The ascension of Uzbekistan’s new ruler, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has placed the country at a crossroads. Down one path lies continuing oppression and authoritarianism, while down the other lies potential prosperity and regional influence. Having now been in power for a year, Mirziyoyev must now carefully weigh the nation’s options and carefully balance the demands of a reforming economy with the security threats posed by radical Islam and a new Great Game taking place among the great world powers across Central Asia.
One year ago, on 2nd September 2016, Islam Karimov was declared dead following a stroke three days prior. He was the first—and until that point, the only—president of Uzbekistan. One of many authoritarian rulers in Central Asia since independence in 1991, Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist, suppressing the opposition, restricting human rights and press freedom, and imposing restrictions on religious groups to the extreme extent that men were even forbidden to wear beards. He pursued an isolationist foreign policy based on suspicion of great powers seeking to gain influence in the region.
An isolationist policy is not the easiest thing to accomplish; Karimov himself was born in Samarqand, one of the great Silk Road cities at the midpoint between Beijing and Constantinople. Centuries later, where once Britain and Russia played the Great Game, jockeying for influence in Central Asia, now the same game is being played between China, Russia, and the United States. Karimov was more than happy to play off these three sides against each other. Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but has kept out of the Eurasian Economic Union, and is currently not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, after being a member twice, in 1994–1999 and 2006–2012. Shared hostility to radical Islam helped establish the United States as an ally following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, but American and European sanctions on Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre in 2005 led to Karimov expelling U.S. forces from the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base 250 kilometers from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.
Much of the blame for Central Asia’s problems falls on Josef Stalin, drawing lines through the Soviet Union’s newly conquered lands and forming borders in a region which had never known them. What became the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic had previously been home to more than ninety ethnic groups living a nomadic lifestyle which hardly changed when the borders were drawn in Moscow. It was during Karimov’s presidency that an independent Uzbek identity started to coalesce and the new borders started to pose problems.
The most notable dispute emerged in the fertile and diverse Fergana Valley, a region shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The valley is a stronghold of religious conservatism, and reacted harshly when Karimov legislated the secularization of the country and closed the borders with Kyrgyzstan in 2003. This eventually led to the unrest in 2005 in Andijan, two months after the Tulip Revolution across the border in Kyrgyzstan. By ordering the massacre in Andijan, Karimov made it clear that he would tolerate no opposition and no instability in Uzbekistan, blaming Islamists and unnamed Western interests for orchestrating a coup against him.
Perhaps ironically, the repressive government then helped create a country safe for foreign tourists; many visitors to the country looking to explore an exotic corner of the world have provided an estimated $29 billion to the Uzbek economy in 2016 alone. And so, Uzbekistan carried on, maintaining its other major industry; cotton. This is a particularly thirsty crop in a region predicted to host one of the world’s first water wars.
As is the case in any authoritarian state, the death of the sovereign is an event which causes analysts to raise their eyebrows and imagine something different. Karimov’s death was no different. Shavkat Mirziyoyev became acting President not long after Karimov’s death was announced, and was “elected” formally in December, passing over Karimov’s daughter Gulnara who had been groomed for leadership but placed under house arrest in 2014 on charges of corruption. Mirziyoyev had been the Prime Minister since 2003, and had been governor of Samarqand region before that, and thus was a familiar part of Karimov’s inner circle.
Given the authoritiarian nature of the state, there were strong doubts that any new leader would provide much in the way of real change in Uzbekistan. Central Asia analyst, Daniil Kislov, remarked that the party apparatus would ensure that nothing significant would change. Considered to have an iron-fist management style identical to Karimov’s, Mirziyoyev pledged to “strengthen the security of the state”, though that may have been meant as a warning to Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both terrorist groups with connections to al Qaeda.
Despite Karimov’s isolationist policies, Uzbekistan has been labelled by The Nixon Center as the main ideological battlefield in Central Asia; if an Islamist regime were to take control in Tashkent then consequences would not be isolated within Uzbekistan. In that regard, although Uzbekistan has been criticized for violations of basic freedoms, the authoritarian state acts as a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam, and it is thus in the interests of China, Russia, and the United States to support the state against the possibility of a spillover of Islamism from Afghanistan.
In his speech to the nation, Mirziyoyev made his priorities clear: alongside security he wants to stimulate Uzbekistan’s economy. In 2016 the IMF reported that Uzbekistan’s GDP growth had fallen to its lowest mark in a decade. The fact that growth was “only” 5% shows the strength of the Uzbek economy in spite of its repression. From 2008–2015, growth was never below 8%, a remarkable surge but due for inevitable decline, which finally happened as the effects of the recession in Russia reached Central Asia. Remittances from Russia also reached their lowest point since 2009.
The recession hit Uzbekistan hard, but Mirziyoyev’s government soon created a fiscal plan based around six priority areas: improving financial stability, expanding metals and food processing, increasing export potential, helping small businesses, creating one million jobs in 2017, and investing in infrastructure. The IMF has lent is support to these policies, and is ready to provide the requisite advice and cooperation to support the reforms. The World Bank is also active in the country, having discussed a strategy with Karimov prior to his death on how to achieve the goal of upper middle income status by 2030. The involvement of both organizations in Uzbekistan is a welcome sign of a shift towards modernization and economic liberalization.
Mirziyoyev has also shown a willingness to move away from the isolationist policies of Karimov. Relations with Russia may well improve; related by marriage to Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-Russian ally of Putin. Mirziyoyev has, however, pledged to maintain the sovereignty of the nation, meaning no new or renewed participation in multilateral organizations such as the EEU and no foreign military bases on Uzbek soil. Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism may force the president’s hand and convince him of the value of cooperation and collaboration with Russia, and potentially with China as well, though Tashkent still appears to be of the opinion that Uzbek participation in multilateral organizations would be more beneficial to the great powers around them than for Uzbekistan itself, as well as with the other Central Asian states. Restoration of relations with Tajikistan and renewal of transport links have also provided reason for optimism, while border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan are slowly moving towards peaceful resolution.
The nation’s foreign policy is also showing a new dynamism, as Mirziyoyev has made eight foreign visits in his first year alone, including to Moscow, Beijing, and Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia, he was reported by the Uzbek media to have impressed Donald Trump over his economic reforms, but in American media this fact was ignored if noticed at all. All the same, the visits are bearing fruit, leading to investments of $1 billion from Kazakhstan and $12 billion from Russia. Perhaps less lucrative but more impressive, Mirziyoyev and Turkmen president Berdimuhamedov signed documents on the strategic partnership of their two nations, cooperation in economic, agricultural, and cultural spheres, showing that even highly isolated Turkmenistan is being pulled into the new Uzbek foreign policy. The combination of economic reforms and foreign investment could well accomplish the goal of raising Uzbek GDP growth back to the 8% that had been standard prior to the Russian recession. The country also has substantial reserves of gold and foreign currency, worth about $20 billion, which will enable the country to reform its foreign exchange system. This system is in dire need of reform; in 2016 one dollar bought two times more Uzbek Som on the black market than in official banks, creating a sizeable shadow economy which will need to be brought under control in order to properly reform the economy.
Despite the continuing policy of restrictions on civil freedoms, the steps toward economic liberalization suggest that in time, Uzbekistan could possess a vibrant modern economy and ultimately open up to political liberalization in the same way that Chile has now become one of South America’s success stories, with the highest GDP (PPP) on the continent. It is far too early to say that Uzbekistan can become the Central Asian equivalent of Chile, but Mirziyoyev’s policies are the right start. Economic liberalization can foster the kind of environment which will lead to a strong middle class, and a strong middle class can demand the political and civil freedoms that are currently denied them. More economic opportunities can also help mitigate the risk of Islamic terrorism, giving young men the chance to earn money and build a future instead of radicalizing. More critically, Uzbekistan’s position at the core of Central Asia means that the region automatically revolves around Tashkent. If liberalization succeeds in opening up and developing the Uzbek economy and society while expanding trade and relations with its neighbors, then it could create spillover effects across the region in a way that Kyrgyzstan’s liberalization was unable to accomplish.
For Mirziyoyev’s moves to succeed, Uzbekistan will need foreign investment and support over the long-term. This is likely to come from the states participating in the new Great Game: China, Russia, and the United States. All three are involved in the region to varying degrees: Chinese investment, Russian hegemony, and American military power all have their roles to play in a region which has always been the plaything of empires. Any of these states wishing to play a role in the development of Central Asia needs to play its hand now; for the United States it is critical to foster political liberalization alongside economic liberalization, but it may turn out to be more effective if the first follows the second. China has already invested in the new Silk Road through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. If the reforms accomplish their aims, then China will be well-positioned to take advantage of the rising tide. Russia’s investment may also pay dividends and together with Mirziyoyev’s personal links to Russia, could restore Russian influence and strengthen relations. The United States has not increased its involvement in Uzbekistan to levels prior to the Andijan massacre, but USAID does provide technical assistance and support.
During Karimov’s long reign Uzbekistan found itself increasingly isolated from the world, but his death and the ascension of Mirziyoyev may turn out to be the spark that ignites true reform in the nation and the wider Central Asian region. Depending on the pace of reforms and their success, economic liberalization may come fully over the next two or three decades, with political liberalization a further possibility if the former succeeds in establishing a healthy middle-class. Thus far, all signs seem to be pointing towards an Uzbek renaissance, though Mirziyoyev is still an authoritarian ruler. Ultimately, regional events may have more bearing on the success of reforms than anything else; if Islamist radicals are seen to pose a greater threat to national stability then reforms could easily be derailed if the regime chooses to crack down. Although there is a wide range of possibilities for Uzbekistan’s future, Mirziyoyev’s first year as president is showing that the country could well become a regional powerhouse, and will be one of the most quietly interesting regions of the world over the next twenty years.
Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois who is currently completing his postgraduate studies in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon has experience living and working in both Ukraine and Russia, and now focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
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Photo credit: Fulvio Spada