A Year in Review: Uzbekistan Pursues Liberalization at Home, Neighborly Relations Abroad

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 6

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyaev (Source: AFP)

When Uzbekistanis elected Shavkat Mirziyaev as their president on December 4, 2016, they entered 2017 with a healthy dose of skepticism that real change would follow. Indeed, during his first public address as the interim head of state, Mirziyaev, previous president Islam Karimov’s prime minister of 13 years, himself vowed to continue his predecessor’s legacy (Kun.uz, September 9, 2016). However, Mirziyaev soon embarked on undoing the serious missteps of the previous regime in both domestic and foreign realms as well as to sweep the deadwood out of the government system.

Mirziyaev spent most of his efforts in 2017 on shaking up domestic affairs. The bulk of reforms during the past year centered on revitalizing the private sector: the new government is betting on small- and medium-sized businesses becoming the engine of Uzbekistan’s economic development. Specifically, under Mirziyaev’s leadership, Uzbekistan took concrete steps to liberalize its financial and monetary policies—notably, easing currency convertibility and attempting to diminish the government’s heavy regulatory role. Moreover, accommodating the business sector has led to a spillover effect on political liberalization: the government became eager to improve its image abroad and began to address the lingering challenges with conducting business in Uzbekistan. Last year, the new administration even started to respond to social and political issues by releasing political dissidents, pardoning 16,000 individuals whose names were found on a blacklist for allegedly holding extremist religious views. Tashkent even invited the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid al-Hussein to evaluate the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.

The myriad changes followed from approximately 1,000 documents Mirziyaev signed in 2017 (Kun.uz, December 14, 2017). Yet, the most significant undertaking in Uzbekistan last year may have been the process of narrowing the distance between government officials and the people they serve. Indeed, not coincidentally, 2017 was named the “Year of Dialogue with People and People’s Interests.” Mirziyaev’s maxim, heard in every one of his public addresses last year, was ordering his officials to serve the population and receive people’s blessings (rozi qilmoq). On the whole, Uzbekistanis will likely remember 2017 as the year hopes for change were reignited—particularly, the hope that pervasive issues such as insufficient government services and corruption may finally be addressed.

In foreign affairs, the new administration worked rapidly to shake up the previous regime’s decades-long deteriorating relations with neighbors and to reconnect with the wider international community. Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country whose ethnic-majority population constitutes a sizeable minority in all neighboring states that surround it—ethnic Uzbeks make up important communities in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Accordingly, for this and other practical reasons, Tashkent focused last year on improving relations with each of its immediate neighbors (see EDM, April 24, 2017; May 3, 2017; June 27, 2017; September 18, 2017; December 13, 2017). As a result, Uzbekistan reached major rapprochements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—countries with which Tashkent heretofore has had the tensest relations. Border demarcation and delimitation, launching new air flights, transportation, communications, and economic cooperation were all at the center of discussions with these neighboring Central Asian republics.

Pragmatism has tended to guide Uzbekistan’s approach to dealing with foreign powers outside the region. And Mirziyaev’s administration continued this policy in 2017, specifically seeking to make Uzbekistan more economically relevant to both its immediate neighbors and other countries in order to expand investment and trade opportunities. For example, Uzbekistan reengaged in 2017 with South Korea on information technology, motor vehicle production and medical education; with Turkey on manufacturing and tourism development; with Russia on increasing exports of agricultural products; and with China on developing its oil and natural gas sector as well as receiving additional loans. Two criteria guided these foreign engagements for Tashkent: first, a desire to maintain friendly neighborly relations, in particular with immediate neighbors, and second, interest in what economic benefits this cooperation would bring Uzbekistan.

Looking onward to 2018, domestically the leadership can be expected to continue attempts to unleash a true market economy with entrepreneurship and small business at its center. The new administration counts on small- and medium-size businesses rather than large enterprises to propel the country’s economy. Consequently, the government will, by all indications, continue shaping its reforms to help the private sector grow by adopting further private-sector reforms and creating a favorable investment climate.

In domestic affairs, 2018 will also probably be marked by the current presidential administration’s continuous internal strife with its officials. In his speeches, Mirziyaev advocates for government officials to shake up their sense of dependency and develop the entrepreneurial instinct. However, his officials, themselves mostly the products of an authoritarian system, struggle to live up to the new president’s aspirations. Accordingly, in 2018, government officials can be expected to continue cycling in and out of their positions. But because of the current atmosphere of growing political openness, their faces will be increasingly recognizable to people watching them on television.

Uzbekistan’s foreign policy in 2018 will be driven by the economic partnerships and economic opportunities other countries can offer. Tashkent will likely continue its non-alignment policy but will almost certainly leave itself open to anyone able to help Uzbekistan pursue its reforms. Tashkent’s foreign relations will probably continue to stress bilateral (rather than multilateral) links. The long-planned construction of the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railroad and other regional transportation projects (see EDM, October 16, 2017; November 17, 2017) will likely persist near the top of the government’s foreign agenda.

Overall, 2017 was shaped by momentous changes in Uzbekistan’s domestic and foreign policy spheres—the likes of which, the country has not experienced in a long time. However, it would be premature to conclude that Uzbekistanis fully trust that these transformations promised by the new administration are now unstoppable. Uzbekistan’s uneasy first 25 years of limited development and unrealized promises have imparted a sense of skepticism among both locals and foreigners when it comes to deep reforms. Such sentiment will only be dispelled through persistent and systemic government actions. That is exactly what everybody will be expecting in 2018.