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The ‘Uzbek Spring’ – How Far Has It Come?


After the death of Islam Karimov - the dictator and ‘strongman’ known for his repressive policies and human rights abuses in Uzbekistan - in 2016, his successor and current leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev promised to create a ‘democracy based on ‘people’s power’.[1] While Karimov’s death provided a catalyst for Mirziyoyev to propose many reforms to open up the historically isolated country, the reforms and policies in practice - as opposed to the idealised theories of these policies - has led many academics and journalists to think an ‘Uzbek Spring’, one that is way overdue, is impending though it has not been clear what the effects of the policies have been so far.


This essay will attempt to clarify what policies have been used and pushed, to what level of success these policies have achieved (success in this essay will mean increasing democracy and freedom in sociopolitical aspects of life), and argue that Uzbekistan, while has seemingly prioritised improving international ties and strengthened economic policies, it seems to have in the process neglected national policies and needs to do more for its citizens. While Uzbekistan has already begun to make progress in freeing up the country, the policies need to be of more substance to make a reasonable impact beyond a shallow ‘wishing’ for growth.


Relative successes

One of the overarching policies has been opening up - and in this respect, Uzbekistan and Mirziyoyev’s policies seem to have been successful to quite a considerable degree.


First, there has been relative success in the strengthening of international policies between the Uzbekistan and the world, especially the US. Following a 12 year hiatus, Uzbekistan re-accepted and ‘granted accreditation’ to education-focused NGO from the US.[2] It was reported by Eurasianet that the American Councils for Collaboration in Education and Language Study was to resume operations and its reinstatement was described as ‘evidence of the improvement in relations between Uzbekistan and the United States’.[3] As of late, Uzbekistan’s new democratic and political reforms have also been applauded in a recent speech given at a forum by US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.[4] Hence, Uzbekistan’s few opening up of political-economic policies have demonstrably led to more attention from the West and hence strengthened relations as of late.


Secondly, similar relative success has been observed in promoting freedom of expression and of media. In a recent report by Freedom of the Net[5], although the Uzbek government still patrols social media, political content, pro-government commentators, and bloggers,[6] and as of now still remains in the ‘not free’ category, their status has nonetheless improved from the year before.[7] Similarly, the Guardian reports that local media ‘...has become more lively, with topics previously seen as taboo getting an airing.’[8] Human Rights Watch has also echoed similar sentiment, arguing that more taboo cases have been brought to the forefront of public discussion and ultimately contribute to the improved greater freedom of expression in Uzbekistan.


However, while recent American NGOs have settled into Uzbekistan, the Silk Road Studies Program’s report on political reforms argues that operations are ‘no easier for domestic NGOs’[9]. Even within local NGOs, there is also a disparity of attention; domestic NGOs in socioeconomic sectors have felt the changes brought about by Mirziyoyev’s new rules, but human rights groups in the political sphere ‘continue to experience problems with registration and implementation of projects’.[10] Freedom House, an NGO promoting freedom of expression, still argues that despite the new developments, ‘...independent civil society on ground is practically nonexistent’[11] and that ‘administrative and criminal penalties exist for the slightest deviation from the regulations,’[12] This only ‘...indicates this was a predominantly political development rather than one implying deep-rooted ideological shifts in Uzbek policy-making.’[13]


Additionally, while there have been successes in the opening up of freedom of expression online, there has still been some silencing of media. Uzbekistan has still continued detaining bloggers, particularly those who pushed their Islamic and conservative views.[14] It was also stated that several online sites ‘were mysteriously blocked for a period last month.’[15] While these two events of opening up have brought attention to Uzbekistan, these reforms seem hollow in substance and only seem to paint a façade that they are ‘opening up’, but have not been created concrete change. These events are quite coincidentally issues western media promote and focus on heavily - and the two events happening in close conjunction seem to indicate a desire by the Uzbekistan government to be recognised publicly - perhaps from the west and western media - to be potential friends or allies. While it would be unfair to say that the reforms have brought nothing to Uzbekistan and have been completely unsuccessful, and we can say that there has been improvement made to freedom in Uzbekistan with these policies; however, this does indicate a leaning of prioritisation of saving face on an international scale, or attempting to strengthen international relations, or over national policies for the nationals of Uzbekistan.


Areas of lesser success

More pessimistically, some aspects of Mirziyoyev’s reform that have been less successful than those listed above.


The most obvious failure in reform is the use of physical aggression and abuse by legal authorities is still rife in Uzbekistan - political freedom is still heavily repressed. It was reported that in prisons that torture is ‘endemic’ and even worse, it has been reported by the head of the Supreme Court that until recently, ‘torture had been regularly used in court’.[16] While now laws ban torture-tainted evidence in court, there are little to no signs of improvement - the suffering of journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev is clear evidence of such.[17]

Additionally, as of now, only pro-presidential parties are allowed to exist.[18] To quote Eurasianet, despite continuous discussions on the ‘wind of liberalization blowing through Uzbekistan, there is no firm evidence the political scene has improved’.[19] Intimidation and arrests were and still have been common for Atanazar Arifov - the head of Erk, an opposition party - and his family.[20] His party has remained unregistered and it has been unable to stand in parliamentary elections. However, given there will be elections in 2019, registration of these parties must be imminent, but there is no knowing how fast opposition parties can gather members at all, how easy the registration process will be, and how popular opposition parties will be.[21]


However, it may be unfair to analyse Mirziyoyev’s political reforms so early, and look at their areas of success and failure - it has only been two years since such aggressive changes across many fronts have been activated. We definitely cannot draw conclusions so quickly. But, we can see similar themes cropping up in these issues that demonstrate a larger theme on what Mirziyoyev’s reforms may have in the long run - for one, many argue his policies are only ‘cosmetic tinkering[s]’ and that ‘some of his people are frustrated by the snail’s pace of political change.’[22], and that not enough attention is paid on sociopolitical fronts.


Therefore, while the above ‘relatively successful’ policies suggest that there is only some confirmation of the Uzbek government prioritising and expanding international ties and economic policy reform over national growth and improvement, Uzbekistan’s lack of reform on torture policy and political reform seem to confirm this idea. Political repression is still serious and a necessary agenda item for Mirziyoyev and the Uzbek government. While political analyst Kamoliddin Rabbimov states it is still ‘too early to say’ whether or not there will be a clear move away from Karimov’s ‘hardline authoritarianism’ or ‘to move to genuine democracy’ with Mirziyoyev’s political reform, the lack of proper political reform to ‘open up’ seems to indicate the former.


To conclude, the ‘opening up’ of Uzbekistan by Mirziyoyev’s policies is best stated by other academics, who argue that ‘Mirziyoyev’s priority is economic growth…’ and he will only attempt to reform ‘the bare minimum’.[23] Even though it is ‘the bare minimum’, there is, at the very least, increased awareness and better steps taken in the right direction for success in democracy and opening up of policies. Though it is far too soon to tell what Mirziyoyev’s legacy will be on Uzbekistan, as of now, while his policies do not seem to be creating a sea-change, these policies seem to all broadly be in favor of making changes to open up to more opportunities for Uzbekistan itself, and the main instrument by which that is made possible - in Mirziyoyev’s eyes - is international trade, relations, and economic policies. Therefore, while there has been some progress made economically and internationally, politically and socially there is a deficiency in reform and there ultimately needs to be a better balance between all aspects if reform and an ‘Uzbek Spring’ is to properly arise.



Patricia Hu

Asia Section Editor

1 January 2019

 

[1] Joanna Lillis, 'Are Decades Of Political Repression Making Way For An 'Uzbek Spring'?' (The Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/03/are-decades-of-political-repression-making-way-for-an-uzbek-spring> accessed 6 December 2018.


[2] Eurasianet, 'Uzbekistan Registers US NGO In New Breakthrough | Eurasianet' (Eurasianet.org, 2018) <https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-registers-us-ngo-in-new-breakthrough> accessed 6 December 2018.


[3] ibid


[4] RFE/RL, 'U.S. Commerce Secretary Applauds 'Successful' Reforms In Uzbekistan' (RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 2018) <https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-commerce-secretary-applauds-successful-democratic-reforms-in-uzbekistan/29561407.html> accessed 6 December 2018.


[5] Freedom House, 'The Rise Of Digital Authoritarianism' (Freedom House 2018) <https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTN_2018_Final%20Booklet_11_1_2018.pdf> accessed 6 December 2018.


[6] ibid


[7] Eugen Tomiuc, 'Internet Freedom Still Sliding Globally, Democracy Watchdog Says' (RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 2018) <https://www.rferl.org/a/internet-freedom-still-sliding-globally-democracy-watchdog-says/29577014.html> accessed 6 December 2018.


[8] Hugh Williamson and Steve Swerdlow, 'Perspectives | Testing The Realities Of Uzbekistan’s Reforms | Eurasianet' (Eurasianet.org, 2018) <https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-testing-the-realities-of-uzbekistans-reforms> accessed 6 December 2018.


[9] Ibid (2)


[10] Ibid


[11] Ibid


[12]Ibid (4)


[13] Ibid (2)


[14] Eurasianet, 'Uzbekistan Detains Conservative Bloggers | Eurasianet' (Eurasianet.org, 2018) <https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-detains-conservative-bloggers> accessed 6 December 2018.


[15] Ibid (7)


[16] Ibid


[17] Ibid (7)


[18]Eurasianet, 'Uzbekistan Remains Desolate Place For Opposition Politics | Eurasianet' (Eurasianet.org, 2018) <https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-remains-desolate-place-for-opposition-politics> accessed 6 December 2018.


[19]Ibid


[20] Eurasianet, 'Uzbekistan Remains Desolate Place For Opposition Politics | Eurasianet' (Eurasianet.org, 2018) <https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-remains-desolate-place-for-opposition-politics> accessed 7 December 2018.


[21]Ibid


[22] Joanna Lillis, 'Are Decades Of Political Repression Making Way For An 'Uzbek Spring'?' (The Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/03/are-decades-of-political-repression-making-way-for-an-uzbek-spring> accessed 6 December 2018.


[23] Ibid



Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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