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Uzbekistan's former Prime Minister and current President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 4 December 2016. REUTERS/Anvar Ilyasov.
Report 242 / Europe & Central Asia

Uzbekistan: The Hundred Days

Uzbekistan’s first new president in more than a quarter century has taken some positive steps in the early days of his administration. In order to encourage more sustained progress, western partners and regional powers will need to balance conditional support with tactical pressure.

Executive Summary

The first 100 days of Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, hint at the possibility of much-overdue change in one of Central Asia’s most repressive states. But as its long-time prime minister, Mirziyoyev was a key player in the 25-year rule of his predecessor, Islam Karimov, and he inherits a system designed to protect those in power at the expense of the population. It would be premature to conclude that release of a few political prisoners, an early focus on urgent economic issues and a thaw in relations with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, welcome departures from past practice though they are, promise an intention for systemic reform policies of the sort needed to cope with rising pressures over social and economic issues. Uzbekistan’s Western partners share an interest with Russia and China in the country’s sustainable stability, however, so should cautiously work with the new administration to encourage change while being prepared to call out any backsliding.

A cabinet re-shuffle in January appears to have done much to consolidate the president’s position. Numerous visits to Uzbekistan’s regions are allowing the population a degree of interaction with the head of state that was unthinkable under Karimov. Steps like that and acknowledgement of the economic hardship in rural areas have created some genuine popular support for him and a degree of optimism in the national mood. He has a complicated relationship with Rustam Azimov, an ex-finance minister, and Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Service (SNB), though the former has been somewhat sidelined. Mirziyoyev needs to cultivate their continued support and that of others, including rich Uzbeks living in Russia and elsewhere, who may have a limited interest in significant changes to the system they know so well.

Uzbekistan’s partners need to find a balance between building a relationship with the new administration and providing a critique of Karimov’s institutional legacy.

Uzbekistan has pressing domestic issues, unpredictable neighbours and a jihadist extremism threat. Though its border with Afghanistan is one of the region’s most secure, it looks to the south with nervousness. Citizens need economic and social policies that improve their living standard. Pensioners and public sector workers exist on meagre benefits and salaries, often not paid on time. According to Russian authorities, as many as 3.35 million Uzbeks have felt obliged to find work in that country. Though Mirziyoyev has made a point about creating dialogue between citizens and the state, discontent finds no expression through civil society or in the narrow political space. Uzbekistan’s partners need to find a balance between building a relationship with the new administration and providing a critique of Karimov’s institutional legacy.

Bishkek/Brussels, 15 March 2017

I. Introduction

On 4 December 2016, for the first time in the history of independent Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov was not elected as the country’s president. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, prime minister since 2003 and acting president following Karimov’s death on 2 September, received 88.61 per cent of the vote after a campaign “devoid of genuine competition”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefings N°s 84, Uzbekistan: Reform or Repeat?, 6 December 2016; and 82, Uzbekistan: In Transition, 29 September 2016. See also, “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions”, OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission.Hide Footnote  As acting president, he said he would stay true to Karimov’s course, yet he made several statements and gestures that suggested he would deviate from some of his predecessor’s policies. These included promises to improve difficult relations with neighbours, liberate the state-controlled economy with its foreign-currency black market and listen to the people, who had been deprived of their civil voice under Karimov’s heavy-handed rule.[fn]Crisis Group Briefings, Uzbekistan: In Transition and Uzbekistan: Reform or Repeat, ops. cit.Hide Footnote

This report, Crisis Group’s third paper on Uzbekistan since Karimov’s death, aims to provide perspective on executive decisions and other political processes in President Mirziyoyev’s first 100 days and assess the scope for engagement with the new government. Research was done in Tashkent, Fergana, Bishkek and Brussels. Though Crisis Group was able to conduct field work there, access in Uzbekistan remains somewhat restricted due to security concerns for staff and interlocutors.

II. Loose Ends and Fresh Starts

Following his election, Mirziyoyev declared 2017 the “Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interests” and held a modest inauguration on 14 December.[fn]“In Uzbekistan, 2017 has been declared the Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interests”, Uzbekistan National News Agency, 8 December 2016; “Inauguration of President of Uzbekistan”, video, Gazeta.uz, 15 December 2016.Hide Footnote  Listening to his constituency had been the central theme of the campaign, during which Mirziyoyev established a personal virtual address at which every citizen could submit concerns. It is still uncertain, however, what kind of follow-up there will be to that initiative, and Uzbeks remain wary. The practice has now been adopted by the foreign ministry and even the National Security Service (SNB), but their responsiveness is also unclear.[fn]“ЕПИГУ запустил онлайн-обращения в СНБ Узбекистана” [“SPISS launched online appeals to SNB”], Anons.uz, 25 January 2017.Hide Footnote  The SNB remains a shadowy entity about which little public information is available.

100 days have been insufficient to answer the key questions asked during the three months between Karimov’s death and the election: were Mirziyoyev’s pledges merely a campaign tactic, or did they indicate a genuine interest in addressing the country’s political, social and economic realities; and in turn, what would the answer mean for Uzbekistan’s international partners?

Mirziyoyev’s earliest moves as acting president were to consolidate his position with a series of reappointments and cabinet adjustments. Abdulla Aripov, deputy prime minister between 2002 and 2012, was returned to that post on 14 September.[fn]Aripov was tainted by a corruption scandal involving Gulnara Karimova, Islam Karimov’s daughter, in 2012. A criminal case was opened against him for allegedly assisting her deals with foreign telecommunication companies but closed in 2013. Until Karimov’s death, he was a university lecturer. He is described as a telecommunications professional and a supporter of Russian investment. “Abdulla Aripov back to government”, Gazeta.uz, 14 September 2016.Hide Footnote  After the inauguration, Mirziyoyev obtained Aripov’s installation as prime minister by the rubber-stamp parliament’s two chambers. Oxford-educated Rustam Azimov, once seen as a potential rival, kept his post as deputy prime minister for macroeconomic development and foreign investments but lost the finance ministry to Batyr Hodjayev, a former (2006-2009) economy minister. This was a clear message from Mirziyoyev about who is in charge. The president also singled him out for criticism at the 16 January cabinet meeting, questioning his commitment to solving the problems of entrepreneurs and the management of his portfolio, pointedly urging him to be self-critical and rebuking the finance ministry that he had run for eleven years.[fn]“Абдулла Арипов возглавил правительство Узбекистана” [“Abdulla Aripov heads the Uzbekistan Government”], Gazeta.uz, 14 December 2016. “В узбекском правительстве произошли серьезные кадровые перестановки” [“Serious reshuffle in the government”], Radio Ozodlik, 16 December 2016. “Батыр Ходжаев назначен Министр финансов Узбекистана” [“Batyr Hodjayev is appointed finance minister”], Uzreport.uz, 15 December 2016. “Как Шавкат Мирзиёев разносил членов правительства Узбекистана” [“How Shavkat Mirziyoyev scolded the members of the government of Uzbekistan”], Center-1, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote

If Azimov is further, or even permanently, sidelined, it implies the powerful SNB at least tacitly approves. Mirziyoyev’s engagement with the security service is a sign of his confidence. Its long-serving head, Rustam Inoyatov, 72, is believed to be in poor health. The deputy, Shukhrat Guliamov, was transferred to a lesser position in Surkhandarya in December, and his family reportedly went to the U.S. where brother Bakhtiyar is Uzbekistan’s ambassador.[fn]“Первый заместитель главы СНБ Узбекистана снят с должности” [“The first deputy head of the Uzbek National Security Service dismissed”], CAtoday.org, 7 January 2017. In several conversations with Crisis Group, interlocutors in Tashkent referred to apparent insider reports on Inoyatov’s poor health.Hide Footnote  Replacing key SNB officials and eventually Inoyatov himself with his own appointees would allow Mirziyoyev to make his power virtually absolute. Inoyatov is reportedly still capable of making trouble for Mirziyoyev, however. There is speculation that he may be blocking much needed economic reforms, specifically a liberalisation of the currency market that could deprive senior figures of black market exchange profits.[fn]Olzhas Auyezov, “Exclusive: Uzbekistan’s rulers at odds on reforms – sources”, Reuters, 7 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Beyond the regional governors and SNB generals, another sector the new president needs to win over or neutralise includes organised crime groups involved with prostitution, drugs, money laundering and, allegedly, selling government positions. They are said to have close links with similar groups in Russia or Ukraine. Salim Abduvaliev, who has longstanding connections with Uzbekistan’s political elite and is alleged to be “boss of the Uzbek mafia”, was appointed deputy chairman of the National Olympic Committee.[fn]“Mafia bosses hail “Salim the Great”, U.S. embassy Tashkent cable, 18 April 2007, as made public by WikiLeaks, “‘Босс узбекской мафии’ назначен зампредом Национального Олимпийского комитета Узбекистана” [“‘The boss of Uzbek mafia’ is appointed Deputy Chairman of National Olympic Committee of Uzbekistan”], Radio Ozodlik, 7 January 2017.Hide Footnote Approval from and cooperation with a variety of actors lends stability to the regime, and establishing ties with individuals such as Abduvaliev was arguably mandatory for Mirziyoyev.

Mirziyoyev knows everyone and everything from thirteen years as prime minister. As president, he told his government: “My tragedy is in the fact that I know everything about all of you”.[fn]“Шавкат Мирзиёев – подчинённым: ‘Трагедия моя в том, что я всё о вас знаю!’” [“Shavkat Mirziyoyev to his subordinates: ‘The fact that I know everything about all of you is my tragedy’”], Ferghana News, 8 February 2017.Hide Footnote  He is at least co-author of his “tragedy”, but the statement bookmarks his new authority while distancing him from old colleagues.

A focus on rural development should be welcomed, but there are doubts about the feasibility of a proposal that may indicate the government and its president retain a Soviet, top-down command economy mentality.

As part of promoting dialogue with citizens by example, Mirziyoyev began visiting the regions, making an early stop in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, where he walked through crowds allowing people to take “selfies” with him, something unprecedented in Uzbekistan.[fn]“Close dialogue with people is an important factor in ensuring human interests”, press service of the president, 20 January 2017. “Жители Каракалпакстана смогли сделать селфи с Мирзияевым (видео)” [“Karakalpakstan residents took selfies with Mirziyoyev (video)”], Radio Ozodlik, 21 January 2017.Hide Footnote  The visit suggested a strategic approach and desire to burnish credentials as champion of the country’s territorial integrity. The autonomous region has the constitutional right to secede, and though a fledging dissident movement has gained little traction, there is resentment against the Tashkent government.[fn]Gulnoza Saidazimova, “Uzbekistan: Shadowy group agitates for ‘Free Karakalpakstan’”, RFE/RL, 5 April 2008. “The Republic of Karakalpakstan has the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a general referendum of the people of Karakalpakstan”, Karakalpakstan constitution, Chapter I, Article 1. In 2014, inspired by the annexation of Crimea, activists under the slogan of “Alga Karakalpakstan” (Forward Karakalpakstan) called for a referendum but appeared to garner little local support.Hide Footnote  Mirziyoyev seeks to secure the same support and loyalty of its formal and informal leaders as Karimov had.

Speaking in Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital, Mirziyoyev stressed the importance of developing entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan. Outlining a scheme for all rural households to possess 100 chickens and enjoy the financial benefits of egg-selling, he tasked Azimov with implementing it, and it kicked off in Jizzakh mid-February with 257 low-income families each receiving twenty chicks.[fn]“Узбекистан: Главный финансист страны Рустам Азимов станет заниматься разведением кур” [“Uzbekistan: The country’s chief financial specialist Rustam Azimov will be in charge of raising chickens”], Ferghana News, 23 January 2017.Hide Footnote

A focus on rural development should be welcomed, but there are doubts about the feasibility of a proposal that may indicate the government and its president retain a Soviet, top-down command economy mentality. An Uzbek observer suggested responsibility was given to Azimov to create a pretext for eventually firing him. However, the scheme, along with other initiatives outlined in a draft document published in February such as investments in small-scale fruit farming, do appear to indicate that much-needed rural development is at least on the government’s radar.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Uzbek analyst, February 2017; interview, EU diplomat, Bishkek February 2017; “Указ Президента Республики Узбекистан о Стратегии действий по дальнейшему развитию Республики Узбекистан” [“Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan on the strategy for action on the further development of the Republic of Uzbekistan”], Lex.uz, 7 February 2017, http://lex.uz/pages/getpage.aspx?lact_id=3107042.Hide Footnote  This might give the European Union (EU) and member states an opportunity to test the new government’s reform instincts by offering technical help. The “chicken project” would require phyto-sanitary and logistical support for collecting, processing, packaging and, crucially, developing a market for the eggs.

His statements and efforts to hear out people’s needs, combined with public criticism of officials, are earning Mirziyoyev a measure of popularity. “Mirziyoyev is a person who knows Uzbekistan’s real picture, he can make things better”, a 55-year-old teacher said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 55-year-old male teacher, Fergana, February 2017.Hide Footnote  “He definitely has his eye on the public mood”, a Western journalist recently returned from Uzbekistan said. “He’s more [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev than Karimov in that sense”.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Western journalist based in Kazakhstan, 8 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Speaking out and spotlighting corruption can still be dangerous for a citizen, however, as shown by the arrest of a businessman, Olim Sulaymonov, who appealed to the then acting president about corruption via YouTube. His video resembled a collective cry from a business community under great pressure from supervising bodies that it must bribe in order to function. Sulaymonov’s arrest on 15 February on fraud and slander charges raises doubts about the government’s willingness to engage in genuine dialogue when faced with criticism.[fn]“Узбекистан: Рассказавший на Youtube о коррупции в прокуратуре бизнесмен арестован” [“Uzbekistan: businessman who told about corruption in prosecutor’s office on YouTube is under arrest”], Ferghana News, 17 February 2017. “Мурожат нома хурматлий Шовкат Мирзияевга” [“Appeal to the respected Shovkat Mirziyoyev”], Sulaymonov’s YouTube Channel, www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGM tcGK5XH0; “Арестован предприниматель из Ташкента Олим Сулаймонов!”[“Entrepreneur from Tashkent, Olim Sulaymonov is arrested!”], Centre-1, 16 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Widespread corruption and mismanagement of resources continue to lead to gas and electricity shortages even in the major cities. Karimov’s native Samarkand had extensive blackouts in January. Like elsewhere in Central Asia, infrastructure is worn out and in need of repair and modernisation.[fn]“Звёзды ярче фонарей: Жители Самарканда сутками живут без электричества” [“… Samarkand dwellers spend days without electricity”], Ferghana News Agency, 23 January 2017. Black outs and gas shortages in winter have long been commonplace; Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°233, Water Pressures in Central Asia, 11 September 2014; Crisis Group Asia Report 201, Central Asia: Decay and Decline, 3 February 2011.Hide Footnote

The president is involved in nearly every sector of Uzbekistan’s life, from financial reform to health care and education, from designing new buildings to fighting corruption and crime. Mirziyoyev is highly critical of the civil service and has proposed both monetary reward for positive work and monetary for failure. Civil servants at all levels are feeling the pressure, with Western officials noting that ministries and agencies they deal with seem more flustered than usual.[fn]“Шавкат Мирзиёев предложил мотивировать хокимов деньгами” [“Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed financial motivations for governors”], Sputnik Uzbekistan, 16 January 2017. Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Bishkek, February 2017.Hide Footnote

Mirziyoyev has released four political prisoners, several with long sentences. Muhammad Bekjan, younger brother of Muhammad Solih, the leader of the opposition party Erk in exile since 1993, was freed on 22 February after nearly eighteen years. Bekjan edited the party’s newspaper until kidnapped by SNB in Kyiv in 1999, brought home and convicted of involvement in bomb attacks in Tashkent that year. Abused and tortured, he is among thousands of victims of Karimov’s regime. Upon release, Bekjan praised Mirziyoyev for efforts to liberalise the system and urged the government to also release his colleagues, Yusuf Ruzimurodov, Agzam Turgunov and Solijon Abdurakhmanov, as well as Erk activist Muhammad Rajab. Jamshid Karimov, the late president’s nephew, who had been held in psychiatric facilities for his reporting off and on since 2006, was released on 1 March.[fn]“Мухаммад Бекжан – брат главного оппонента покойного Каримова освобожден после 18-летнего заключения” [“Muhammad Bekjon – the brother of late Karimov’s key opponent – released after 18-year sentence”], Radio Ozodlik, 22 February 2017; Rachel Alexander, “Imprisoned for 18 years, pro-democracy Uzbekistan newspaper editor hopes to join family in Spokane”, The Spokesman-Review, 3 March 2017. “Узбекистан: Вышедший на свободу Мухаммад Бекжан просит президента освободить из тюрьмы его коллег” [“Uzbekistan: Freed Muhammad Bekjan asks the president to release his colleagues”], Ferghana News, 1 March 2017.

Though welcome, these releases are not a clear sign the government will engage seriously on human rights.[fn]Olzhas Auyezov and Alexander Smith, “U.S. urges more tolerance in Uzbekistan’s treatment of dissent”, Reuters, 7 March 2017.Hide Footnote  A systematic approach to past abuses and preventing recurrences is needed. Uzbekistan’s Western partners should continue to press on this, as hundreds of political prisoners remain in custody. Having released some of Karimov’s critics, Mirziyoyev should not re-stock the jails with his own opponents or persons falsely accused of crimes or persecuted for religious beliefs.[fn]“OSCE representative welcomes positive step releasing another journalist in Uzbekistan”, 1 March 2017; “Uzbekistan 2016 Human Rights Report”, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2016.nh.Hide Footnote

Cotton is another sensitive issue. Human rights defender Elena Urlaeva, who reports on child and forced labour in the cotton fields, said she was again under pressure not to meet with World Bank and International Labour Organisation officials.[fn]“Узбекистан: Правозащитница Елена Урлаева рассказала о причинах её задержания и помещения в психбольницу” [“Uzbekistan: Human rights defender Elena Urlaeva spoke about the reasons behind her detention and placement in a mental hospital”], Ferghana News Agency, 3 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Her 1 March detention underlines the limits of Mirziyoyev’s human rights agenda to date. If his government wishes to repair the regime’s reputation, it must end such tactics, eradicate forced labour and refrain from repressing activists and rights defenders. This should be a priority issue for Uzbekistan’s trade partners.

The situation of Gulnara Karimova, the late president’s daughter, is unclear. A Swiss lawyer confirmed that she is alive and under house arrest. The U.S. has frozen $300 million in assets in connection with an investigation of Karimova, whom it accuses of receiving and laundering kickbacks; Tashkent seeks return of those assets.[fn]“Uzbekistan: Swiss prosecutor visit reveals a defiant Karimova”, Eurasianet.org, 16 January 2017; Joanna Lillis, “Uzbekistan: Frozen millions on agenda as minister holds talks in U.S.?”, EurasiaNet.org, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote  If she testifies, her version of events could be damaging for the government. Her cousin, Akbarali Abdullayev, sentenced to fifteen years in Uzbekistan in 2014 for embezzling state assets, illegal acquisition of currency and bribery, was arrested in Kyiv in January 2017 for the crimes committed on Uzbek territory. Karimov’s younger daughter, Lola, is Uzbekistan’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO and recently established the Islam Karimov Foundation with the objective of promoting the country’s historical, cultural, and literary heritage.[fn]Abdullayev was accused in October 2013 of embezzling more than $800 million in state assets and sentenced in November 2014 to fifteen years in prison, later reduced to six and a half years. After serving two and a half years, he was paroled, but illegally left Uzbekistan after Karimov’s death. He was arrested in Ukraine on the basis of a 15 October 2016 decree of Tashkent’s Yashnabad district criminal court. “Узбекистан направил в прокуратуру Украины запрос об экстрадиции Акбарали Абдуллаева”[“Uzbekistan sent a request to Ukraine on extradition of Akbarali Abdullayev”], Radio Ozodlik, 16 February 2017; “Племянник жены президента Узбекистана обвиняется в присвоении 800 миллионов долларов” [“Nephew of Uzbekistan’s President’s wife is accused of embezzling $800 million”], Radio Ozodlik, 3 February 2015; “About Islam Karimov Foundation”, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva personal blog.Hide Footnote

[Political prisoner] releases are not a clear sign the government will engage seriously on human rights.

Mirziyoyev appears poised to take a different approach to migration and movement than Karimov. 3.35 million Uzbeks work in Russia, the Russian internal affairs ministry says, almost double what the now defunct Federal Migration Service released in February 2016. In 2013, Karimov called these Uzbeks lazy; in January, Mirziyoyev promised to create conditions to motivate labour migrants to return.[fn]“Статистические сведения по миграционной ситуации в Российской Федерации за 12 месяцев 2016 года с распределением по странам и регионам” [“Statistical data on migration situation in the Russian Federation for the last 12 months of 2016 with a breakdown by country and region”], Internal affairs ministry, 30 January 2017.»Шавкат Мирзиёев намерен вернуть в Узбекистан граждан, которые уехали на заработки в другие страны …” [“Shavkat Mirziyoyev plans to return Uzbek citizens who left for labour …”], Universal Portal Last News, 8 February 2017; “Президент Мирзиёев: Надо вернуть наших ведущих врачей – мы создадим им все условия для работы” [“President Mirziyoyev: We need to return our key doctors and will make all necessary conditions for their work”], Anhor.uz, 9 January 2017.Hide Footnote  Uzbekistan’s unemployment is officially 5.2 per cent.[fn]“Уровень безработицы в Узбекистане не изменился” [“Level of unemployment did not change”], Kommersant.uz, 17 January 2017.Hide Footnote  In reality, unemployment and under employment, particularly in rural areas, compel many to seek work abroad. Social and economic development must be a priority for the government.

The exit visa regime, which requires citizens to apply for permission to leave the country, is also under review. Only a handful of countries still use an exit visa, including North Korea – not an attractive comparison for the new president – and change is likely, perhaps replacing it with a new international passport. Mirziyoyev’s promise to replace entry visas with 30-day tourist visit permission for citizens of fifteen countries and for citizens over 55 of another twelve countries was quickly postponed due to a stated need to establish proper tourist facilities, but the SNB may have felt overwhelmed by the prospect of more foreign visitors.[fn]“Ввести загранпаспорт или оставить выездной стикер? Рекомендации граждан будут учтены” [“To introduce international passport or maintain the system of exit visas? Recommendations of citizens will be considered”], Nuz.uz, 31 January 2017. “Uzbekistan postpones visa abolishment for tourists”, Gazeta.uz, 9 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Given Uzbekistan’s long emphasis on total control, it is likely to struggle with liberalisation of border crossing. Easing foreign national entry is put off for at least four years, but abolishment of exit visas for Uzbeks may happen sooner. International partners may have opportunity to provide expertise and equipment for managing border security that do not deprive Uzbeks of basic free movement rights.

Under Mirziyoyev, who praised achievements of the country’s ethnic Kyrgyz community, the state has given citizenship for the first time in decades to foreign nationals and stateless persons. That step will improve hundreds of lives. Gaining Uzbek citizenship was nearly impossible under Karimov.[fn]Subanbek Tashbaltaev, “Мирзиёев наградил активистов кыргызской общины Узбекистана” [“Mirziyoyev awarded Kyrgyz community activists in Uzbekistan”], Kloop.kg, 25 January 2017. “179 человек приняты в гражданство Узбекистана” [“Uzbek citizenship granted to 179 people”], Gazeta.uz, 20 December 2016. “Президент Узбекистана предоставил гражданство почти сотне человек” [“The president granted citizenship to nearly 100”], Sputnik Uzbekistan, 23 February 2017. “Узбекское гражданство: Выхода нет?” [“Uzbek citizenship: no exit?”], Ferghana News, 23 January 2014.Hide Footnote  Numbers of labour migrants, minorities and stateless persons in Uzbekistan are rough estimates. The last census was in 1989, and the country would benefit from a new one that would allow coherent understanding of its demographics and ethnic composition and provide other valuable information.

III. Friends and Neighbours

Border management and security, energy and water are significant issues for Uzbekistan and its neighbours that require domestic, regional and wider international efforts. Mirziyoyev is charting a more open course than Karimov. He has already struck a more constructive tone with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, frequent subjects of Karimov’s ire. Talks on resolving border issues with Kyrgyzstan are underway, though Bishkek remains wary.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°233, Water Pressures in Central Asia, 11 September 2014; interview, ex-senior Kyrgyz Border Service official, Bishkek, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The first Dushanbe-Tashkent flight in 25 years took place on 10 February, but the route is unlikely to be profitable, and regular service was postponed to April.[fn]“Самолёты из Ташкента в Душанбе начнут летать с апреля” [“Flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe to resume in April”], CA-News.org, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote  A visa system is in place with Tajikistan, while Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens enjoy a 60-day visa-free period in each other’s country. Despite its previously uncompromising position against upstream hydropower projects, Tashkent has been silent about the construction of the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, a possible sign of an agreement and even a shared, integrated energy system.[fn]If completed, Tajikistan’s Rogun dam on a major Amu Darya tributary, 100km downstream of Dushanbe, would be the world’s tallest (335 metres, with a 3,600 MW capacity). Crisis Group Report, Water Pressures in Central Asia, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, Uzbek analyst, January 2017; also, Farkhod Tolipov, “Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: game over, but what is the score?”, The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (CACI), 15 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Mirziyoyev’s family ties with Uzbek-Russian oligarch and Putin ally Alisher Usmanov make him a comfortable partner for the Kremlin, despite Uzbekistan’s non-alliance position in economic and military matters that complicates Russia’s ambitions in the post-Soviet space. Uzbek relations with Kazakhstan should move on from the competition Islam Karimov felt he had to deny existed and focus on partnerships in trade, security and other sectors. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are working toward better trade relations, with the focus on energy.[fn]“Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not competitors: … Karimov”, Tengrinews, 14 June 2013. “Узбекистан и Туркменистан намерены интенсифицировать сотрудничество” [“Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan plan on intensifying cooperation”], Gazeta.uz, 26 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Tashkent has expressed interest in resuming negotiations on border issues and finalising the demarcation process with all its neighbours.[fn]“Узбекистан активизирует переговоры с соседними странами по границе” [“Uzbekistan to initiate border negotiations with neighbors”], Gazeta.uz, 19 January 2017.Hide Footnote  While regular talks and meetings of border demarcation committees are a significant improvement over years of confrontation and incidents, actual delimitation is challenging, as in some cases the borderline runs through households.[fn]Alexander Morrison, “Stalin’s giant pencil: Debunking a myth about Central Asia’s borders”, Eurasianet.org, 13 February 2017.Hide Footnote  The Kyrgyz presidential campaign has produced fine promises and statements on relations with neighbours and demarcation of borders. But the issue is both political and technically complex, so swift progress should not be expected.

Though border integration is a distant prospect for Central Asia, not least because of the complex Afghanistan situation, EU expertise with external border security could help ease some of the existing barriers to movement of people, goods and services within the region. Western partners could assist, for example, with programs to install effective equipment for safe, secure, and swift border-crossing.

Vladimir Putin’s February 2017 Central Asian tour is a reminder that Russia is everywhere present in the region. The Russian president visited Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member states, with security high on the agenda.[fn]“Russia: Putin tours the Central Asian periphery”, Stratfor, 28 February 2017.Hide Footnote  Neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan are CSTO members, but the former’s president received a phone call from Putin on 28 February, while Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, met with Mirziyoyev in Tashkent the same day.[fn]“Telephone conversation with President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov”, website of the Russian president, 28 February 2017. “Президент Узбекистана принял главу внешней разведки России” [“The President of Uzbekistan met with the Head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service”], Gazeta.uz, 28 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Though border integration is a distant prospect for Central Asia ... EU expertise with external border security could help ease some of the existing barriers to movement of people, goods and services within the region.

With Uzbekistan’s neighbours drawing closer to Moscow, Mirziyoyev is left with few other foreign policy options. While welcoming Chinese investments, he is unlikely to want Beijing to become too influential. Russia and China are powerful actors, but they have no interest in liberalisation. Relations with China have been courteous but not very substantive, centring on infrastructure projects, though work has been paused on a gas pipeline, Line D, connecting Turkmenistan and China through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan is contracted to export ten billion cubic metres of gas each year. Falling demand in China for gas could hurt the Uzbek economy, as well as those of its neighbours.[fn]Ky Krauthamer, “China signals shrinking demand for Central Asian gas”, TOL, 7 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Mirziyoyev chose Turkmenistan over Russia and Kazakhstan for his first foreign visit as president (6-7 March), signing a protocol on strategic partnership that may mean a collective attempt to counter-balance Russia’s influence in the region by two countries that prefer neutrality and non-alliance.[fn]“Узбекистан и Туркменистан – стратегические партнеры” [“Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are strategic partners”], press service of the Uzbek president, 6 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Putin visited neither during his regional tour, but Russia considers Turkmenistan the weak link in Central Asian security and Uzbekistan the top exporter of violent extremists to Syria and Iraq. Both will thus continue to be subjects of Russian pressure.[fn]“Замир Кабулов: число боевиков ИГ в Афганистане может возрасти в разы” [“Zamir Kabulov: number of IS fighters in Afghanistan might increase by many-fold”], TASS, 9 February 2017.Hide Footnote

With uncertainty surrounding the U.S. approach to Central Asia under the Trump administration as to so many areas, the EU is one of the few Western actors with capacity and likely interest to pursue a comprehensive agenda of economic reform, good governance and human rights. On resuming textiles trade with Uzbekistan in December 2016, the EU acknowledged positive steps toward eradicating child labour and urged an end all forms of forced labour. Uzbeks are still forced to pick cotton, but pressure from European partners might improve the situation.[fn]“MEPs back textiles trade deal with Uzbekistan, welcome end to child labour”, European Parliament News, 14 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Fergana, November 2017; telephone interview, EU official, Brussels, December 2016.Hide Footnote  Its need to develop and modernise its agriculture could give the EU and member states a chance to build links with Tashkent and local government and businesses. Western democracies and international organisations should use such opportunities to test the new president’s intentions, while encouraging reforms, including good governance, a transparent judiciary, quality health care and education.

IV. Conclusion

Mirziyoyev did not merely inherit a system of governance built on tight, often brutal control and suspicion of change. He had an important part in creating and implementing it. Nevertheless, his first 100 days showed something of a shift from his predecessor’s approach to domestic, regional and wider international issues. If he expands on this to address the difficult issues and receives conditional support from abroad, there may be potential for sustained, broad and genuine cooperation. For now though, much more is needed. It is progress that the new administration acknowledges all is not perfect, and a beginning is needed to resolve the issues impacting society. But content is as yet lacking and delivery is uneven.

Mirziyoyev’s efforts to restore relations with neighbours should be welcomed, as Central Asian states are intertwined culturally and historically, and their border, trade, resource and security issues are interdependent. Border demarcation should be accompanied by mutual efforts to establish favourable conditions for legal movement of people as well as goods and services across the borders.

The political prisoner issue should remain high on the agenda. Hundreds of Uzbeks are still in custody; speech and expression remain suppressed. Concrete steps to free political prisoners and end torture must be undertaken to establish the new government’s credibility. Uzbekistan lacks genuine political competition, and Mirziyoyev’s power can grow – or he can choose to open political space and liberalise the economy to allow the country to transition beyond Karimov’s legacy. Which way he wants to take Uzbekistan is still uncertain.

Bishkek/Brussels, 15 March 2017

Appendix A: Map of Uzbekistan

Map of Uzbekistan and the Central Asia Region. Crisis Group, based on UN map no. 3777. Rev. 6 (Jan. 2004).
Shavkat Mirziyeyev, Prime Minister and acting President of Uzbekistan who won the presidential elections in Uzbekistan. AFP/Sputnik/Valeriy Melnikov
Briefing 84 / Europe & Central Asia

Uzbekistan: Reform or Repeat?

After 25 years of authoritarian rule, Uzbekistan faces unpredictable neighbours, a jihadi threat and deep socio-economic challenges. New President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken small steps toward vital domestic and foreign policy reform, and outside partners should push him to do more to avert real dangers ahead.

I. Overview

Uzbekistan’s 4 December presidential election formally confirmed Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the office he assumed in an acting capacity on 8 September, within days of the death of Islam Karimov. After 25 years of Karimov’s authoritarian rule, however, one of Central Asia’s most repressive states faces challenges that can only be effectively addressed by genuine domestic and foreign policy departures. Mirziyoyev has received positive notices for a few small moves in the past three months, but there is no sign as yet that he intends to alter fundamentally the system he helped shape as prime minister since 2003, a system designed to protect those in power at the expense of the population’s rights. His steps to repair relations regionally have been met with mistrust by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while the tough issues, such as sharing of resources, have yet to be broached. There has been even less indication of new directions internally, where the new president shares power with at least two other prominent members of the Karimov era.

Uzbekistan has pressing economic and social issues, unpredictable neighbours and a dangerous jihadist extremism threat, but Mirziyoyev’s first priority will likely be to consolidate his position. A balance with Rustam Azimov, the finance minister, and Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service (SNB), appears to have been maintained since the death of Karimov, the only ruler the country had known since its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. This bodes well for short-term internal stability but not for reform. Mirziyoyev will need to cultivate their continued support and that of others, including rich Uzbeks living in Russia and elsewhere, all of whom will want to preserve the status quo.

The new administration is likely to pursue business as usual with Russia, China, the U.S. and Europe. But each should use the opportunity Mirziyoyev presents to nuance their relations with Tashkent. Russia and China have an immediate interest in the stability of Uzbekistan, as any upset in Central Asia’s most populous state could destabilise the entire region, but it is unclear whether they believe domestic reforms are a necessary component of lasting stability. Uzbekistan is but one of many countries about policy toward which it is impossible to predict the approach of the U.S. president-elect, but the European Union (EU) wants improved trade ties without sacrificing its human rights principles.

While Mirziyoyev must prove to his Central Asian neighbours that his pre-election efforts were more than calculated platitudes, they should push him for serious dialogue on resources, borders, trade and mutual security. Russia, China and the West should support their efforts at a high level as progress on those issues would contribute to regional security that is in the common interest.

II. Domestic Concerns

Though four parties were permitted to field candidates, they were given more airtime than in the past, and for the first time the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/OHDIR) sent a full observation mission, the election campaign was premised from the start on an overwhelming Mirziyoyev victory. As he visited the regions, making appointments and dismissals, his campaign closely resembled Karimov’s 2015 program, stressing no foreign alliances, less state involvement in the economy and more support for businesses and farmers.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°82, Uzbekistan: In Transition, 29 September 2016. “Пришло время госорганам служить народу, а не наоборот” [“It is time for state agencies to work for the people and not vice versa”], Gazeta.uz, 22 October 2016. Mirziyoyev won 88.61 per cent of the vote; turnout was 87.73 per cent. “Шавкат Мирзиёев победил на выборах Президента” [“Shavkat Mirziyoyev won presidential elections”], Gazeta.uz, 5 December 2016. At his final presidential election in March 2015, Karimov received 90.39 per cent of the votes in a 91.08 per cent turnout. “ЦИК объявил Каримова избранным Президентом” [“Central Electoral Committee announced Karimov elected President”], Gazeta.uz, 6 April 2015.Hide Footnote

The victor must now consolidate his power while balancing important competing interests. Rustam Azimov,[fn]Oxford-educated Azimov, 57, was close to Karimov and “it is in Karimov’s will that he still has his place, Azimov is the face of Uzbekistan to the world, he understands how to be a statesman”. Crisis group interview, former Kyrgyz official, Bishkek, November 2016.Hide Footnote  the longtime finance minister, who represented Uzbekistan at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Bishkek in November, is expected to take over Mirziyoyev’s old job as prime minister. If he does not, it might indicate a serious rift in the troika that shared responsibility for the transition after Karimov’s death, which includes Rustam Inoyatov, who leads the powerful SNB. The youth and policing laws adopted almost immediately after Mirziyoyev took office had both passed Senate hearings in August and were Karimov’s last deeds rather than initiatives that demonstrated the new leader’s strength.[fn]“Uzbekistan adopts law ‘On state youth policy’”, Uzreport.uz, 15 September 2016.Hide Footnote

As the new president consolidates power, he will confront problems that include a struggling economy, high unemployment, threadbare social services, corruption and an agricultural sector in vital need of modernisation.

On 25 September, Mirziyoyev opened a “virtual reception” and telephone hotline on which citizens can file complaints. Though it received 50,000 petitions in its first three weeks, and the acting president declared that civil servants “work for the people and not vice versa”, a young Tashkent resident who filed a complaint expressed scepticism: “The agencies give the same old responses that ‘everything will be resolved soon’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tashkent, November 2016. The virtual reception’s webpage, https://pm.gov.uz, asks: “У Вас есть нерешённые проблемы, заявления, жалобы или предложения? Направляйте их Премьер-Министру Республики Узбекистан несколькими способами: по телефону, в виде обращения или посетите региональные партийные организации УзЛиДеП”. [“Do you have unresolved problems, petitions, complaints or suggestions? Send them to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Uzbekistan in different ways: by phone, by appeal, or visit regional party branches of UzLiDeP [Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan]”]. See also, “Пришло время госорганам служить народу, а не наоборот” [“It is time for state agencies to work for the people and not vice versa”], Gazeta.uz, op. cit.Hide Footnote  A virtual reception also functions on the foreign ministry website for citizens living abroad. Some hesitate to use these platforms, as they ask for name and address. “Nothing will change, but they will know who complained and about what, I don’t want to risk it”, an IT worker in Tashkent said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tashkent, November 2016.Hide Footnote  Mirziyoyev has also instituted a Facebook page featuring his activities and selected citizen complaints, an innovation for Uzbekistan’s stagnant political culture.[fn]Facebook Profile “Шавкат Мирзиёев – Shavkat Mirziyoyev”, @Mirziyoyev, Prime Minister of Uzbekistan.Hide Footnote

As the new president consolidates power, he will confront problems that include a struggling economy, high unemployment, threadbare social services, corruption and an agricultural sector in vital need of modernisation. Citizens face extraordinary movement restrictions due to an antiquated propiska system and need for an exit visa to leave the country. The security services are corrupt and abusive; political prisoners and forced labour in the cotton fields are major reasons for the state’s reputation as backward and brutal, recent gestures notwithstanding.[fn]‘“Your travel abroad is not appropriate’: Propiska, ‘exit visas’ and other relics of the Soviet era in Uzbekistan today – Executive Summary”, Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, 2010. “Political prisoner freed after 23 years following death of Uzbek despot”, The Guardian, 25 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Reform, if attempted will be slow, but the government would do well to address these issues sooner rather than later. The water-intensive cotton sector is the backbone of the economy, but its outdated practices and irrigation system leave the country overly dependent on upstream water from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Outside offers to help modernise the sector could be used not only to improve rural lives and increase incomes, but also to build opportunities for dialogue with Tashkent. Partners and donors, though, should be realistic about the pace of reform, even if Mirziyoyev gives full support. A Russian analyst noted:

If [he] tries to change [the system] fundamentally, he will face powerful forces within Uzbekistan. Political groups, clans, whatever you want to call it, have benefited from it, and they have sufficient resources to oppose fundamental changes.… No one is going to decline their benefits; no one will put up with such reforms, and Mirziyoyev understands this.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, November 2016.Hide Footnote

III. Mending Fences?

President Mirziyoyev appears to be trying to repair relations with neighbours, but they are suspicious.[fn]Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan agreed to increase trade on 26 September; on 29 September, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon pledged restoration of rail and air connections and to increase economic cooperation. A Kyrgyz delegation of 130 officials from Osh, Jalalabad and Batken provinces led by First Vice-Prime Minister Muhametkalyy Abulgaziyev visited Andijan on 1 October and met Deputy Prime Minister Adkham Ikramov. On 11 October, Mirziyoyev spoke of the need to increase trade and cooperation with Afghanistan.Hide Footnote Ahead of his several elections, Karimov also spoke of improving ties, but he never made good on his statements.[fn]“Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Flights to Resume After 24-Year Break”, Eurasianet.org, 2 December 2016.Hide Footnote There does appear to be a marked change of tone since September, but difficult issues remain, particularly Uzbek anxiety about water resources and upstream hydro-electric power plants (HPPs), and deep-seated mistrust of Tashkent’s motives elsewhere in Central Asia. Karimov, it is not forgotten, warned that if Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan pressed ahead with proposed HPPs, it could spark a war.[fn]Raushan Nurshayeva, “Uzbek leader sounds warning over Central Asia water disputes”, Reuters, 7 September 2012.Hide Footnote

The benefits of normalising borders and trade and reaching agreement on sharing natural resources are clear and should be a donor priority. The challenge for all, though, is to build trust in order to begin to address issues that have seemed intractable. Despite their misgivings, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should offer top-level consultations and propose a tripartite council to oversee day-to-day management of water and land resources.

A. Kyrgyzstan

The bilateral border disputes are a longstanding source of tension and conflict that have created hardships for citizens on both sides of the border and in enclaves.[fn]“Central Asia is home to eight enclaves with a total population of 100,000. Tensions and cross-border incidents are common, especially in and around the largest enclaves of Tajik-governed Sarvak and Vorukh, and Uzbek-governed Sokh and Shakhimardan. Access to water and pastures and strict border-crossing regimes are the primary causes of periodic conflicts that can affect up to 80,000 people”. “Caucasus and Central Asia Humanitarian Bulletin: Issue 02”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Spring 2013.Hide Footnote  In a matter of weeks this autumn, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan carried out joint surveys and provisionally resolved almost all of the un-demarcated areas.[fn]Kyrgyzstan says there have been 58 un-demarcated areas, Uzbekistan 63. They agree that 56 have now been provisionally resolved. Alexandra Titova, “Как Кыргызстан и Узбекистан начали согласовывать границы” [“How Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan started coordinating the borders”], Kloop, 16 November 2016.Hide Footnote  According to the Uzbek foreign ministry, the initiative has the personal backing of Mirziyoyev and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Some international observers call the progress “remarkable”, yet possibly “too good to be true”. High-ranking Kyrgyz officials remain deeply suspicious and stress the agreements are provisional, and Uzbekistan could yet renege on them.[fn]“Об очередной встрече рабочих групп правительственных делегаций Узбекистана и Кыргызстана” [“On another regular meeting of working groups of governmental delegations of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan”], Uzbek foreign ministry, 1 November 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, senior Kyrgyz official, Bishkek, October, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The bilateral border disputes are a longstanding source of tension and conflict that have created hardships for citizens on both sides of the border and in enclaves.

Day-to-day border crossings are now easier, and the numbers crossing at Dostuk, near Osh, have risen from 300 to 1,000 daily since Uzbekistan agreed to visits for weddings and other family celebrations, not just funerals.[fn]“Потепление на узбекско-кыргызской границе: гражданам Кыргызстана разрешили приезжать к родственникам на свадьбы” [“Warming of relations on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border: Kyrgyz citizens are allowed to visit their relatives’ weddings”], KyrTAG, 15 October 2016.Hide Footnote  But agreements have not been reached on the contentious Ungar-Too and Orto-Tokoy areas, and, according to a senior member of the Kyrgyz government, “Uzbekistan will never give us the Kempir-Abad and Andijan reservoirs, so it means we will never give them back what they want from us. These questions will never be solved”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Kyrgyz official, Bishkek, November 2016. See also, Timur Toktonaliev, “Uzbek-Kyrgyz Border Spat Highlights Tensions”, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 24 March 2016; “Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan tighten border security”, Interfax-Ukraine, 3 September 2016; and Kubanychbek Joldoshev, “Кыргызстан намерен вернуть объекты, используемые Узбекистаном” [“Kyrgyzstan intends to take back its objects used by Uzbekistan”], RFE/RL, 29 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Tensions over the proposed Kambarata-1 dam have dissipated since Russia left the project, and Kyrgyzstan struggles to find an alternative investor.[fn]Mariya Zozulya, “Kyrgyzstan’s Hydropower Projects Stall Again”, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 25 August 2016.Hide Footnote  But local tensions over water and pasture access remain. On the back of demarcation cooperation, the governments should work to resolve water issues at community level in the border areas. Tashkent should recognise that Karimov’s rule sapped trust and goodwill in Kyrgyzstan, which despite its problems charted a different course than authoritarian Uzbekistan. “Uzbekistan is trying to kill us with their embrace”, a senior Kyrgyz official said. “We shouldn’t romanticise the thaw”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Kyrgyz official, Bishkek, November 2016.Hide Footnote

International observers also worry that if the Uzbek government begins to lose interest in its post-Karimov, pre-election initiatives, the Kyrgyz government lacks the political skills and continuity to maintain engagement.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Bishkek, November 2016.Hide Footnote  That Kyrgyzstan will hold its own presidential election in 2017 is a further source of distraction and potential disruption that could derail the recent progress.

B. Tajikistan

Amid talk of abolishing visas and restoring flights between capitals, there has been scant reaction from Tashkent about construction of the Rogun dam, which began on 29 October.[fn]“Авиасообщение между Узбекистаном и Таджикистаном возобновится в первой половине 2017 года” [“Flights between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to resume in the first half of 2017”], Podrobno.uz, 7 November 2016. The Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River, 100km downstream of Dushanbe, would be up to 335 metres tall with a 3,600 MW capacity.Hide Footnote  Uzbekistan has been vehemently opposed, and Mirziyoyev’s no-comment approach for now does not necessarily signify a change. Water and energy management is critical for all five Central Asian states. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face shortages of water in summer and energy in winter, with rural Tajikistan and the Uzbek portion of the Ferghana Valley suffering acutely.[fn]Rustam Qobil, “Will Central Asia fight over water?”, BBC, 25 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Karimov’s and President Emomali Rahmon’s relationship was openly antagonistic. Under Mirziyoyev, contact with Dushanbe has been stepped up, but the “warming of relations … is not framed as widely and positively as cooperation with Kyrgyzstan”, an Uzbek analyst said. A senior Kyrgyz official dismissed Mirziyoyev’s efforts at outreach with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as a charm offensive.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bishkek, November 2016.Hide Footnote  A Tajik analyst was equally cautious but said bilateral relations are so poor that small improvements are possible on discrete issues:

Under Karimov everything was tied into one package, but Mirziyoyev seems to be willing to untie that package and resolve each problem separately. If border issues are negotiated only as border issues, they can be resolved quickly. The same relates to many other issues. Roads to connect both states can be built or repaired quickly, just like air connections can be restored fast. It could be realistic to solve these issues in half a year or one year.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Rogun, though, is different. A Russian analyst said, “for Uzbekistan, Rogun has been a painful topic for too long. Uzbekistan [cannot] suddenly change its position. Right now they prefer not to talk about it at all”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, November 2016.Hide Footnote  The difficult negotiations ahead also depend on the Tajik government’s ability to reassure Uzbekistan that water will not be politicised. Rahmon says this repeatedly, but Tashkent may consider the increasingly authoritarian president inherently unreliable.[fn]Emomali Rahmon, speech at the Vakhsh River Diversion Ceremony, Rogun city, transcript on the president’s website, 29 October 2016; Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°78, Tajikistan Early Warning: Internal Pressures, External Threats, 11 January 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Beyond the Region

Mirziyoyev bolstered his pre-election stature by high-profile meetings with senior Russian, Chinese, EU, U.S. and Turkish representatives that underscored the widespread strategic interest in Uzbekistan. The foreign ministry also facilitated many regional diplomatic sessions. Though these were viewed positively, an Uzbek analyst said, they “could be merely part of the presidential campaign; their sustainability is in question”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bishkek, November 2016.Hide Footnote

A radical or swift departure from Karimov’s foreign policies should not be expected.

A radical or swift departure from Karimov’s foreign policies should not be expected. Uzbekistan’s partners may find more openness to dialogue, but the issues remain the same. Russia seeks a closer relationship, but Tashkent, while cautiously increasing security cooperation, will continue to avoid economic or military bloc membership.[fn]“Узбекистан усилит свои вооружённые силы с помощью России” [“Uzbekistan will strengthen its military forces with the help of Russia”], Anhor, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote China, which views Central Asia as a commercial conduit and investment opportunity, considers its most populous state (31.8 million) particularly attractive. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, following 12 November Tashkent meetings with Mirziyoyev and his Uzbek counterpart, Abdulaziz Kamilov, stressed there is “new impetus” for even deeper cooperation.[fn]“Wang Yi: China-Uzbekistan Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is Believed to Achieve New Progress”, Chinese foreign ministry, 13 November 2016; “Исполняющий обязанности президента Республики Узбекистан Шавкат Мирзиёев 12 ноября принял министра иностранных дел Китайской Народной Республики Ван И” [“Acting President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev Received Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi on 12 November”], Uzbek foreign ministry, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Early indications are that the Obama administration has wanted to maintain a strategic relationship, including through the C5+1 format, a platform the Central Asian states and the U.S. created in 2015.[fn]“Meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State”, Uzbek foreign ministry, 29 October 2016; also, “U.S.-Central Asia (C5+1) Joint Projects”, press release, U.S. Department of State, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote

The EU is open to more ties and trade, including a textiles protocol, despite continued forced labour in the cotton sector. Rapporteur Maria Arena said the EU International Trade Committee’s 10 November recommendation was not a blank cheque: “We want the Uzbek government to fully cooperate with the International Labour Organisation to eradicate child and forced labour. In the case of serious human rights violations, the Parliament will immediately ask for the suspension of the agreement”.[fn]“MEPs Back Trade in Textiles with Uzbekistan”, EP press release, 10 November 2016. It added: “In December 2011, Parliament adopted an interim report postponing its decision on consent pending an improvement in the human rights situation … particularly in the fields of child and forced labour in the annual cotton harvest. Since then the International Labour Organization (ILO) has carried out three monitoring missions which revealed that child labour has been virtually eradicated. The Uzbek authorities have made several commitments to progressively abolish adult forced labour, and in its latest report of 2015, ILO identified a number of indicators linked to abusive work conditions and controversial recruitment processes, which are currently being addressed by the Uzbek government in cooperation with the ILO”. Activists strongly disagree, saying there is ample evidence of continuing abuses. “Letter to European Parliament Committee on International Trade regarding … textile protocol”, Human Rights Watch, 7 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Activists, however, argue that Uzbekistan has made little progress on cotton-sector forced labour and want the European Parliament (EP) to reject it in December. This is unlikely, since the EU believes not incorporating the protocol into the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement could risk dialogue across the board.[fn]Umberto Bacchi, “EU Lawmakers Back Uzbekistan Trade Deal Opposed by Anti-Slavery Activists”, Reuters, 10 November 2016.Hide Footnote  If the EP gives final approval, the onus will be on Brussels to commit firmly to the conditionality it outlines and use what Uzbekistan will see as both symbolic gesture and economic opportunity to push for deeper dialogue on reforms, including regionally consequential ones on resources and borders.

V. Conclusion

If Mirziyoyev follows through, Uzbekistan may become a better neighbour in Central Asia and a more reliable actor with partners in South Asia, China, Russia and Europe. Its citizens’ lives would also improve. But the new president is a product of Karimov’s system, an insider whose priority will be consolidating his power. He may feel little incentive to reform a system that has rewarded him and other members of the political and economic elite. The need for reform is great, however.

The new president is a product of Karimov’s system, an insider whose priority will be consolidating his power.

The long-term stability of the country and Central Asia requires successful transition from a police state to one able to meet obligations to its citizens. That is not yet happening. Steps to rid the cotton sector of child labour have had some success, but children have been replaced by older students, for example, and the coercive system for adults remains in place. Western partners consequently should use such leverage as they have to press on human rights. Russia and China are possibly more influential actors and also have a stake in promoting development and better regional relations to foster sustainable regional stability, but their appreciation of the link between human rights and that stability is problematic.

Bishkek/Brussels, 6 December 2016