Category Archives: Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan – Mirziyoyev’s First Year as President: Reforms without Regime Change

On 2 September 2016, 78-year-old President Islam Karimov was officially announced dead. Having ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, Karimov orchestrated the smooth passage of Central Asia’s most populous nation of 31m from a Soviet republic to a highly personalist regime that was consistently ranked among Freedom House’s “worst of the worst” regimes worldwide. His power did not rest on an ideology-driven party apparatus, but on a comprehensive patronage system involving the major, regionally based political-economic networks of the country. Succession in power is the Achilles heel of such regimes, and behind-the-scenes competition between rivalling factions had been ongoing for several years as Karimov was ailing. His death, therefore, caused fears of instability and “clan wars” as well as frail hopes for political and economic reforms.

Six days after his death, the parliament appointed 59-year-old Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the interim president. Mirziyoyev, who had served Karimov as a loyal Prime Minister for thirteen years, presented himself as the candidate of continuity. On 4 December 2016, he handily won a presidential election, receiving 88.6 percent of the vote. The “Economist” concluded that just another “sham election” had replaced “one strongman with another,” thus “cloning Karimov.”

However, twelve months after Karimov’s death, even sceptics agree that Uzbekistan is changing. In foreign politics, the isolationist and idiosyncratic course of the first president has been replaced by an active and pragmatic policy that is aware of Uzbekistan’s geographical location at the crossroads of Central Asia. A reset of relations with all neighbour states was launched. Bilateral negotiations on the delimitation and demarcation of state borders with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—an unresolved issue since Soviet days—have made more progress in twelve months than for the last 15 years; agreements on strategic partnership, economic and military cooperation have been signed. In the wider neighborhood, cooperation with Russia has also become closer, especially on economic and security issues, albeit a formal security alliance with Moscow remains unlikely. Equally important are new trade and investment agreements with Uzbekistan’s largest trade partner China as well as Turkey.

Another domain under reform is the economy. In October 2016, Mirziyoyev started to issue decrees aiming at the improvement of the business climate in Uzbekistan. In November 2016, the creation of four new free economic zones was announced. A tax reform has been brought about, and in August 2017 important steps towards the full convertibility of the national currency followed as well as decisions to invest in a modern IT infrastructure and a national “Silicon Valley.”

The “Strategy for the further development of Uzbekistan in 2017-2021” announced in February 2017 also entails a political dimension. While Karimov during his last decade had been engaged in the creation of controlled party pluralism and parliamentarism as decorative elements of his “Uzbek model of democracy,” Mirziyoyev rather stresses the need to improve the efficiency of the state to enhance people’s trust. Reforms of the law enforcement system—particularly the police—have been set up, and an anti-corruption programme has been launched. Constitutional amendments introduced a Supreme Judicial Council and expanded the powers of the Constitutional Court. The president declared the year 2017 as the “Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interests,” which is a far more political motto than those of all the years under his predecessor. The newly created “virtual receptions” of the president and other offices became very popular, serving as “public complaint boxes.” According to official sources, within the first ten months of the new president, one million petitions were received.

Not least, the situation of political and human rights seems to have improved. Observers note that the country’s official media begin to enjoy more leeway. Several journalists and political activists have been released from prison; selected dissidents have been invited to return to the country. For the first time, human rights activists who traditionally commemorated the Andijan massacre in 2005 were not detained by police in May 2017. Most recently, more than 4000 people have been removed from blacklists of potential Islamic extremists, which proves a further normalization of the relationship between the state and religious communities. The authorities also decided to ban the mobilisation of minors and employees of the health and education services in the cotton sector, eventually responding to international pressure against the use of forced labor.

These developments nourish the hope of more fundamental regime change. However, when seen realistically, such change is unlikely. On the one hand, recent reforms and policy changes merely reflect the “recalibration” of a typical personalist regime. The new patron at the top of the power pyramid strives for leaving his mark according to his interests, beliefs, and tastes. Obviously, his preferences are quite pragmatic and influenced by the desire to gain popularity at home as well as international acceptance. On the other hand, the results of Mirziyoyev’s first year in office indicate that his position is not (yet) fully consolidated. When ascending to power, he had to rely on an informal power-sharing agreement, with the chief of the National Security Service as his main partner and rival. Thus, it has been said that the postponement of some reforms—such as the full liberalization of the foreign exchange regime and visa-free travel for foreign tourists—was caused by severe conflicts behind the scenes.

In this situation, at least some of Mirziyoyev’s recent measures are intended to merge his constitutionally provided supremacy as the President with that of the sole and undisputed “real” leader. For example, the reorganization of the internal troops and the police aims at shifting the balance away from the security service. In the same vein, the media policy is driven rather by image considerations than by the vision of a free press, causing experiments and inconsistencies. On the one hand, the president encourages journalists to address pressing issues, such as “bureaucracy, indifference, extortion, corruption.” His newly created TV channel “Uzkbekistan-24“ has even been allowed to air the first critical analysis of Karimov’s presidency. On the other hand, live broadcasts of talk shows and panel discussions with officials—probably the most important innovation in state TV—have recently been recalled because of an on-air-confrontation between the prime minister and a journalist. While BBC is on the verge of restarting its operations in Uzbekistan after nearly 12 years, the protection of “national values” and the need to “fight commercialization” serve as justifications for new attempts to bring Uzbekistan’s media and culture, including film and music, under control. This list could be continued.

Perhaps, Uzbekistan is making progress towards a rather “normal” authoritarian regime and a more cooperative neighbor. Yet, under the country’s second president, the power system will not fundamentally change.

Uzbekistan – Karimov re-elected: what’s ahead?

Islam Karimov

On Sunday 29th of March, the Uzbek people voted to choose the head of the state in national election and, as expected, Islam Karimov has been successfully re-elected as president for the fourth time. With a turnout of over 91% of the current electorate, 90% of the voters cast a vote in favour of the incumbent president. The Uzbek constitution would not allow candidates to run for more than two terms, but an exception has been made for Karimov who got his third mandate already in 2007 and in 2011 ordered a constitutional revision to curtail the presidential mandate from seven to five years. As international monitors noticed, since then, Uzbek officials have justified Karimov’s decision to continue to run for office by pointing out that terms of a different length cannot be considered consecutive. Constitutional revisions are a popular move in Central Asia where Karimov and other neighbouring authoritarian leaders, such as the Kazakh president Nazarbayev, who is also running for the presidency in anticipated election at the end of April, have used them to justify their permanence in power. However, this election comes at an interesting time. While Karimov’s re-election is far from signalling any element of instability in the Central Asian country, it can be interpreted as a way to minimise elements of uncertainty such as Karimov’s ageing and health conditions, the future of the country and the outcome of the current struggle for power, which is going on within the Uzbek elite in anticipation of the post-Karimov era.

The election

Sunday’s presidential election saw the participation of four candidates, all nominated by their political parties. Incumbent president Karimov was nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party; Khatamjon Ketmonov by the People’s Democratic Party; Narimon Umarov by the Social Democratic Adolat (Justice) party; and Akmal Saidov by the Democratic National Renaissance Party. None of the candidates was a serious opponent or challenger to Karimov and according to a number of sources, they have spent their electoral campaigns by praising Karimov’s rule. Khatamjon Ketmonov, who is 45 years old, has been the chairman of the Central Council of the People’s Democratic Party since April 2013. He was deputy governor of the Andijan province and in December 2014, Ketmonov was elected a member of the lower house of parliament. Since January 2015, he has been at the head of his party’s parliamentary faction. Nariman Umarov, who is 62 years old, was appointed head of the State Committee of Nature Protection of Uzbekistan and in 2013 he became the chairman of the Social Democratic Adolat party. Akmal Saidov, who is 56, is the director of the National Centre of Human Rights of Uzbekistan and the chairman of the parliamentary committee of democratic institutions. The three challengers lost the electoral race to Karimov, who has been elected for the next five years. He garnered the votes of over 17 million (corresponding to 90% of the total number of the voters) over a total electorate of nearly 21 million voters, said Mirza Ulugbek Abdusalomov, the chairman of the Uzbek Central Election Commission.

This election has been criticised by both independent observers and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). OCSE vote monitors said the Uzbek poll lacked genuine opposition to Karimov and that the election was marred by legal and organisational shortcomings. Independent observers, such as Alexei Malashenko, a central Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, and Human Rights Watch, have called the election ‘a sham’ and draw attention to the lack of a real opposition to Karimov, while thousands of opponents are jailed or in exile. Fear and suspicion have hampered open political discussion and confrontation, while the media have been dominated by Karimov’s propaganda. In addition, the Islamist threat has helped Uzbek authorities to enforce special security measures and to avoid an environment of openness, limiting contacts with the international press and foreign media.

As for his political programme, Karimov has already outlined the priorities of his next executive during the end-of-year speech he delivered in December 2014. The crucial priority is economic development, with a planned reduction of the role of the state in the economy. Future reforms in this policy area will most likely be clarified by a presidential decree and privatization program in 2015. He has not discussed the most recent constitutional reforms approved in March last year which, crucially, transferred presidential power and duties to the prime minister while increasing the role of the parliament.

Struggle for power and political stability

It is not a secret that Uzbekistan is torn by an ongoing struggle for power between Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the intelligence service, the prime minister Mirziyaev, the finance minister Azimov and the Karimov family (which is internally divided between the eldest daughter Gulnara and the younger one, Lola Karimova-Tillayeva with whom the mother united in coalition), who are competing to shape post-Karimov Uzbekistan. For the moment, Gulnara Karimova is under house arrest and involved in an international corruption scandal, to the benefit of her competitors. Islam Karimov is old and the succession to his presidency is unclear. According to the constitution, the speaker of the Senate would become interim president in the event that Karimov is unable to perform the duties of the office. In the meanwhile, experts also highlight that the constitutional reform of March 2014 significantly increased the powers of the prime minister. Therefore, some are waiting to see whether president Karimov will mentor the prime minister Mirziyaev to handle the country’s economic and social matters and increase his prominence, or whether Karimov will remain the sole prominent decision-maker in Uzbekistan. In addition, giving that the power of the parliament also increased, the majiles is supposed to become a real agora of discussion and debate among parties, thus keeping the prime minister accountable. However, according to Alexei Malashenko, Karimov is likely not to consider any change of direction for the moment. On the contrary, because of the possible destabilising effects of the ‘war for power’, he is more likely to tighten up his grip on power.

John MacLeod, a Central Asia analyst of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, highlights however the presence of challenging elements to Karimov’s stable rule. He points out to the crowd that gathered to mourn the death of the Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Sadeq Muhammad Yusuf on 11th of March, highlighting how unusual such a public gathering was in strictly controlled Tashkent. MacLeod linked this event to a diffused, yet still underground and not publicly expressed, feeling of distrust and discontent with the regime, whereby people have little faith in the state and its institutions and no means to express such a disappointment. In addition, worries about the economic performance of the country, which is going through a period of recession due to Russian economic difficulties, widespread corruption and large emigration flux might turn into a decisive mix to spread political discontent.

Uzbekistan – The struggle for succession

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On Saturday November 15, the Uzbek president’s grandson Islam Karimov, named after his grandfather, released an interview to the BBC to bring attention to the case of his mother Gulnara, who has been held unofficially under house arrest since last March. This is only the latest episode of a family saga (Presidential Power Blog reported on this case here and here) whereby the members of the presidential family are fighting for power ahead of the presidential election scheduled for early 2015 – however in a situation where the incumbent president does not seem willing to leave power.

The young Islam Karimov had already lobbied for his mother’s release at the end of June 2014, when he gave an interview to the Russian channel Ren TV. During the interview he made clear that his mother was the victim of ‘powerful individuals’ who want to get rid of her fearing that she will standing for president. In his latest BBC interview, the young Karimov also made an appeal to his grandfather to ‘understand the extent of the manipulation’ around him and to understand that ‘we would never go against you and do what they say we would do, and I hope you fix the situation, as I know you have the power to do so’. The young Karimov indeed proposes a reading of the current situation consistent with his mother’s, who has claimed for over a year now that she is the victim of a conspiracy plotted by her mother, her younger sister and Rustam Inoyatov (the head of the powerful National Security Agency) behind the president’s back. According to Islam Karimov, the president is prevented from having any information about the current events. In late 2013, Gulnara accused her mother and sister of keeping the president in a state of ignorance and claimed to be the victim of judicial and physical persecution orchestrated by Inoyatov.

Aside from the gossipy interest that a Gulnara-like character raises among observers (a glamourous pop singer, businesswoman, politician, diplomat, philanthropist and fashion designer), experts are carefully watching for Karimov’s moves in search of information about his succession. According to an analyst, and contrary to what the young Karimov claims, the hypothesis that the president is unaware of what is going on is rather unlikely and, according to the Russian political scientist Alexey Malashenko, Gulnara’s arrest is relevant to the issue of succession because it clearly underlines that President Karimov is neither ready nor willing to leave power. Not only is it the case that Gulnara Karimova now has no chance of succeeding her father, but, according to Malashenko, her fall from grace indicates that Islam Karimov is tired of all the speculation about his successor. In addition, the president also seems to be demonstrating to the public that all are equal in the eyes of the law, even his own daughter, who was accused of corruption and fraud in Switzerland and Sweden. Moreover, Gulnara went as far as to criticise some of the human-rights abuses committed in Uzbekistan under the reign of her father, a move that Karimov deeply disliked and that brought about a strong reaction on the part of the president. Furthermore, analysts contend that even Karimov’s decision to back constitutional amendments that would transfer some power from the presidency to the legislative and executive branches is a tactical move and is not a sign that he is stepping back from politics.

With the president still in power, the choice about succession seems to remain uncertain. Indeed, Uzbekistan may be moving towards a presidency-for-life model. In that case, Malashenko argues, ‘neither Prime Minister Mirzieev nor Minister of Finance Rustam Azimov stand a chance of succeeding while Islam Karimov is still alive’.

Uzbekistan – President’s grandson’s interview sparks new debate over power change

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In the last year, Uzbekistan has been home to several debates and discussions about a possible power change. A tough battle for power has been going on between the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and her business network, and the head of the security services, Rustam Inoyatov, and other members of presidential family. The latest chapter of this family saga is the interview that the president’s grandson, Islam Karimov-Maksudi, Gulnara’s eldest son, has released to the Russian channel REN-TV. In the interview, the 21-year-old Oxford student talked about the assassination attempt on his mother and her ‘unofficial’ house arrest. He blamed unknown ‘powerful’ individuals for being behind this situation, and stated that he believes his grandfather is not responsible. Gulnara Karimova has been tied to ongoing money-laundering investigations in Sweden and Switzerland. In Uzbekistan, several of her media outlets have been taken off the air, while her Terra Group media-holding company is being investigated for bribe-taking. Gulnara accused her younger sister and her mother, along with the security services agency, of being behind her judicial proceedings.

The interview generated a number of questions, in particular about the reason why the young Karimov-Maksudi decided to deliver the interview. Ardadiy Dubnov, a Russian political scientist and CIS expert, believes this entire story was made up in Tashkent. The expert has been quoted stating that ‘there are no revelations in [Islam Karimov-Maksudi’s] interview – it is just the next natural step in this propaganda campaign.’ Indeed, the expert said, the interview is aimed at confirming Gulnara’s image as a fighter against the corrupt regime, her family and those ‘obscure forces’ that are taking over the country. This is what she needs to do in order to soften the opinion of her by the West, especially regarding her current criminal charges, concluded the political scientist.

According to Alisher Ilkhamov, Central Asia expert at Open Society Foundations, the idea that interview was a desperate attempt to reach out to President Karimov, who ‘supposedly’ does not know what is going on, is not plausible. He identified the possibility that the president is so weak that he is no longer in control of the situation in his family as ‘the myth of the uninformed Father Tsar.’ He also did not discard the possibility that Islam Karimov-Maksudi may seek political asylum in the UK.

Another expert, Bahrom Hamroev, director of the Help Consulting and Legal Center, commented that the interview was a move backed by pro-Western circles in Tashkent, which are getting ready for a change in power. Hamroev believes President Karimov will be replaced in the 2015 election by the first deputy of the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Rustam Azimov, a pro-Western political figure. Hamroev also declared that he thinks Karimov does not want to be president anymore, and that the president’s declaration about his unwillingness to leave after the 2015 election is a window-dressing to reassure Russia of Uzbekistan’s loyalty.

Other elements also seem to support Hamroev’s hypothesis, pointing to a withdrawal of Karimov from the political scene. Beyond the rumors about Karimov’s precarious health condition and his advanced age, the president also ordered a constitutional reform last March, which runs counter the tendency Karimov has been pursuing since early 1990s. The constitutional reform indeed did not strengthen presidential powers. Instead for the first time it strengthened the Prime Minister’s and Parliament’s control over the government. Given that this might be Karimov’s last chance to reform the constitution, he might be willing to genuinely change the balance of power among state institutions.

Islam Karimov became president of Uzbekistan in 1991, 25 years ago, a record he shares with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president. His possible fatigue, the strained relations he has with his family and his age suggests that what is at stake is not only the issue of succession, especially given that opposition leaders from Uzbekistan are either outside the country or dead, but also the issue of the survival of the regime itself after the death of its president.

Uzbekistan – Constitutional reform to be considered

Last week, the legislative commission of the Uzbek Parliament (Oliy Majlis) drafted a law reforming the powers of the President and the Prime Minister of the country. The proposal for the constitutional reform came from the President, Islam Karimov, who is 76 years old now and has been ruling the country as president since national independence. Indeed, Karimov outlined a broader reformist project on the occasion of the 21st anniversary of the constitution of Uzbekistan in December 2013, including an expansion of the rights and powers of the Parliament, increasing the responsibility of the Cabinet of Ministers and, in general, the strengthening of public and parliamentary control over executive bodies. Furthermore, the move is also in line with the President’s ‘Concept of further deepening democratic reforms and establishing civil society’ as adopted and promoted since 2010.

The draft law advances a number of amendments and additions to six articles of the constitution. Such changes deal with the system of checks and balances, deepening the control of the Parliament and the public on the government, and increasing powers and rights of the Cabinet of Ministers. Some executive powers of the President are transferred to the Prime Minister, whose election procedure is also amended

All political parties and factions in the Parliament praised the draft law as a significant step forward towards the ‘establishment of a modern, democratic, strong civil society, sustainable development of the state and society, the economy of the country, high growth rates of level and quality of life, the formation of harmoniously developed and healthy generation and the expansion of the public and citizen control’. The same opinions were also expressed by different NGOs and civil society actors that met with the Parliamentary commission for reviewing the legislative draft.

However, there are several reasons for being skeptical of the reform’s characteristics as no detail about what powers would exactly be transferred, or about the implementation strategy of public and parliamentary control over the government has been released. The constitution was first adopted in 1992. Since then, it was amended in 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2011, constantly strengthening the President’s power despite the pro-democratic rhetoric. Nevertheless, given Karimov’s precarious health condition, advanced age and unclear plans for succession, this might be his last consitutional reform and therefore he might be willing to really change the balance of power among state institutions.