In Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, near the blue-domed madrassas of central Registan Square, young Uzbeks still jostle for selfies by the statue of a local boy made good, the late dictator Islam Karimov. But, 17 months after Karimov’s death, there are signs that a country that democracy watchdog Freedom House long ranked alongside North Korea on political rights and civil liberties is starting to loosen the screws.
Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, laid flowers at Karimov’s statue late last month on what would have been his 80th birthday. The next day he took a step that a year ago would have seemed unimaginable. He sacked, or at least moved aside, Uzbekistan’s secret police chief of 23 years, Rustam Inoyatov. A key Karimov henchman, Mr Inoyatov, was a pillar of a system known for imprisoning, and often torturing, political opponents, journalists, human rights activists and Islamists.
While Mr Mirziyoyev was part of the old system too, as prime minister for 13 years, his ousting of Mr Inoyatov was the boldest in a series of steps apparently designed to start opening the country up. He has freed 18 high-profile political prisoners — even if thousands more remain in jail — and taken nearly 16,000 people off a 17,500-strong security blacklist of potential extremists that stopped them travelling or getting jobs.
He has launched an online “virtual reception hall” where Uzbeks are encouraged to air grievances against the authorities; 1.5m have done so. In September, he lifted exchange restrictions on the Uzbek soum — in effect devaluing it by 90 per cent, but also removing the biggest obstacle to foreign trade and investment. “Uzbekistan,” one foreign official suggests cautiously, “is coming in from the cold.”
An Uzbek spring could have big consequences. A strategically important regional linchpin, 32m-strong Uzbekistan is the most populous of Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics and the only one that borders all the others — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — as well as Afghanistan. If its reforms deepen, it may show a region dominated by ageing authoritarian leaders that political change is possible when they die. As well as promoting integration of a 100m-strong region, an easing of Karimov’s paranoid isolationism could make Uzbekistan a player in the “New Great Game”, the jostling between Russia, China and the US for influence over the heart of Eurasia.
For now, Mr Mirziyoyev’s changes are more economic than political, and his commitment to real political liberalisation remains unclear. The president, elected in December 2016, with 88.6 per cent of the vote, has not committed to allowing genuine political opposition, still less free elections. Much of the country’s repressive apparatus remains intact. Even with the secret police boss gone, powerful lobbies, including a bloated state bureaucracy, could still stymie the changes. And in a region dogged by Islamist extremism — the ostensible pretext for Karimov’s brutal police state — loosening constraints in hope of stimulating the economy carries risks.
Rustam Inoyatov was a pillar of a system known for imprisoning, and often torturing, political opponents, journalists, human rights activists and Islamists
But Alisher Kurmanov, head of the Uzbek Senate’s foreign relations committee, says that the peaceful transition after Karimov’s death shows Uzbekistan has already passed a “strong test”.
“We heard many doomsayers . . . that there will be chaos, that Central Asia will collapse, that radicalism will spread,” he says. “But we demonstrated we are ready for a new stage of deeper reforms. We are undergoing a very huge wave of transformation.”
Karimov ran the country for 27 years since late Soviet times. His firm hand was credited with holding the country together after the Soviet collapse and avoiding the civil conflict that befell some neighbours. But his regime took a darker turn after at least 187 protesters — and possibly many more — were shot by the authorities in the south-eastern city of Andijan in 2005. For much of his era, the economy relied on exchange controls and trade barriers aimed at stimulating domestic production.
The prime driver of his successor’s reforms is jobs — or the need to create enough for a youthful and fast-growing population. Some 56 per cent of Uzbeks are aged below 30; more than 600,000 a year are entering the jobs market.
Uzbekistan’s sparkling reported growth of 7 or 8 per cent every year from 2004 to 2016 should have created enough jobs. But Yuliy Yusupov, an independent economist, says the official figures, notionally based on the old, overvalued exchange rate, “have no relation to reality”. “Our former president gave the order that there should be 8 per cent growth. So they simply wrote in the figures,” he says.
The Karimov economic model failed to deliver, Mr Yusupov says. At least 10 per cent of the population have left to seek work abroad. An estimated 2.5m are in Russia, a million more in neighbouring Kazakhstan. Farrouk, a young Uzbek truck driver in Samarkand, says many friends have gone. “There aren’t enough jobs, and even if you get work in a factory, you’ll get maybe a million soum a month,” he says — at the new exchange rate, about $120. “You can’t feed a family on that.”
The perils of migration were laid bare last month when 52 Uzbek migrants from the country’s poor and heavily populated Fergana Valley died in a horrific fire on a bus crossing the Kazakh steppe to Russia. Unlike his predecessor Karimov, who once said migrants were simply “too lazy” to work at home, Mr Mirziyoyev used the tragedy to renew a pledge to create the economic conditions to bring young Uzbeks back.
“What will I say to their parents?” Mr Mirziyoyev told a public meeting. “If we had done our job properly such events would not have happened.”
Facing racism and cultural exclusion, some Uzbeks have proved vulnerable to radicalisation abroad. Sayfullo Saipov, who drove a truck into a crowd in Lower Manhattan last October, was Uzbek, as were the men responsible for terror incidents in Stockholm and Istanbul.
But if raising wealth to reduce the threat of radicalisation at home and abroad is one motive for reform, so too is envy of more economically dynamic Kazakhstan, whose president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has also run his country since Soviet times. Despite having only 18m people, Kazakhstan — which has a less oppressive authoritarianism and a more liberal market economy — attracted $152bn of foreign direct investment in the 25 years to 2016, on World Bank figures, against $9.6bn for Uzbekistan. When Karimov died, Uzbek gross domestic product per capita in purchasing power parity terms, was just over $6,000: Kazakhstan’s was almost $25,000.
Mourners gather in Registan Square in Samarkand after the death of Islam Karimov © Reuters
The most daring economic reform so far has been making the soum fully convertible. Foreign investors, long unable to exchange all the soum they earned into foreign currency, can now begin converting the bundles of local banknotes they have amassed.
To tour round ministries and agencies in the capital, Tashkent — where some officials still seem bemused at being allowed to speak to a western journalist — is to hear excited lists of next steps. At the foreign trade ministry, the new British-educated minister says import duties have been reduced. Uzbekistan is to restart talks to join the World Trade Organization after a decade-long hiatus.
Seven special economic zones have been created, offering tax breaks for investors. Mr Mirziyoyev last month announced a two-year moratorium on unscheduled inspections of businesses — often used by authorities to harass entrepreneurs — unless senior prosecutors provide evidence of a potential crime. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the only multilateral lender with a specific democracy-building mandate, restarted operations in Tashkent in November after a decade’s absence.
Islam Karimov, seen in 2015, ran Uzbekistan for 27 years, since late Soviet times © AFP
“Uzbekistan has been through three stages,” says Azim Akhmedkhadjaev, chair of the state committee for investments, which liaises with foreign investors. “The first was the Soviet Union, the second was independence. The third is a new epoch, an epoch of intense development.”
Officials tout Uzbekistan’s natural resources including oil and gas, which is not as extensive as Kazakhstan’s but more than enough to be self-sufficient in cheap energy. Ambitious plans exist to diversify agriculture from cotton — the main crop since Soviet times but for which Uzbekistan has been criticised for using forced labour to harvest — and to expand industries from food processing to pharmaceuticals to tourism.
Creating an environment in which business can thrive, however, will require more than just economic reforms, but a shake-up of the whole political and administrative system. Rule of law needs to be established and judges given independence — both to protect citizens and companies, and to tackle widespread corruption among officials.
“Even what’s happened already is for me a kind of revolution,” says Shuhrat Ganiev, a human-rights activist in Bukhara, another of Uzbekistan’s fabled Silk Road cities. “But now it’s time to turn the fine words into actions.”
Protesters in Andijan in 2005, when at least 187 protesters — and possibly many more — were shot by the authorities in the south-eastern city © AP
Mr Mirziyoyev’s main achievement so far has been to shine a light on public officials through the website for citizen grievances and similar initiatives for lower and regional bodies. Officials in Tashkent repeat the president’s mantra that the government must be put at the service of the people, reversing the old order.
There have also been tentative steps towards a freer media. Some online news sites have become increasingly daring, even criticising Karimov. A prominent lawyer in Tashkent trial lawyer says that, even before the ousting of Mr Inoyatov, a report alleging the security chief owned property in Dubai provoked lively social media exchanges. Uzbeks had no idea if it was true, she says, “but the fact this appeared on the pages of Facebook, when the security service is so strong, shows that people have stopped being afraid.”
The country rapidly set up a round the clock news channel, Uzbekistan 24, last year. Its programming includes talk shows produced by a new non-governmental body, the International Press Centre, that has become known for tackling taboos and grilling officials.
Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev © Reuters
But Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, which was recently allowed back into Uzbekistan after being thrown out in 2010, says openness needs to go much further. He cautions that despite the release of some prisoners, several thousand political detainees remain in jail and new arrests have taken place — including of at least three journalists — raising concerns about a “revolving door” of releases and imprisonments.
“The reform agenda can only succeed if the Uzbek government takes real action to ensure free speech and guarantee a more open society, so the country’s authoritarian legacy can be left behind,” he says. After Mr Inoyatov’s dismissal, he adds, the new president needs to curb the all-pervasive influence of the SNB security service, including loosening its tentacles in business.
Foreign diplomats speculate the president’s goal for Uzbekistan may be well short of anything resembling western-style democracy, but rather to mimic the Kazakh model of a more liberal economy still combined with firm political control. “My shorthand is, we’re looking at something closer to Kazakhstan, in a few years’ time,” says one.
Given the country’s dark record, and in a world in which the predominant trend in the past year has been away from democracy, for many Uzbeks even that would be welcome progress.
Deals and influence: China, Russia and US look to court new president
The Uzbek thaw is being closely watched in Moscow, Beijing — and Washington. China and Russia see Uzbekistan as a vital security buffer and key to influencing ex-Soviet central Asia. For Moscow, the country is firmly within its sphere of influence. Beijing, meanwhile, wants to revive old Silk Road routes across Uzbekistan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Though a US air base in Uzbekistan supporting operations in Afghanistan was closed after the 2005 Andijan massacre, Washington has sought to maintain co-operation with Tashkent on security and counter-terrorism.
Russia was quickest after president Islam Karimov’s death with what one western official calls “diplomacy by swamping” — multiple visits by senior officials including President Vladimir Putin. Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev returned from Russia last April with deals worth a reported $15bn.
But frictions may lie ahead. Russia wants the Central Asian republics to be members of its vehicles for re-integrating the ex-Soviet space — the Eurasian Economic Union, and Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance. Karimov withdrew from the CSTO in 2012 and Mr Miriziyoyev appears wary.
After cultivating Uzbekistan for several years, China’s president Xi Jinping and Karimov opened a railway linking Uzbekistan’s populous Fergana Valley with Tashkent. Mr Mirziyoyev has revived plans for a railway from Xinjiang in China to Fergana. He secured deals reportedly worth $20bn during a May tour of China.
The US and western partners, say diplomats, are focused for now on shoring up Mr Mirziyoyev’s reforms. Tashkent, for its part, is taking care to develop relations on all three fronts. “For Uzbekistan, economic interests are first,” says Komiljon Karimov, the rector of Westminster International University in Tashkent. “We are not engaging much, probably, in geopolitics.”
This post originally appeared on Financial Times