights of journalists. Online media is definitely the most active media in the country now. They’re colorful, relatively diverse content … but most of the content is not original. They’re either translated from Russian or from other languages. Poorly written, poorly referenced, lots of reviews of international media … but there is some major news organizations, outlets, such as Kun.uz or Gazeta.uz, and some of them are actually run by emerging, aspiring young journalists. And I think we should really [inaudible 00:35:41] for those of you who may be interested, and also Korrespondent.uz. And I’ve met with some of the managers … managing editors of these sites, and they’re very ambitious. They’re very ambitious, and they’re very energetic.
But again, I will tell you that all of them are struggling and trying to find out where the red line is. But some of them also believe in pushing the envelope slowly, one story at a time, and see what happens. Broadcast media, obviously Uzbek State Broadcasting Company, is still a monopoly. There are more TV channels in Uzbekistan now … ten at least on the media … the National Broadcasting Company. Diverse topics, and more variety, interactive shows, very influenced by the Russian media, especially in style and format. Some analytical shows, but very little critical content, unless of course they’re talking about … they’re referencing everything to President Mirziyoyev, who’s the biggest [inaudible 00:36:41] in the country.
Print media … quite similar to online and broadcast media, but they devote a lot of space to the coverage or to president’s speeches, remarks, decrees … and also a lot of space is given to what I call “morality lessons” by mogul intellectuals. You know, how to be a good Uzbek, what do … what should great Uzbeks do? How we should help each other, and also … and many see this as intellectual food, as very necessary intellectual food for the country. But many also do not deny that print media, as it is (especially official print media), do not reflect the real life in the country.
Now, one last point. Many of us have dealt with this issue in this room. Part of what enables a professional media is having a professional government. So, to put it another way, if public officials cannot communicate with media clearly, dispassionately, and responsibly, then the public loses, right? And I think that’s something that the government has not yet realized. So, the government is a big part of the problem that needs solving too, here. The good news is that official Uzbekistan is relatively active now. You see press services trying to do something about what they’re supposed to do. And there is definitely more outreach to the public. But the bad news is that the overall attitude toward media has not changed. The government lacks expertise, and training, of course. It’s evident very much everywhere.
But this starts actually at the very top. The presidential press office down to the most local authorities … the problem is the same. Press services lack the basic understanding of why they need to engage media. You know, why they need to have a professional relationship with media. Of course, all governments and politicians want to influence media. They all want to shape the perception. But the Uzbek government only knows how to do so by bossing around, by controlling everything, so in short, the state, in my view, has no media strategy … the government. And it’s funny because they talk so much about reforms, but they haven’t gotten the basic. You know? So it needs one, and press services can’t just act as controllers of state … outlets or even those online sources based in the country while refusing to communicate or answer any inquiries by both domestic and foreign media who want to ask real questions. They simply ignore.
And you know, this … especially they get very scared when organizations like us, who offer content in native language, inquiries. So, this problem to me extends globally. Of course, the representatives of the Uzbek government … they simply … I hate to use this word, but they suck at communication in general. I don’t see any representatives from the embassy here … of course, they wouldn’t be here because we’re talking about Uzbekistan and they can afford to miss that. I mean, this is something that my ongoing discussion with Uzbek diplomats … they’re always like silent observers. You know, they have a lot of grievances, but they’re always afraid to share those grievances. And this is a place where they can come and at least, you know, listen.
So, embassies, along with a foreign ministry, which by the way President Mirziyoyev recently called as being incapable of executing the foreign policy of the country, he wants to do major reforms there, they either have no people responsible dealing with media or they are just afraid to deal with media. So, diplomats reach out individually if they need cooperation. But in general, they don’t know how to deal with you if you approach them as a professional journalist wanting to know some things.
So, to circle back to where I began, Uzbekistan cannot have a free media environment unless the government views communication itself as a professional vocation. You have to just make peace with the fact that your officials need to nurture this professional attitude. They need to have a professional attitude toward media whether they are local Uzbek journalists or foreign journalists. And it needs to change now more than ever, because guess what? You know, President has been making some unprecedented remarks almost on a daily basis. He’s the biggest newsmaker in the country. And the lack of communication services within this system is failing to highlight those things. And then you cannot block those who are highlighting … for example, I wasn’t blocked by the Uzbek President’s twitter account until September when I was live tweeting about Mirziyoyev was saying on Independence Day. I was actually highlighting some of the good things that he was talking about, and all of a sudden I’m blocked. And I bet you these people who were blocking us … they have no idea what is being said. So you know, are they just afraid?
And I know that the committee to protect journalists is blocked by them too, which is a shame. So, and then we have a question of accreditation, which is still a very painful process involving several parts of the Uzbek government with no one taking a leading role. I constantly hear that changes are coming, but so far, we haven’t seen much. So, that’s that.
I’ll try in this last presentation to address the situation of education in Uzbekistan. Well, like in many of the sectors … as president, as new president Mirziyoyev has said a lot, he says that education is one of the most difficult issues for the country right now. And he has declared, of course, that he wants to launch many reforms in this sector, and he actually has already launched many of them. So, what I would like to do in this short presentation, in this short time, is first to present briefly some of the main changes that education in Uzbekistan is facing. In the second point, what kind of reforms the new president has launched, and how local people react to these reforms, at least to some of these reforms. And the last point, what impact Mirziyoyev’s new policies and reforms could have on foreign education assistance in this country.
So, first point … well, of course, made education an official priority. But since independence education in Uzbekistan has been facing a lot of issues. Many, many problems. Of course, I won’t have time to address all of them but briefly. And to simplify a little bit, I would say that education has been facing three kinds of issues. Economic, social, and political.
First, the economic one. From the 1990s, due to big budget constraints, Uzbekistan had to reduce by 1/3 the percentage of GDP, which was devoted to education. And this budget, despite several increases over the last fifteen years has remained for a long time well below the … for example, the OECD standards for developed countries and even for developing countries. And in 2012, the average percentage of national revenue given to education was 3.4%, which was low, which remains under the world standards, even if officially about 7.5% of GDP flowed to education in 2014. So, despite several increases from the 2000s, these budgetary shortfalls had many consequences, of course. Amongst some of them these layers of political authorities to prioritize secondary education at the expense of other levels. And this has had several consequences.
First, nursery schools have considerably declined in all the country. In the 2000s and 2010, only 22% of Uzbekistani children had access to childhood care and education. And today, according to several sources, close to 1000 schools have fallen into disrepair. As for primary schools, despite a high enrollment ratio which is close to 100%, for a variety of reasons at the start of the 2010s, almost 180,000 Uzbekistani children were not regularly attending a primary school, which equaled half of all Central Asian children outside the school system.
And as I said, although the government is focused on secondary teaching, in 1997 it reduced the time of obligatory instruction from 11 to 9 years. And besides, many secondary schools operate according to a system of two or three retentions. That means the pupils are schooled for only a few hours per day in order to make space for all the pupils before, a bit earlier, or later in the day.
And lastly, at the tertiary level, the government has greatly increased the number of high institutions from 37 in 1991 to 59 in the mid-2010s, even 75 in 2017 to respond to the quickly increasing number of applicants which grew from 540,000 in 2014 to almost 730,000 in 2017. So this is really a huge increase. But even if the government increases the number of high institutions, the percentage of applicants for tertiary studies and would manage to get into a university has significantly declined going from 15% under the Soviet regime, more precisely in 1986, to 9% only in the mid of the 2010s … which means that only one applicant out of 11 is able to enter into university in Uzbekistan, which is a really low figure compared to many other countries in the world.
The second problem that Uzbek education is facing is related to some social issues. The decline in living standards of a part of the population and the increasingly elevated school fees led to a decline in enrollment. For example, according to the World Bank, in the end of the 2000s, only five percent of children from Uzbekistan’s less advantaged families were enrolled in nursery schools compared to 46% of children from the countries of Western families. And these disparities are even more pronounced in tertiary education. Almost 60% of university students belong to the quintile of the most well-off families.
So, considering that, for example, today more than 2/3 of students study on a fee basis at the tertiary level, and 3/4 at master’s level. This means that many Uzbek households are unable to afford the enrollment fees and sometimes cannot even pay for lodging or transport to university. So, of course, these inequalities substantially impact the country’s development since they contribute to increased higher school drop out rates, to reduce the development capacities of youth from underprivileged backgrounds, and this maintains them in the cycle of poverty.
And last but not least, of course, the Uzbek government, also authoritarianism has considerably curbed education reforms. Of course, officially according to the law on education which was passed in August 1997 which was the main law on education, education is about forming a free and independent person with an ability to participate actively in social and political life, and about promoting democratic principles and so on. Yet, beyond this official rhetoric, the education system from kindergarten to university has remained highly region-centric, really based on state ideology. And as a specialist on education in Central Asia has said, [inaudible 00:51:25] and I quote him, “As Soviet lies have been replaced with new truths, which differ in scope and detail but not much in nature and purpose.”
So, from what we have seen in Uzbekistan from the 1990s … the Uzbek government’s personality has heavily imposed itself on curricula. School curricula remain largely stamped by the Soviet conception of unique truths. And students remained, I would say, to summarize, perceived … as knowledge receivers, but more than as knowledge producers.
So, this of course very, very briefly presented some of the issues that education in Uzbekistan is facing. The list is of course not exhaustive, but the arrival … and I’m coming to my second point, the arrival of a new president in 2016 has opened new perspectives in a little bit more than a year. I mean, Mirziyoyev has undertaken many reforms in this sector. I won’t of course list all of them and all the projects … let me just mention maybe some of the main ones.
For example, the Ministry of Preschool Education and Specialized Training for Preschool Teachers … specialized training center, sorry, for preschool teachers were created last year in 2017 with the goal to increase by 1.5 times enrollment of children by 2021. And those are reforms that kind of prevented the development of private schools, now I mean from 2018 … private kindergartens and schools will be able to work in Uzbekistan and a grant system would be created to train talented children in this course. For teachers, regional teacher training centers would be opened and funded by the state to raise their level which is considered too low.
The government has also tried to increase the number of students at university both on grant and fee basis by increasing the number of places in the university, but also by creating more and more evening classes or by correspondence courses.
So, there are really plenty of initiatives that Mirziyoyev is trying to launch. Now, two points here. First, it’s of course too early to measure the impact of many of his reforms, initiatives, and decisions. And second, some of the reforms launched raise questions. And I will mention here three examples.
The first one is that some of these reforms I would say are elaborated hastily. For example, Mr. Mirziyoyev decided to launch the revision and the publication of a number of new textbooks, which is of course a very good thing, considering the region-centric approach of textbooks. But the pressure … I had some interviews, I spent a few weeks in Uzbekistan last October, and I had some interviews … what I heard is that the pressure on the textbooks were such that according to them … some of them, and I tried to rewrite those textbooks in only two weeks. So, this was of course raising some concerns of course.
The second example is that as I already said, Mirziyoyev wants to allow a high percentage of high school students to access universities. And of course, again, this is a good point. But among the measures he has adopted, he has decided to match as much as possible the number of colleges to the number of universities, which would make easier for students to go both from high school or from colleges to university. And of course, well … this policy has raised many questions because one of the decisions of the government … he has decided to close 67 of 144 high schools, which really caused a wave of panic among some parents that I talked to.
And the third point, Mirziyoyev has also decided to bring compulsory schooling back to 11 years, which again is likely to be an important and good decision. But this decision involves some 22,000 additional teachers. So now, the question is how to recruit teachers. And I’m asking this question, because as a profession of teaching, which was very prestigious under the Soviet Union, has actually lost most of its prestige in Uzbekistan. Actually, not only in Uzbekistan. This is the case in all republics of central Asia. This is also the case, I guess in the post-Soviet republics. But, why this profession has lost … and I’m going back to Uzbekistan, why this profession has lost its prestige … for example, the average salary of a schoolteacher or professor is less than $200 a month, which is largely not enough to ensure a decent standard of living, which means that many teachers are obliged to have second jobs to meet the needs of their families.
And their purchasing powers … that’s what a lot of teachers complain about, is their purchasing power is even more reduced by some supplementary deductions, such as for example the obligation to subscribe to newspapers and journals. So a teacher beyond that … teachers criticize what they deem is an excessive workload. Because apart from the already heavy load of teaching, many of them are compelled to do additional duties such as maintenance of the school premises, or mobilization for subbotniki, for example.
So all these conditions, of course, have a huge impact on the profession and on the level of teachers, on their motivation. First, these conditions breed an immense corruption of the teaching, but especially at the tertiary level. Second, they have demotivated a growing number of students graduating from teaching colleges, I mean pedagogical institutions. What we see is that many change their career after graduation or leave the profession after only a few years of teaching and go to a more revenue bringing profession.
So, in 2017, it was estimated that Uzbek schools lack as many as 20% – 25% of teachers. So, the problem of teachers is therefore a tricky question in Uzbekistan. I would say that even under the previous regime, what came as a decision in 2012 to prevent teachers from working more than one and a half times their regular workloads, many teachers actually considered that this measure was impossible to implement.
And my last point, because I only have five minutes left, so what is the impact of Mirziyoyev’s will to reform the sector on Western engagement in Uzbekistan, on Western education assistance in the country? Well, foreign education assistance … its modalities and its impact of course continue to be intensely debated and I would quote here two of the most famous specialists on foreign education assistance [inaudible 01:00:43], there is actually no set and established rule of what to do that can be applied generally to all countries. So my goal, of course, is not to get into the huge debates on foreign education assistance. I don’t have time to do that. But, one of the points that could be of consequence on Western involvement is … I mean, I don’t mean a real process of democratization, and I totally agree with Sean, we really have to remain extremely cautious about it. But at least a certain decrease … very moderate decrease of authoritarianism and maybe a greater openness to cooperation with foreign countries.
For example, Karimov, as you know, largely endured Western assistance which it worried could spread … I mean, ideas capable to support and causing revolutions, and so on. And he had consequently largely restricted the sets of international organizations or NGOs in general for donors, to local stakeholders, for example, to teachers.
So, but despite … as I said, many debates and disagreements among specialists on the stakes and impacts of foreign education assistance. A huge majority of them consider that it is essential to go beyond cooperating mainly with the ruling elites. Why? First, by addressing the needs that have been defined by, I would say, a clique at the top, the elite at the top, which is marked by its exclusivity, by authoritarianism, and by corruption … foreign assistance may actually contribute to increasing the risk of instability in the country.
And second, because in any society, knowledge, of course, is not a continuous flow that is transmitted from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top. Knowledge is decentralized, knowledge is dispersed among individuals, among organizations, and so on. And any government … whatever … authoritarianism, whatever its control over a society, does not always have the resources to impact needs, and the difficulties of the sector or to implement reforms at the local levels. And under Karimov, local stakeholders that is … I’m talking about for example teachers, parents, and students, have been very rarely included in the process of making decisions on reforms. And as a result, reforms have often been ill received for foreign assistance.
And I take here the example of the EU, has been trying to engage a lot in education in Uzbekistan. This lack of local connection has considerably limited its ability to evaluate the needs of Uzbekistani society and as a result with that, its approach is a local situation. And so this lack of local stakeholders’ ownership has led some Uzbekistani stakeholders to resist actually reforms suggested by the EU.
One example: as several schools have noted, there’s a very limited impact of European and Western approaches that have pressed from teacher centered to child-centered learning. For many teachers in Uzbekistan, concepts like that such as student-centered learning is unsustainable. And it won’t be implemented, sorry, unless there is a significant improvement in the social conditions, for example an increase in salaries, lighting of the workload, just to make them more motivated to implement this kind of reforms coming from Europe or coming from the United States.
So, the question now is whether change is initiated under the government of President Mirziyoyev has opened up new possibilities for assistance. I mean, Mirziyoyev’s reforms also could provide a more successful cooperation with local stakeholders, which has been largely restricted, as I said, under Karimov, as well as maybe sort of possibilities for engagement with non-governmental organizations, local government, and the private sector.
So I conclude very, very quickly, just thirty seconds … so, obviously there’s a real desire to change things. A number of decisions are welcome, for example developing nursery schools that have collapsed is essential. I guess we don’t need to elaborate a lot on it. The positive impact of early childhood care has been extremely well documented. But it’s still of course early to measure the impact of these reforms, for example, it would be impossible to speak about the effectiveness of the reform only in a few years. For example, in the case of private schools and the new system of kindergarten. It would take at least ten years before the first results can be estimated.
So, many of the points actually I addressed today remain more like questions than responses. But at least even if the Uzbek government is very, very likely to remain authoritarian, it is at least I think maybe more aware than Karimov of the urgent necessity to try to improve the human capital for the development of the country. But again, let’s see what happens in the next two or three years. Thank you.
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