Spotlight on Uzbekistan finds that the much talked about reform process in Uzbekistan is real, but that so are the significant holes in it, with a lot of work still needing to be done to create an open economy, pluralist politics and free society. It remains unclear if President Mirziyoyev’s plans are simply for the authoritarian modernisation seen so far or whether something more ambitious is planned. Since 2016, there has been appreciable economic progress, a reduction in state interference in everyday life, and notable increase in some freedoms, particularly for activists and experts who choose in some way to engage with the Government’s reform project. This genuine progress has garnered Uzbekistan much international good will as it has returned to the world stage.
However, Mirziyoyev’s pro-business approach and connections to leading business people have created new concerns about cronyism, corruption and citizens forced out of their homes with inadequate compensation as part of building the new Uzbekistan. So far the reforms have created a type of ‘managed freedom’, where there is space for ‘constructive criticism’ but some sensitive topics remain off limits. The response to recent crises have highlighted the successes and failings of the new system: showing swift action to get on top of the initial challenges; rapid, numerous but not wholly joined up initiatives to tackle the economic and social impact; a reticence to address historic and structural problems; and new opportunities for local abuses of power. As Uzbekistan becomes more self-confident about the progress of the reforms and its place in the world, it needs to show a more self-confident approach towards its own past, convening a national conversation involving those who suffered under Karimov, the Government and with local and international experts.
The publication makes key recommendations for the Government of Uzbekistan. It should:
- 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 Governors and Mayors, with greater public consultation on planning decisions, action on forced evictions, lack of compensation, the provision of social infrastructure and protecting 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 cotton ‘clusters’.
- Move beyond ‘constructive criticism’ to true freedom of expression and association including by delivering new anti-defamation laws without the threat of prison or massive fine and allowing independent NGOs to register, while helping them do so.
- Help facilitate the end of the boycott of Uzbek cotton by urgently registering the cotton monitoring NGOs and independent trade unions, working with them to end forced labour.
- Continue the reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office, security services and judiciary to prevent the harassment of activists and political opponents.
- Deliver transitional justice and greater openness about the Karimov legacy that includes helping the rehabilitation of victims of past abuse and an open public dialogue.
- 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, freedoms for religious groups and ending laws against the LGBTQ community.
International institutions and governments should:
- Critically but actively, engage with Uzbekistan to further the reforms and insist on an international human rights health check ahead of decisions whether to elect Uzbekistan to the UN Human Rights Council or be chosen to host the 2027 Asian Games.