Uzbekistan’s Patchy Road to Reform
Times have changed in Uzbekistan. Until his death in 2016, former president Islam Karimov ruled over one of the world’s most repressive, paranoid and brutal regimes. During Karimov’s 25-year rule, a massive security apparatus maintained total control over the media, economy and civilian life. Imprisoned dissidents faced torture and citizens were forced to pick cotton at harvest time to sustain the Uzbek economy. Since Karimov’s death, however, Uzbekistan has embarked on a wide-ranging program of political and economic reform.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s successor and Prime Minister for 13 years, inherited a deeply authoritarian system over which he quickly consolidated control. Still, Mirziyoyev was greeted with guarded hope that he could bring change to the notoriously insular nation. Uzbeks I spoke to shortly after Mirziyoyev’s ascension to the presidency in 2016 spoke expectantly of a ‘modern’ president who would address the country’s problems, even while they praised Karimov’s leadership.
As president, Mirziyoyev moved quickly, removing dozens of officials and flagging extensive political and economic reforms in terms that would have been anathema to the Karimov regime. He has released dozens of political prisoners and closed notorious prisons known for detaining and torturing dissidents. Citizenship rules, notoriously byzantine, have been relaxed, extending citizenship to tens of thousands of Uzbek residents left stateless by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government has also made some effort to bolster religious freedom and allow greater religious education for children, although a joint opinion released by the Council of Europe found that its draft religion law still “maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with human rights standards”.
In August, the government moved to boost transparency by releasing data on the country’s prison population for the first time. In the same month, Tashkent authorities backed down on redistricting plans after rare protests, possibly signalling a greater responsiveness to public concerns. There has also been a clear pivot away from isolationism towards regional engagement, with Mirziyoyev taking the lead in coordinating the regional response to the COVID-19 pandemic and dispatching aid to neighbours.
The last four years have certainly seen progress on some fronts and won the country praise internationally. The Economist named Uzbekistan its Country of the Year for 2019 in recognition of improvements to its political system and the easing of restrictions on the economy and everyday life. But the sincerity, durability and true extent of Uzbekistan’s domestic reforms are hard to judge. Concerns remain that Mirziyoyev’s actions are as much about cementing his personal control and improving Uzbekistan’s international image as they are about high-minded idealism.
Indeed, Uzbekistan certainly has economic incentives to at least appear to be reforming. The country’s hugely important cotton industry has faced international boycotts over its forced labour practices. Mirziyoyev has sought access to incentives under the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences that promise greater access to European markets – incentives which are conditional on domestic reforms. Yet despite the government claiming to have eliminated state-sponsored forced labour in the cotton industry, reports suggest that the practice is ongoing, now labelled ‘volunteering’.
In October, Uzbekistan was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a jarring development given its recent past but one which was welcomed as a chance to improve the country’s human rights record. It will take more than chances and signs of goodwill, however, to bring about lasting change in Uzbekistan. Without deep structural reform, such developments risk remaining purely cosmetic moves.
Uzbekistan is still ranked ‘not free’ by Freedom House. Torture and arrests of journalists and dissidents are ongoing. In April, a UNHRC report noted progress in some areas but “remained concerned about torture and ill-treatment of people deprived of liberty, as well as restrictions on the freedom of conscience and religious belief, freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly”.
Broad criminal laws left over from Karimov’s rule continue to allow for the imprisonment of critics and the state security apparatus remains immensely powerful, despite some attempts at reform. Draft legislation which would, in theory, loosen protest rules in fact still maintains strict control, mandating a minimum two-week notice period for consideration by authorities. For those prisoners that have been released under Mirziyoyev, the government has provided little in the way of compensation. October saw the first case of an exonerated political prisoner receiving financial redress, but the USD$5,800 granted to activist Choyan Mamatqulov remained a fraction of what he had demanded.
Journalists also continue to face threats and closed door hearings. Imprisonment of journalists has become rarer in recent years, though some suggest that authorities are instead relying on self-censorship and promoting a culture of fear. Uzbekistan still ranks 156th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, despite having risen in the last three years. In a positive sign, however, there is a sense of growing tolerance for the role of local media in being able to openly critique some of the issues faced by modern Uzbekistan.
Yet, significantly, an identifiable opposition remains non-existent. While parliamentary elections in December were praised for livelier campaigns and televised debates, the legislature largely remains a rubber stamp. All five participating parties are seen as supportive of government policy.
Genuine reform will be difficult to achieve for as long as Uzbekistan remains a fundamentally authoritarian state. Uzbekistan’s patchy progress suggests Mirziyoyev is seeking to establish a form of market authoritarianism rather than full liberalisation. Room is being made for a degree of private sector involvement in the Uzbek economy, but with the current political elite still firmly in control.
Millions of dollars corruptly moved out of the country under Karimov’s rule are gradually being returned, but there are fears the state lacks the institutional strength to properly secure it. Without a strong civil society to carry out the long, hard work of pushing for systemic reforms in the long-term, Uzbekistan risks leaving itself open to corruption and kleptocracy. Human rights lawyer Steve Swerdlow argues that true reform will rely not on government announcements and tactical concessions, but on a process of truth-telling and reckoning with Uzbekistan’s past on a national level.
Change is underway in Uzbekistan. How deep and for how long, says Swerdlow, will depend on a shift “from one-off actions to enduring structural improvements”.
Samuel Garrett is the Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.