In 2018, Uzbekistan became the Central Asian State mostly focused by Western political scientists. It was resulted the events following the changing of power from President Islam Karimov to his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has initiated the massive inner reforms and new course for external policy.
As Dr. Marlene Laruelle noted, Uzbekistan has attracted the attention of the academic and policy communities because of its geostrategic importance, its critical role in shaping or unshaping Central Asia as a region, its economic and trade potential, and its demographic weight: every other Central Asian being Uzbek, Uzbekistan’s political, social, and cultural evolutions largely exemplify the transformations of the region as a whole. And yet, more than 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, evaluating Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet transformation remains complicated. Practitioners and scholars have seen access to sources, data, and fieldwork progressively restricted since the early 2000s. The death of President Islam Karimov, in power for a quarter of century, in late 2016, reopened the future of the country, offering it more room for evolution.[i]
It is difficult to underestimate the strategic importance of Uzbekistan. Located in the heart of Central Asia, bordering all other post-Soviet states of the region and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous state (thirty-one million), the largest market, and fields the largest army (with some fifty thousand troops). Despite a large Uzbek ethnic majority (over 85 percent) it is also home to various ethnic minority groups. Almost three million ethnic Uzbeks are clustered in the border regions of the other post-Soviet Central Asian republics, and another three million live in Afghanistan, making Uzbeks the largest ethnic community in the region. Despite the many challenges the country faced in 1991, including a total lack of experience in conducting foreign affairs, Uzbekistan has been an important strategic player in the region throughout the entire post-Soviet period. Moreover, President Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan was a predictable international actor. Its international partners knew what to expect from him.
The death of Karimov in September 2016, after twenty-seven years in office, raises questions about the domestic political order and the evolution of state–society relations.
Uzbekistan has been a predictable, if difficult actor in early twenty-first century global and regional politics. Three main debates concerning Uzbekistan’s foreign policy have emerged in the scholarly and policy literature. The first debate concerns the key drivers of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy.
Although some observers have noted the importance of the regional strategic environment, itself in flux, and more systemic-level factors, most acknowledge the overwhelming importance of domestic factors, such as regime security and survival, centralization of decision-making, the role of the security services, and prestige.
The second debate, which attracted considerable attention given the significant geopolitical implication of such moves, revolved around the country’s sudden and abrupt turnarounds in its international alignments. Strategic partnerships have alternated with sudden reversals. After seeking to delink from Russia in the first decade after independence-while retaining membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)-Uzbekistan leveraged its position on Afghanistan’s doorstep to take an active role in the U.S.-led war on terror.
Not only did Tashkent allow Washington to use its base at Qarshi-Khanabad in 2001, it also engaged in active intelligence collection and sharing. Only a few years later, in 2005, growing Western pressure on issues of human rights abuses and the lack of political and economic reform convinced the leadership in Tashkent that vulnerability to Western pressure risked jeopardizing regime security. That fall, a few weeks after Tashkent evicted U.S. troops from its base, Uzbekistan and Russia signed a new strategic partnership agreement.
The third debate, central to the analysis below and quite possibly to the future course of Uzbekistan’s international conduct, examines the link between identity and foreign policy. In the first decade after independence, scholars focused more on the possibility that contested borders, territorial oddities like the enclaves in the Fergana Valley, and cross-border minority groups might trigger the intervention of their respective patron states, leading to domino effects of territorial claims and possible separatist and irredentist claims.
The death of President Karimov raises a number of questions about Uzbekistan’s foreign policy and, more broadly, Central Asian security. Two issues merit close monitoring. Uzbekistan’s response to the Osh events was a clear demonstration of Tashkent’s worldview and how the country would, and should, behave in international affairs.
The first concerns nonalignment, specifically the reluctance to tie itself too closely to any external player or even to participate actively to any regional organization. Tashkent’s refusal to intervene militarily or even to support the role of any regional organization (SCO or CSTO) or that of a specific country (Russia) to stop the violence and mediate between the parties in 2010
was clearly restated in the 2012 Foreign Policy Concept. Karimov’s position was adamant, and his opposition to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and even the alleged-from Tashkent’s perspective-transformation of the CSTO into a military bloc was equally indisputable. Uzbekistan’s international partners, including Russia (which will hope for a reversal of this position), China (a close commercial partner), and the United States will follow the moves of the new leadership closely. The second key area to watch again relates to the Osh response. Ethnicity has played a negligible role in shaping Uzbekistan’s foreign policy to date. This might be Karimov’s single largest contribution to Central Asian security.
From 1989 to 2016, Islam Karimov presided over Uzbekistan and its destiny. His death, announced on September 2, 2016, reopened the future of the country and multiple possible paths of development. One year after the death of the “father of the nation,” there have been modest yet enlightening changes, more significant than those that occurred in Turkmenistan after the sudden death of President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
The new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is a member of the country’s political elite. He became prime minister in 2003 and held that post until he assumed the presidency in 2016. He is emphasizing continuity and has issued a decree to immortalize Islam Karimov’s memory. Uzbekistan’s political system has been stable for more than two decades thanks to its close control over economic development. The country’s wealth essentially derives from a few major industries and resources-cotton, gold, uranium, and hydrocarbons-with a limited private sector, which contributes to consolidating elites around few rent-seeking opportunities. This migration flow heads mostly toward Russia. With about three million jobseekers, Uzbekistan is the leading migrant-sending country in post-Soviet space, even if the authorities refuse to recognize this massive trend.
Migrants themselves must decide whether their exodus is permanent (should they stay for a long time and integrate somewhat into Russian society?) or temporary (accumulate some capital and then go back home). Labor migration also plays a critical role in changing an individual’s relationship to Islam and Islamic practices. The Uzbek state’s tight control over religious matters has prompted varied responses from different segments of society. Some support the state vision of being a secular fortress against Islamic destabilization. Others prefer to confine to their religious practices to the home.[ii]
Uzbekistan’s New Foreign Policy
During the year following Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s election as president of the Republic of Uzbekistan he has introduced dramatic changes in that country. Some of these changes have come in the form of legislative acts of the Oliy Majlis or Supreme Assembly, Uzbekistan’s parliament. Others have taken the form of administrative orders issued by the President or his principal Ministers. At no other time since Uzbekistan’s establishment as an independent state have more innovations been introduced, or with greater speed.
Since these changes are bound to affect Uzbekistan’s internal economic, social, and political life, and since they directly affect Uzbekistan’s ties with its regional neighbors and its relations with all the world’s major powers. As part of this effort, we are pleased to present this study by Richard Weitz,[iii] who offers a comprehensive and meticulously documented overview of new initiatives affecting Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, both towards its neighbors and major external powers.
Since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, its government has sought to maximize its national security and sovereignty by limiting dependence on foreign actors. This priority has continued under former President Islam Karimov and current leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy builds upon that of Karimov. Even as Tashkent has recently sought to improve ties with Central Asian neighbors and deepen relations with some international institutions, the Uzbek government still strives for balanced relations with external great powers
like Russia, China, and the United States. Uzbekistan’s foreign policy still adheres to core principles such as abstention from military alliances or the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union; refusal to deploy Uzbek troops beyond its national territory or to host foreign military bases; and non-intervention in the internal affairs of foreign countries. These continuities are unsurprising since many of the security challenges that faced the Karimov administration persist today, including transnational terrorism, underdeveloped regional transportation infrastructure, and contested Eurasian borders and water usage rights.
Notwithstanding these continuities in strategy, Uzbekistan foreign policy tactics have clearly changed over the past year following Mirziyoyev’s ascent to the presidency. A flurry of significant new policy initiatives that have differentiated his foreign policy from that of his predecessor. Furthermore, Uzbek officials have emphasized more the imperative of cooperating with other Central Asian countries, while Uzbek leaders have adopted a more amicable tone with all their regional counterparts. For example, they have called for a joint effort to build regional power stations and share electricity, reducing a source of regional conflict. Mirziyoyev has personally travelled to many neighboring countries, signing important socioeconomic and security agreements during these visits.
Many business leaders have accompanied these presidential delegations. Meanwhile, Tashkent has welcomed representatives of leading international institutions, as well as major foreign governments. Mirziyoyev has also traveled to Moscow, Beijing, and the United States in pursuit of business deals, diplomatic support, and security partnerships. His administration’s domestic reforms partly aim to make the country a more attractive partner to the West, even as Uzbekistan continues to deepen economic ties with Russia and China.
Uzbekistan’s expanded engagement with foreign partners and international institutions contributes to improved relations with its Central Asian neighbors. Recent Uzbek initiatives have led to the construction of new transportation infrastructure, economic deregulation to simplify business entrepreneurship, liberalizing of national currency controls, and other market-oriented reforms in pursuit of Uzbekistan’s goal of becoming a regional transportation and investment hub. These new tactics should help Uzbekistan better leverage its natural advantages, such as its pivotal geographic location. In particular, Uzbekistan is strategically positioned to benefit from China’s infrastructure investment across Eurasia. Besides developing additional economic connections, the Uzbek government’s new foreign policy approach could also generate social and economic opportunities for its citizens, strengthen the regional capacity to manage transnational threats, raise Uzbekistan’s foreign economic profile beyond Central Asia, and help maintain geographic pluralism in the heart of Eurasia.
For the first time in decades, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is in great flux. In his first year as the country’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was a man in motion, visiting more than a dozen countries and overseeing significant new policy initiatives. These included strengthening foreign economic cooperation, ending public quarrels with neighbors, easing travel restrictions, and making Central Asian solidarity a core foreign policy goal. During the August 2017 Conference on “Central Asia – A Major Priority of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy,” Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov emphasized the government’s determination to transform Eurasia into an area of “stability, sustainable development and good-neighborliness.” At the same time, Uzbekistan has remained committed to the principles of non-intervention in the internal affairs of foreign countries; non-membership in foreign military alliances or the Eurasian
Economic Union; non-deployment of Uzbek troops in foreign countries; and nonacceptance of foreign military bases on Uzbekistan’s territory.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Uzbek leaders attempted to preserve essential security, economic, and other multilateral connections while opposing Russian initiatives that could undermine national independence. Relations with other Central Asian states suffered from competing territorial claims, water access disputes, and Uzbekistan’s prioritization of border and internal security over foreign engagement and regional integration. The government assertively leveraged Uzbekistan’s strategic geography-located in the heart of Eurasia, adjoining all the other Central Asian countries and Afghanistan, but not bordering China or Russia – to extract concessions from neighboring states and to maximize strategic autonomy from Moscow and Beijing.
The foreign policy challenges facing Uzbekistan have not substantially changed under the Mirziyovev administration. Uzbekistan still confronts such major challenges as transnational terrorism, narcotics trafficking, contested water access, limited energy export revenue, reduced remittances from Uzbeks working in foreign countries, and the need to balance external powers. Like Uzbekistan’s 2012 Foreign Policy Concept, the newly adopted “Development Strategy for 2017-2021” emphasizes national independence and sovereignty, as well as the maintenance of balanced relations with other countries. However, the Mirziyoyev government has adjusted some tactics in the pursuit of these enduring objectives. For example, the “Development Strategy” establishes such goals as:
- Joining the ranks of developed democratic states;
- The creation of a security, stability and good neighborliness belt around Uzbekistan;
- Strengthening the international reputation of the Republic of Uzbekistan, making available to the international community of the objective information on the ongoing reforms in the country;
- Improving the legal framework of the foreign policy and foreign economic activities of the Republic of Uzbekistan, as well as the legal basis for international cooperation;
- Resolving issues of delimitation and demarcation of the state boundary of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
At home, the new government has focused on economic reforms, which aim to curtail central planning, promote private business, encourage foreign investment, pursue diversification, liberalize currency regulations, spur technological innovation, and eliminate corruption and the informal economy. Abroad, the Mirziyoyev administration has promoted two-way trade, investment, and deepened engagement with international economic institutions; pursued balanced security measures with other countries, and sought opportunities within the framework of China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) Initiative by leveraging Uzbekistan’s potential as a transportation corridor and source of regional labor.[iv]
The Regional Politics
President Mirziyoyev’s administration is clearly seeking to improve Uzbekistan’s regional standing and influence. In his end-of-year parliamentary speech, Mirziyoyev reaffirmed that, “Central Asia is the main priority in the foreign policy of Uzbekistan.”1 Uzbek leaders have highlighted Central Asians’ common civilizational heritage; the interconnectedness of regional economic and security networks; the importance of collectively addressing water, energy and other transnational issues; and the need to complete the delineation of national borders that were arbitrarily drawn and redrawn by the Soviet authorities. Most of Mirziyoyev’s foreign trips in 2017 were to other Central Asian countries, beginning with visits to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in March. New initiatives included convening regular meetings of Eurasian actors and overcoming past divisions between Uzbekistan and its neighbors.
The new government has stressed the need for greater multilateral cooperation among Central Asian states to address transnational challenges such as water access, environmental degradation, and international terrorism. The Mirziyoyev administration has notably softened official language regarding regional watersharing issues and proposed joint development of Eurasian hydroelectric resources. Regional threats have transformed due to the rise of new terrorist groups and the potential for Eurasian nationals fighting in the Middle East to return to Central Asia. Uzbek authorities have sought to decrease the attraction of militant Islam as well as fortify national and regional defenses against terrorism through multilateral collaboration. The Uzbek government has pledged to reduce human and narcotics trafficking through its territory as well as end coerced child labor and improve human rights. It has launched various domestic and regional initiatives towards these goals. Furthermore, Uzbek-Afghan ties have strengthened in both the economic and security field due to several bilateral projects and greater participation in supporting multilateral frameworks such as those sponsored by the SCO and the EU. Uzbekistan has often promoted collective Central Asian solidarity and cooperation within these bodies.
The Development Strategy for 2017-2021 aspires to improve Uzbekistan’s economic competitiveness, business environment, macroeconomic stability, investment climate, and “international cooperation, including with leading international and foreign financial institutions.” The new government has accordingly deepened Uzbekistan’s foreign economic ties in Eurasia and beyond.
Recent government reforms aim to boost Uzbekistan’s international economic competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship, attract more foreign direct investment, and renew ties with international financial institutions. National priorities include developing tourism, supporting high-tech projects, expanding the use of renewable energy, and diversifying exports beyond natural resources.
These initiatives, such as relaxing foreign-currency regulations and participating in regional trade fairs, have contributed to Uzbekistan’s growing commerce with its Central Asian neighbors. Uzbekistan’s foreign economic ties encompass the South Caucasus, the United States, Europe, as well as South and East Asia. The most visible change in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy over the past year has been the government’s strengthened bilateral ties with other Central Asian countries.
Mirziyoyev and other Uzbek national leaders have regularly visited their neighbors as well as hosted official visits from their representatives in enhanced inter-ministerial engagement. Provincial and private sector ties have also deepened. The last year has seen a number of bilateral economic, security, and humanitarian agreements. Closer cooperation between Central Asian states, both directly and by supporting regional initiatives, could improve regional security, trade, water usage, and energy development, while enhancing Central Asia’s collective leverage with external actors.
Kazakhstan is Uzbekistan’s major trading partner in Central Asia, with bilateral commerce totaling some two billion dollars in 2016. Although excessive customs duties and border controls remain constraints, Kazakh leaders see the establishment of good ties with neighboring Uzbekistan as an important measure to advancing their regional integration agenda. During his March 2017 visit to Astana, Mirziyoyev highlighted the increase in bilateral trade and praised Kazakhstan’s contribution to regional security through its SCO chairmanship. The two governments signed new economic and strategic agreements that included setting up joint trading houses, promoting each other’s industrial goods, and improving regional transport corridors.
Uzbekistan’s ties with Kyrgyzstan substantially improved during President Mirziyoyev’s first year. Previously, their contested 1,300 kilometer border witnessed several armed conflicts between border guards. Disagreements over water access were common due to Kyrgyz construction of hydropower plants that Uzbeks feared could disrupt the flow of water for the irrigation that is critical for their agriculture. On August 22, 2016, only a week before Karimov’s death, long-standing Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions over the Kasan-sai reservoir flared anew when Uzbek and Kyrgyz forces seized disputed land and each other’s citizens. Under Mirziyoyev, border demarcation talks have made considerable progress.
By the time Mirziyoyev visited Kyrgyzstan in September, 2017, the two governments announced an agreement to delineate 85 percent of the border. Until recently, Uzbek-Tajik relations were tense due to border disputes, resource competition, terrorist threats, and transportation issues. To alleviate a massive energy shortage, Tajikistan has been building dams for hydroelectric power that could disrupt Uzbekistan’s irrigation of its agriculture. In 2000, Uzbekistan introduced a visa regime for Tajik citizens to prevent terrorist infiltration coming through Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Uzbek authorities also periodically blocked supplies of electricity, natural gas, and other materials to Tajikistan. Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has softened opposition to Tajikistan’s dam projects, reestablished direct commercial air flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent, reopened border crossings, and eased visa requirements for short-term tourist visits by Tajik citizens (sufficient to allow them to take international flights out of Uzbekistan).
Following a decade of strained relations, Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan ties improved substantially following Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov’s ascent to the presidency and Karimov’s two-day official visit to Turkmenistan in 2007. In addition to shared concerns regarding regional terrorism and Russia, a major factor contributing their reconciliation was their mutual interest as Central Asia’s largest natural gas producers in developing new east-west pipelines to meet China’s rising energy imports.
Mirziyoyev has strived to increase this cooperation. He made his first foreign trip as president to Turkmenistan. In March 2017, Mirziyoyev and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov signed a strategic cooperation agreement and discussed joint energy, security, and transportation initiatives, such as the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) project to deliver electricity from Central Asia to South Asia.
The softer tone and stance of Uzbek leaders on bilateral issues, combined with their elevated engagement with neighboring leaders, has improved Uzbekistan’s relations with the other Central Asian countries. The comprehensive range of recent initiatives have included measures to resolve border disputes, reduce cross-border travel restrictions, promote energy exchanges, expand transportation routes, and fortify regional security. Kazakhstan remains Uzbekistan’s major regional trading partner and their two governments have signed additional strategic and economic agreements. More unexpectedly, Uzbekistan has ended its armed border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan, delineated most of their joint boundary, strengthened political dialogue, facilitated crossboundary trade and tourism, and developed sub-national, private sector, and NGO ties. The same surprising improvement in Uzbekistan’s foreign ties has occurred with Tajikistan. Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has relaxed opposition to Tajikistan’s hydroelectric projects, reestablished direct commercial air flights, reopened border crossings, eased visa requirements, and promoted commercial exchanges. Mirziyoyev has also strived to increase cooperation with Turkmenistan, building on earlier Karimov initiatives and the two countries’ natural energy partnership. Taken together, the regional implications of this shift are substantial.
Relations with Great Powers
Since independence, Uzbekistan has strived to balance Russian regional ambitions and military power, China’s rising socioeconomic presence, and uncertainties regarding the U.S. government sustaining a high-profile presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia and China are growing economically but bounded in the security domain. Uzbekistan has refrained from joining Moscow-led institutions, while enthusiastically pursuing opportunities within the framework of Beijing’s Silk Road initiatives. Tashkent’s ties with Washington have never been as extensive as Uzbekistan has hoped, but Uzbek leaders anticipate that their new reforms, commitment to counterterrorism, and balanced ties with Beijing and Moscow will prove attractive to Washington.
Uzbekistan’s relations with the Russian Federation were on the uptick even before Mirziyoyev became president. Karimov’s visit to Moscow in late April, 2016, saw lengthy official meetings and exceptionally friendly public statements. Mirziyoyev has continued this rapprochement and downplayed Karimov’s public suspicions of Moscow’s ambitions in Eurasia. During his April 2017 state visit to Moscow, Mirziyoyev supported Uzbek-Russian cooperation
against transnational threats such as those emanating from Afghanistan, transnational terrorism, and narcotics trafficking.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) developed substantial diplomatic and economic ties. Uzbekistan mainly exports minerals, metals, energy, and food products to China and imports machinery, equipment, and consumer goods. Although Kazakhstan is the PRC’s largest energy partner in Central Asia, China has also been developing energy ties with Uzbekistan, one of the largest natural gas producers in the world. Chinese investment increased under Karimov and has intensified under
Mirziyoyev, who attended the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017.
The more than 100 Sino-Uzbek agreements announced during the trip exceeded $20 billion, with diverse projects encompassing agriculture, education, industry, medicine, energy, chemistry, transportation, and communications. Chinese-funded infrastructure projects could help develop Uzbekistan’s interior transportation services as well as make Uzbekistan a strategic transport corridor between China, Eurasia, and Europe. Moreover, OBOR can impart more modern technology and business practices to Uzbekistan, helping move the country away from state central planning, low productivity, and continued dependence on agricultural commodities. Indeed, a major reason for Uzbekistan’s “rapprochement” strategy towards neighbors has been to take greater advantage of China’s OBOR initiative and maximize Uzbekistan’s potential as a transportation corridor and economic partner.
Both the Karimov and Mirziyoyev administrations have pursued comprehensive ties with the United States. Specific Uzbek objectives have included expanding trade, investment, and technology transfer (including business best practices such as for agriculture exports); security assistance encompassing defense training, military equipment, and counterterrorism support; diplomatic approval and recognition of Uzbekistan’s domestic achievements and international interests; and sustaining a substantial U.S. presence to balance other external powers.
The stated objectives of the U.S. in Uzbekistan have included fighting terrorism, countering WMD proliferation, supporting the war in Afghanistan, ensuring Uzbekistan’s sovereignty and autonomy, developing bilateral economic ties, and improving human rights. Under new presidents in both Tashkent and Washington, Uzbekistan and the United States have continued to cooperate on important security, economic, and other issues. The U.S. government sustains ties with Uzbekistan’s armed forces because, as an official statement put it, “Security cooperation is one way in which the United States shows its continued support of Uzbekistan’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. In his September 2017 UN General Assembly address, Mirziyoyev announced that Uzbekistan would support Trump’s call for Afghanistan’s neighbors to promote a peaceful resolution of the country’s civil strife. The Uzbek government emphasized that Trump had welcomed Uzbekistan’s developing productive relations with neighboring countries and had backed the “democratic changes and economic reforms taking place in our country, aiming at strengthening of the civil society, rule of law, and liberalization of economy.
Uzbek-Russian ties have continued to expand in the past year. Mirziyoyev’s April 2017 state visit to Moscow yielded new trade and investment deals. There has also been expanded collaboration regarding arms sales, military exercises, and regional diplomacy. Nevertheless, the Uzbek government has continued Karimov’s non-membership policy regarding the EEU and CSTO. The good economic ties that developed between Uzbekistan and China under Karimov have expanded under Mirziyoyev, who is eager for Uzbekistan to assume a prominent role in Beijing’s OBOR. Uzbek officials want to expand economic and security ties with the United States as well as secure U.S. support for their domestic reforms, whose success would make Uzbekistan a more attractive partner for U.S. business and diplomacy.
Uzbekistan’s regional importance also remains unchanged. Not only does it have the largest population in Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan), but many ethnic Uzbeks live in neighboring countries, amplifying the interrelationship between events in Uzbekistan and the rest of the region. The country lies at the heart of Eurasia, situated among many possible east-west and north-south transportation corridors, making Tashkent’s support critical for major regional projects and vital for Eurasia’s stability and prosperity.
Anthony Bowyer (Senior Program Manager for the Caucasus and Central Asia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems) studied in his paper “Political Reform in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan: Elections, Political Parties and Civil Society”, published by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, and noted that since taking over from long-time President Islam Karimov in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has pursued an aggressive policy to transform Uzbekistan’s decision-making processes, invigorate civil society, encourage political competition, address human rights and develop a civic culture consistent with the country’s status as a modernizing, forward-looking regional power in Eurasia with a steadily increasing majority of citizens under the age of 30. To declare significant these changes, which seem to take place daily, is to perhaps understate their potential in light of the last 30 years of history.[v]
The various programs proposed by the new president and presently under implementation hold the promise of reshaping the domestic political landscape, changing the fundamental relationship between the citizen and state, and rebalancing the geopolitical order in a region long relegated as the domain of outside great powers.
Ahead of the December 2016 Presidential elections, Mirziyoyev campaigned on the principle of a government with a greater degree of openness and transparency serving the people – a novelty in the experience of independent Uzbekistan and most other post-Soviet countries.
To advance this agenda, President Mirziyoyev issued three key documents: A Program to Reform the Judicial and Legal System; an Action Strategy on Five Priority Areas of the Country’s Development for 2017-2021; and a “Concept” of Administrative Reform. The Program and Action Strategy, which focus on ensuring the rule of law, reforming the judicial system, promoting economic liberalization, and the development of the social sphere, contains numerous sub-objectives which, if fully implemented, will fundamentally transform the relationship between Uzbekistan’s government and its people, and elevate independent civic advocacy organizations and informal institutions, such as Mahallas, to the status of partners of the government.
The Concept for Administrative Reform aims to result in an effective and transparent system of public administration capable of protecting the rights of citizens and bolstering Uzbekistan’s economic competitiveness globally. It defined six priority areas, among which are; “the improvement of the institutional, organizational, and legal framework of the executive authorities’ activities” and “the formation of an effective system of professional civil service, [and] the introduction of effective mechanisms to combat corruption in the system of executive authorities.”
The Concept was developed with the participation of academics, practitioners, representatives of both international organizations and civic advocacy organizations based in Uzbekistan. In developing both the Action Strategy and the Concept, the government worked to solicit participation from the general public in order to present the Concept and receive critical feedback on its further development and implementation.
Mirziyoyev’s reforms have also had important implications for civil society. Rather than an adversary, the government now seeks to view civil society as an ally in its reform agenda. This was manifested in numerous legislative amendments and initiatives to ease the ability of NGOs to operate in the country. Since Mirziyoyev took office as Interim President in September 2016, 685 local civic advocacy organizations have successfully registered with the Ministry of Justice, more than an 8 percent increase. There remains much work to be done until impediments to the work of NGOs are completely removed, but the progress is clear.
An overarching goal of the President’s reform program and Action Strategy is to root out corruption and inefficiency at the local and national levels of government. The translation of written objectives into demonstrable action has proceeded apace, as local administrators from a multitude of governmental departments have been called to answer for their actions in a very public way, resulting in presidential chastisements and numerous officials being sacked for a variety of offenses. Almost half of Uzbekistan’s population is under 25 years of age, and as such, the outlook of the young generation will determine the country’s future. The Action Strategy prioritizes education as the cornerstone of the government’s approach to the rising generation, calling for greater standardization of basic education and for gender equality.
President Mirziyoyev has demonstrated a commitment to revisiting Uzbekistan’s human rights record on an international scale. One key step in this regard was the invitation extended to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Uzbek government announced it would allow a permanent representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to be based in Tashkent, and invited Human Rights Watch to resume activities in the country. However, even if all key figures continue to firmly support the new president, implementing the governance reforms proposed by Mirziyoyev will pose a formidable challenge. Besides structural changes, they call for fundamental shifts in the political culture and even the mentality of ordinary Uzbeks. Public passivity and inertia can delay or derail reforms at many levels, as can the exercise of too much or too little force from above. This will be all the more complex when it is done in the context of the new president’s stated goal of broadening the political spectrum and promoting greater diversity of opinion.
The roots of the present transformation led by President Mirziyoyev are to be found in the years of his prime-ministership (2003-2016). The period saw some easing of regulations on non-governmental organizations and the resumption of banned party congresses (Erk party), along with diversification of political parties, all of which remained pro-presidential, and the addition of the Ecological Movement to the list of legal political parties in 2008. The rapidly evolving situation at present provides hope for a true blossoming of representative governance through various state programs, including direct local elections, announced by Mirziyoyev. As with any set of decrees or state programs, however, the litmus test will be in the actual implementation of each program and in its impact on society.
Mirziyoyev campaigned on the principle of government serving the people, a novelty in the experience of independent Uzbekistan or most other post-Soviet countries, with a greater degree of openness and transparency. He indicated that this would involve direct communication between government officials and citizens through electronic channels, social media, and fora such as town halls and public meetings. He moved quickly to make local government more accountable through the expansion of direct elections and encouraged citizen groups to monitor the work of local and national administration.
The programs set in place were the first step to creating a mandate as well as a legal basis for such changes. In October 2016, the then-interim president issued a decree guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of citizens. Known formally as the “Decree on Measures to Further Reform the Judicial and Legal System,” it included an action plan known as “The Program” which proposes amendments to the Uzbek constitution, criminal code, civil code, and other legislation in order to protect the rights of citizens. On February 7, 2017, Mirziyoyev approved a major program, the “Action Strategy on Five Priority Areas of the Country’s Development for 2017-2021” (hereafter known as the “Action Strategy).” The adoption of the Action Strategy was proceeded by extensive public consultations.
The Action Strategy includes the promise that “the timely and effective implementation of the Action Strategy shall be the top priority of all government bodies and their officials.”15 The five priority areas of the Action Strategy are:
- Improving the system of state and public construction
- Ensuring the rule of law and further reforming the judicial system
- Economic development and liberalization
- Development of the social sphere
- Promoting security, inter-ethnic harmony, and religious tolerance, and the implementation of a balanced, mutually beneficial and constructive foreign policy
Each priority area contains numerous sub-objectives which, if fully implemented, will fundamentally transform the relationship between Uzbekistan’s government and its people, and elevate independent civic advocacy organizations and informal institutions, such as Mahallas, to the status of partners of the government.
On September 8, 2017, President Mirziyoyev signed a Decree “On the approval of the concept of administrative reform in the Republic of Uzbekistan” (hereafter “The Concept”). Its intent is to produce an effective and transparent system of public administration capable of protecting the rights of citizens and bolstering Uzbekistan’s economic competitiveness globally.
The past year-plus has been an exceptionally eventful one for Uzbekistan and its new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. One year into his presidency he has launched numerous initiatives to change fundamentally how the government interacts with citizens. The “Strategy”, “Action Plan” and separate decrees are already transforming the country’s political makeup in the direction of responsive and accountable public institutions and an expanded world of voluntary organizations. The proposal to hold direct elections for local leaders is a positive step, as are newly instituted measures for holding elected leaders accountable to voters. The reforms also extend to expanding the political spectrum. But this will be a longer-term process, the success of which will turn on whether true opposition candidates and parties are able to register and compete for office at all levels.
Among the tasks still to be faced are those which implement reforms of local government, promote accountability and transparency, implement direct elections for regional and local Khokims, encourage Mahallas to cooperate with local government, and follow through on the democratization program, as set forth in the Action Plan. None of these tasks will be simple or short-term. Both active and passive resistance can be predicted. Note that the National Security Service and the Finance Ministry both initially resisted a number of key reforms, and may have sought to check the President’s efforts. Such incidents may be signs of possible future concerns.
Judicial and Governance Reform
Mjuša Sever (Co-founder and Director of Regional Dialogue) wrote that since President Mirziyoyev assumed power as interim president in September 2016, a major agenda of reforms has been introduced in Uzbekistan. In this broader agenda, judicial and governance reform has been identified as key to the entire reform process. After being elected president in January 2017, Mirziyoyev announced a comprehensive “Five Point Development Strategy Plan” outlining policy priorities for a five-year period. This Plan focused on improving the system of state and social construction; strengthening the rule of law and the judicial system; developing and liberalizing the economy; developing the social sphere; and improving security and implementing a balanced foreign policy.[vi]
The main legislative role in coordinating reforms was assigned to the Ministry of Justice, now staffed by an entirely new set of young officials. It was tasked with implementing administrative reforms, assuring that other ministries meet deadlines, reviewing draft legislation and internal regulations to bring them into line with the Constitution; and assuring that new laws comply with international standards and conventions.
A crucial element of the overall reform process is the strong political support accorded to the younger generation. Many talented young officials have been promoted to responsible posts, including as ministers and deputy ministers. In addition, a position of State Adviser on Youth has been added to the President’s Cabinet. The inclusion of the younger generation led the administration to begin to pulse with new ideas. Rigidly bureaucratic modes of official interaction were abandoned as communication began to catch up with worldwide practice.
Further still in January 2017, a package of judicial reforms was introduced. These reforms aimed at ensuring that the judiciary is truly independent; increasing the authority of the courts; and at democratizing and improving the judicial system on the basis of the best national and international practices. Also highlighted, were the objectives of guaranteeing the protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms; improving administrative, criminal, civil and commercial law; fighting crime and advancing crime prevention, including anticorruption measures; and strengthening the rule of law and building public trust in the legal system through communication with the public and media.
A key step in this direction was Mirziyoyev’s handling of the previously all-powerful General Prosecutor’s Office. At a January 2017 meeting with prosecutors, President Mirziyoyev stated that the country needed to establish efficient public control over this body, lest it again be perceived as a repressive and retaliatory institution. Sweeping changes were imposed on the internal structures and personnel of the Procuracy, designed to fundamentally transform what, along with the Ministry of the Interior and the Security Service, had long been the country’s most powerful institution. The newly appointed senior staff at the General Prosecutor’s Office appears clearly devoted to these reforms. The Ministry of Interior underwent similar reforms, including the screening and restructuring of its staff, while the Police Academy is undergoing an internal review as well.
A key area of reform has been the restructuring of legal education. A Presidential decree of April 2017 focused on the Tashkent State University of Law. As a result, the curriculum was updated, teaching methods modernized, and a credit system introduced. The old lecture-based approach was abandoned in favor of experiential learning. The University proceeded to hire many young professionals, some with foreign degrees. Now the University’s ambition is to become the regional hub for legal studies in Central Asia. Along with these reforms, the Supreme Court is preparing to establish an Academy to train judges, candidates for judgeships, and other court personnel.
While the reforms of the past eighteen months have taken exceptional steps forward, much still remains to be done. One example is to devise a stronger role for defense counsels and to develop of a road map on how to strengthen the independence and professional capabilities of lawyers. Prior tight state controls over the licensing of defense counsels long ensured that these officers of the court would remain weak. While ongoing reforms correctly envision the role of defense counsels, little has been done to date to implement the changes that are urgently necessary.
By December 2017, President Mirziyoyev sought to further accelerate the pace of reforms. In a widely distributed speech to a joint session of parliament, he spoke of many areas in need of further reforms. This included the need to reform civil service law, and to delineate the scopes and functions of executive bodies. Another area of focus was to reduce administrative influence on economic life and transition to an economy dominated by market mechanisms. This will include transferring functions from the state to the private sector. Mirziyoyev also emphasized the anti-corruption struggle, and the need to strengthen the role of parliament. He addressed the need to improve mobility and reduce the prevalence of domestic checkpoints. Perhaps most importantly, he directly targeted the National Security Service, decrying its pervasive influence on all sectors of the state and society. Following this, the President retired the highly influential Head of the Security Service (who had been in place for almost two decades) and launched an effort to modernize the Security Services.
While these reforms are a work in progress and many remain at the declarative level, they have already had important implications. For example, the enlivened new leadership transformed Uzbekistan’s previously dull media environment almost overnight. News in Uzbekistan nowadays is meaningful, timely and critical. It is true that media still mask criticism behind quotes from political leaders, but they no longer speak with only one voice. The media has become more timely and trustworthy, with more reporting on international affairs as well. The government claims that it wants the media to be stronger. However, there is still a lack of analytical articles and editorials that critically review the ongoing reform processes around the country. Moreover, the country’s media is yet to incorporate and engage in investigative journalism.
Going forward, the main challenge for President Mirzyoyev’s administration will be to deal with the country’s pervasive culture of corruption, a legacy of the past that for decades has been consuming the country’s resources like a dangerous cancer. New legislation is now in place that provides a solid basis for action. But the real test of the country’s leadership will be to confront the bureaucratic legacy that makes corruption possible.
The leadership’s moves to face down the law enforcement and security apparatuses of the past is positive and courageous. Only in this way can it erase the fear which for so long intimidated the population at large and government officials themselves. The new freedoms that have begun to emerge bring along a strong responsibility to act according to the rule of law as outlined in the Constitution. To get all three branches of the government to act in accordance with newly reformed laws is one of Uzbekistan’s most urgent priorities. But for these reforms to truly take root, it is also important to provide political openings for civil society and the media to engage directly with the process of governing.
The main challenge for President Mirzyoyev’s administration will be to deal with the country’s pervasive culture of corruption, a legacy of the past that for decades has been consuming the country’s resources like a dangerous cancer. New legislation is now in place that provides a solid basis for action. But the real test of the country’s leadership will be to confront the bureaucratic legacy that makes corruption possible. Uzbekistan has criminal networks of its own and is surrounded by international criminal networks that collude with domestic partners. Consequently, any hesitation in implementing the proposed reforms could open space for such groups to continue operating, which would jeopardize the reform process and the country’s entire future.
To get all three branches of the government to act in accordance with newly reformed laws is one of Uzbekistan’s most urgent priorities. But it is also extremely important to provide political openings for civil society and the media to engage directly with the process of governing, for without this no political reforms can survive long. It would therefore, be wise for Uzbekistan to open itself up to international networking in both media and civil society so that the emerging triangular partnership between the government, civil society and the population at large can mature faster and play a stronger role in shaping the country’s future.
The Economic Modernization
Mamuka Tsereteli (Senior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute) in his paper concludes, when Shavkat Mirziyoyev succeeded Islam Karimov as President of Uzbekistan, many observers expected his tenure to represent continuity rather than change. And while continuity is present in terms of the focus on independence and sovereignty of Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev also showed a pro-active desire to improve foreign relations and initiate major economic reforms, designed to strengthen the strategic position of Uzbekistan.[vii]
Mirziyoyev inherited an economic structure left behind by his predecessor, who consistently emphasized that his approach to economic change had been based on gradualism. The Uzbek government was cautious; but it was not opposed to change. Small-scale privatization was quickly implemented after independence, based on an appeal to a tradition of family homes and small businesses.
Governance inefficiency became one of the major societal challenges for growth and development in Uzbekistan, contributing to many illnesses of the Uzbek economy, including unemployment. As a result, several million migrants were forced to move abroad, primarily to Russia, in search of work. By the 2010s, Uzbekistan’s social policies – once a source of pride – were perceived to be deteriorating.
Despite many shortfalls, Uzbekistan by the end of 2016, remained an economically stable country, but with the need to transform in order to meet the challenges it was facing. It was from this position of stability, but also a sense of urgency, that the newly elected president Mirziyoyev started implementing reforms. President Mirziyoyev had a very good idea where to start, since some of these reforms were designed during his tenure as Prime Minister, and they only required political will to be implemented. On October 5, 2016, Mirziyoyev signed the decree “On Additional Measures to Ensure the Accelerated Development of Entrepreneurship, the Full Protection of Private Property, and the Qualitative Improvement of the Business Environment.” This initiative sent a clear signal as to his priorities: an understanding that the private sector will be the key driver for economic growth and job creation in Uzbekistan going forward.
In February 2017, Uzbekistan adopted a 2017-2021 National Development Strategy, which identified five priority areas: 1) Reform of public administration; 2) Reform of the judiciary, strengthening the rule of law and parliamentary reform; 3) Reforms in economic development and liberalization, focusing on modernization of Uzbek agriculture and industry and oriented towards greater competitiveness of the products and services; 4) Social reforms, based on higher incomes and better jobs, oriented on higher quality health care, education, housing etc. 5) Reforms in the security area, focusing on improvements to ensure domestic stability and balanced and constructive foreign policy with the ultimate goal of strengthening the independence and sovereignty of state.
Following this strategy, President Mirziyoyev signaled new directions in both foreign economic relations and domestic economic policy. The areas were well-chosen: the adoption of foreign exchange controls and the high costs of conducting international trade were the two outstanding flaws in the economy.
A most significant reform came in September 2017, when the Central Bank of Uzbekistan reunified Uzbekistan’s exchange rates, and President Mirziyoyev promised freely floating market-determined rates for the future. Simultaneously, restrictions were lifted for legal entities and individuals to convert currency. The currency reform was followed by increased activity in foreign financial markets. This included substantial deals totaling over $1 billion with, among other, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, and the EBRD.
Mirziyoyev’s first year in power saw a flurry of reciprocal foreign visits that enabled the new President to establish relations with leaders of neighboring states and great economic powers. Mirziyoyev’s outreach to Uzbekistan’s neighbors signaled a shift in policies and priorities, and the meetings with Turkmen, Kazakh and Tajik leaders in particular highlighted connectivity, and hence Uzbekistan’s reintegration into a regional economic circle. This has begun to deliver results, including new direct air connections linking Tashkent to Dushanbe and Kabul, greatly facilitating travel, as well as growing trade figures.
Uzbekistan is making progress in reforming governance and public services, taking steps that are having an impact on the lives of ordinary citizens and makes it easier for businesses to operate. As a result of those reforms, the country has moved up to 74th place in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” ranking, from 87th in 2015.
Reform has also reached the cotton sector. The ban on child labor in cotton picking was broadened to include education and health workers, and in September 2017, the government ordered all forced labor to be sent home. Henceforth, wage increases may make cotton-picking more attractive to voluntary labor, while mechanization is also being considered. These reform policies were positively assessed by many international institutions, including the IMF and other International Financial Institutions.
The experience of 2017 is encouraging, but Uzbekistan’s reforms are at an initial stage, and the key issue is how successful the Mirziyoyev administration will be in implementing these systemic reforms. The initial steps have yet to create free pricing and competition in fuel, because the centralized management and pricing system remains in place. This example highlights the multifaceted needs (e.g. enterprise reform and institutional change as well as price liberalization) if market mechanisms are to function well. In general, economic reform rarely yields immediate benefits, and requires some degree of patience.
The timing of Tashkent’s reforms is also auspicious because of the revival of continental trade linking Europe and Asia through Central Asia. Centrally located in the heart of Asia, Uzbekistan could serve as a transit hub for cargos coming from China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Southeast Asian countries. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is providing a major impetus to develop infrastructure in the region. Other regional initiatives also work in Uzbekistan’s favor, including the launching of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, Turkmenistan’s interest in this project, and the Lapis Lazuli corridor linking Central Asia with Afghanistan. With Uzbekistan an engaged participant in these processes, the prospects for the development of continental trade are greatly improved.
In sum, in about 18 months, President Mirziyoyev outlined a very ambitious reform agenda and started to implement it. He undertook a full travel and meeting schedule to restore the country’s international links and, in particular, to repair Uzbekistan’s fractured relations with its Central Asian neighbors. He removed a millstone around Uzbekistan’s economy by unifying the exchange rate and liberalizing access to foreign exchange. Even though it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, these steps appear to have been harbingers of a shift from economic control to greater confidence in market mechanisms. An important signal that Uzbekistan is more open for business would be to complete negotiations for accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). On March 13, 2018, the Government of Uzbekistan hosted representatives of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, USAID and other donor organizations and discussed a detailed 34-point accession plan “Road Map” for Uzbekistan’s entry into WTO, thus demonstrating a clear determination to join the rules-based international trade system.
At the beginning of 2018, the economic signals from Uzbekistan were positive. Especially noteworthy have been the government’s positive approach to regional economic cooperation, international engagement, the currency reform, and the initiation of internal regulatory reforms. The government even appeared to be cutting back regulated pricing, most notably that of gasoline. However, the initial steps in this sensitive area have not created free pricing and competition in fuel because the centralize system of pricing and management remains in place. This simple example highlights the multifaceted issues that must be addressed simultaneously if market mechanisms are to function well. Patience is called for, for such fundamental economic reforms as Uzbekistan has launched rarely yield immediate benefits.
Foreign investments in Uzbekistan more than doubled during 2017. The obstacles that remain along the path to economic transformation are formidable, but this review of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s first year as President of Uzbekistan gives reason for optimism. Many litmus tests can be devised and applied during the coming period. But above all, further progress along the
economic path that Uzbekistan has chosen will depend on strong and honest leadership, the commitment to reform of thousands of officials and private businessmen, and the completeness and accuracy of information available to ordinary citizens about the progress of transformation in their country.
While many questions remain about the future direction of Uzbekistan’s economic reforms, it cannot be denied that significant and even dramatic shifts have already occurred, and that these have in turn energized both the internal process of change and also stimulated the emergence of a new regionalism that has the potential to transform all Central Asia.[viii]
Religion in Uzbekistan
Svante E. Cornell (Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council) and Jacob Zenn (adjunct professor on Violent Non-State Actors in Word Politics at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program) in accordance with the common paper follow the thesis that the interaction between state and religion has been part and parcel of the reform process initiated since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the country’s President in fall 2016.[ix]
Beyond steps to encourage public expressions of religion, Mirziyoyev has announced the creation of several new institutions. This includes an Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, as well as an Islamic Culture Center. In addition, he announced the creation of the Imam Bukhari International Scientific Research Center, headquartered at the Imam Al-Bukhari Academy in Samarkand. Remarkably, this latter initiative will focus equally on religious and secular knowledge.
Among other measures, the government has now removed 95 percent of individuals registered as “religious radicals” from a government list, encouraged the return of religious dissidents to the country, and engaged with international bodies promoting the freedom of religion. In sum, for a quarter century, Uzbekistan adopted a defensive approach in the religious realm, which focused on thwarting radicalization and safeguarding its secular governance. Today, the country’s leadership is confidently presenting an Uzbek model of Islam to the world: a secular state in which the moderate Hanafi tradition of the region is able to flourish.
The longer-term question goes beyond the confines of Uzbekistan or even Central Asia: will this model be relevant to countries in the Islamic heartland? The negative experience of mixing religion and politics across the Muslim world may yet lead to a quest for a better solution to the age-old problem of negotiating the state’s relationship to religion. If Uzbekistan, and its neighbors, succeed in safeguarding secularism while promoting tolerant and traditional religious institutions, other Muslim countries may well take notice. That would carry global significance, and suggests Western states and organizations take an active and constructive role in supporting the ongoing reform process.
State policies toward religion have been among the most sensitive issues in Uzbekistan since independence, and among those that attracted most controversy abroad. This sphere has not been neglected in the wide range of reforms launched since the transition of power of late 2016. Uzbekistan has relaxed some of its restrictions in the religious field, while taking new initiatives on the international scene to promote what it considers to be the tolerant, traditional Central Asian understanding of Islam.
Reforms in the field of religion should not be construed as simply a response to foreign criticism, or as a rejection of the policies of the past. As in the political and economic fields, changes in Uzbekistan have a more evolutionary character. Moreover, the country’s leadership is taking this new approach from a position of strength: no extremist violence has been recorded in the country for over a decade, in contrast to the growing problems of religious extremism in several other Central Asian states.
Following independence, Uzbekistan developed two key institutions to manage religious affairs. One was the Directorate of Muslims of Uzbekistan (O’zbekiston Musulmonlari Idorasi), which is the national successor to the Soviet-era SADUM that covered all of Central Asia. Nominally an independent agency, it is nevertheless closely aligned with the state. A more direct state body tasked with religious affairs is the Committee for Religious Affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers.
During the first decade of independence, Uzbekistan built secular state institutions while simultaneously promoting traditional religious practices and seeking to discourage or prohibit novel and alien ones. Most of all, the government sought to maintain state control over religious processes in the country. This policy affected all religious communities, with the state cooperating with established, traditional Islamic, Christian and Jewish congregations while opposing new imports from abroad.
Uzbekistan’s policies described above did not arise in a vacuum. Quite the contrary, they were the product of the particular challenges and vulnerabilities of the transition to independence – when the fledgling independent state confronted assertive home-grown Salafi groups that had
grown up under the late Soviet state and the rapid rise of foreign extremist proselytizing. In the Ferghana valley, this lawless atmosphere contributed to the rise of Salafi-inspired radical groups, who variously referred to themselves as mujaddidiylar (reformers) or vohhobiylar (Wahhabis). These groups were the product of alien influences and the Soviet policies described above: they
rejected the local folk Islamic practices and sought to impose a literalist practice of Islam, and developed paramilitary formations that challenged – or competed with – racketeering practices with which local authorities were in collusion.
The Ferghana valley had also become a haven for foreign Islamic missionaries from the Gulf, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The government of Uzbekistan was hardly equipped to handle a challenge of this magnitude. With Soviet power collapsing, the republican administration needed to consolidate its control over the functions of government.
When Shavkat Mirziyoyev succeeded President Karimov, the general sense was that Uzbekistan had largely succeeded in managing the spread of extremism. While Uzbekistan’s policies had come under censure in the West and among human rights organizations, no terrorist attacks or religiously motivated violence have taken place in Uzbekistan in over a decade. In fact, building on policies that restricted the operations of religious groups considered non-traditional, Uzbekistan’s government subsequently complemented this essentially defensive policy with an effort to restore the traditionally dominant Hanafi form of Islam in the country. President Mirziyoyev, whose Prime Ministership coincided with the implementation of this approach, would now put greater emphasis on this aspect of governmental policy, while easing restrictions on religious life overall.
President Mirziyoyev has maintained the emphasis on secularism in the field of education, while he has advocated explicitly for “traditional” Islam. Soon after Mirziyoyev took office in 2016, the Cabinet of Ministers passed three decrees related to secular education, while also emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance in a secular society. On July 10, 2017, Mirziyoyev issued a decree on “Establishing the Imam Bukhari International Scientific Research Center.” The decree stated that the mission of the center would be to “study the rich cultural and spiritual heritage, secular and religious knowledge, and to use them in bringing up young generations, and to educate the public about them.
In practice, Mirziyoyev has continued the long-standing policy of focusing on education. Thus, the Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan will serve to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrasahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors.
Another program that Mirziyoyev has inaugurated in order to “fight religious ignorance and promote Islam’s true values” is the establishment of a new organization called the Islamic Culture Center in Tashkent, which Mirziyoyev suggested could be renamed as the “Islamic Civilization Center.” Mirziyoyev said this center would take over the running of Islamic educational establishments in Uzbekistan from the country’s highest Muslim authority, the Directorate of Muslims of Uzbekistan. The center would include two higher Islamic educational institutions – Tashkent Islamic University and the Mir Arab higher education madrasah in Bukhara – and eight Islamic secondary educational institutions in Uzbekistan. In addition, Mirziyoyev said a new museum would be built under the Islamic Culture Center. Mirziyoyev also stated in a speech to Islamic clerics and religious officials in Tashkent on September 1, 2017, that 16,000 of the 17,000 individuals that had been registered as “religious radicals” would be removed from the list. In addition, under Mirziyoyev’s leadership religious dissidents have returned to the country.
Uzbekistan still faces a number of challenges in the realm of religion. The continued existence of Uzbek jihadist groups in Syria and Afghanistan, for example, remains a real challenge. Uzbek jihadists are active not only in foreign wars, but in the online space. In some cases, the jihadists communicate online principally with each other and not with the Uzbek population. It should be noted that Uzbekistan’s policies do not have a direct effect on the hundreds of thousands of labor migrants in Russia. Indeed, current research suggests that the overwhelming majority of Uzbeks recruited to extremist organizations are migrant laborers in Russia without a social safety net there, and not Uzbeks from Uzbekistan itself.
While the threat from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and various other jihadist groups remain the most obvious, if not imminent, threats to secularism in Uzbekistan, there may be other threats under the surface. For a quarter century, Uzbekistan adopted a defensive approach in the religious realm, which focused on thwarting radicalization and safeguarding its secular governance. Today, the country’s leadership is adopting a new approach. It is confidently presenting an Uzbek model of Islam to the world: a secular state in which the moderate Hanafi tradition of the region is able to flourish.
* * *
After two years of power changing in Tashkent, Uzbekistan took the first place among others Central Asian states for the Western authors which are carefully watching the reforms started in this republic. However, the results of these reforms are not predictable. The 25 years experience of Islam Karimov’s ruling confirms this unpredictable factor. Nevertheless, the West already announced its direct and indirect interests connecting with a further development of Uzbekistan, particularly with the relationship toward the great Eurasian powers – Russia and China, as well as Central Asian neighbours. In any case, Uzbekistan enters into a new and interesting phase in its current history. The external observers include their important volume onto describing and discovering of these political processes.
[i] Laruelle M. (ed.) Constructing the Uzbek State. Narratives of Post-Soviet Years. – New York, London: Lexington Books, 2017. – XVI+384 pp.
[ii] See also: Starr S. Frederick, Cornell Svante E. (eds.), Uzbekistan’s New Face. – Lanham (MD), Boulder (CO): Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. – 247 p.
[iii] Weitz Richard. Uzbekistan’s New Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity under New Leadership. – Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2018. – 53 p.
[iv] The Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan is described also in following recent publications: Spaiser O.L. The European Union’s Influence in Central Asia. Geopolitical Challenges and Responses. – New York: Lexington Books, 2018. – XXI+245 pp., and Starr S. Frederick, Cornell Svante E. (eds.) The Long Game on the Silk Road: US and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus. – Lanham (MD), Boulder (CO): Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. – 160 p.
[v] Bowyer Anthony C. Political Reform in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan: Elections, Political Parties and Civil Society. – Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2018. – 69 p.
[vi] Sever Mjuša. Judicial and Governance Reform in Uzbekistan. – Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2018. – 65 p.
[vii] Tsereteli M. The Economic Modernization of Uzbekistan. – Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2018. – 54 p.
[viii] See also: Burghart D.L., Sabonis-Helf T. (eds.) Central Asia in the Era of Sovereignty. The Return of Tamerlane? – New York: Lexington Books, 2018. – XXI+515 pp.
[ix] Cornell Svante E., Zenn Jacob. Religion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan. – Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2018. – 43 p.