Spotlight on Uzbekistan has sought to examine the state of the reform process in the country across a wide range of areas, the perhaps unsurprising headline conclusion is that a lot has been done, and there is a lot still to do. The reform process is real, but so are the significant holes in it. To meet the aspirations set out in several of President Mirziyoyev’s proclamations a lot of work still needs to be done to create an open economy, pluralist politics and a free society, rather than the easier but less worthwhile transformation from Karmiov’s closed, autarkic authoritarian state to a sleek, shiny but oligarchic one. Mirziyoyev’s real end goal is still somewhat unclear- whether he intends only a limited authoritarian modernisation (as seen in neighbouring Kazakhstan where the limits of such a transition are now becoming ever more starkly exposed) or whether something more ambitious is planned, and whether that greater ambition extends to eventually becoming a fully functioning democracy and market economy.
Since 2016 there has been appreciable economic progress for several sectors of society, a reduction in state interference in everyday life, and a notable increase in some freedoms, particularly for an emerging group of, predominantly Tashkent based, activists and experts who willing choose in some way to engage with the Government’s reform project. This has been genuine progress, which has garnered Uzbekistan much good will from the international community.
However the lingering suspicion remains that, as Kristian Lasslett argues, while ‘modest accommodations have also been made to civil society by the Mirziyoyev government this appears to be driven more by reputational concerns that impact on investor/business confidence, rather than a conversion to liberal politics.’ Mirziyoyev’s desire to project a pro-business image, his connections to leading business people and nascent privatisation efforts have created new opportunities for politically connected individuals. He has also used this business elite influence to help solidify his power base against pressures from the old security elite. So how Uzbekistan addresses this emerging challenge will be critical to the overall success of the reform process. If the next few years merely see a reshuffling of political and economic power to new elites, under the cover of rhetoric about the reforms, it will create new structural problems and ultimately undermine how the ‘new’ Uzbekistan is seen around the world.
Corruption, criminalising gay people and forced labour (despite real progress on the latter) are still major drags on Uzbekistan’s international image. The new freedoms, particularly in terms of freedom of speech have created a space for ‘constructive criticism’, where government delivery and the performance of officials and legislation can broadly be criticised. However, the ability of powerful figures to apply informal pressure or action in the civil courts remains and certain topics including harsh criticism of the President is still off limits. Under this approach of ‘managed freedom’ the Government may be more responsive but it is not accountable, other than to the limits imposed by public opinion in a country still slowly emerging from the heavy hand of Karimov.
The response to recent crises, both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Sardoba Dam collapse, have highlighted the successes and failings of the new system. Decisive initial activity which helped control the virus spread and evacuate those displaced by the flood; a flurry of slightly disjointed regulatory and financial measures (though Uzbekistan is far from alone in this) were put in place that helped provide some economic stabilisation; extraordinary new powers (particularly on freedom of movement and assembly) have been used more responsibly than they would have been under Karimov but with still some abuse at the local level; a reticence to be open to past failings (in the case of Sardoba); and innovations such as the Sakhovat va Komak (‘Generosity and Assistance’) fund that have delivered important benefits to the worst affected by the crisis but have facilitated old habits around enforced or pressured participation in this national effort. In the difficult times ahead the Government will need to take further steps to make itself more accountable to the public and more effective in its operation to minimise the risk of social unrest as the country tries to put the economy back on track whilst absorbing large numbers of workers returning from Russia.
Refining the Reforms
When it comes to taking the reform process to the next stage the Presidential administration needs to try to stop acting like a shark who needs to keep pushing forwards in order to survive. The frenetic top down activity is not sustainable and its effectiveness is declining. Spending a bit more time getting legislation right the first time through early consultation with stakeholders will help reduce the need for clarifying decrees and further updates. More time for Parliament to scrutinise legislation and advise on Presidential decrees could be helpful for both institutions. There could also be a role for an independent committee, perhaps involving the new Civic Chamber, to review decrees, to help ensure they are aligned with international standards and do not contradict each other.
Much has been written, both in this publication and elsewhere, about the need to improve the capacity in the Uzbek civil service and this will involve both culture and personnel changes. With some reforms lost in the long chain between Presidential Decree and implementation there is a need to change the internal incentive structures to allow greater space for risk taking, innovation and if necessary failure, to stop facilitating a culture of buck passing to avoid the wrath of the President that could grind down a new generation of officials. Instead there is a need to encourage them to find ways to implement change. As Yuliy Yusupov argues ‘Uzbekistan needs a fundamental administrative reform’ that will involve ‘the reconsideration and redistribution of the structure, tasks, functions and responsibilities of central authorities, as well as of administrative bodies at the sectoral level.’ There will need to be further steps taken, including the transparency initiatives set out below, to prevent officials being captured by sectoral special interests. Overstaffing and the ‘stamp culture’ need to be tackled to free up resources to be used more efficiently elsewhere in the public and private sector, including increasing resources for the social safety net that may become ever more critical when dealing with the COVID-19 aftermath.
The need to improve recruitment has been identified by the Government as a strategic priority to expand administrative capacity. This should involve further steps to encourage recruitment based on merit rather than connections, improving salaries to encourage talent to join and to encourage the return of higher skilled professionals from the diaspora. Navbahor Imamova argues that in order to address the capacity gap ‘Uzbekistan needs a transparent, fair and professional recruitment system dedicated to hiring from abroad by establishing a central recruiting body, which should announce vacancies, act as a centralised clearing-house for applications, and provide a single point-of-contact for those seeking opportunities’. However, it is important that capacity constraints are not used as a universal excuse to cover times when political will is lacking or when the Government wishes to shield the President from criticism by blaming his officials.
Kate Mallinson and Yuliy Yusupov have made a number of suggestions in their essays for furthering the reform of the wider economy that include strengthening ownership rights of land users to allow resale, sublease or borrowing against it and reviewing and implementing arbitration decisions in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. There remains the need to move away from protecting import monopolies owned by politically connected figures to developing a system of industrial support focused on more universally accessible tax incentives and other systems open to businesses irrespective of how well connected the owners are.
Democracy and accountability
If Uzbekistan is serious about making gradual moves towards democracy, or even achieving in its more limited short term goal of improving Parliamentary scrutiny, it will not be enough simply to loosen the regime’s control over the current parties and politicians. Uzbekistan will have to remove its prohibitive controls on new party formation (currently requiring signatures of 40,000 eligible voters with no more than eight per cent from one region) and allow independent candidates to stand.
Creating a more open and competitive political environment is also necessary to make Mirziyoyev’s long promised but yet to be fully delivered reforms to local government effective. Direct elections of khokims could be transformative in improving local accountability and the performance of regional and local government but not if the process is merely rubberstamping the result of a rigged political decision made at the very top. If such local changes are not imminent, the President needs to be more assertive in removing rather than just berating government appointed local officials who are not meeting the needs of their residents.
Local Kengeshs need to be supported both operationally (such as through internationally recognised scrutiny training) and more importantly politically (preventing reprisals if and when local representatives speak out) to be able to exercise meaningful scrutiny over the role of their khokims. Reforms of the planning system could include a requirement for Khokimiat to publically consult on masterplans and other decisions about proposed developments ahead of their adoption, and transferring the real power of decision making (rather than just ratifying the Khokim’s decision) on planning decisions to the Kengeshs where their final decisions could be made in public meetings so residents can both watch and have their say. Local khokims and Kengeshs must be more proactive in ensuring all legal procedures are followed when it comes to new developments in their local area, with a particular focus on preventing intimidation in the processes (notionally) in place to ensure resident consent for new buildings and in ensuring developers pay the compensation on time and in full. Matyakubova’s essay argues for revising the current decree to give stronger safeguards against forced evictions in line with international norms. Any revised legislation could include measures to safeguard payments to residents such as revised requirements for Khokimiat’s to publically certify that all residents had received the full legal compensation before construction is allowed to begin.
National and local government should work together to develop a national heritage listing system for historic buildings to give greater protection against rapacious local developers. Particularly in the context of both the state’s ownership of land and the construction boom, more must be done to make developers contribute to the development of new social infrastructure in the new projects in partnership with the Khokimiat. If, as some fear, many of these new developments will contain a number of properties bought for investment purposes rather than permanent accommodation (or if post-pandemic they remain unsold) then further steps should be taken to simplify and professionalise the rental market. The recent reforms to the Propsika system have helped move things in the right direction but still leave too many people reliant on temporary registration.
At all levels of government Uzbekistan could benefit from two things: more women and greater transparency. There is a clear need to appoint women to Cabinet posts and as regional khokims, while developing a clear pathway for women to move through the administrative structures, building on the recent comparative success in increasing women’s representation in Parliament. There is an urgent need for clear codes of conduct for politicians to declare any personal or financial links to schemes they are involved in approving or scrutinising, and transparency on if state funds are supporting businesses linked to elected officials. There is no explicable reason why the new disclosure requirements being proposed for Uzbek civil servants should not be applied to or adapted for use by holders of public office (particularly politicians and judges), so that they can be transparent about their external sources of income and relevant assets to restrict the scope for conflict of interest, and so that the public can know how their representatives are funded.
Corruption and cotton
Greater transparency for public officials needs to be combined with greater transparency in public procurement, with information about prospective and successful tenders made more openly in order to help make further inroads into tackling corruption. Systems have to change because at present it often seems that addressing individual instances of corruption or poor performance by Uzbek officials is correlated with the degree to which such problems create a public outcry, rather than directly based on the merits of the case. The recent increase in media freedom to address some forms of corruption and lower-level bureaucratic performance helps act as a pressure release valve, a mechanism through which issues that are causing widespread resentment at a local level can be raised to the leadership in Tashkent, and action can be taken to prevent such tensions building into pressure that could unsettle the wider political balance. Corruption is one of the biggest systemic risks the regime faces, particularly in these challenging times As Kristian Lasslett says ‘if a global recession is sparked, leading to serious downturn in Central Asia, the more predatory forms of racketeering observed in the Karimova case study may grow in appeal. If this coincides with diminished standards of living for the general population, these structural antagonisms could indeed provide the kindling for more radical forms of political challenge to the status quo’.
Uzbekistan could also build international confidence in its wider commitment to tackling corruption by joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). It can and should also take further steps to make public the ownership information relating to all businesses (including their beneficial owners) in the Government’s new clusters, to assuage concerns that these structures are simply providing new opportunities for politically connected individuals to game the system for financial gain, and to help ensure that the power of the state is not being used at local level to assist them with their operations through forced labour. If not handled as a strategic priority corruption risks derailing the Uzbek reform process, which would vindicate critics who see the post-2016 period as merely being about providing new ways for the elite to enrich itself.
Greater transparency over the management of clusters is essential in the context of completing and defending the gains made in tackling forced labour in the cotton sector. Pressure to lift the international boycott of Uzbek cotton had been growing in the wake of progress made in reducing forced labour but it has intensified further since the start of the pandemic. Arguments in favour of ending the boycott focus on the economic gains from opening international markets to being able to raise cotton picker wages and modernise the sector, thereby helping end the remaining forced labour more swiftly. While cotton campaigners worry, particularly in the context of unknown risks of the cluster model, that ending the boycott whilst more than 100,000 forced workers remain would remove the pressure to complete the job. The only realistic way out of this conundrum lies in a compromise that provides reassurance that future incidences of forced labour will be properly brought to light and addressed by the Government. This will require allowing local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), working in concert with international partners, to work freely to monitor the harvest and expose wrongdoing. The boycott needs to be brought to an end to secure the long-term survival of the sector and assist the Uzbek economy at this time of need, but to ensure international confidence this will at minimum require the registration of cotton monitoring NGOs and local independent trade unions, notably those of activists currently involved in monitoring for both the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Cotton Campaign. Doing this would help build confidence in lowering the warning level on forced labour from red to amber, in the knowledge that if there is retrenchment, pressure on cotton exports could be renewed. Putting the requisite political pressure on the Ministry of Justice to expedite these registrations should be a small price for the Government to pay to end this black mark on Uzbekistan’s reputation and protect the economy.
Rights and freedoms
Any measures to register cotton-monitoring NGOs must form part of a wider process of independent NGO registration in order to meaningfully develop civil society in Uzbekistan. The Ministry of Justice clearly has the ability to register independent NGOs, even with the laws that exist now, yet instead it pursues a policy of bureaucratic obstructionism to use minor form filling errors, both real and imaginary, to reject documents and stall processing indefinitely leading to a de facto bar on independent NGO registration. As set out above this could be resolved with the necessary political will and the Government needs to urgently make it happen. However, a revision process for the now delayed new NGO code could help move things further forward by removing spurious and burdensome reporting requirements, and the need for advanced approval for day-to-day activities; by lifting limits on international funding and other restrictions on contact with international organisations; by making government funding opportunities more transparent; and by producing guidance notes and example forms to help NGOs avoid wrangling over form filling.
While NGOs are currently heavily restricted, journalists have experienced much greater freedoms, albeit within the boundaries of ‘constructive criticism’ discussed throughout the publication. Achieving true media freedom will require working to remove these boundaries, such as the regime needing to become more tolerant of direct criticism of the President and those close to him. That liberal regime figures talk about the evolution of the sector to achieve greater independence through greater professionalism still shows that they see their role as defining the terms of engagement in a way that seems incompatible with full media freedom. The bounds of fair comment by the media should instead be framed within the bounds of both robust public debate and fairer but functioning anti-defamation laws. At present the proposed changes to the laws on ‘slander and insult’ that would remove the risk of prison have stalled, but the current draft would also see a substantial increase in the level of fines which, in an unreformed court system, could further add to the existing problem of aggrieved parties seeking to use the threat of financial ruin to silence criticism. One route to tackling the financial pressures on journalists investigating powerful forces would be, in the context of NGO liberalisation, allowing the development of donor funded investigative journalism such as Kloop in neighbouring Krygyzstan or the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project internationally, adding to rather than replacing emerging journalistic initiatives in Uzbekistan.
Reforming the courts is a key part of delivering progress on rule of law and it will be critical to underpinning real change across so many areas, from human rights to corruption, media freedom and Uzbekistan’s economic performance. Important steps to take include extending the new asset transparency requirements for civil servants to the judiciary while taking further steps to increase their official salaries and extend their term of office as part of measures to try to tackle both graft and institutional pressures on judges. Measures being taken to increase the number of independent lawyers (particularly registered advocates who can appear in court), including the expansion of legal education in Uzbek universities and improving the prestige of the profession, are very welcome and must sit alongside further steps to reduce the power of the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) in determining the outcome of the legal process and raising the chance of acquittal in court through fair trials.
Further reform of the PGO needs to sit alongside continuing reform of the security services to end the continuing risk of arbitrary arrest and torture. As recent events show there is still work to do to fulfil the President’s promises on the eradication of torture and mistreatment of suspects, something which should see further pressure on the Government to allow independent monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prisons and other places of detention and to ratify the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The Government should also amend the vague and overbroad criminal code provisions relating to espionage and extremism that give too much leeway to the security services and are commonly used to criminalise dissent – particularly Articles 157, 159, 216, 244-1, and 244-2. As well as transforming the investigation of major crimes steps need to be taken to limit the routine abuse of administrative code punishments that lead to 15 day imprisonment for minor or invented infractions by activists. This should form part of a wider culture change (slowly underway but far from complete) to end the harassment of activists (including political activists, local bloggers or would be independent NGO activists) who fall outside the boundaries of ‘constructive criticism’. The Ombudsman’s office needs to continue its steps towards independence and receive the necessary funding required to investigate abuses, while avoiding it sometimes being overlooked in favour of the National Human Rights Centre’s more outward facing role.
Removing the all-encompassing pressure of the Karimov presidency has helped people to start to address important questions around identity, belief and personal behaviour. It has provided opportunities for women to talk more openly about their desire for greater opportunities in the economy and public life, about the endemic culture of domestic abuse and to critique family structures that often subjugate younger women. At the same time there has been a slight loosening of restrictions on religious activity and many religious prisoners have been freed, though the authorities should make available a list of all persons currently serving sentences for extremism-related charges to help make clear the extent of recent changes. Expanding both freedoms in parallel creates certain challenges when rights may be seen to come into conflict and the process needs to be handled with care. For example, it is important that the Uzbek Government takes steps to end the restrictions on religious dress (which de facto creates a ban on the hijab and long beards) and to allow registration of independent religious organisations, while simultaneously taking steps to reassure women’s groups that action will be taken against rising social pressures against women choosing to wear jeans, shorts or skirts, which is as much – if not more – the product of traditionalist/nationalist sentiments being expressed openly on social media with issues of toxic masculinity as it is of growing religiosity. Uzbek leaders can also help by promoting a positive and open conception of Uzbek national identity and patriotism, potentially further revising ideas around the national concept of Manaviyat. Alongside creating a society where individuals are free to choose what they wear and think, all Uzbeks need the right to be able to openly and legally love who they love by ending the ban on male homosexuality that forces people into the shadows or exile and promotes the extortion of those at risk of arrest.
As the Government of Uzbekistan becomes more self-confident about the progress of the reforms and the country’s place in the world, it needs to show a more self-confident approach towards discussing its own past. As Steve Swerdlow argues ‘President Mirziyoyev and the Uzbek government should acknowledge past abuses officially, provide concrete avenues for redress, and send a clear message that peaceful criticism of government policies and scrutiny of the past will be genuinely valued in Uzbekistan’. This has to be part of a national conversation involving those who suffered, human rights defenders, international experts and all relevant organs of the state. As Swerdlow suggests this should involve the creation of an inclusive national commission and a new law on Rehabilitation that builds on but goes further than Article 83 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Procedure Code.
Part of this historical reckoning should include the coming to a new accommodation with its critics in exile. There needs to be a pathway back for and reconciliation with human rights and political activists who left under Karimov. Allowing their safe return and softening the Government’s reactions to jabs from these activists, such as Nadejda Atayeva who in this collection gives a more critical assessment of the current situation than the other authors, would be a clear sign that the Government is in the reform process for the long haul. This in turn might help mollify some of the understandable cynicism about the state of the reform process by exile groups who have been persecuted for years by the Government of Uzbekistan. In turn, those who have so far been rejected by the new system may come to view some of the changes more positively, knowing that not everything is a fraud. The internal logic of a reform process that accepts Uzbekistan needs urgent and radical change implies that those who raised concerns about how it was before had a point and they should not be beyond the political pale today. The government’s current focus on supporting new independent journalists, state backed civil society initiatives and possibly in time more independent political figures and NGOs to grow organically in the ‘new’ Uzbekistan may have a forward looking dimension, but it creates the clear risk (both real and perceived) that they lack the freedom to fully hold the Government to account on all issues.
Uzbekistan and the world
How Uzbekistan relates to the outside world has been one of the biggest changes under Mirziyoyev, with the country becoming an active player in Central Asia while working to improve relationships with the main regional players (Russia and China) as well as engaging with the West. As a strategic approach it makes sense, replacing an approach under Karimov which alternated between a prickly multi-vector approach to ward off Russia and a no-vector approach of isolationism, with a more proactive, outward-looking but balanced policy. The debate about the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) clearly has a geo-political dimension (for Russia it remains primarily a political project), but the decision over Uzbek membership needs to be driven by whether it delivers real economic benefits for Uzbekistan in terms of its trade within Central Asia and its economic relationships with Russia (a calculus that may have changed if the reduction of migrant work remains supressed into the long-term post-pandemic). The parallel push for World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership should not meaningfully interfere with decision making on the EAEU (given that all but Belarus are also WTO members) and will help diversify Uzbekistan’s options. Western partners such the European Union, United States and United Kingdom (UK) can have an important part to play in engaging with Uzbekistan, providing partnerships than can help potentially balance (though not replace) Uzbekistan’s need to work with Russia and China. Years of diminishing regional engagement have reduced the West’s leverage but some remains and it needs to be focused on supporting Uzbekistan to keep moving forward on its reforms rather than retrenching. This does involve the scaling up of both technical and financial assistance, while ensuring that international partners and institutions on the ground retain the capacity to criticise when and where things are going wrong as well as championing what is being done right. Western jurisdictions need to take further action to prevent their financial systems being used to shelter illicit Uzbek wealth. In the UK for example this needs to involve prosecuting mysterious companies which submit false or improper filings, reforming the rules around ‘Scottish Limited Partnerships’ and applying further pressure for the transparency in the Crown dependencies.
Regarding the important emerging partnerships in the education sector, if Western institutions and organisations are putting their names to campuses, courses and curriculums they need to play an active role in ensuring that student and academics working in those systems have greater academic freedom than would be possible in the wider Uzbek system. This is particularly relevant in higher education, and if the situation on Uzbek campuses does not move closer to achieving standards comparable with their own institutions they should rethink the partnerships.
The international community faces a tricky balancing act, rewarding reformers for their efforts and ensuring these partners have the political capital within the Government to keep moving forwards, while not ignoring or excusing the considerable problems the country still faces. A clear test of this balancing act is the how to respond to Uzbekistan’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council and its bid for the Asian Games. A few years ago, the recommendation from independent observers would have been simple, it would not have been appropriate for Uzbekistan to get these honours. Now, in the context of ‘a lot done, a lot still to do’ finding an answer is more challenging. A potential solution would be making support for Uzbekistan’s membership of the Human Rights Council and hosting the games conditional on a human rights health check by international partners (both NGOs, institutions and international partner governments), and further action by the Uzbek Government on issues raised in this publication including NGO registration and torture in order for the international community to be able to give the green light.
Based on the findings of the research in this publication and the details set out in the conclusion above, in order to help Uzbekistan continue to fulfil the promise of recent reforms and address the outstanding problems there are a number of recommendations for action by the Government of Uzbekistan and the international community.
The Government of Uzbekistan should seek to:
- Continue reforming the civil service to improve structures and capacity while being more measured and consultative when creating new legislation and decrees.
- Develop a more competitive political environment in Uzbekistan by removing restrictions on registering new parties and allowing independent candidates to stand for election.
- Reform local government by requiring the direct elections of Khokims, with greater public consultation about developments and giving Kengeshs real power to decide on planning decisions. Empower it to take action on compensation and forced evictions, to ensure developers contribute to social infrastructure and help protect historic buildings.
- Require transparency for all holders of public office including politicians and judges with declarations of external sources of income and assets, while making public the ownership details of firms involved in the new ‘clusters’.
- Move beyond ‘constructive criticism’ to true freedom of expression and association by delivering new anti-defamation laws without the threat of prison or massive fines, allowing independent NGOs to register and helping them do so.
- Help facilitate the end of the boycott of Uzbek cotton by urgently registering cotton monitoring NGOs and independent trade unions.
- Continue the reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office and security services to prevent the harassment of activists and political opponents.
- Deliver transitional justice and greater openness about the Karimov legacy helping the rehabilitation of victims of past abuse.
- Continue to expand both religious and social freedoms that prioritise individual choice over community pressure, with more women in senior government positions, action on domestic violence, ending laws against the LGBTQ community and stopping the pressure on independent religious groups.
International institutions and Governments should seek to:
- Continue their engagement with the Government of Uzbekistan whilst ensuring they remain open to criticism and pressure where necessary as well as praising successes.
- Support an international human rights health check ahead of decisions to elect Uzbekistan to the UN Human Rights Council or award it the right to host the 2027 Asian Games.
 If the garment industry were to end the Pledge on Uzbek cotton, reinstating it in the event of renewed forced labour would be challenging as supply lines would have been re-established. However, some of this will need to be mitigated by explicit commitments from major garment companies of their continuing opposition to the practice being sought and triggered in the event of relapse.
 And for broadcast television within the bounds of internationally recognised regulations that give greater scope for public debate.