Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev called the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic a global catastrophe “not seen on our planet in the last hundred years. This calamity has vividly revealed humanity’s vulnerability.”
The pandemic has come at a bad time for Uzbekistan, which was in the middle of launching a global campaign to attract badly needed investment to revive its underdeveloped economy.
After being locked up by the former President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan became isolated and what foreign investors it had attracted left. But after Mirziyoyev took over as the republic’s second-ever president, he rapidly pulled down the walls and the government went on a roadshow to bring in international companies to invest into the country’s considerable assets. Uzbekistan is the biggest and most populous country in Central Asia by far, and the natural production and distribution centre for the region. It also has an array of natural resources, including a legendary agricultural sector as well as significant gold and other minerals. The one thing it lacks, compared to its neighbours, is oil and gas, but there are exploitable deposits even of this commodity.
Amongst the biggest victims of the pandemic has been the flourishing tourism sector, where the country was hoping to leverage its history as a major way-station on the Silk Road. Inbound tourist numbers were rising rapidly and the government had already dropped visa restrictions on several dozen countries, including introducing a 30-day visa-free regime for tourists from places such as Germany, but the outbreak of the coronavirus has killed off everyone’s tourism business this year.
Continuing Uzbekistan’s mission to become a responsible member of the international community, Mirziyoyev proposed that to deal with future pandemics a UN International Code of Voluntary Commitments of States be set up to co-ordinate help improve communication between countries during pandemics.
Mirziyoyev highlighted the government’s efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and at some cost to the reform drive he has been leading. The country’s first big international investment conference that was going to be held in Tashkent had to be cancelled because of the virus.
The country has suffered at the hands of the pandemic. A virtual staff visit by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to Uzbekistan between August 24 – September 17 concluded that the country’s population and economy have been “adversely affected” by the pandemic.
The mission noted that authorities responded quickly and decisively at the start of the outbreak with measures to mitigate its economic impact and quickly established an Anti-Crisis Fund that to help families whose livelihood was affected by the lockdowns. Although the country borrowed $1bn from the IMF’s rapid reaction facility, the economy will slow this year, but unlike nearly every other economy in the world, it will not go into recession, according to the IMF forecasts.
The reform drive is continuing, despite the adverse conditions. “While the authorities’ focus has been rightly concentrated on addressing the COVID-19 crisis, they have not lost sight of the reform agenda and the medium-term goal of achieving stronger, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, to improve people’s living standards,” the IMF said.
“Social protection and health system are being cardinally strengthened to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic; targeted support is [being] provided to the population, sectors of the economy and business,” Mirziyoyev told the UNGA.
Human rights liberalisation
Uzbekistan was accused of various human rights abuses under Karimov, starting with the use of child labour to pick cotton through to the tragedy in Andijan, where several hundred people were massacred by police, according to human rights groups. Here too, Mirziyoyev has turned things around.
The international media have been given accreditation and allowed to return to the country. (bne IntelliNews’ Central Asian bureau chief was amongst the many international correspondents who were made persona non grata under Karimov.) Human rights groups have also been given permission to work again.
“As a result of our large-scale measures on political, social and economic modernisation of society, a new Uzbekistan is being formed. Today, the process of democratic transformations in our country has become irreversible,” Mirziyoyev said.
Mirziyoyev pointed to last year’s parliamentary election where new parties participated, and the development of both civil society and an independent media as achievements. The government has also adopted a policy of gender equality and hiring more women into positions of responsibility, the president said. “In our Parliament the number of women deputies has doubled,” Mirziyoyev said.
“The human rights situation has also completely changed, with forced and child labour fully abolished. A national Human Rights Strategy has also been adopted,” said Mirziyoyev.
Despite the progress, Uzbekistan’s cotton industry – formerly the biggest money-maker in the country – remains under embargo, making it difficult for Uzbekistan to attract international investors. The government has introduced a radical ban on the export of raw cotton in the hope of pushing the business up the value chain into the production of textiles. International fashion houses, always looking for a way to cut costs, are very interested but investment remains stymied by the legacy problems in the sector. However, in September Uzbekistan scored its first major success with a joint venture to produce footwear for both Nike and Adidas.
Corruption and economic reforms
Mirziyoyev worked his way through the issues the country faced and moved on to corruption.
“Comprehensive reforms to ensure true independence of the judiciary and the rule of law are being constantly implemented. The uncompromising fight against corruption has reached a new level. In this regard, important legislation has been adopted and an independent anti-corruption agency was established,” Mirziyoyev said.
Reducing corruption should promote economic growth and more than any country in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), Uzbekistan needs to create more jobs. The large population of some 33mn is not only one of the biggest in the entire block of former socialist countries; it is also one of the youngest. One of the government’s most important priorities is to create jobs for all the young people coming into the job market.
“The economic reforms are being dynamically continued in our country. For the first time, we have publically declared our determination to reduce poverty. We are achieving this through the development of entrepreneurship and job creation; improving the investment climate and business environment; building a modern infrastructure and providing targeted social assistance to the population through training people in new professions,” Mirziyoyev said. “In our country, where over half the population is young, extensive work is underway to ensure that every young person takes a worthy place in society and demonstrates their potential.”
Another of the big changes that Mirziyoyev has brought with him is the improved relations with the other so-called ‘Stans. Under the old regime the region was riven by personal rivalries and there was little co-operation. This led to major problems, as the two issues of a shared power transmission infrastructure built in Soviet times and access to water remain difficult problems to this day.
However, Mirziyoyev has reached out to his fellow presidents and relations have drastically improved. Among the main initiatives is talk of a Silk Road visa that would allow free movement within Central Asia for all the citizens of the five ‘Stans.
“We have managed to create an atmosphere of good neighbourliness, mutual trust, friendship and mutual respect amongst the states of the region,” said Mirziyoyev, who meets regularly with the other heads of state at regional meetings.
Mirziyoyev suggested taking this structure a step further and proposed establishing a Regional Centre of the Development of Transport and Communications under the auspices of the UN.
By extension of the same theme, Mirziyoyev has been also been actively talking to the Afghanis in an effort to improve regional security. Uzbekistan has a border with Afghanistan and suffers from the spill-over from its problems in the form of terrorism and drugs.
Uzbekistan has been trying to help its neighbour by improving its economy, and recently signed an electricity transition deal to provide the country with power. There are other even more ambitious projects for a transmission line that would transit Afghanistan and provide power to northern Pakistan, where there is a deficit. There are also plans for a railway line from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif to ports on the Indian Ocean. But the co-operation is not limited to energy and transport infrastructure.
In general, Mirziyoyev talked about deepening the integration of Afghanistan into Central Asia, where the former was never considered to be one of the five ‘Stans of Central Asia, but an entity in its own right. Mirziyoyev also proposed a permanent UN commission to deal with Afghanistan’s problems to help it in its social and economic development.