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Uzbekistan. Stable transition into volatile future

The death of the 78-year-old leader of Uzbekistan on September 2nd 2016 has cast the country into uncharted waters and sent shock waves through a region facing multiple security concerns. The late president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 27 years, has been credited with building a stable, powerful, and secure state, albeit at the expense of civil, political, and religious freedoms. With all eyes on Uzbekistan’s internal power dealings in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for December 4th 2016, many analysts expect a smooth and controlled transfer of power to a new president. Less discussed are the consequences of the current transition for the country and the region in the medium and long-term.

September 15, 2016 - Mariya Y. Omelicheva - Articles and Commentary

Man at Registan - Samarkand - 15-10-2005

My contention is that the “second generation” of Uzbekistan’s leadership will entrench authoritarian politics and informal institutions that will weaken the state, making it increasingly vulnerable to transnational risks and domestic political turmoil. Since authoritarianism is a regional phenomenon, the entrenchment of authoritarianism in Uzbekistan will strengthen authoritarian tendencies in the Central Asian region at the expense of regional cooperation.

The future of governance in Uzbekistan: different in content, similar in form

To understand the impact of Uzbekistan’s political transition is to understand the peculiar character of its regime. Similar to the politics of other Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan’s politics and society are penetrated by a powerful and resilient system of informal authority structures, variously labeled as “patronage networks” and “clans”. Historically, local elites and several regional factions have played a prominent role in the state. In post-independence Uzbekistan, these regional affiliations have become interlaced with a new type of patronage networks formed around key administrative departments in the central government. Security and law enforcement agencies, tax collection, and financial departments have become remarkably influential in the politics of Uzbekistan. These complex social and political networks, built on family and regional ties, various loyalties and interests and professional affiliations, control wealth and power in Uzbekistan. Despite the scheduled presidential election, citizens will play no role in deciding their future. The leaders of the most powerful patronage network will orchestrate political transition from within the regime.

According to political analysts, the key power brokers in modern Uzbek politics are the former Prime Minister and current interim President Shavkat Mirziyaev, National Security Service Chief Rustam Inoyatov, the Minister of Finance, Rustam Azimov, and the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, Investments and Trade, Elyor Ganiev. There have been no signs of political wrangles in the ranks of the regime, judging by the peaceful celebration of Uzbekistan’s independence day when the fate of Islam Karimov was still in limbo. The swift and smooth funeral of the first Uzbek President was followed by the managed transfer of power to Prime Minister in circumvention of Uzbekistan’s Constitution. The transition, therefore, is likely to resemble the controlled transfer of power in the post-Niyazov Turkmenistan, and will probably have no impact on the quality of Uzbekistan’s governance. Karimov’s successors will continue his political and economic course, building on their predecessor’s “legacy”. If personality is any indication of the leadership style, post-Karimov’s authoritarianism will ultimately become more extreme, if either Mirziyaev or Inoyatov becomes the next Uzbek president.

Although informal power-sharing agreements among the leaders of influential socio-political networks can ensure regime stability at critical junctures, they will have a dire impact on the long-term political and economic trajectory of the state. In exchange for loyalty and support from the members of extensive support networks at various levels of state administration, their leadership occupying the key government positions and controlling access points to state wealth need to give back for sustaining the patronage bases. The new Uzbek leadership will face the challenge of asset redistribution in the wake of Karimov’s death that unsettled the structure of patronage networks. Under good economic conditions, striping the state of valuable assets may weaken the state, decentralise state power and contribute to the creation of competing wealth-power centers. Against a backdrop of economic recession or downturn, asset stripping will bankrupt the state, placing the governing regime under increasing pressure from inside the patronage networks as well as possible popular discontent.

Uzbekistan’s economy has been susceptible to fluctuations in global prices on energy and natural resources given the export of raw materials constitutes the main source of the country’s revenues. Although the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (whose forecasts rely on official statistics provided by national governments) have been optimistic about Uzbekistan’s robust growth, other reports of massive arrears on salary payments, sluggish manufacturing sectors and low foreign investments suggest that the country’s economy is undergoing a downturn. The government’s social welfare and education programmes have been lagging behind population growth. More than 40 per cent of the country’s nearly 30 million people are under the age of 25. Uzbekistan’s labor force doubled between 1995 and 2015, but the lack of meaningful economic reform resulted in high unemployment. Russia’s economic recession dried up jobs for Central Asian labour migrants. With remittances from Russia officially accounting for about 12 per cent of Uzbekistan’s GDP, economic troubles abroad are likely to have significant impact at home as more young Uzbeks reach working age.

When socio-economic grievances begin breeding public resentment, the regime will clamp down on new signs of dissent using the time-tested methods of increased oppression. Repression, may serve as a short-term deterrent, but is ultimately ineffective in rooting out dissent. By hardening the resolve of the greatly disaffected and forcing them underground, repressive measures increase the potential that a combination of social, political and religious discontents will break out when an opportunity arises.

Bracing authoritarianism in the region

There has been much speculation about the winners and losers of political transition in Uzbekistan. My contention is that authoritarianism, as a phenomenon in its various manifestations, will receive the upper hand vis-à-vis democracy in Central Asia and beyond. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that authoritarian governments prefer other authoritarian regimes as far as their foreign policy is concerned and are likely to emulate successful authoritarian practices in other states. Geographic proximity and cultural affinities can facilitate authoritarian diffusion.  

The successful authoritarian transitions in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will increase the chances that other Central Asian governments, Kazakhstan in particular, will eschew democratic electoral procedures in favour of regime-managed selections of future presidents. Uzbekistan’s new authorities will be primarily driven by the goal of power preservation, and this motivation will guide the leadership’s choice of policies not only in the domestic realm, but will also extend to the definition and pursuit of foreign policy objectives and partners. The preferences of authoritarian governments to seek out ties with other authoritarian regimes can be explained by the fact that their authoritarian counterparts will be similarly unconstrained by the demands of transparency and accountability and, therefore, have considerably more discretion to act in accordance with the particularistic interests of the ruling elite. The latter, however, is rarely in accordance with authentic national interests, even though regime interests are often substituted for national interests in authoritarian contexts. The Central Asian governments, for example, view regional cooperation initiatives with suspicion; as constraints on their unchecked power to rule their states. Subsequently, the regional cooperation projects in Central Asia are doomed to remain inefficient and lacking the depth, trust and commitment of the participating states.

Outside Central Asia, the future Uzbek leadership will seek to strengthen ties with those nations that will confer a degree of legitimacy and carry the prospects of political and economic benefits for the next administration. Russia has long claimed responsibility for the inviolability of regimes in Central Asia. By offering political backing and assistance to the former and current Central Asian presidents, Moscow has sought to convince the regional capitals that Russia is the only guarantor of the stability and security of the ruling elite. The late president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has been praised for securing his country’s sovereignty from Moscow. His successor will endeavor to maintain this course. Over time, however, Uzbekistan will come under increasing pressure to integrate more closely with Moscow-dominated economic and security institutions, and the Kremlin will exploit Tashkent’s internal weaknesses in the medium and long-run, barring changes to the Putin regime in Russia.

China represents the only authoritarian counterbalance to Moscow, and collaboration with Beijing will constitute a win for Tashkent. However, the extent of Chinese economic engagement in Uzbekistan is contingent upon the country’s economic health and its consequences may be detrimental for its economy. As a weaker economic partner with the rising internal demands for lootable wealth, Uzbekistan can be forced to compromise on its national economic interests. Such exploitation can take the form of long-term mining concessions or energy contracts in exchange for short-term cash transfers or other rights to exploit the state non-cash assets. Turkey is the only new actor that is likely to appear in the foreign relations of Uzbekistan, but its re-entry to Uzbekistan’s market will take time.

Mariya Y. Omelicheva is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia (Routledge 2011) and Democracy in Central Asia: Competing Perspectives and Alternate Strategies (University Press of Kentucky 2015) and editor of Nationalism and Identity Construction in Central Asia (Lexington 2015). 


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