COMMENT: Uzbekistan is being transformed, but where are the democratic reforms?

COMMENT: Uzbekistan is being transformed, but where are the democratic reforms?
In his end of year speech, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev used the word “reform” 34 times, but mentioned democratic reforms only three times, and then only in general terms.
By Fred Harrison in London January 6, 2021

In his sweeping two and half hour end of year address last week to the Uzbek parliament, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev used the word “reform” 34 times. There was agricultural reform, judicial reform, reforms in education, health care and human rights, economic and banking reforms, administrative reforms, human rights reforms, and so on and so on. But strangely, in 10,881 words (in Uzbek; 13,492 in the English translation), he mentioned democratic reform just three times.

It’s the elephant in the room at present in Uzbekistan. Eleven months from now, Mirziyoyev will face his second presidential election, having first been elected in December 2016 following the death of his authoritarian predecessor, Islam Karimov. No-one knows whether Mirziyoyev faces a genuinely contested election or whether it will be, as The Economist described the 2019 parliamentary vote, just another “semi-serious election”.

Few doubt that Mirziyoyev is an energetic reformer. He has wrought vast changes to the economy and the way the state is managed. And there is much more on the way, from one of the most ambitious privatisation programmes currently found in the world to the development of a whole new social support system intended to fight widespread poverty. But even as he catalogued his plans in his year-end address to the parliament, it was clear who is in charge. On matters large and small, national or local, Mirziyoyev was “instructing” legislators what needs to be done. For instance, in the wake of some recent headline-grabbing disasters and fires, he said, “In this regard, the Government is instructed to draft a law on the state of emergency and a programme to address these problems within two months.”

‘Important shift’

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and now adviser to Mirziyoyev on economic development and governance, believes the speech marked an important shift on Uzbekistan’s reform journey. “President Mirziyoyev set out his vision for the ‘new Uzbekistan’,” Sir Suma said in an interview. “He made clear the link between reforms and what the public value such as jobs, better education and healthcare. He said that the private sector, not the state, would drive the economy in the coming years. And that public administration and regional leaders would be judged on their delivery for the people. And the president encouraged the government to listen more to the views of the citizen.”

And yet, there is that elephant in the room, political reform, to deal with. The clichéd old English-language metaphor may be familiar in Uzbekistan via its roots in neighbouring Russia, where the 19th Century poet Ivan Krylov wrote a short story about a man visiting a museum who examines all sorts of small items but completely overlooks an elephant.

Mirziyoyev seems well aware of his particular elephant’s existence. But in contrast to the attention given to the details of bank privatisation, improvements to rural schools or even fire safety regulations, his year-end address stuck to generalisations.

“The Central Electoral Commission should pay special attention to the organisation of the upcoming high-level elections on the basis of national legislation and generally recognized international democratic principles,” he said. He spoke of developing “systemic knowledge of electoral legislation and international standards” among electoral commission members.

He even made reference to the recommendations of international observers from the last elections, though he made a point of stating it would be their “acceptable” recommendations, which would be implemented. Most of the observers stopped well short of describing past voting as free and fair.

Mirziyoyev appears to feel the time has not yet come for full-fledged competition in political life. Elsewhere in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), politics has been taken captive by corrupt insiders and the rich elites.

Address highlights corruption

Indeed, the president dropped hints about the moves he feels should be taken first. The address highlighted several, including corruption.

“It is no secret that due to the lack of proper organisation of work in the field, some managers lack competence and qualifications, there is bureaucracy, corruption, indifference and negligence,” he said at one point.

“It is essential to prevent corruption and ensure transparency in decision-making processes in all public bodies,” he said at another.

He stressed the need for media freedom. “Fair criticism of objective journalists and bloggers points to the mistakes and shortcomings of the old-fashioned leaders, forcing them to change their style of work and increase their responsibility,” he said. “From now on, every public body must engage in constant dialogue and cooperation with the media in its day-to-day activities.”

This appears to be an indirect response to recent grumblings within the government regarding blog posts complaining about seasonal power and natural gas shortages. He singled out the government’s Information and Mass Communications Agency, formed on his watch to “broadly support and protect the media” and promote greater transparency. “In order to bring to a new level the reform in the information sphere, to ensure its further development, full support for independent media activities, I think it is necessary to critically review the activities of the agency,” he said.

In other words, Mirziyoyev appears to be very aware of the risks of ignoring political reform—that elephant stomping about in the background. But he has placed economic and administrative reforms at the top of his agenda. The elephant comes later. In one of his three references to political change, he gave this ringing endorsement of the process he has in mind:

“No matter how difficult it may be, we will not deviate from the path of democratic reforms.”

Fred Harrison, with the London consultancy Belgrave Europe, is a former international journalist who has spent the last 20 years advising emerging market governments on reforms, FDI and their international image. He has been successfully working in Uzbekistan since 2018.