Will Mirziyaev Initiate Long-Awaited Reforms in Uzbekistan?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 158

Uzbeksitan's interim president Shavkat Mirziyaev (Source: AP)

With Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev settling into Uzbekistan’s top spot as interim head of state following the death of President Islam Karimov (see EDM, September 8), questions have been mounting about the new leader’s background and what Mirziyaev-era Uzbekistan will look like. According to forecasts, he is almost certain to win the upcoming December presidential elections. But once in power, will Mirziyaev maintain the iron-fist policies pursued by the late Karimov, or will he bring about long-awaited reforms and finally address some of the country’s chronic issues, ranging from inadequate utility services to fighting corruption? Analyzing Mirziyaev’s first two weeks in office (September 8–24) as the interim president may help outline the emerging direction his leadership is headed.

Immediately after taking over as Uzbekistan’s interim president, most experts assumed Prime Minister Mirziyaev would follow the line drawn by Karimov. Indeed, in his first public address in his new role, Mirziyaev assured he would continue Karimov’s policies (Kun.uz, September 9). Moreover, Rustam Azimov, the finance minister and so-called “second front-runner” for the leadership of Uzbekistan, called the prime minister the political son and heir of the late Karimov (BBC—Uzbek Service, September 14). And yet, the steps Mirziyaev has taken to restructure and reshuffle the ministries, as well as some of the laws he signed and decrees he made so far, indicate that the new leader may not fully agree with all of Karimov’s political legacy. Mirziyaev seems to have his own vision for the government, apart from what he inherited (Gazeta.uz, September 14).

A policy divergence was clear within the first days of Mirziyaev’s interim presidency, when he undertook a reshuffling of government agencies and started filling them with individuals close to him. He spared some well-known government officials, such as Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and National Security Service head Rustam Inoyatov, either because they are valuable members of his government or simply because he is not yet able to make a move against them. But he restored two officials to their previous positions: Abdulla Aripov returned as Minister of Youth, Culture and Information after having been demoted in 2012, and Samoydin Huseynov was again named governor of Bukhara province, a position he previously held for 15 years before being dismissed by Karimov in 2011. Both men were originally sacked for alleged corruption (Uzreport, September 14; Kun.uz, September 22). It is unclear whether their reinstatement by Mirziyaev was meant to imply a restoration of justice to those individuals, or whether the interim president was simply bringing in people he believes would be loyal to him.

Another noteworthy point is that from the outset, Mirziyaev has been focusing on domestic issues—an area of policy he is most intimately familiar with, since this was what he worked on all of his professional life under Karimov. He has instead largely left Uzbekistan’s international relations to Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, who represented Uzbekistan at the recent Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) heads of states summit (September 16–17) as well as at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, which opened on September 13 (Uzreport, September 17; Kun.uz, September 19). Meanwhile Mirziyaev was able to focus on domestic matters by visiting several regions of Uzbekistan. Specifically, he signed various decrees on developing domestic infrastructure (new metro stations and a road in Tashkent), on a roadmap to develop the Tashkent region (a long-neglected part of the country), and on a cadre reshuffle within government-owned companies (Kun.uz, September 20; Uzreport, September 20; Kun.uz, September 23).

According to the six priorities outlined by Mirziyaev, his administration will mainly focus on economic issues (Kun.uz, September 9). Those priorities include macroeconomic stability encompassing national currency stabilization, a strong banking system, a reduction in external borrowing, an increase in exports, support for small- and medium-sized businesses, job creation, as well as international communication and road infrastructure. Indeed, during the first two weeks of Mirziyaev’s time in office, a special agreement was signed to revamp trade with Kazakhstan after a special delegation from Astana, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Asqar Mamin, held meetings with the interim Uzbekistani president (Kun.uz, September 23). Mirziyaev also issued a decree to reduce (from 50 percent to 25 percent) the requirement to sell foreign currency earned from the export of agricultural products (BBC—Uzbek Service, September 20).

The changes initiated by Mirziyaev in September are beginning to address several issues long neglected by Karimov. But the underlying question is whether any major long-awaited reforms will follow. Will the new members of Mirziyaev’s team emerge as champions of reform, or were they put in place simply to ensure loyalty to him? At the end of his second week in office, Mirziyaev launched a “virtual reception”—a page on his government website where regular Uzbekistanis can submit online complaints and suggestions. This is an indisputably modern and, at the same time, bold move—particularly given how little interest the late Karimov publicly showed in the real domestic situation of the country (BBC—Uzbek Service, September 8, 27). Due to Karimov’s insulated and inward-looking governing style, after 25 years of independence Uzbekistan has become a country in which top officials and ordinary people rarely interact. It now remains to be seen whether Mirziyaev’s “virtual reception” can be a first step toward mending and restoring communication between the people and their government in order to appropriately address Uzbekistan’s biggest problems.

Any transition period usually raises more questions than answers, and in a politically closed country like Uzbekistan compelling answers are in even shorter supply. Two weeks in office is a short period on which to base, with any certainty, predictions for where Uzbekistan is headed. But clearly, no two leaders rule their country in exactly the same way. Mirziyaev’s policies could certainly be designed to maintain the political balance put in place by the late Karimov. Yet, some of his preliminary actions point to cautious attempts at economic reforms and perhaps even a new direction for the country. The question is whether or not he will be willing to keep this momentum going.