On October 15, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Uzbekistan formally permitted all five state-created and state-funded political parties to run in the upcoming general elections, scheduled for December 22 (Elections.uz, October 15). Hopes that genuine opposition parties or change-driven independent candidates inside the country could be allowed to contest proved unwarranted, despite official pronouncements about further political liberalization and the empowerment of the 150-seat parliament (Center1.com, August 27).
While not shying away from bold economic reforms, the Uzbekistani government remains cautious about making changes to the political system inherited from the past. Attempts by some popular and charismatic young leaders potentially capable of securing wins to contest in the upcoming elections by joining any one of the five political parties were effectively neutralized, thus showing that the system was not welcoming to new personalities from the “outside,” except those invited by the authorities themselves (Kun.uz, September 4).
Aziza Umarova, the British-educated CEO of the Smartgov Consulting Company, had initially entertained the idea of standing in the elections by joining the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan; but she eventually grew disheartened and gave up due to the “the lack of transparency in selecting the party candidates for the upcoming elections.” Umarova complained that her party completely ignored her candidacy. As such, she does not see any serious changes in the system, even when compared to previous elections (Podrobno.uz, September 4). Her case is surely not unique (BBC Uzbek Service, September 10).
If Aziza Umarova was an “outsider” and her lack of political success was somehow to be expected, rumors that the same Liberal Democratic Party was considering shedding its most prominent member of parliament, Rasul Kusherbaev, caught many by surprise. Kusherbaev, known among other things for his vocal criticism of how the government’s affordable housing projects are being implemented in Tashkent, has won the respect of many people and become a social media superstar. But in the process, he has also made powerful enemies among influential officials (YouTube, September 21).
One of Kusherbaev’s “faults” was his exposure of various corruption schemes in the Tashkent affordable housing projects program, which led to such high price increases that these residential units have become out of reach for the very low-income groups they were initially being built for. The fact that Kusherbaev is still with the Liberal Democratic Party and attending its public rallies is perhaps the result of the public pressure coming from various Facebook campaigns supporting him (Gazeta.uz, August 9).
Despite these cases of rigidity in the political system, some significant progress has been made in terms of the issues raised and discussed by the political factions ahead of the elections. One of the hot topics in these elections is the debate over Uzbekistan’s possible membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a Russian geopolitical project to cement Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet space (Cabar.asia, October 18).
While the Uzbekistani government has so far stayed noncommittal, offering only carefully worded statements that it is weighing all the pro and cons of joining the EEU (Gazeta.uz October 4), Alisher Qodirov, the chair of the second-largest National Revival Democratic Party, has openly argued against membership in the Russian-dominated union. In Qodirov’s words, the “Eurasian Union constitutes an effort by the Kremlin to revive the former Soviet Union; thus, membership in this union might impose limitations on Uzbekistan’s sovereignty” (Ferghana.agency, October 11). On the other hand, the ruling Liberal Democrat parliamentarians have all been in favor of joining the EEU, while the other three political parties—the Social Democratic Justice Party, People’s Democratic Party and the Ecological Party—so far have either stayed neutral or refrained from making any categorical comments on the subject (Podrobno.uz, October 11).
This does not mean, however, that even if Qodirov’s National Revival Democratic Party wins the upcoming elections, it will be able to stop the government from joining the EEU. After all, the executive branch continues to hold overwhelming supremacy over the legislative branch, while the system suffers from a near-absence of checks and balances.
Besides the EEU debate, the campaigning parties are also daring to touch on previously taboo issues like putting an end to the Soviet-inherited “propiska” system, which discriminates against citizens based on their place of birth and violates their basic constitutional rights, such as freedom of movement and the right to own property on equal terms with other countrymen. All parties agree that this much-despised Soviet practice needs to be abolished, but they admit that there is little they can do without the government’s consent (Gazeta.uz, December 8, 2018).
The political parties’ willingness to discuss acute socio-political and foreign policy issues without waiting for the president to first voice his opinions marks a significant change over how such topics were approached in the public sphere before. As such, Uzbekistan’s political parties are seemingly inching away from being mere attributes and decorations to create at least the veneer of Western-style democracy.
These changes—no matter how minuscule they may appear—arguably represent a serious improvement over the country’s previous, tightly controlled elections, which lacked genuine debate (Podrobno.uz, August 30). Even so, the overall inflexibility of the existing system still does not allow for the natural incorporation of fresh faces from outside the system, thus leaving it closed to and lagging behind the real changes happening in the society. For comparison, to stay relevant, even the Chinese Communist Party has long ago opened its doors to successful businessmen and other progressive individuals who do not necessarily subscribe to various Communist orthodoxies.
Unless there is a shift toward greater political openness, the existing rigid political system will increasingly become a straightjacket for the country even as it attempts to reopen itself to the outside world and modernize and reform its economy. Similar to recent developments in Russia (see EDM, May 31, July 29), Uzbekistan’s young generations frustrated with the lack of change might find courage to challenge the system and test the government’s democratic pretenses to their limits—if not today, certainly in the future.