The first 100 days of Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, hint at the possibility of much-overdue change in one of Central Asia’s most repressive states. But as its long-time prime minister, Mirziyoyev was a key player in the 25-year rule of his predecessor, Islam Karimov, and he inherits a system designed to protect those in power at the expense of the population. It would be premature to conclude that release of a few political prisoners, an early focus on urgent economic issues and a thaw in relations with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, welcome departures from past practice though they are, promise an intention for systemic reform policies of the sort needed to cope with rising pressures over social and economic issues. Uzbekistan’s Western partners share an interest with Russia and China in the country’s sustainable stability, however, so should cautiously work with the new administration to encourage change while being prepared to call out any backsliding.
A cabinet re-shuffle in January appears to have done much to consolidate the president’s position. Numerous visits to Uzbekistan’s regions are allowing the population a degree of interaction with the head of state that was unthinkable under Karimov. Steps like that and acknowledgement of the economic hardship in rural areas have created some genuine popular support for him and a degree of optimism in the national mood. He has a complicated relationship with Rustam Azimov, an ex-finance minister, and Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Service (SNB), though the former has been somewhat sidelined. Mirziyoyev needs to cultivate their continued support and that of others, including rich Uzbeks living in Russia and elsewhere, who may have a limited interest in significant changes to the system they know so well.
Uzbekistan has pressing domestic issues, unpredictable neighbours and a jihadist extremism threat. Though its border with Afghanistan is one of the region’s most secure, it looks to the south with nervousness. Citizens need economic and social policies that improve their living standard. Pensioners and public sector workers exist on meagre benefits and salaries, often not paid on time. According to Russian authorities, as many as 3.35 million Uzbeks have felt obliged to find work in that country. Though Mirziyoyev has made a point about creating dialogue between citizens and the state, discontent finds no expression through civil society or in the narrow political space. Uzbekistan’s partners need to find a balance between building a relationship with the new administration and providing a critique of Karimov’s institutional legacy.
On 4 December 2016, for the first time in the history of independent Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov was not elected as the country’s president. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, prime minister since 2003 and acting president following Karimov’s death on 2 September, received 88.61 per cent of the vote after a campaign “devoid of genuine competition”. As acting president, he said he would stay true to Karimov’s course, yet he made several statements and gestures that suggested he would deviate from some of his predecessor’s policies. These included promises to improve difficult relations with neighbours, liberate the state-controlled economy with its foreign-currency black market and listen to the people, who had been deprived of their civil voice under Karimov’s heavy-handed rule.
This report, Crisis Group’s third paper on Uzbekistan since Karimov’s death, aims to provide perspective on executive decisions and other political processes in President Mirziyoyev’s first 100 days and assess the scope for engagement with the new government. Research was done in Tashkent, Fergana, Bishkek and Brussels. Though Crisis Group was able to conduct field work there, access in Uzbekistan remains somewhat restricted due to security concerns for staff and interlocutors.
II.Loose Ends and Fresh Starts
Following his election, Mirziyoyev declared 2017 the “Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interests” and held a modest inauguration on 14 December. Listening to his constituency had been the central theme of the campaign, during which Mirziyoyev established a personal virtual address at which every citizen could submit concerns. It is still uncertain, however, what kind of follow-up there will be to that initiative, and Uzbeks remain wary. The practice has now been adopted by the foreign ministry and even the National Security Service (SNB), but their responsiveness is also unclear. The SNB remains a shadowy entity about which little public information is available.
100 days have been insufficient to answer the key questions asked during the three months between Karimov’s death and the election: were Mirziyoyev’s pledges merely a campaign tactic, or did they indicate a genuine interest in addressing the country’s political, social and economic realities; and in turn, what would the answer mean for Uzbekistan’s international partners?
Mirziyoyev’s earliest moves as acting president were to consolidate his position with a series of reappointments and cabinet adjustments. Abdulla Aripov, deputy prime minister between 2002 and 2012, was returned to that post on 14 September. After the inauguration, Mirziyoyev obtained Aripov’s installation as prime minister by the rubber-stamp parliament’s two chambers. Oxford-educated Rustam Azimov, once seen as a potential rival, kept his post as deputy prime minister for macroeconomic development and foreign investments but lost the finance ministry to Batyr Hodjayev, a former (2006-2009) economy minister. This was a clear message from Mirziyoyev about who is in charge. The president also singled him out for criticism at the 16 January cabinet meeting, questioning his commitment to solving the problems of entrepreneurs and the management of his portfolio, pointedly urging him to be self-critical and rebuking the finance ministry that he had run for eleven years.
If Azimov is further, or even permanently, sidelined, it implies the powerful SNB at least tacitly approves. Mirziyoyev’s engagement with the security service is a sign of his confidence. Its long-serving head, Rustam Inoyatov, 72, is believed to be in poor health. The deputy, Shukhrat Guliamov, was transferred to a lesser position in Surkhandarya in December, and his family reportedly went to the U.S. where brother Bakhtiyar is Uzbekistan’s ambassador. Replacing key SNB officials and eventually Inoyatov himself with his own appointees would allow Mirziyoyev to make his power virtually absolute. Inoyatov is reportedly still capable of making trouble for Mirziyoyev, however. There is speculation that he may be blocking much needed economic reforms, specifically a liberalisation of the currency market that could deprive senior figures of black market exchange profits.
Beyond the regional governors and SNB generals, another sector the new president needs to win over or neutralise includes organised crime groups involved with prostitution, drugs, money laundering and, allegedly, selling government positions. They are said to have close links with similar groups in Russia or Ukraine. Salim Abduvaliev, who has longstanding connections with Uzbekistan’s political elite and is alleged to be “boss of the Uzbek mafia”, was appointed deputy chairman of the National Olympic Committee. Approval from and cooperation with a variety of actors lends stability to the regime, and establishing ties with individuals such as Abduvaliev was arguably mandatory for Mirziyoyev.
Mirziyoyev knows everyone and everything from thirteen years as prime minister. As president, he told his government: “My tragedy is in the fact that I know everything about all of you”. He is at least co-author of his “tragedy”, but the statement bookmarks his new authority while distancing him from old colleagues.
As part of promoting dialogue with citizens by example, Mirziyoyev began visiting the regions, making an early stop in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, where he walked through crowds allowing people to take “selfies” with him, something unprecedented in Uzbekistan. The visit suggested a strategic approach and desire to burnish credentials as champion of the country’s territorial integrity. The autonomous region has the constitutional right to secede, and though a fledging dissident movement has gained little traction, there is resentment against the Tashkent government. Mirziyoyev seeks to secure the same support and loyalty of its formal and informal leaders as Karimov had.
Speaking in Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital, Mirziyoyev stressed the importance of developing entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan. Outlining a scheme for all rural households to possess 100 chickens and enjoy the financial benefits of egg-selling, he tasked Azimov with implementing it, and it kicked off in Jizzakh mid-February with 257 low-income families each receiving twenty chicks.
A focus on rural development should be welcomed, but there are doubts about the feasibility of a proposal that may indicate the government and its president retain a Soviet, top-down command economy mentality. An Uzbek observer suggested responsibility was given to Azimov to create a pretext for eventually firing him. However, the scheme, along with other initiatives outlined in a draft document published in February such as investments in small-scale fruit farming, do appear to indicate that much-needed rural development is at least on the government’s radar. This might give the European Union (EU) and member states an opportunity to test the new government’s reform instincts by offering technical help. The “chicken project” would require phyto-sanitary and logistical support for collecting, processing, packaging and, crucially, developing a market for the eggs.