by Shairbek Dzhuraev , PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews
Uncertainty seemed the only certainty when president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov fell critically ill on August 28, 2016. Some feared the regime succession might go awry, bringing different elite factions into open conflict. Others thought of the end of the harsh authoritarian regime. The smooth election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the second president of Uzbekistan proved pessimists wrong. Now he is likely to do the same with optimists.
The power transition in Uzbekistan was one of the long and anxiously awaited events in Central Asia. The political regime of Islam Karimov who ruled the country for 25 years, allowed no public political competition and elections were anything but free or fair. Little was known of internal power dynamics within the political elites while disturbances in the most populated country of the region would benefit no one. At the same time, the departure of Islam Karimov seemed a necessary condition for any hopes for building democracy and promoting human rights in the country. Yet, it remained unclear whether it would be sufficient condition or not.
The transition went remarkably smooth. A complete silence aside during several days when president Karimov was apparently dead but not announced so, there was no sign of any internal power struggle. Out of several top leaders rumored likely successors, long-serving prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev emerged as an unchallenged front-runner. He headed Karimov’s funerals, a big sign already for those remembering the Soviet saying of “who buries the dead is the next leader”. Soon after, the parliament speaker Nigmatulla Yuldashev, sidestepping the Constitutional provisions, deferred his responsibilities of the acting president to prime minister Mirziyoyev, signalling the nature and direction of the forthcoming power transition. The ensuing presidential elections were as competitive as they were in previous years, with Mirziyoyev winning over 88 of votes and three opponents happily grabbing their routine 0-3 percents.
The unfolding of the power transition once again underscored how opaque the Uzbekistani politics remained both for the public and for scholarly community. Many claim the events were likely to have developed the way they did, but few conveyed similar confidence before Karimov’s death. The talks of regional-political “clans” were as entertaining for imagination as poor in substance. Speaking of various “models” of post-Soviet successions (such as Azerbaijan’s dynastic succession, Russia’s controlled succession or Kyrgyzstan’s uncontrolled succession), observers were mostly left to guess as to why one or another model might work out in Tashkent. A big question now is whether the presidency of Mirziyoyev will make the Uzbek politics any more transparent and comprehensible.
Having emerged the country’s leader in September 2016, Mirziyoyev caught many by surprise by acting boldly to relax some Karimov-time restrictions. Long-time political prisoners were released. The so-called presidential highway was opened for public use with no restrictions and a number of singers and artists were allowed into TV airing. The authorities proposed liberalising the currency exchange policies and reducing “inspections” of private businesses. Signs of a “thaw” were seen internationally, too.
Famous for being a difficult country to visit, Uzbekistan would now consider scrapping visa-entry requirements for some 27 countries of the world. Central Asian governments, each with numerous problems with Karimov-led Uzbekistan, felt the new leadership is more open and forward-looking. Thus, the Uzbek-Kazakh border highway M38 was opened for mutual use after about a decade of non-operation. In October-November the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governmental delegations exchanged large-scaled visits to Andizhan and Osh respectively, both in Ferghana valley that hosts some of the major bilateral problems on shared borders and water resources.
How genuine and sustainable the changes would be is far from being clear for an outsider. Going for his first presidential elections, Mirziyoyev clearly needed to strike a fine balance between showing loyalty to Karimov’s course and outlining his own distinctive policy stamps. As he grows more confident in his new seat, Mirziyoyev might grow less dependent on appeasing the public. First signs are there: few days after inauguration as a president, Mirziyoyev postponed the much-discussed proposal of scrapping visa requirements for citizens of 27 countries to 2021.
Some sketchy stories from Uzbekistan paint him as a quick-tempered person who does not hesitate using his fists in his office. Such methods do not contrast too much with the state’s methods of getting things done in the country. Mirziyoyev long career in the highest governmental positions (he served as a province governor for seven years before becoming prime minister in 2003) also mean he is one of co-architects of the current system rather than a one to dismantle it. As the post-transition dust settles, we are likely to see the beginning of another long presidency concerned more with stability and control and less with human rights and democracy.
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.