By: Will Chim, Columnist
Photo by: Asia Times
For two and half decades, the words “Uzbekistan” and “Karimov” were inextricable – one could not discuss the Central Asian country without mentioning its brutal leader. But since Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov’s death in 2017 after 25 years of rule, many are wondering what comes next. For that reason, Uzbekistan has been in the news a lot lately, including in the pages of this very review. Previous GSSR articles by my colleagues Emily Kangas and Patrick Savage discussed Karimov’s death as an inflection point for the doubly-landlocked state, leading to either an opportunity for resurgent Russian influence[i], or a necessary repeat of its recent history.[ii] But what about an opportunity for Uzbekistan itself, and the United States? The last 18 months have been an interesting mix both of change and of continuity through which Uzbekistan is demonstrating some promise in moving on from the Karimov era. Though it remains unclear if this reform and progress is an illusion or genuine, the U.S. and the world should be taking notice.
Uzbekistan’s parliament, the Supreme Assembly, appointed then-Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as interim President after Karimov’s death on 8 September 2016. Mirziyoyev was long considered a likely successor of Karimov due to his membership in the Samarkand clan and his existing close ties to the Uzbekistan political system and Karimov’s family.[iii] Mirziyoyev was elected to a full term as President on 4 December 2016 in an election described by The Economist and the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE) as a sham and “replacing one strongman with another.”[iv] So while Mirziyoyev may have been the planned successor and represents some continuity, his actions have not held to the political status quo in Uzbekistan.
Within months of his official election, Mirziyoyev announced the Development Strategy for 2017-2021 involving plans to reform and modernize the economy, end Uzbekistan’s regional isolation from its neighbors, and loosen restrictions on civil society and the media.[v] Considering the aggressively isolationist policies of Uzbekistan under Karimov, Mirziyoyev’s multiple visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and an upcoming trip to Tajikistan represent an impressive about-face.[vi] Mirziyoyev’s most significant economic reform has been his decision to lift exchange restrictions on the Uzbekistani currency, the soum, making it fully convertible and encouraging more foreign investment despite the resultant devaluation.[vii] Other economic reforms, including tax breaks for investors, more investment in Uzbekistan’s under-utilized oil and gas reserves, and a resumption of dialogue with major western financial institutions including the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) signal a serious desire to improve Uzbekistan’s international participation.[viii]
Though Mirziyoyev’s reforms have largely been more economic than political, the changes are unprecedented for the country that until recently was ruled by a brutal dictator. We should not underestimate the impact of economic reforms, even if they are out of necessity and practicality. There are noticeable downstream effects of economic improvement. Analysts indicate economic efforts can help combat radicalization in the landlocked Central Asian country, though the radicalization threat has until now mostly affected those abroad – Uzbek nationals were responsible for terror attacks in Istanbul, Stockholm, and New York City in 2017.[ix] Mirziyoyev may be betting on economic growth to attract home some of its millions of citizens working abroad and begin repairing the fracture of Uzbek society and families.[x]
These economic efforts pair with more overt political reforms, particularly the removal of the head of the Uzbekistan National Security Service (SNB). While Karimov used the SNB to maintain tight control over Uzbekistan, his successor has openly criticized its overreach and has vowed to curb and reform it. Mirziyoyev described the institution as “much-feared” days before removing its chief, Rustam Inoyatev, who ran the agency for 23 years and was a close ally of Karimov.[xi] The SNB under Karimov was well known for spying on government officials and blacklisting thousands of individuals it deemed to be political extremists – two activities that Mirziyoyev has ended.[xii] While the economic reforms are necessary for Uzbekistan in the 21st century and make sense from all political perspectives, it is this political reform beginning with the SNB that is most interesting and perhaps a bellwether of wider reforms ahead in Uzbekistan.
Though critics claim the SNB reforms were more about removing Karimov allies and political rivals who opposed both Mirziyoyev and his broader reform agenda, Mirziyoyev has largely disassembled Inoyatev’s power structures that enabled the SNB to function as a powerful political force that often blocked legislative and reform efforts. With the SNB unable to block his agenda, Mirziyoyev must now deliver on his promises of reform and no longer has a scapegoat.[xiii] So what now?
The U.S. and international community should be both careful and attentive to openings for engagement with Uzbekistan and greater Central Asia. International media has latched onto the idea of a possible “Uzbek Spring” and several articles describe the country as “coming in from the cold” – perhaps too rosy a narrative for fledgling reform in a country with deeply-rooted autocracy. Mirziyoyev has already met twice with U.S. President Donald Trump, and U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells traveled to Tashkent to discuss the recent reforms and options for international cooperation.[xiv]
This is the right move – a reformed and modernized Uzbekistan has the potential to be a great strategic partner in Central Asia, especially as it borders every country in the region and has a vested interest in ongoing affairs in Afghanistan. While other Central Asian nations are also experiencing new eras of change, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan can serve as a bright spot in the region and prove to its neighbors that peaceful change and progress is possible. The U.S. should also consider that Russia has increased its involvement in the region for some time and has repeatedly targeted improved relations with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan and Russia held joint military exercises in October 2017, the first joint exercises between the two since 2005. These exercises were significant because Uzbekistan left the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012.[xv] It remains possible that Uzbekistan could be enticed back into CSTO and into a closer relationship with Russia, particularly as the two countries share concerns over instability in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A potential opening in Uzbekistan is a good opportunity for Washington to make diplomatic inroads in the region and foil a strategic rival’s designs for Central Asia.
Uzbekistan should continue aggressive economic and political reforms, including diversifying its economy, seeking energy independence (the country has decent reserves of oil and gas), and enhancing media freedom. Mirziyoyev is an intriguing figure who could easily either become a new Islam Karimov or a more modern leader with liberal qualities. The old adage of “time will tell” applies here, but American policymakers should keep a specific eye on the strength and durability of political reforms in the Uzbek government and security services. The work in Uzbekistan has only just begun.
[i] Emily Kangas, “Death of Uzbek President Signals Strategic Opportunity for Russia,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, October 02, 2016. http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2016/10/02/death-of-uzbek-president-signals-strategic-opportunity-for-russia/?s=uzbekistan
[ii] Patrick Savage, “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: The Necessity of Continuity in Uzbekistan,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, November 14, 2016. http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2016/11/14/meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss-the-necessity-of-continuity-in-uzbekistan/
[iii] Andrew Roth, “Uncertainty over President Karimov’s condition roils Uzbekistan,” Washington Post, August 23, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/succession-looms-in-uzbekistan-amid-uncertainty-over-leaders-condition/2016/08/30/974d7e86-6e24-11e6-993f-73c693a89820_story.html?utm_term=.183fe7fb08c4
[iv] “Uzbekistan replaces one strongman with another,” The Economist, December 10, 2016.
[v] Dimitri Dolaberidze, “One year of Miziyoyev: Uzbekistan Looks Outwards,” Georgia Today, February 19, 2018. http://georgiatoday.ge/news/9168/One-year-of-Mirziyoyev%3A-Uzbekistan-Looks-Outwards
[vii] Neil Buckley, “Once-repressive Uzbekistan begins a post-Karimov opening,” Financial Times, February 13, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/6c37419c-0cbf-11e8-8eb7-42f857ea9f09
[ix] James D. Durso, “Deradicalization in Uzbekistan: It’s About the Economy,” The Diplomat, February 08, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/deradicalization-in-uzbekistan-its-about-the-economy/
[xi] Sadriddin Ashurov, “President Says Time’s Up For ‘Mad Dog’ Uzbek Security Service,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, February 19, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/uzbekistan-president-takes-on-mad-dog-security-service/29048969.html
[xiii] Stanislav Pritchin, “Uzbekistan’s New President Steps Towards Ambitious Reform With Security Chief Sacking,” Chatham House, February 08, 2018. https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/uzbekistan-s-new-president-steps-towards-ambitious-reform-security-chief-sacking
[xiv] “Senior U.S. Diplomat Headed to Uzbekistan For Talks,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, January 29, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/uzbekistan-senior-us-diplomat-to-visit-talks/29005555.html
[xv] Samuel Ramani, “Russia and Uzbekistan’s Renewed Security Partnership,” The Diplomat, July 11, 2017. https://thediplomat.com/2017/07/russia-and-uzbekistans-renewed-security-partnership/