A new hope for Uzbekistan?
On October 19th 2016 Uzbekistan’s foreign minister Abdulaziz Komilov surprised the international community by declaring the full support of Uzbekistan for Palestine and Al-Quds Ash-Shareef (Jerusalem) during a press conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Tashkent. Moreover, Komilov began his speech, for the first time in the country’s history, in line with the Islamic tradition with the words “In the name of Allah” (Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem). Under Karimov’s rule, it would be unthinkable to make such a statement, as Uzbekistan always tried to stay ideologically neutral to avoid getting involved in international disputes. Even during the Ukraine crisis, which directly concerns Uzbekistan, the late president decided not to express his support for either side.
What we currently observe are some unusual political movesinside of Uzbekistan. The interim president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has announced an online meeting with citizens, a virtual reception opened to everyone, during which he will listen to complaints on various issues facing the country – a development unthinkable during Karimov’s rule. Moreover, in what a few months ago would be another unimaginable move, the president has opened an official Facebook account, which has been the main platform for reporting citizens’ issues for the virtual reception. According to the page, as of October 22nd the president has already received 70,000 complaints.
In its foreign policy, Uzbekistan has also made some unexpected moves. The visit of Uzbekistani foreign minister to Dushanbe has been one of them. Conflicted in the past few years over a number of political, economic, border and energy issues, the two countries developed rather tense relations during Karimov’s time in power. The mutual visits of both countries’ delegations and the expanding border cooperation with Kyrgyzstan are clearly a sign of a new tendency in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy.
Should we, therefore, expect some major changes in Uzbekistan after Karimov’s death?
Firstly, we should consider that Mirziyoyev is a candidate in the upcoming presidential election scheduled for December 4th 2016. The former president, Islam Karimov, ruled the country for 25 years and was highly recognized among Uzbekistan’s society. Competing with his image of a strong leader and the father of the nation would be a mistake. That is why Mirziyoyev has chosen the “good cop” strategy and in the short time left before the election he aims to earn the respect of Uzbek people and demonstrate that he is capable of bringing political change. Moreover, in the international arena he is perceived as a hope for change, which is all the more awaited since the political future of Central Asia strongly depends on Uzbekistan, the main demographic and economic power in the region.
However, it is still too early to speak of any lasting change. Inside the country Mirziyoyev is in the middle of a large populist presidential campaign. His idea of virtual reception highly resembles Putin’s direct line, where people can complain about their local issues. In return, Putin solves these problems and increases people’s support for his rule. This political tool gives the population an impression that their problems are caused solely by the local authorities, who somehow manage to escape the control of the central power. As Putin has already figured out, this is a powerful tool to improve the image of those on the top of power vertical. But what really gave rise to problems such as large-scale corruption, social inequality, unemployment in rural areas and centralised power disconnected from society is still not being discussed. The complaining individuals do not bring up the main issues that concern the majority of population, instead focusing on their own personal problems.
While some more pressing issues have been brought up in the virtual reception forum, they have not yet received any reply. One such problem is migration. Uzbekistan has kept the Soviet internal and external migration control regime. Everyone who would like to leave Uzbekistan and go to a country outside of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), no matter for what purpose, needs to apply for an exit visa (also known as OVIR). A petition in Change.org has been launched to abolish the exit visa regime, but Mirziyoyev has not yet commented on the initiative.
As an interior migration control tool, Uzbekistan requires its citizens to register their movement across the country. The most inaccessible place is the capital, Tashkent. With a population of almost five million according to unofficial data, Tashkent remains the most populated and developed city in the country. Uzbekistan’s centralised economy led to the rapid development of the areas around the Uzbek capital to the detriment of regional cities, almost all of which have become tiny administrative towns after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In order to avoid more rural exodus to the capital, the government has kept the strict Soviet registration scheme. One cannot be unregistered for more than five days and in order to legally settle in Tashkent, one needs a special government permission issued only to state administration employees. The policy has led to a disconnect between people from the capital and those from rural areas, as well as the systemic discrimination of people living outside of the capital.
At the same time, the rural population has been highly dependent on financial flows from Russia and Kazakhstan where a number of Uzbekistanis work seasonally. As they see Tashkent as a social fortress disconnected from rural realities, they will likely form the core of the social dissatisfaction movement, as even Mirziyoyev’s virtual reception will not be able to solve their problems. For the record, almost 70 per cent of the Uzbekistani population, which is more than 20 out of 30 million, live in rural areas.
When it comes to foreign policy, no major change has yet taken place. Diplomatic visits have multiplied and new discussions are opening, but no important decisions have been made. The situation in Uzbekistan does not allow for major changes. The border issues with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are just reflections of other economic problems related to the scarcity of water and energy. Uzbekistan is already having its own energy gap problems and will not be able to provide the gas to its two upstream neighbours. At the same time, the construction of dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will likely cut the water flow to Uzbekistan during the agricultural season. The country still uses classical methods of irrigation and is not ready to face such challenges.
Another major challenge for Mirziyoyev’s possible future presidency is Uzbekistan’s membership in the Eurasian Union. The question has not been resolved yet, because the leading party of the Union – Russia, has been concentrated on other international issues which pushed the agreement to a dead end. Moreover, Mirziyoyev is in the middle of a presidential campaign and the question will probably not resurface until he becomes officially president. But even after that, it is uncertain whether Uzbekistan will become a full member of the Union. Business activities of many members of the Uzbekistani political elite depend on the country’s isolation and the differences between the official and black market currency exchange rates. Some businessmen connected to the political elite have an advantage of buying the currency for low official prices in order to import foreign products. Joining the EEU most likely would oblige them to give up this privilege, as it may require the state to accept a market regulated exchange rate. Russia, facing economic difficulties due to Western sanctions, can hardly afford to give a financial advantage to the Uzbekistani elite, almost all of which have business activities along with administrative privileges.
However, we may also see a change in the game. As the recent Reuters report claims, the power-sharing deal which has been made between Uzbekistan’s political clans, involving Mirziyayev, Rustam Inoyatov and Rustam Azimov, can be easily broken by the possible inclusion of the Uzbek-Russian business tycoon, Alisher Usmanov. Once president, Mirziyoyev might change his mind as to sharing power with the rival clans. Since Usmanov is known as being close to the interim president, enjoying the clear support of Russia, Mirzioyev may choose to abandon the power sharing agreement and build an alliance with the powerful oligarch. If that is the case, some major political purges among the Uzbekistani elite are to come.
Mirziyoyev will most likely become the second president of independent Uzbekistan. It is too soon to make any final conclusions about his policies, as at the moment the presidential campaign is still on and he does not want to risk by introducing any major changes. But the populist tactics he has already applied could backfire once he becomes a president, if he does not continue with the liberalisation of state’s image and reducing the divide between society and the state developed under Karimov’s rule. Currently, Mirziyoyev is seen as a hope for Uzbekistan both inside the country and internationally. He still has a chance to bring change and leave a better mark in the history of Uzbekistan than the late Islam Karimov.
Akhmed Rahmanov is a Tashkent-based research fellow at IPSE (Institut Prospective & Sécurité en Europe) and an editor at Novastan.org.