(Photo: Foreign Policy)
By Joe Mawer – Contributor
Uzbekistan is a country that is on a crossroads, both in its history and in its geopolitical identity. It is a country of nearly 33 million, lying on the Silk Road in the heart of Asia. From independence in August 1991, the country was left with a system that closely resembled the one under the Soviet Union, with a largely planned economy and a one-party state. The President of the newly independent country, Islam Karimov, was the former Chair of the Supreme Soviet and ruled like a Communist dictator until his death in 2016. His death left a vacuum at the top of the country, which the then Prime Minister, Shakvat Mirziyoyev, has filled to this day. Although at the time of his arrival, Mirziyoyev looked to be a continuity candidate, he has gained global plaudits for his reformist agenda. This article will look at how Karimov dealt with major problems to his rule, how Mirziyoyev is now reforming much of what Karimov did and how it can be taken further in the future.
The legacy of the Soviet one party state lives on in Uzbekistan, with a culture of suppression and violence towards any opposition. When Uzbekistan declared independence, the main opposition came from within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDPU). On the outbreak of independence many of the deputies were against Karimov, 200 of whom, including the Vice-President, signed a letter that challenged the dictatorial nature of the leadership. Karimov then removed the internal opposition, changing 78% of the Central Committee, removing the post of Vice President and then reinstating the position of Prime Minister. This increased Karimov’s grip on dissent from his own party, and thus he shifted his focus to external challenges to his leadership. The civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan gave Karimov an excuse to crack down on opposition parties such as the Erk party, with its leader fleeing Uzbekistan in 1992. Other parties such as the Birlik and the Islamic Renaissance Party were either banned or heavily suppressed. Other opposition parties were set up but were non-combative, ‘pocket parties’ and therefore did not provide any sort of effective opposition to the government. This meant that Uzbekistan had a one party- like system, as there was little scrutiny internally and no chance of any other candidate winning the President. However, Mirziyoyev has used much of the political system inherited from Karimov to get himself elected by 88.17% of the vote in the 2017 election. Even in the 2019/2020 election, the leader of the Erk Party was still in exile. Even though the Adolat Party have won more seats than ever before, the culture of the one party state lives on in great part. For the nation to prosper in the future there needs to be an opposition that can compete with the governing party and allow Karimov’s political exiles, like Muhammad Salih, the leader of the Erk Party, to return once more. This would increase the scrutiny on the government, which should mean that there will be better governance and less corruption, thus leading to a better run country and leading to improved economic life.
The death of Karimov has not only lead to changes in how some of the political opposition has been dealt with, but how the controlling of the population of the whole has also changed. Karimov brutally oppressed any opposition from the public he faced, with imprisonment, torture and violence. This was most notable with the 2005 Andijan incident, where the security forces killed up to 1,500 protestors, many of whom were unarmed. This incident caused international condemnation and many foreign media organisations were banned from entering the country. However, since taking charge, Mirziyoyev has taken steps to reverse Karimov’s decisions. Mirziyoyev has released 50 political prisoners and shut the notorious Jaslyk prison, where two prisoners were once boiled alive. The SNS, the Uzbek secret police, has had their power diminished and its head under Karimov has been dismissed. This though, has been mostly to show the West that there has been wholesale change since the death of Karimov, and there have been a few human rights abuses since Mirziyoyev has been in power. Censorship has vastly diminished, foreign news organisations such as the BBC, that had been expelled from the country since the Andijan incident, have been allowed to return. Although Uzbekistan is still not a perfect democracy by Western standards, it is far better than it was under Karimov. This reform though, as highlighted, needs to be improved and made as irreversible as possible. This can be done with allowing the Red Cross to monitor and continuing the new collaboration with the International Labour Organisation to independently monitor prisons and forced labour respectively. With the involvement of these independent organisations, Mirziyoyev’s reforms do not have the potential to be rolled back into a Karimov style dictatorship. With these improvements, at some point in the future, Uzbekistan may be considered to be a shining jewel of Asian democracy.
With the death of Karimov, Mirziyoyev has also liberalised much of the economy, and opened it to the rest of the world. Under Karimov, the economic policy was more market based than under the Soviet Union, however, the government still retained a large amount of control. Collective farms were simply renamed from what they were called in the Soviet Union. This is especially important as Uzbekistan is the 6th largest cotton producer in the world, and it made up 16% of the country’s exports in 2006. Karimov’s slow and cumbersome reforms kept the country in mass poverty. Since Mirziyoyev has come into power, the liberalisation of the economy has been far swifter, as he both delivered many policies that were promised by the Karimov regime, and in some cases going further. This has meant that Uzbekistan’s economy is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with the GDP increasing by 7.8% in 2019. However, the diversification of export destinations has not been entirely successful as China, Russia and Kazakhstan still make up nearly half of all Uzbek exports. This means that Uzbekistan’s export market is more unstable because if one country has an economic downturn, then there could be serious economic ramifications for the Uzbek exporters because the demand for their products will diminish. Uzbekistan will prosper far more if Mirziyoyev reforms the major focus of the economy away from agriculture. This means many potential reforms can be implemented on industries that have not reformed since the breakup of the Soviet Union. This is especially important in the cotton industry, which employs many low paid workers, and reports of forced and child labour. With more people employed in other areas, such as manufacturing or tourism, Uzbekistan will provide better employment for the population and will not cause as much environmental damage.
Mirziyoyev has dramatically improved relations with the Central Asian region, after Karimov had soured them since independence. The main way that Mirziyoyev has repaired relations is by solving many of the border disputes that had lingered from the very early days of the Soviet Union. For example, Mirziyoyev signed an agreement that resolved the border disputes with Kyrgyzstan in 2017. This has meant a strengthening of regional ties included opening of the road and rail bridges over the Amu Darya on the Turkmen border, a new high speed railway between Tashkent and Almaty and new direct flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe. This will increase the amount of cross border trade and travel, meaning that the businesses can use Uzbekistan as a hub. Also, the Aral Sea, which is situated on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has over many years dried up, creating a funding black hole for the country. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world but due to the failure of the Soviet irrigation system, it has now shrunk to a fraction of size of what is once was. Not only there is the constant cost for the Uzbek government in trying to increase the size of the lake, but there has also been huge knock on costs with the loss of a fishing industry and the massive health costs from the effect of the poisonous sandstorms, caused by the Soviet pesticides in the dust. This is not going to end soon and it has already been a major drain on the government resources. This needs international co-operation to solve as the funding needed is very substantial. The increased co-operation between Uzbekistan and its neighbours has de-escalated many of the tensions that have existed for a long time. This means that they can work better as a bloc and tackle some problems that they all will face in the future together, such as the Aral Sea and the response to Covid-19. This therefore means that these problems can be dealt with more effectively as there will be less tensions between the countries, making the region more stable and therefore in the long run, more prosperous.
Uzbekistan is a country that is on the verge of being a key geopolitical player in the Central Asian region, with an increasing democratic society and stronger economy. The Central Asian region is a place where Western countries like Britain need to garner far closer relations, due to Brexit. This would be very useful in trying to counteract the increasing Chinese involvement, and the lingering Russian patronage. Its geo-strategic importance has been over-looked since the Great Game the 19th Century, and now instead of just Britain and Russia vying for influence over the region, now there are many countries including many of whom Britain and the West are ideologically opposed to, such as Iran and China. Foreign direct investment has increased greatly in Uzbekistan, showing the increase in attention that the country is receiving from global audience. Uzbekistan is not committing fully to be a full ally of any external power, although there are many projects simultaneously going on, from different countries. This means now, more than ever, it is important to understand this diverse region, and what it’s increasing role in global politics means.