Uzbekistan in the Starting Blocks
AP Photo/Anvar Ilyasov
Uzbekistan in the Starting Blocks
AP Photo/Anvar Ilyasov
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Uzbekistan gained independence in September 1991, but it finally entered the post-Soviet era on December 4, 2016 with the election as president of longtime Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Mirziyoyev is no upstart. He spent 13 years as prime minister, and in his new role he is moving quickly to address long-standing issues such as border and water disputes with surrounding countries, currency convertibility, and human rights.

Islam Karimov had held power since the fall of the Soviet Union. His death in August 2016 was not immediately announced, allowing time for power-transition negotiations, which circumvented the Constitution when the designated successor, the Chairman of the Senate, declined the office because of his lack of experience. Mirziyoyev was then named acting president by the parliament and chaired the committee organizing Karimov’s funeral -- a clear signal he would be elevated to the highest office.

The transition negotiations were a domestic iteration of what will likely be a policy of balancing actors inside and outside the country. Mirziyoyev quickly sidelined a competitor -- Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, whom the West had favored -- but as his leadership plays out, he must ensure that regional clans, prominent businessmen, and the National Security Service are onboard with his policies and personnel changes.

Balancing act

Externally, Mirziyoyev will have to contend with Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union (EU), as well as the Western media and non-governmental organizations.

-Russian President Vladimir Putin will want Mirziyoyev to grow Uzbekistan’s economy while keeping pressure on extremist elements that could migrate to Russia from Afghanistan or Uzbekistan. A growing economy at home will be attractive to the 1.9 million Uzbek guest workers in Russia; their departure would help dilute Russia’s anti-immigrant sentiment. Along with economic liberalization, foreign direct investment is needed to spur growth, so Russia committed to $12 billion of investments (including continuing efforts by national champions such as Lukoil) and trade agreements worth $3.8 billion during April meetings in Moscow between Putin and Mirziyoyev. Russia and Uzbekistan have agreed to military exercises with an eye to countering threats emanating in Afghanistan, though Tashkent will likely hew to its policy of avoiding a formal military alliance with Moscow.

- China’s interest in Central Asia is as a trade space. Beijing values the region’s potential to host numerous routes of the Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to connect China with Africa and Eurasia by land and by sea. China is a longtime investor in Uzbek infrastructure and recently agreed to another $20 billion-worth of projects. China’s interests will be a stable investment climate and securing Uzbekistan’s help in countering Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants in the western province of Xinjiang.

-Immediately after the 9-11 attacks, Uzbekistan made its bases available to the United States for military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, and in March 2002 the countries signed the Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework. In 2005, after a controversial episode in Andijan when Uzbek troops fired into a crowd of protesters, Uzbekistan responded to mixed signals from Washington by ordering U.S. troops to evacuate an airbase they had used since 2002; the U.S. made no serious countermoves. In 2009, Uzbekistan’s rail system was made part of the Northern Distribution Network, which developed to supply coalition forces in Afghanistan, and within two years 40 percent of all Afghanistan-bound traffic passed through the country. 

In 2017, Mirziyoyev is in a position help a new American president with his own struggle in Afghanistan, proving that a double-landlocked country can be lucky more than once. Mirziyoyev’s cooperation coupled with Trump's principled realism may give Mirziyoyev the political space he needs to grow the economy, while the United States would get an alternative to the unreliable supply lines to Afghanistan that run through Pakistan.

-The EU will likely focus almost exclusively on human rights issues. With the United States doing the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, Washington will make the necessary compromises with Tashkent, while the EU will seek to shape Mirziyoyev's tenure by moral pressure. This focus will conflict with the imperatives of Russia, China, and the United States and will give Uzbekistan room to maneuver (slightly) among the players. In early 2017, Uzbekistan said it notified “one of our Western partners” about an Uzbek national who later carried out an attack in Sweden that killed four people. Tashkent’s message to EU was clear enough: Lets grow the relationship beyond concerns about child labor and secret police.

-The media and their partner non-governmental organizations will want to re-establish a presence in Uzbekistan and pressure the new administration to reform. Mirziyoyev acknowledged their interest by meeting with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, in May and welcoming the U.N. Development Program to Tashkent in August. The government is considering the return of the BBC; Human Rights Watch representatives recently visited the country after an absence of several years; and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has resumed lending to the country.

Regional priorities

President Mirziyoyev’s early moves are signaling friendly relations with neighboring countries and more individual liberty at home. 

-Borders and water. Mirziyoyev has moved quickly on this front, securing a border agreement with Kyrgyzstan on border demarcation and a long-disputed hydropower plant on the Naryz River -- even agreeing to help build the plant. This was probably his most important early visit. 

Kyrgyzstan has the most substantial water resources in Central Asia, and Mirziyoyev will need to address water availability for Uzbekistan’s cotton monoculture as he attempts to diversify the country’s agricultural sector and make it less reliant on thirsty cotton. An immediate result was the reopening of the Dostuk border crossing in the important Fergana Valley and the government’s announcement that no document other than a passport is required to cross the border. Mirziyoyev made several visits to Kazakhstan to discuss reopening border crossings and the potential for a high-speed passenger train link between Almaty and Tashkent. The Uzbek embassy moved from Almaty to the new capital city of Astana, and a recent bilateral military agreement is meant to enable greater coordination in training and in the fight against extremism. Mirziyoyev’s first foreign visit as President was to Turkmenistan, and though no economic agreements resulted it was symbolic in that he eschewed a sprint to Moscow or Beijing immediately after taking office.

Uzbekistan’s animus towards Tajikistan stems from concerns that the Rogun hydropower dam in that country would hurt Uzbekistan’s cotton crop. Uzbekistan’s more recent comments regarding the dam have morphed from Karimov’s threats to technical recitations of the interests of all parties – a signal of an interest in expert negotiations leading to an agreement by the heads of state. Commercial air links were re-established in April and trade is increasing.

Mirziyoyev is likely moving to resolve the border disputes now so Tashkent can focus on the economy later, though the border agreements will also facilitate regional trade. As a further benefit of regional diplomacy, quiet borders in Central Asia would leave Russia and China less room to meddle.

-Cotton and child labor. If anything in Uzbekistan earned the world’s attention it was the all-hands effort to harvest the cotton crop, especially as many of those hands were children’s. Mirziyoyev effectively banned child labor in 2012, and he recently ordered teachers and healthcare workers out of the fields. Further progress along these lines would help Uzbek cotton find a wider market and a better price as it won’t be subject to boycotts. It would also give the cotton sector an opportunity to further mechanize, though the government will have to mitigate the impact on cotton pickers and vulnerable private farmers.

-Foreign exchange and currency convertibility. If you ever wondered why some Uzbek businessmen have foreign addresses, here’s why: an inconvertible currency, and little access to foreign exchange in the country. In July, the government eliminated mandatory foreign exchange sales that required exporters to convert 25 percent of their foreign currency revenues into the Uzbek Som. Uzbek citizens can now buy and sell foreign currency at banks and currency sellers. These measures are meant to ease commerce and reduce opportunities for corruption, though the speed at which the change was introduced surprised the financial sector. The government also notified the International Monetary Fund of plans to “frontload reforms of the foreign exchange system” and to allow “a limited number of banks and companies to trade foreign currency at the market rate”. 

-Security black lists. The government has started to remove people from security “blacklists” of Muslim extremists and has asked local imams to maintain regular contact with them. Sixteen-thousand of the 17,000 names on the list of extremists have been cleared, and Mirziyoyev has addressed their reintegration by declaring, “Now we have to bring them into our society and educate them.” The two-pronged approach to that task involves finding them a job and a dialogue with an imam. The security service can focus on the real bad guys, but there’s a catch: the country won’t brook any failures now that their workload has been cut by 90 percent. - Exit visas. The government announced that exit visas will be eliminated in 2019, which will increase Uzbeks’ economic mobility and personal liberty, along with reducing opportunities for graft. Open border crossings such as Dostuk in the Fergana Valley and Maktaaral in Kazakhstan will facilitate family visits and expanded trade.

The government hasn’t announced a formal anti-corruption campaign but steps such as eliminating exit visas and blunting the currency black market will diminish public corruption. That said, anti-corruption and transparency should be the underpinning of all policy initiatives to quickly reduce the country’s dismal ranking in the corruption league tables.

Uzbekistan needs to address two human rights issues, one old and one new.

-Andijan. In May 2005, Uzbekistan was accused of killing high numbers of peaceful protesters in the city of Andijan after attacks on police and military facilities and the murder of hostages by an armed Islamist group. Sanctions were imposed on Uzbekistan by the EU, which banned responsible Uzbek officials from Europe and embargoed exports of arms and military equipment. The United States finally settled on some additional limits to pre-existing Congressional bans on assistance unless the Secretary of State waived the sanctions if the country made progress in human rights. Since then, Uzbekistan has continued to receive six-month waivers and a limited amount of financial assistance. The EU removed all sanctions by 2009, citing positive trends in human rights.

The issue is a hardy perennial and occupies a lot of diplomatic bandwidth while the families of the dead wait for answers. When it’s all said and done the answers for the shootings are likely to be poorly trained troops and bad command and control, which won’t please every observer, but an internally credible process will enhance the government’s reform campaign. 

-Religious freedom. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recently named Uzbekistan a Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern. The Commission reported the Uzbek government severely limits the rights of all religious groups, attempts to control religious activity, and censors religious materials. The Commission was rebutted by Central Asia scholars who pointed out that Uzbekistan’s rules “help protect secular Muslims, women, and minorities, from religious coercion” and that its recommendations will punish a country that observes strict separation of church and state, has refused to designate Islam as a formal state religion, and maintains secular laws and courts. (This contrasts Uzbekistan with major non-NATO allies of the United States such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.) Uzbekistan must meet this head-on as the Commission’s recommendations resonate with many members of Congress, which may result in calls for sanctions that will blunt economic expansion and security cooperation with the United States.

What might the future look like?

-Uzbekistan may take advantage of America’s renewed interest in Afghanistan. It can offer the Washington transit and operating facilities in the country and leverage its relationships with ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan. It will draw closer to the United States, but will stop well short of anything that might send the Russians around the bend.

-Tashkent will seek to leave behind its reputation as Central Asia’s “spoiler” and assume a leadership role due to its borders with all the other Central Asian states and the size of its economy and population. This will happen in part simply because Mirziyoyev is not Karimov, but also because continuing Russian and Chinese involvement in the region will require an all-hands effort to avoid divide-and-conquer tactics by Moscow and Beijing. Central Asia will look to distant balancers such as the United States, India, Turkey, and South Korea as political and economic partners.

-The Central Asian states would do well to decide they are stronger when they cooperate to face the outside world. They have been independent for a generation – the first time they haven’t been part of an empire in almost two centuries. But their shared culture and the borders the Soviets devised to ensure control, for example splitting the Fergana Valley among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, scattered the ethnic communities across the landscape, so today’s leaders find that their concerns don’t stop at the border. 

At the United Nations, Mirziyoyev said “Uzbekistan considers the region of Central Asia to be as the main priority of its foreign policy” and pointed to goals of “stability, sustainable development and good-neighborliness.” Central Asia was at the heart of the Silk Road, the epicenter of the first real wave of “globalization,” so Uzbekistan’s leadership transition may be the final event that allows the region to escape the occlusion it entered within the Russian and Soviet empires. An early cooperative effort along that track is the facilitation of Turkmen electricity exports to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan via Uzbek territory. This reversed a 15-year decoupling trend on the Soviet-era Central Asian unified electricity grid. It was low-hanging fruit, but establishing a habit of cooperation will help the region when its members confront bigger challenges.

The region is a natural host for the East-West routes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s persistent attempts to secure a North-South route to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The location between Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran ensures ready markets for competitively priced goods, and Uzbekistan has transport facilities it can leverage now, such as the Korean Air hub at Navoi, Uzbekistan, and a rail link into Afghanistan. (The Uzbek state railway company built what is basically an extension of the Uzbek rail system 75 kilometers into Afghanistan, to Mazar-i-Sharif.) Should Afghanistan stay unsettled into the medium term, the Central Asian states can explore a rail end-run to Iran’s markets via Turkmenistan.

As they say, it all depends on the “tone at the top” and things between the Kazakh and Uzbek leaders have been very chummy. During Mirziyoyev’s March visit to Kazakhstan, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called Uzbekistan “our strategic partner, neighbor and brotherly country.” Though Nazarbayev is likely very happy he outlasted Karimov, the foundation of his own national project will be strengthened by fraternal and respectful relations between the two largest countries in the region. This collaborative approach will strengthen Central Asia against the Type-A suitors it attracts and position it as a new generation of business and government leaders prepare to take charge.

Expectations are high in Tashkent and the region. President Mirziyoyev must execute smartly and inspire his countrymen to lay the foundation for higher living standards and a dignified life for all Uzbeks.