Uzbekistan Transition: The Way It Happens

Exactly one year has passed since the death of Islam Karimov whose departure marks the end of an entire epoch. And now the power transition in Uzbekistan is at the center of attention of the political circles that lie far beyond the country’s borders. Note that the observers’ opinions differ depending on their perspective and the geographic location from which they apprise the processes happening in Uzbekistan.

The presidential campaign in Uzbekistan started on September 9, 2016, a week after the official announcement of Islam Karimov’s unexpected death. Since family clans still play the crucial role in Uzbekistan, their leaders were interested in preserving the current system in which Islam Karimov served as the guarantor of stability. So, after his death, they wanted to keep things the way they were, at least, during the transition.

So, they chose Shavkat Mirziyoyev who had been Prime-Minister since 2003 and acted as the transmitter of Islam Karimov’s policies.

 

1

We cannot say that the final consensus was easy to reach and that it is sustainable now. Besides, before Islam Karimov’s death, a triumvirate of the most likely presidential candidates was formed in Uzbekistan. They were chosen on the basis of their personal characteristics, financial potential, political weight, and the unofficial resources. The triumvirate consisted of the then acting Prime-Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Deputy Prime-Minister Ruslan Azimov, and National Security Chief Rustam Inoyatov.

The experts say that, supposedly, the international financial funds were ready to give Uzbekistan the needed loans if Ruslan Azimov (who is believed to be a pro-West politician) would have direct control over the ways the money was spent. Note that this unofficial practice actually exists. In particular, in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the GTZ agency, at one point, gave relatively small loans for developing small hydropower. They were “to be overseen by Feliks Kulov” who, by that time, was no longer a high state official and did not have any chance to return to mainstream politics.

At that, if a conflict were to rise between the Mirziyoyev and the Inoyatov clans (the conflict that remains highly possible today), Azimov’s chances to win could grow significantly.

There were, however, other candidates. Apart from Shavkat Mirziyoyev who represents the Liberal Democratic Party, we have Khotamzhon Ketmolov (People’s Democratic Party), Nariman Umarov (Social Democratic Party), and Sarvar Otamuratov (Democratic Party). All of them served as “technical” candidates, obviously.

Preparing for the elections, the central and local authorities had taken measures to ensure security and strengthen the internal control in the country to an even greater extent. They also continued their stringent policy in the religious sphere. At the same time, there was no civic organization (be it a party or a movement) that could pose a threat to the approved scenario. The major oppositional forces, long before the first president’s death, had moved outside the Uzbekistan borders.

Muhammad Salih, the leader of the banned “Unity” people’s movement (later transformed into the Erk Democratic Party), was no threat to the scenario, either.

Theoretically, he could have been used by the Western secret services (sources name the UK and Turkey) to unbalance the political situation on the eve of the elections. This, however, never happened perhaps for the reason that all (without exception) external forces knew – any disbalance in Uzbekistan would have catastrophic consequences not only for the Central Asian region but for the other areas as well.

So, on December 4, 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev achieved a convincing victory. On December 15, 2016, he already made his first appointments including choosing Abdulla Aripov as the prime-minister of the country.

2

One year since Mirziyoyev’s accession to presidency has passed and the majority of the experts believe that, so far, he has not been able to strengthen his position in the country and still relies on the forces inherited from Islam Karimov. However, if we are to talk about Mirziyoyev’s personnel policy, we must consider the fact that his purges affected first ministry deputies, khokims, heads of other state agencies that, during the reign of Karimov, performed the function of the “enforcers”.

Lieutenant-General Shokhrat Gulyamov (First Deputy Chief of the National Security Committee) was one of the purges victims. He was one of the best-trained professionals in the agency whose brother Bakhtiyar Gulyamov serves as Uzbekistan Ambassador to the US.

It is quite logical and predictable that Shavkat Mirziyoyev is trying to appoint those who are devoted to him personally as the key state officials. It is understandable that he wants to get rid of those who are not loyal to him. Perhaps the most significant of Mirziyoyev’s personnel reshuffles was the resignation of First Deputy Prime-Minister, Minister of Finance Rustam Azimov. His current situation is complicated by the fact that Mirziyoev is making him return the siphoned resources that, by some estimates, amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The same motivations lie behind the arrest of Islam Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara.

The prosecution believes that the total damages Gulnara Karimova did to the country’s budget amount to at least $2 bln. Apart from that, the prosecution discovered that she owned real estate objects in 12 countries including Russia. The new authorities are trying to take control over them. For that purpose, they have sent requests for Karimova’s assets arrest to all the 12 countries.

These, perhaps, are the most highly publicized cases. In general, however, the personnel reshuffle, the redistribution of the spheres of influence, the change in the capital flows, as per usual for Uzbekistan, happen under the radar. At that, we would like to underline that, long before Karimov’s death (we can talk with certainty about four years, perhaps even longer), hidden emigration and capital outflow had been observed in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek diasporas that consist of the wealthy representatives of the Uzbek ethnos exist in the US, UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, other Western countries, and in Russia as well. Talking about the new president of Uzbekistan, these representatives give different opinions. To sum up, they agree upon the following.

  • He is a hardline boss and a good administrator.
  • The current government, especially after Ruslan Azimov’s resignation in June, consists either of the people loyal to Mirziyoyev or of those who will keep neutrality when making crucial decisions and, under no circumstances, act in opposition to the president.
  • He enjoys authority among the military.
  • Despite a high probability of the conflict with Rustam Inoyatov, Mirziyoyev has managed (at least for now) to smooth things over.
  • Conventionally, he is believed to be a pro-Russian politician rather than someone holding pro-Western views (in 2014, he even became related to the also conventionally pro-Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov.
  • He is not enough of a visionary, does not have the ability to see what is important and what is not – consequently, he is not always capable of making best decisions.
  • He does not have enough experience as an international politician.

Experts believe that, presently, the relationship between Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Rustam Inoyatov is the crucial issue for Uzbekistan internal policy. It is known that they had had a series of fights right before the election.

The decrease of the number of the presidential security service personnel in the Tashkent region was one of the causes for these fights. The new president chose to replace Islam Karimov’s security officers which seemed logical. The majority of the “old guard” did not find a place in the renewed agency and some of the former employees decided to leave Uzbekistan. Vasiliy Marvienko whose recent suspicious death in Moscow has raised many questions was one of them.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s desire to decrease the number of the secret service employees assigned to the state agencies was another reason for the frictions.

The level of the conflict propensity was quite high. At present, however, it has decreased. The presidential decree on giving the state awards for outstanding achievements in science, technology, literature, arts, and architecture sighed on August 23 was a symbol of the reconciliation. Inayatov’s wife Flora was among the awardees.

3

As mentioned before, one year has passed since the new president has assumed his power – not enough time to draw unequivocal conclusions about the transformation of Uzbekistan’s internal and external policies. However, we can still analyze the new president’s steps that point to the directions of the country’s further development.

First of all, note that Mirziyoev’s reformist rhetoric employed both at the time of the electoral preparations and after his victory has made the people believe that the social-economic situation in the country can really get better under the new reign and a gradual liberalization of the civic life.

At that, everyone understands that there is no question of the “immediately open borders” or “free convertibility of the national currency”. Moreover, the new president’s first steps indicate that, even if the transformation of the political system does take place, it will happen gradually and there can be no question of abandoning the state control over this process.

To support this hypothesis, we take Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s attempt to imitate the creation of a political opposition in the country in October 2016. To do so, he chose the unregistered Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) party. The new authorities wanted to show to the international community that, after Islam Karimov’s death, a legal opposition had appeared in the country. And the world community did not need to know about the fact that it was controlled by the state.

By the way, this is nothing new: there is not one country in the post-Soviet space where the authorities have not tried to implement this sort of “combinations” that allowed them to gain control over those politically discontent. In this regard, Uzbekistan’s new president shows no originality whatsoever.

In July, Shavkat Mirziyoyev criticized the political parties, the parliament, the regional and city legislative bodies for their lack of initiative and the absence of well-formulated programs. But everyone realizes that the political parties and their activities such as formulating programs and making plans are controlled by the government, so one should not expect independent political parties to appear in Uzbekistan any time soon.

The same can be said about the new president’s criticism addressed to the public prosecution office whose employees, in his words, are the representatives of the “former corrupt system”. One should not forget, however, that Mirziyoyev’s himself was directly involved in creating this system.

What is much more important is Mirziyoyev’s desire to bring the media to a new level. He even announced that he was ready to allow the journalists who had been forced to leave the country to come back. However, we should not forget that the very concept of “free press” has not existed in the post-Soviet countries for a very long time. Therefore, regarding Uzbekistan, we may talk about a certain attempt to implement a controlled liberalization of the informational space and to create the high-quality (but nonetheless still censored) media.

Perhaps, for that very purpose, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has urged the parliament and the senators to create their personal social media pages where they would write about their work. This is a revolutionary step for Uzbekistan. At least, now officials can look at the social media publications and see what worries their electorate. As of now, however, this step does not seem effective and even looks comical – the pages have been created but there is nothing there to write about.

The International Press Club has also been launched with the use of the administrative means. It is led by Sherzodkhon Kudratkhodzhayev, a former employee of Karimov Administration. Despite the fact that the club was created “from the above”, for the first time in years, the Uzbekistan media attempted to show live programs that immediately became popular among the people. At that, Mirziyoyev gave an order that the ministers, khokims, heads of other agencies (and not their deputies) must personally attend the club meetings.

However, all this activity has recently been interrupted by Prime-Minister Abdulla Aripov who has banned the live programs thus causing the social media discussions on the “presence of the powerful counter-revolutionary forces among the elite”. Despite the fact that the International Press Club activities have been resumed, the very matter of the prime-minister’s interruption shows clearly how tough the media perestroika is going to be.

And this concerns TV-journalism as well. It is particularly evident from the example of the Uzbekistan 24 digital TV-channel where the programs presented as live TV are in fact recorded before. It is noticeable by the naked eye and, apart from the sympathy for the viewers, can provoke no thought or feeling. There is also no question of creating a private TV-channel that would compete with the state programs. Meanwhile, the appearance of the professional and at least relatively independent media in Uzbekistan could effectively increase the level of people’s trust to the authorities. But is the state really interested in this? Consider that, up until now, no such media has been created.

The abolishment of the exit visas (starting from January 1, 2019) is one of the major events in the civic life of Uzbekistan. Now it will be enough to have the e-passport of the Uzbekistan citizen to leave the country. So, from this date on (provided it will not be moved forward), Uzbekistan will no longer be the only country in the post-Soviet space whose citizens still need to have permission to go abroad.

It is estimated that, out of 32 mln people living in Uzbekistan, 20 mln are capable of working and more than 6 mln of those are working abroad (with constant rotation). According to the Central Bank of Russia, in 2016, money transfers from Russia to Uzbekistan made by Uzbekistan citizens amounted to more than 2.7 bln dollars. Uzbekistan is at the top of the list among the CIS states in regard to the total volume of the money transfers made by migrant workers from Russia.

At the same time, there is the deficit of cash currency needed to give the money to the migrants’ relatives in Uzbekistan. In some towns, people have to stay in line 8-10 hours a day to get the money from abroad.

There has been no accessible and legal national currency conversion in Uzbekistan since 1996. There are four currency exchange rates in the country and there is no question of unifying them and introducing full convertibility. The prices for the main export products are still dropping, the currency incoming is decreasing. Introducing free convertibility, in these conditions, is suicidal. Nonetheless, the new authorities are trying to ease the situation for businesses, for instance, by decreasing the percentage of the currency earnings that businesses must give to the state from 50% to 25%.

Opening special economic zones in Gijduvan, Kokand, Urgut, and the other strategically important regions is among the other means aimed to sanitize the Uzbekistan economy. One should not forget, however, that Uzbekistan neither has a direct sea access nor does it neighbor any such state. Therefore, even though the steps taken by the new authorities are, unquestionably, important, they are not enough to resolve the existing problems.

4

As for his foreign policy, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has declared that there will be no more confrontation with the neighboring countries. He continues the multi-vector policy in his relations with China, the US, Russia, and the EU.

On September 6, during his first official visit to Kyrgyzstan, Mirziyoyev is to sign a series of important documents including those regarding the delimitation of the frontiers. Out of 1379 km, 1055 are agreed upon presently. However, reaching an agreement on the remaining 300 km may perhaps take years. Nonetheless, with Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s accession to power, the relationship between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has received a new positive impulse.

With caution, the same can be said about the Tajik-Uzbek relationship. Despite the fact that Shavkat Mirziyoyev has not changed his mind regarding the crucial issue of the water energy resources in the cross-border rivers, the dialogue between the countries has now acquired a different tone. Today, they negotiate simplifying the rules at the border checkpoints and reviving the economics associations such as gas and energy supply, simplifying the rules of the cargo transit, decreasing the carriage tariffs. They are also discussing cooperating in the sphere of fighting the national security threats.

During Mirziyoyev’s time, documents have been signed that will help attracting about 40 bln dollars to the Uzbekistan economy in the upcoming years. More than half of this money will come from China and be spent on building a refining complex in the Kashkadarya region and developing the transport infrastructure. The Russian money, so far, are flowing in mostly through Gazprom natural gas purchases.

Nonetheless, despite certain difficulties, a number of large-scale and relatively successful joint-ventures with Korean, US, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, and German participation exist in Uzbekistan. For example, UzDeo-avto, Uz-Deo-electronic (both are Uzbek-South Korean joint ventures), GM-Uzb (US), UzItal-motor (Italy), Isuzu (Japan), consumer goods industries (Turkey, Germany). The US and European companies display a significant interest in the uranium, gold, and gas fields. For example, out of 41 gold fields, only 10 are used today and it is estimated that the recoverable gas reserves amount to 5 trillion cubic meters.

t this point, however, one should not expect that the Western business activity will grow dramatically since the corruption, the peculiarities of the financial and banking system, the high customs duties, and other factors do not allow to speak about good investment prospects in Uzbekistan.

5

Thus, today, the new president’s reforms mainly have to do with the cautious economic changes. At the same time, there is an attempt to ease (but not change) the political system established by Islam Karimov. Note that Mirziyoyev has been a part of this system since 2003.

Nonetheless, we should not rush in our estimations of what is happening in Uzbekistan today – we must consider what used to be in the past and what goals are being set for the future. As a folk wisdom says, “It is not right to judge whether the pilaf will be good when you start cooking it. A lot depends on the cook”.

1 comments

  1. karim

    Mirziyoyev is real reformer. You say “he is a part of Karimov’s system since 2003”. So what? Prime minister in this country hasn’t any influence, only president. He had to work anything that Karimov said. That’s why he change Uzbekistan now. In Bishkek he said that he alaways wanted to fix relations with Kyrgyzstan, but “it did not depend much on him”. Now, he is president and he is the real hope for this country.

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