The fourth year of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev rule proved his most difficult yet, not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to a series of natural and man-made disasters throughout 2020 that tested the Uzbekistani government’s strength to its limits. Poor-quality engineering and construction works in a number of the government-funded projects as well as the annual onset of crippling energy shortages in winter all challenged President Mirziyoyev’s rhetoric of building a “New Uzbekistan” and “laying the foundations for the Renaissance.”
Like many other countries, Uzbekistan was not prepared for the pandemic’s outbreak in early 2020. Testing kits arrived on March 14 from Russia, and on March 15, the authorities officially identified the country’s first case—an individual who had been among a group of travelers that arrived from France (Gazeta.uz, March 15, 2020).
Many local experts who evaluated the government’s early response to the novel coronavirus agree that it was ultimately the wrong approach. Tashkent initially spent tens of millions of dollars on constructing special quarantine centers for all those arriving from abroad and then kept all those people there at the government’s expense (Podrobno.uz, March 27, 2020). But this strategy quickly exhausted the limited state fund set aside for dealing with the growing health crisis. Later, when those resources began to dwindle, Uzbekistan’s government was forced to radically change its policies and began requiring all those arriving from abroad to stay at a hotel at their own expense. Patients experiencing lighter cases of the disease were instructed to undergo treatment at home instead of being hospitalized (Gazeta.uz, June 22, 2020).
Throughout the pandemic, government-provided health statistics were routinely questioned and methods of counting the fatalities criticized. The authorities’ compiled figures routinely did not match the number of COVID-19-related death reported by independent sources. Yet these discrepancies kept emerging despite the state’s tight control over the information on the pandemic that was being released. And notably, the government eventually stopped publicly touting the official numbers showing supposedly a low percentage of death among the population (Currenttime.tv, November 12, 2020). As of January 27, 2021, the official tally of deaths from COVID-19 in Uzbekistan stood at 621.
On the other hand, by taking necessary measures and shifting the economy to a so-called “pandemic mode,” the government was able to limit the economic damage from the widespread health crisis. Even at the peak of the outbreak, most of Uzbekistan’s large and heavy industries and major construction projects continued to operate (President.uz, December 29, 2020). At present, while many countries are dealing with the winter wave of the pandemic, Uzbekistan has been lifting most of its quarantine restrictions (Afisha.uz, January 26, 2021).
Under President Mirziyoyev, the country has witnessed an unprecedented scale of development projects and infrastructure upgrades. However, poor engineering, low-quality construction, rampant corruption and deficient governmental “quality control” of the implementation of these projects became especially visible in 2020.
In April of last year, a number of provinces were hit by strong wind storms that damaged many newly constructed rural housing projects and buildings constructed under the state’s development programs. Bukhara Region suffered particularly badly from these storms, necessitating the president to travel to and personally inspect the situation in this province. During his meeting with the residents of these ravaged communities, Mirziyoyev admitted that flawed construction was the main reasons for the large-scale destruction. He promised that the government would provide the necessary assistance to rebuild and recover normal life in all those storm-hit areas (Gazeta.uz, April 28, 2020). Despite the embarrassment the catastrophe generated for Mirziyoyev’s administration—undermining trust in government construction programs—industry insiders have told reporters that significant improvement to the poorly built buildings and infrastructure has yet to be observed in the recovering towns (YouTube, January 19, 2021).
Similar shoddy work and catastrophic engineering mistakes led to the bursting of the dam holding back the Sardoba water reservoir, in Uzbekistan’s Sirdaryo Region. The disaster led to the flooding of thousands of hectares of land both in Uzbekistan and neighboring Kazakhstan, damaging people’s houses and destroying crops. The dam took ten years to build before its commissioning in 2017 and cost the country more than $500 million (YouTube, May 9, 2020).
With the advent of the winter, Uzbekistan started experiencing its usual systemic power shortages across the country. In the last four years under President Mirziyoyev, this situation has not significantly improved. According to energy experts, almost 80 percent of Uzbekistan’s domestic natural gas pipelines and electricity transmission lines are outdated and inefficient. As a result, significant portions of its energy resources are being wasted, while millions of Uzbekistanis suffer brownouts and blackouts in winter months (YouTube, December 15, 2020).
Mirziyoyev has rightly been credited with finally abolishing the “propiska system” (a residency restriction that is a holdover from Soviet times) in the capital Tashkent in April 2020. This was achieved by the stroke of a pen and did not require billions of dollars in investments. On the other hand, upgrading the country’s energy sector—and crucially the transmission grid (see above)—will require, by some estimates, around $16 billion and at least 4–5 years to implement. Critics of the government accused it of failing to prioritize the energy sector. While Uzbekistanis expect the authorities to resolve the energy problems now without any delays, the government has instead been devoting precious resources and time to devise plans to construct an expensive nuclear power plant with Russian Rosatom (see EDM, July 10, 2018).
In a significant development, on December 11, Uzbekistan formally gained the status of an observer state within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Russia-led regional economic bloc. However, the Kremlin can now be expected to ramp up coercive measures such as trade restrictions as well as multiply other economic inconveniences in order to pressure Uzbekistan into formally applying for full membership in the EEU (YouTube, December 13, 2020).
At the close of 2021, President Mirziyoyev’s first term in office will be complete and he will face fresh elections. In his annual address to the parliament on December 29, 2020, he instructed Uzbekistan’s Central Election Committee to study international electoral models and best practices and integrate them into the country’s own election laws only if they are found to be suitable for domestic realities (President.uz, December 29, 2020). Most local and international observers, however, argue that during his rule, Mirziyoyev has largely refrained from following through on any meaningful political reforms, only easing rather than dismantling the authoritarian system of government instituted by his predecessor.
That said, Uzbekistan’s population, by and large, is not currently agitating strongly for any sweeping political reforms. Instead, as the past year showed, average residents are more concerned with being able to rely on uninterrupted supplies of electricity and gas during the cold winter, affordable food prices, better health care services, good schools and quality education, as well as new jobs and other day-today considerations to improve their quality of life.