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Election Presidential election in Uzbekistan. First after Islam Karimov

What could be expected from Mirziyoyev’s term in office? First of all, there is no reason to doubt about his promise to follow Karimov’s policies both in domestic and foreign policy domain. His backing comes from the clans and he must continue to balance between the state’s and regional power brokers’ interests, the first and foremost being stability at all costs.

Published on balticworlds.com on december 14, 2016

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December 4, 2016 was a notable day for Uzbekistan as Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected president during the country’s first transition of power since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Early presidential election had been announced in the most populous Central Asian country of 30 million after its leader for quarter of a century, Islam Karimov, died reportedly on September 2 after suffering from a stroke. The political legacy of Karimov is contested, to say the least, and the recent election, termed effectively by the Economist as “replacing one strongman with another”[1], serves as a clear reminder of this fact.

For political analysts, Uzbekistan can be described as a dictatorship with several sultanistic elements. The power vertical was strictly managed from the top by Karimov, with no independent actors of judicial, legislative or executive power. The level of corruption placed the country on 153th position out of 168, as measured by Transparency International in 2015.[2] The regime has long suppressed all political dissent and thereby eliminated almost all opposition, severely restricting civil liberties and political rights of its citizens, thus featuring among the far end of non-free scale of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index.[3] The human rights record of Uzbekistan is extremely concerning due to forced labor of children and adults, physical torture of human rights activists, opposition members and journalists, religious persecution, and other abuses.[4] Karimov had been re-elected as President for four terms altogether, violating the constitutional two-term limit.

At the same time, some experts maintain that Karimov successfully managed to balance between the interests of different regional clan structures, and avoid interethnic conflict in the otherwise so volatile region.[5] Despite Uzbekistan’s largely isolationist foreign policy lukewarm relations with all major actors in the region – Russia, the US, China – as well as with its much more arbitrary neighbors were maintained, which guaranteed the stability of borders, trade and resources for Central Asia on the whole. Sharing a border with Afghanistan, the predominantly Sunni Muslim Uzbekistan has also been an important regional player in the fight against Islamist terrorism (often at the expense of its domestic population).

The illusion of choice

Altogether four parties are legal in Uzbekistan and could submit their own candidate for the presidency. In reality, parties have mostly been formed on the basis of regionally established clans and influential bureaucrats who have bolstered their position in the power vertical through the networks of clan patronage. Three major players are Samarkand-Jizzakh, Tashkent, and Ferghana clans. The latter has been somewhat marginalized after the deadly events in Andijan in 2005 where the government forces shot protesting crowds, killing more than 700 citizens, including children. The new president Mirziyoyev belongs to the Jizzakh clan but his close connection with the Tashkent clan, broadening his support base, is likely the reason which guaranteed his successful rise to power.[6]

The political landscape of the country is officially formed around the four parties. Two of them, Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party officially formed a Bloc of Democratic Forces with a majority of 88 of the 150 seats in parliament after the election of 2015. The other two, the People’s Democratic Party and Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party factions proclaimed themselves as opposition in the parliament, however, all parties are explicitly pro-government. The candidates put forward by the parties were Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, officially the candidate of the Liberal Democrats; Khatamyon Ketmanov from the People’s Democratic Party; Sarvar Otamuratov of Milliy Tiklanish, and Nariman Umarov of Adolat.

Most of the genuine opposition, such as alternative political parties or civil society activists fled the country or were exiled during Karimov’s regime. Those who stayed in the country are either imprisoned on political motivations or otherwise under tight control of the security services.  The extent of harassment has created persistent environment of self-censorship similar to the Stalinist times. Opposition parties are deemed illegal and meet in secret. Given that about half of the Uzbek population is currently under 25 years of age, the change in leadership was the first opportunity in the past quarter-century for the transition of power and pathway to transformation in the country.

Given all this, the road to victory for Mirziyoyev was hardly surprising. While the late president Karimov did not publicly appoint a successor, it may have been agreed in private. In any case, the course of action selected by the political elites or clan chiefs early on was to completely control the process of power brokering. Information about Karimov’s death was kept from the public until the next leader of the country was negotiated among them. Initially, the head of the National Security Service and otherwise very influential political figure Rustam Inoyatov and finance minister Rustam Azimov were seen as rivals of Mirziyoyev, it was the latter that was appointed to lead the commission organizing Karimov’s funeral. This position enabled him to rise to the center of public attention and implicitly (following the well-established Soviet tradition) also to power.

On September 9, bypassing the constitution, which stipulated that the chairman of the Senate be the acting president until the election held on the first Sunday of December, the Oliy Majlis (parliament of Uzbekistan) appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as acting president. 59-year old Mirziyoyev had been in office since 2003 and was known as a loyal member of Karimov’s inner circle but also as the person responsible for the brutal treatment of farmers and governors, infamously during the cotton collection period[7].

However, he had never been in the spotlight before and an active campaign to introduce him to the public was launched. Mirziyoyev was seen meeting with the Russian president Vladimir Putin during Karimov’s funeral and hosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose relations with the late president were rough at times. During his interim rule, Mirziyoyev opened a hotline and an online complaint box to the president[8] in an attempt to vent the public’s frustration with state bureaucracy and corruption; suggested direct elections of local leaders; introduced drafts of laws to the parliament on combating corruption, reducing bureaucracy, and increasing transparency in an attempt to gain popularity.

Despite the façade of electoralism, the campaign was in no way meaningful: no substantial discussion or alternative viewpoints emerged, and the campaigns were indistinguishably similar, emphasizing the need for continuity of Karimov’s policies and overarching aim of maintaining stability. The traditional media space in Uzbekistan is extremely controlled, with no official opposition media sources inside the country. Strict regulation governed the media coverage, all criticism could be labelled a criminal offence of insulting the president or the citizens. Internet usage thrives despite state control and censorship but this had little effect on the election result.

By the time the election took place on December 4, there was no doubt about the winner. According to official statistics from the Central Election Committee of Uzbekistan, the turnout of the election was 87.73%, of which 88.61% supported Mirziyoyev. According to OSCE/ODIHR office, the campaign was “devoid of genuine competition”, numerous technical and legal shortcomings in every stage of the election process, including serious irregulaties, such as ballot box stuffing and proxy voting, shaped the result.

The illusion of change?

What could be expected from Mirziyoyev’s term in office? First of all, there is no reason to doubt about his promise to follow Karimov’s policies both in domestic and foreign policy domain. His backing comes from the clans and he must continue to balance between the state’s and regional power brokers’ interests, the first and foremost being stability at all costs. How authoritarian – compared to Karimov – will Mirziyoyev be, depends on his ability to establish and cementing himself among the bureaucracy and different allies he certainly needs (e.g. National Security Service). He has already consolidated his power since Karimov’s death by moving allies in key government positions.

In domestic affairs, Mirziyoyev is expected to introduce economic and social reforms to improve the economic climate, curb corruption and the arbitrariness of the bureaucracy, and address other structural problems of especially the rural population who lack access to clean water, energy and other services. The economy of Uzbekistan, despite official expected growth rate at around 8%, is not performing well due to weak local currency, low level of economic diversification, declining Russian economy, and high unemployment (according to unofficial statistics, up to 30%, compared to the official 5.2% in 2015, while many Uzbeks are labor migrants in Russia)[9].

Mirziyoyev has already announced plans to create new free economic zones in the country with special tax and customs privileges to foreign and local investors; promised to liberalize the monetary policy in 2017; granted partial visa liberalization for tourists in an attempt to open the country up. However, none of these decisions indicate real institutional reforms which would have to be comprehensive and include taxation, judiciary or competitive economic environment.

Regarding foreign policy issues, Uzbekistan, which is bordering Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, has an important role in guaranteeing the regional stability in the environment of clashing interests and power struggles. Mirziyoyev has already affirmed the continuation of the non-alignment policy which rejects military alliances and foreign military bases and troops in the territory of Uzbekistan.

The new president has taken steps to improve relations with neighboring countries. These include, e.g. releasing detained citizens of Kyrgyzstan; concluding a deal on the long-standing issue of border demarcation with Kazakhstan. [10] Already in September, Tajikistan announced that flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent, suspended in 1992, will resume in 2017.

Relations with Russia were not particularly warm during Karimov’s reign, but there are hints that this might be changing under the new president. On the one hand, Mirziyoyev has closer personal contacts with Putin, but also Gazprom has started to develop cooperation projects with the local monopoly operator Uzbekneftegaz. Uzbekistan currently ranks 19th in the world for the volume of its gas reserves. Whether the potential warming of relations would also entail future membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, which would be contrary to Karimov’s policy, remains to be seen.

Relationship with China could be reinforced under Mirziyoyev for economic reasons. Being in the centre of the Silk Road trade and transit routes, Uzbekistan could benefit from Chinese investments into the large-scale infrastructure and energy projects. At the same time, however, this would result in the rise of Chinese interests in Uzbekistan and potentially influence Sino-Russian relations.

The threat of Islamic radicalization is of acute regional concern. With the youngest population and constant state repression on Muslims, Uzbekistan is perceived as a breeding crowd for jihadists. For example, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIL and supplied fighters to many foreign conflicts.[11] The army has been used to control the domestic opposition but concerns about regional spillover, be it from Afghanistan or other Central Asian countries have also prompted Uzbekistan in the past to intervene in the affairs of its neighbors (e.g. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan).

The reforms and changes expected from Mirziyoyev will be very difficult to achieve without improving the conditions of fundamental human rights and civil liberties, which in turn can undermine the position of the rent-seeking bureaucracy and long-standing political elites. Under the current restricting conditions, it is therefore unlikely that the socioeconomic and financial situation of Uzbekistan will recuperate significantly in the near future, save for a few preferential sectors such as energy or agriculture. All the policy choices in the country are framed by the desire to maintain stability at all costs both at home and abroad.

Official results from the Central Electon Committee of Uzbekistan

Number of voters registered: 20,461,805

Turnout: 17,951,667 (87.73%)

The presidential election result is determined by a simple majority of the votes cast.

Candidate Result, % Result, number of votes
Movement of Entrepreneurs and Businesspeople – the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev 88.61 15,906,724
People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan Khatamyon Abdurahmonovich Ketmanov (old Communist Party) 3.73 669,187
Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party Narimon Majitovich Umarov 3.46 619,972
Milly Tiklanish (National Revival) Democratic Party of Uzbekistan Sarvar Sadullayevich Otamuratov 2.35 421,055

 

 

[1] The Economist, Uzbekistan replaces one strongman with another, December 10, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21711263-shavkat-mirziyoyev-wins-886-vote-sham-election-uzbekistan-replaces-one-strongman

[2] Transparency International, Corruption by Country, Uzbekistan, https://www.transparency.org/country/#UZB_DataResearch_SurveysIndices

[3] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2016, Uzbekistan, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/uzbekistan

[4] Human Rights Watch, Uzbekistan, Events of 2015, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/uzbekistan

[5] Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Uzbekistan: Karimov’s Legacy, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/uzbekistan-karimovs-legacy

[6] International Crisis Group, Uzbekistan: In Transition, https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/uzbekistan-in-transition.pdf

[7] Birgit Brauer, Uzbekistan’s New President – a Reformer or Another Dictator? IWPR, December 7, 2016, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/uzbekistans-new-president-%E2%80%93-reformer-or

[8] Website of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, https://pm.gov.uz

[9] IWPR, Karimov’ Legacy

[10] Farangis Najibullah, Uzbeks Vote In Presidential Election Whose Outcome Is Largely A Foregone Conclusion, December 4, 2016, RFE/RL, http://www.rferl.org/a/uzbekistan-presidential-election-mirziyaev-karimov-successor/28154842.html

[11] Australian Government, Australian National Security, Terrorist Organisations, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,  https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Listedterroristorganisations/Pages/IslamicMovementofUzbekistan.aspx

  • by Maili Vilson

    PhD fellow in Political Science at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies and at the Centre for EU-Russia Studies (CEURUS), University of Tartu, Estonia. Her main research interests include the European Neighborhood Policy, EU foreign policy, democratization, and transition studies. She has published on the Europeanization of foreign policy of EU member states and on the Eastern Partnership.

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