Is Uzbekistan’s re-elected President Mirziyoyev the key to sustainable development in Central Asia, including Afghanistan?
Independent Uzbekistan has been no stranger to controversy. Once ruled by the autocratic Islam Karimov, the country had failed to make any serious changes to its political system as recently as 2016. Ongoing reforms by President Mirziyoyev, however, suggest that the country and even the region may now be changing for the better.
Uzbekistan is a country located at the heart of Central Asia and the historical Silk Road. The country was part of the former Soviet Union and is now a sovereign state that maintains close political, economic and cultural ties with regional powers such as Russia and China. It has been difficult to describe the region as generally stable throughout the past few decades. This is exemplified by Tashkent’s difficult relations with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as its dangerous border with Afghanistan. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many post-Soviet republics have become authoritarian states. Many strong individual leaders were able to maintain order and security during the turbulent post-Soviet transition and then promote this achievement as a means of holding onto power.
After the death of Uzbekistan’s first President Islam Karimov in 2016, the isolated country began to open up to the world thanks to the actions of new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The leader charted a new course for the country and along the way developed a plan to restore relations with neighbours, bring peace to Afghanistan, and diversify the economy through tourism and IT. The main goal of this article is to look at whether the recently re-elected president could act as the key to sustainable development in Central Asia and Eurasia over the next five years. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to analyse whether the country’s “Development Strategy 2017-2021” has resulted in real change.
Constructive foreign policy
During Karimov’s presidency, there was frequent escalation on the borders between the countries of Central Asia. This is because the states were not willing to share the energy, logistics, and other material resources left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan even went so far as to make visas necessary for the citizens of all neighbouring countries, except for those from Kazakhstan.
In contrast, Mirziyoyev began to actively establish contacts with his neighbours. He made his first foreign trips to Ashgabat (March 6th and 7th 2017) and Nur-Sultan (March 22nd and 23rd 2017). Eight of the president’s 16 foreign trips during his first year were made to neighbouring countries. These efforts in turn encouraged continued and honest political communication between regional leaders. Moreover, at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in September, he stressed that “our main objective is to make Central Asia a place of prosperity and sustainable development, trust and friendship”. The intensification of contacts with neighbouring countries has its own internal logic. Uzbekistan is the only republic in Central Asia that borders all the other countries of the region. This unique geographical location not only makes the country the centre of the region in the truest sense of the word but also offers the republic considerable potential advantages.
Afghanistan is also a member of the large Central Asian family. The incessant unrest in the country torments not only Central Asia but also the entire Eurasian region. After Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, relations with Afghanistan improved. The country provided vital support and attention regarding the strengthening of its neighbour’s political stability. Despite the Taliban’s return to power in August, Tashkent continues to fulfil its diplomatic mission to help the Afghan people in hard times. As Mirziyoyev outlined recently, “The influence and voice of the United Nations on Afghanistan must be heard louder than ever”.
President Mirziyoyev also restored relations with Turkey that were previously at a low point. For the first time in many years, Turkish President Erdogan arrived in Uzbekistan for an official visit (April 29th to May 1st 2018), during which both governments agreed to cooperate in the fields of preferential trade, tourism and the military-technical industry.
The development of mutually beneficial, fruitful and multifaceted cooperation with most of the leading G8 countries – China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – has acquired special significance for Uzbekistan. An unexpected historical turn was made during the president’s official working visit to the United States in May 2017. The first and last official visit of Islam Karimov to Washington took place in March 2002. The stopover by President Mirziyoyev was subject to misinformation and misinterpretation in the Russian media. But as the chairman of the International Press Club of Uzbekistan noted, fears that Tashkent was drifting among the great powers found no justification. As mentioned above, the Uzbek government’s diplomatic agenda today remains dominated by attempts to improve relations with neighbouring countries.
The country’s military neutrality continues due to continued competition among the leaders in the region. It is forbidden to establish foreign military bases in the country or send troops to participate in international operations. To be fair, under Karimov the US established a military base in Uzbekistan for logistical purposes related to Afghanistan. This base, however, was closed after only a few years in 2005.
Uzbekistan is now interacting with international institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In short, the new president has actually started to act on the positive rhetoric previously promoted by Karimov. Most of these principles, including building close relations with neighbours, de-escalating issues on the border, and joining multilateral agreements and international alliances, were announced long before. Mirziyoyev’s steps are not radical as their benefits were understood even before he became president.
In today’s rapidly developing world, any state that cares about its people and the future is aware of its responsibilities when it comes to effective development. The new president of Uzbekistan was also faced with the task of objectively assessing the historical path of the young independent state’s development. Mirziyoyev also had to identify measures that would further deepen democratic reforms and accelerate the development of the country. The government now believes that tourism and IT could help improve and diversify the state economy.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism and hospitality in Uzbekistan had become a strategic sector of the republic’s economic development. The number of tourists visiting the country more than doubled from two million in 2016 to 5.3 million in 2018. With Uzbekistan’s new visa-free regime and e-visa policy, the tourism sector has helped improve the socio-economic situation of the republic. It has created additional jobs, accelerated the development of small and medium-sized enterprises in the service sector, and improved the overall well-being of the population. Moreover, tourists from distant countries who visit Uzbekistan often travel further on to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and vice versa. Hopefully, tourism in the region will flourish again once the pandemic is over. In the meantime, the Uzbek government has increased its focus on information and communication technologies.
One of the pioneering steps Mirziyoyev took in developing dialogue between the state and the people was the establishment of a new presidential website. This reflects wider changes in the country in relation to IT, which is now viewed as a means of improving the effectiveness of government.
For example, by June this year the number of public services that could be accessed through a new government portal had reached 253. These measures are helping to cut red tape and corruption. Naturally, they also save citizens time and money.
Today, like in other post-Soviet states, the digitisation of the economy remains a top priority. Various high-tech parks have been created to achieve this goal, such as the Astana Hub in Kazakhstan, the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Russia and IT park in Kazan. For IT companies, operating in such a park means tax relief and investment from venture funds. IT Park Uzbekistan, which was established in 2019, already has 400 residents with more than four thousand employees.
Other Reforms and failures
It is impossible to overlook other structural changes in the country:
currency liberalisation – Uzbekistan no longer has a large currency black market. Thanks to new market mechanisms the real exchange rate has been balanced. Currency exchange is now most often subject to a rigid banking system.
tax system improvements – Uzbekistan’s position in the Doing Business rating has risen from 141th in 2015 to 69th in 2020.
fewer government barriers for new businesses – The position of corporate ombudsman has been enshrined in law to protect the rights, competition and free market of the country and its players. The role of the state has been further weakened by abolishing the export monopoly for certain goods (of course there is still much to do but changes are happening at a good pace). Together, these reforms are encouraging entrepreneurship and foreign exchange.
security service reform
However, it should be remembered that almost all the reforms that have been carried out have focused on the financial-economic sphere. If we talk about freedom of speech, Uzbekistan is still marked in red on the world map according to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. To date, it is difficult to obtain a licence for media activities in a country that still lacks political pluralism. Moreover, foreign reporters cannot obtain accreditation from the Uzbek foreign ministry because of their critical attitude towards the government. There have also been some changes regarding the protection of human rights. The use of subbotniks or forced labourers (including minors and children) that were a staple of Karimov’s rule has been made illegal. As a result, Uzbekistan’s national treasure, cotton, was removed from the list of goods produced by forced child labour.
The “blacklists” of citizens believed to be members of extremist groups were also destroyed and political prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, this does not mean that the situation has fundamentally changed in the country. Many prisoners jailed by the former regime are still imprisoned and political refugees have been deprived of their citizenship. It is still strictly forbidden to freely and harshly criticise the government. Despite this, the government is eager to promote a populist image. Problematic subordinates are now often removed by the government. Overall, it is clear that you cannot look at today’s Uzbekistan in black and white.
Besides issues surrounding freedom of expression, reforms involving tackling corruption, increasing the population’s legal knowledge, and the independence of the courts have not been pursued by the government. The presidential administration must critically analyse the factors that are causing public discontent and reprioritise the country’s development agenda regarding these areas. In addition, there are deeply rooted problems in the country’s medical and public education systems.
Conclusion and forecast
Firstly, it is clear that ongoing issues in Afghanistan have been overshadowed by other crises in the Middle East and North Africa in the eyes of the international community. Despite this, Mirziyoyev is now attempting to place this issue back on the agenda. Recent issues concerning Middle Eastern refugees along the Polish-Belarusian border will only continue if the EU does not engage with figures such as Mirziyoyev. Cooperation is necessary to prevent a possible influx of refugees from Afghanistan.
Secondly, relations with foreign states are clearly improving as governments send more than their presidents to the country. Various foreign prime ministers, ministers and directors of state-owned enterprises have now visited Tashkent and Samarkand on official business. This tendency is very surprising as such positive developments were rare during Islam Karimov’s presidency. This is all due to the country’s economic diversification, which has not gone unnoticed in other states. Officials from neighbouring countries want to learn from the experiences of their colleagues on how they managed to maintain GDP growth even during a pandemic. This practice of mutual exchange is in turn helping Mirziyoyev to pursue his wider policy of good neighbourliness.
In 2019, Uzbekistan was named “Country of the Year” by The Economist. This award only confirms the effectiveness of Mirziyoyev’s reforms. Moreover, it shows the Uzbek people that there is something more than just hope at the end of the tunnel. It is still unclear whether Mirziyoyev intends to remain in office after a second term like his counterparts in other post-Soviet countries. As the saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Only democracy can truly end these doubts among the country’s partners and the world community, as a renewed autocracy would simply damage society and drive the economy into the abyss. Since current trends remain positive, it is perhaps possible to talk about the transformation of Uzbekistan into a new leading regional power much like Kazakhstan.
Prof. dr. hab. Joanna Cygler is an Associate Professor at SGH Warsaw School of Economics, the head of Executive MBA Studies at the Institute of Economics, Polish Academy of Sciences. Initiator and one of the main coordinators for R&D projects in the area of unmanned aerospace vehicles – UAV (The Łukasiewicz Research Network – Institute of Aviation with NIAS, NASA and UBER) – one of the biggest research projects jointly conducted by Polish and American research institutes.
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