Tag 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 In foreign politics, the isolationist and idiosyncratic course of the first president has been replaced by an active and pragmatic policy that is aware of Uzbekistan’s geographical location at the crossroads of Central Asia.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 – 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.

Uzbekistan – The president, the daughters and the succession struggle

Last week, ten associates and allies to Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s daughter, were arrested in Tashkent amid accusations of forgery, illegal business activities, money laundering, tax evasion, and the illegal export of large amounts of hard currency. This is the last chapter of a struggle within the Uzbek elite involving Gulnara Karimova and her business network, the head of the security services and members of her family ahead of presidential elections scheduled for early 2015.

The issue of the succession to Islam Karimov has been high in the political agenda of the country since March 2013, when the 76-years old president was rumoured to have suffered a heart attack. Karimov has been ruling Uzbekistan since independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and several contenders for succession exist among the regime’s apparatchiks. One is Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Service, considered to be the country’s second most powerful man. Other candidates are Rustam Azimov, the first deputy prime minister, as well as Minister of Finance, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been prime minister since 2003, and Gulnara herself.

Gulnara Karimova is a 42-year old businesswoman, pop diva, fashion designer and diplomat. She is under judicial investigation, having been accused of corruption and money laundering connected to her financial and business activities in Sweden and Switzerland, where Avakiyan and other three alleged Karimova’s associates, today detained in Uzbekistan, are also being investigated. Furthermore, several media outlets connected to the Terra Group, a media holding controlled by Karimova, have been taken off the air, as the group is investigated for bribe-taking. In November 2013, Karimova accused the chief of the country’s National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, of conspiring against her.

The elite feuding started last September, when Gulnara’s younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, dismissed Gulnara’s chances of succeeding her father as the next Uzbek president. Gulnara reacted by suggesting that Lola Karimova’s business activities were not fully legal, and by accusing her sister of mounting a campaign against her at the instigation of the National Security Service. Other accusations have involved Gulnara’s mother Tatiana Karimova, Inoyatov and other National Security Service staff. Traditionally above the law, the Security Service found itself under pressure for being accused of eroding President Karimov’s confidence in his daughter. Gulnara also carried updates on staff members at her various ventures whom she said had been arbitrarily detained by the Security Services.

Many analysts believe such a campaign against Karimova’s person and business empire could not have happened unless her father sanctioned it, but Gulnara declared that her father is not behind her ‘fall from grace’.