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How High Should Hopes Be For Change In Uzbekistan?

Shavkat Mirziyoev addressed the UN General Assembly on September 19.
Shavkat Mirziyoev addressed the UN General Assembly on September 19.

December 4 marked one year since Shavkat Mirziyoev was elected Uzbekistan's second president.

He had been Uzbekistan's prime minister since 2003, but when Islam Karimov -- Uzbekistan's first and only president since it gained independence in 1991 -- was pronounced dead on September 2, 2016, Mirziyoev moved into the country's top post despite a constitutional prohibition against the prime minister becoming acting president.

In 15 months, Mirziyoev's actions and statements have raised hopes, inside and outside Uzbekistan that the country would emerge from semi-isolationism and become an active partner in regional and international issues.

It is true that Uzbekistan has made progress since Mirziyoev came to power, but it could also be said he inherited a stagnant country. Any movement would be considered progress.

What has Mirziyoev really accomplished as president? And is there a plan for the future, or is he merely practicing damage control?

Mirziyoev laid out five priorities in Uzbekistan's plan for development from 2017 to 2021 on February 8.

-- Improving state and public construction
-- Ensuring the rule of law and reforming the judicial-legal system
-- Developing and liberalizing the economy
-- Developing the social sphere and ensuring security, interethnic harmony and religious tolerance
-- Implementing a balanced, mutually beneficial and constructive foreign policy.

Notably absent is any mention of strengthening the public's role in the political process, which until now has been almost nothing. So there won't be any genuine political opposition parties or independent candidates registered until at least after 2021. There are also no words about greater respect for human rights or any hint of independent media being allowed.

Under Mirziyoev there have been positive changes, especially in Uzbekistan's foreign policy, and that has generated, at times, overly enthusiastic optimism from some quarters.

Forced Labor

Domestically, there are some things that do not seem to have changed since Mirziyoev took over.

Uzbekistan's use of forced labor in the cotton fields, adding up to some 1 million people annually, has drawn international criticism for many years.

President Mirziyoev and other officials have called for a stop to this practice and some have even urged citizens to report attempts to force them into the cotton fields. But the conscription of citizens into the fields continued in 2017 around the country.

Up to 1 million people, including minors, are estimated to be forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan every year. (file photo)
Up to 1 million people, including minors, are estimated to be forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan every year. (file photo)

The Germany-based Uzbek-German Forum and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, tracked Uzbekistan's 2017 cotton campaign, including Samarkand Province Governor Turobjon Juraev ordering business chiefs to find pickers; Andijan Mayor Hokimjon Abdulazizov demanding the heads of state enterprises provide photographic proof of the employees harvesting cotton; and workers being bused to fields, where they lived and worked for weeks with minimal opportunities to even bathe.

The Norway-based religious rights group Forum 18 reported raids on Protestant gatherings, seizures of Korans and Bibles, fines and even short jail terms against Baptists, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

There was also the mysterious deaths in prison of Rahmon Norboev in February, and the death that same month of Zokir Kurbanov while in police custody. Information finally emerged in mid-June that rights defender Nuriddin Jumaniyazov had died in prison, officially, from tuberculosis on December 31, 2016.

There were also the deaths of rights lawyer Polina Braunerg in May and former political prisoner Murad Juraev in December. Both suffered from serious health problems but could not obtain exit visas to seek treatment abroad.*

On September 21, President Mirziyoev invited "all compatriots abroad who wish to contribute to the development of the country" to return to Uzbekistan. The statement was widely interpreted to mean former opposition figures could come home without fear of repercussions.

Uzbek dissident writer Nurullo Otakhonov (aka Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon).
Uzbek dissident writer Nurullo Otakhonov (aka Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon).

On September 27, Uzbek writer and dissident Nurullo Otakhonov (aka Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon) left Turkey and returned to Tashkent where he was detained at the airport upon his arrival. He was released after a week but still faces charges.

Independent journalist Bobomurad Abdullaev, who allegedly wrote critical articles about the Uzbek government for an opposition website, was taken into custody by the National Security Service on September 27. Abdullaev faces charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order of Uzbekistan. He has reportedly been able to see a lawyer only one time.

Dissidents Released

However, since Mirziyoev came to power more than a dozen dissidents have been released from prison, among them journalist Muhammad Bekjon (Bekjonov), political activist Rustam Usmanov, UN employee and former Defense Ministry official Erkin Musaev, journalist Solijon Abdurakhmanov, and rights defender Azam Farmonov.

While these releases are encouraging signs, international rights organizations point out that all these people were convicted under dubious circumstances, and most have served prison terms of 10 to 20 years and are now in their 60s and 70s.

Uzbek authorities also took thousands of people off the so-called blacklist of suspect Muslims in August. The government also instituted counseling programs in which officials and clerics liaise with people previously convicted of being involved with alleged extremist religious groups.

While there is still no independent media operating inside Uzbekistan, there are a few media outlets that are experimenting with critical coverage of administration policies. Uzbek television has alluded to mistakes made by former President Karimov's government, particularly fruitless policies toward neighboring states.

There are limits as was seen in August when Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov appeared on the live television program International Press Club and took offense at some of the comments made during the show.

President Mirziyoev has tried to address problems of the rural population. Mirziyoev studied agriculture in university. During a January trip to Uzbekistan's poverty-stricken Karakalpak region, Mirziyoev decided the state should provide low-income families with chickens. The idea was the chickens would lay enough eggs to not only help feed families but extra eggs could be sold for additional needed income. Mirziyoev later called for low-income families to have lemon trees, and not long afterward he recommended that rural inhabitants keep goats.

The chicken and lemon projects failed and by November Uzbekistan's banks received orders to no longer loan money for these endeavors. But Mirziyoev's consideration of the plight of underprivileged families is notable. He still has plans to increase mechanized farming (his specialty in university studies) and substitute cotton with capers and saffron.

Other important changes have yet to be realized. In January, Mirziyoev proposed scrapping Soviet-era exit visas, but in August he announced that this would have to wait until the start of 2019.

Two days after being elected president, Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan would ease visa restrictions for foreign tourists from 27 states, many of them Western countries. But on January 9, Mirziyoev announced that this would have to wait until 2021.

Former Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (file photo)
Former Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (file photo)

Some believe the delays that follow these announcements are the result of government infighting. Mirziyoev has worked to bring his own people into his government and dismiss holdovers from Karimov's administration. This latter group includes former Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, once seen as a potential successor to Karimov, who was finally removed from government in June.

The former include some people who were ousted, and in cases jailed, under Karimov. Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov, for example, was removed from his position as head of information systems and telecommunications in 2012, as international investigations into the illegal business dealings of President Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara started. Swedish prosecutors investigating TeliaSonera, one of the companies in which Gulnara allegedly had financial interests, said Aripov's signature was on some of the documents.

Reasons For Optimism

Changes in Uzbekistan's economic and regional policies are the reasons for optimism.

Uzbekistan's economy was in a decrepit state when Karimov died despite the fact that the country has abundant agricultural and hydrocarbon resources. Heavy government centralization of the economy and rampant corruption mitigated all the natural advantages Uzbekistan should have.

In late November 2016, state media started reporting that a new policy on hard currency and convertibility would be coming in 2017. It would be a bold move since for years certain parties in Uzbekistan had raked in profits from the black market where the rate was substantially higher, sometimes twice as much, as the official rate for Uzbekistan's currency – the som.

The Central Bank started lowering the value of the som in early 2017, from 3,309 for $1 to 4,247 soms for $1 by early September. On September 5, the Central Bank implemented a controlled devaluation, dropping the rate to a bit more than 8,000 soms for $1.

Authorities also made it easier for businesses to access hard currency and for citizens to exchange hard currency for the national currency, which, according to authorities, resulted in Uzbekistan's banks taking in hundreds of millions of dollars.

International financial organizations started taking a new look at Uzbekistan.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for example, sent a delegation to Uzbekistan in February; the first such visit in some 10 years, and on November 8 opened an office in Tashkent.

Eduards Stiprais, the head of EU delegation in Uzbekistan. (file photo)
Eduards Stiprais, the head of EU delegation in Uzbekistan. (file photo)

European Union Ambassador Eduards Stiprais** led a delegation to Uzbekistan in early May. He said the EU welcomed Uzbekistan "opening to the world," and called for boosting EU-Uzbek trade.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini met several times with Uzbek officials in Brussels during 2017, including visiting Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in July. On November 10-11, Mogherini addressed an international security conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

But it was Russia that made the greatest progress boosting ties with Uzbekistan in 2017.

Under Karimov, Russian-Uzbek relations were only good when there was a security problem in Central Asia.

But Russia offered immediate remedies to many of Uzbekistan's economic problems.

Uzbek fruits and vegetables replaced EU products that the Kremlin banned in retaliation for Western sanctions on Russia for its role in the conflict in Ukraine.

Gas And Oil Investment

Russian companies LUKoil and Gazprom pledged to continue investing several billion dollars into Uzbekistan's gas and oil sector. On November 3, LUKoil launched the first stage of the long-awaited Kandym gas-processing plant in Uzbekistan's Bukhara Province, a $3.3-billion project that eventually aims to produce some 8 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually.

LUKoil and Gazpromneft, the oil wing of Gazprom, are also part of a deal to eventually ship up to 10 million tons of Russian oil to Uzbekistan via the Omsk-Pavlodar-Shymkent oil pipeline.

Uzbekistan is currently facing a deficit of gasoline. Prices at filling stations went up in November by more than 30 percent and the government allocated $250 million to the country's three refineries to secure new supplies of oil for processing.

Uzbekistan possesses some 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves, but production has dropped to nearly half what it was a decade ago, leaving the country's three refineries (in Bukhara, Alty-Arik, and Ferghana) operating far under capacity.

That makes Russian oil imports vital to Uzbekistan for the foreseeable future. And Russia is importing some 5 bcm of Uzbek gas, about half the gas Uzbekistan exports.

Regional Detente

While Uzbekistan worked at improving its relations with many countries, the most important change was in Uzbekistan's regional policy, which is also, to date, the biggest victory of President Mirziyoev's new government.

Uzbek officials have noted for years Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country, meaning there are at least two countries between Uzbekistan and the nearest access to the sea.

That being the case, good relations with immediate neighbors would seem to be a prerequisite to foreign trade, but that is not how former President Karimov saw it.

Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016) didn't enjoy optimum relations with his neighbors. (file photo)
Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016) didn't enjoy optimum relations with his neighbors. (file photo)

Karimov cut back ties with Central Asian neighbors to a minimum, with the possible exception of Turkmenistan, itself an isolationist state.

Mirziyoev's first priority was to reset relations with all of Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors, including Afghanistan. Mirziyoev's first visits as Uzbekistan's elected president were to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in March. He has been back to both countries twice since then and those visits also helped Uzbekistan obtain more fuel for its refineries and markets for Uzbekistan's products.

Mirziyoev's visit to Kyrgyzstan in early September turned into a celebration along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border after new agreements were signed opening crossing points along the common frontier. The situation along all of Uzbekistan's borders is easing, a vital development since Uzbekistan is the core of the region, the only country bordering all the other Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

Already new connections are opening and more will be coming, such as the improved road connecting Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Turkmenistan is able to export electricity to Tajikistan through Uzbekistan's territory and there is talk of recreating a unified energy grid based on a Soviet-era energy grid that Uzbekistan unilaterally withdrew from at the end of 2009.

Looking ahead, Uzbekistan's economic situation is almost certain to improve. Opening up the country as a natural regional transit corridor will help Uzbekistan, and the government's active promotion of trade with foreign partners old and new should further cement economic progress.

There is little indication that any domestic social or political reforms are coming anytime soon, but an improved standard of living after years of stagnation will probably be sufficient for Mirziyoev to firmly entrench himself in power in Uzbekistan.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
*Juraev was finally given permission in October by which point his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer travel
**Stiprais was named the EU ambassador to Uzbekistan on September 19
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.