Decades after incompetent rule by a Soviet dictator Central Asia’s most populous country is taking important steps toward strengthening the rule of law and opening its economy.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev who came to power in 2016 has consolidated his rule over Central Asia’s most populous country and used it to take the country in a new direction. He has opened the country economically and taken a handful of cautious reforms.
“There are those in the human rights community who are worried about the country that this is all just posturing by Mirziyoyev,” said DFID official who commented off this record, “that but, all the signs are encouraging.
While Freedom of the Press and other concerns remain has Mirziyoyev signalled a new direction early in his tenure when he declined to use a plane provided to him by the then head of Uzbekistan’s security services — Rustam Inoyatov. Instead, the new Uzbek President instead used another government plane for his first trip to the United States.
It may have been an early warning to Inoyatov was removed as head of the security services and given a seat in the Uzbek Senate in January. That move shocked long-time Central Asia watchers who saw Inoyatov as the most powerful figure in the country following the death of long-time dictator Islam Karimov in 2016. In a further signal that there is a new sheriff in town Inoyatov appears to have lost his place in the Senate.
Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world (the other is Litchetienstien) and its high mountains along its borders with China and Afghanistan. After independence in 1991, Karimov and his security apparatus saw Uzbekistan’s geopolitical situation and turned inward.
Under President Karimov, Uzbeks loved to tell a joke about the country’s geopolitical situation:
“A pessimist studies the manual of the [AK-47] Kalishnikov, an optimist — learns Chinese.”
Mirziyoyev has a different outlook. He is implementing a pro-business strategy which saw the economy grow 5.3% in 2017. He has also looked to reduce non-tariff barriers and open new relationship which borders all other Central Asian states and northern Afghanistan
In March, It hosted the Tashkent Summit a meeting of 20 countries to find peace in Afghanistan
It was a step in the right direction but, the situation in Afghanistan is likely to remain intractable for some time. Mirziyoyev’s greatest diplomatic success, however, occurred with Tajikistan. Under his predecessor Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan intervened in the Tajik Civil War (1992-1997), and relations between the two states remained icy. Karimov even threatened war over Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam if it disrupted Uzbekistan’s water supply.
Mirziyoyev, trip there earlier this year (the first in some time for an Uzbek) leader paved the way for a diplomatic breakthrough. Earlier this year Tajikistan began electrical exports to Uzbekistan for the first time in nine years. The move could lead to the resumption of the Soviet-era Central Asian power grind, another move which could contribute to regional security.
Both Karimov and Mirziyoyev criticized “Great Game” attitudes to the region says. Says Maximilian Hess a Senior Political Risk Analyst at AKE International. However, the key difference between the two is in how they have sought to pursue this.
“Mirziyoyev has sought to reposition Uzbekistan as a valuable and amiable partner – turning its sizable population, strategic location in Central Asia, and his ostensible desire for reform into levers by which he can advance Uzbekistan’s cooperation with neighbours and regional actors,” he said.
In short Mirziyoyev and his administration take the world view not of the KGB but, that of the original Silk Road. Centuries ago Uzbek cities were the centre of vital East-West trade. Samarkand was as vital to the medieval economy as Singapore or Shanghai is today.
“Uzbekistan was once the heart of the Silk Road,” says Alisher Shaykhov Ambassador for the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Kingdom,” and it can be again. Shaykhov spoke to the author on the sidelines of the FT UK-Uzbekistan Energy Forum.
Until his posting to the United Kingdom, Shaykhov was the head of Uzbekistan’s Chamber of Commerce so Shaykhov. But, signs are encouraging such as Uzbekistan’s plan to allow visitors from most countries e-visas. The country is a well-established natural gas producer. A recent currency liberalization and the opening of the country to investment attracted the eye of major international oil companies. However, Mirziyoyev has made clear his plans to expand industry, agriculture and tourism with an eye to attract foreign investors.
Civil liberties remain and issue (but, even here there are promising signs). To be sure full-blown Jeffersonian democracy on the banks of Zeravshan River is not around the corner. But, the country is taking important steps in a more liberal direction.