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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 50 New Delhi December 1, 2018

Uzbekistan Under New Regime — from Isolation to Integration

Sunday 2 December 2018

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Uzbekistan is the second largest and most populous state among the five Central Asian countries with a population exceeding 34 million. Shavkat Mirziyoev, taking over the presidency of Uzbekistan in 2016 after the demise of Islam Karimov, has undertaken the task of transformation of the country through reforms and changes in domestic and foreign policies discarding the former policy of repression and isolationism, which he could not do earlier as the Prime Minister. There is a focus on democracy, regional cooperation and integration of Uzbekistan with the world at large and promoting close political and economic ties both with the USA and Western countries and at the same time with Russia unlike his predecessor Islam Karmov, who was shifting his alliance with either the East or the West. The following facts and arguments justify these contentions.

Firstly, the US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, while addressing the American-Uzbek Chamber of Commerce Business Forum on October 23, 2018 in Tashkent attended by Mr Mirziyoev, appreciated: “I want to applaud the successful political and democratic reforms that are underway in Uzbekistan and to encourage your continued commitment to them.” In fact he was reiterating US President Donald Trump’s appreciation of reforms during Mirziyoev’s visit to the White House in May 2018. Hence Ross assured close partnership between the USA and Uzbekistan and that the United States was “absolutely committed to being a strategic partner in your growth and development, through trade, investment, and your outreach to other nations in Central Asia”.

 Secondly, prior to his meeting with the US Commerce Secretary, on October 8, 2018, Mirziyoev had made a trip to France as a part of his first official visit to a European Union country since taking over the helm of the long-isolated Central Asian state. In Paris he met French President Emmanuel Macron as well as other government officials, lawmakers, and representatives of the French financial institutions and companies to strengthen strategic ties with France. This is evident from his latest policy- decision according to which French nationals can travel to Uzbekistan for upto 30 days without a visa.

Thirdly, Mirziyoev has every reason to be satisfied and confident with his policy to enhance and strengthen economic and political ties with Russia because President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Uzbekistan on October 18, 2018 since Mirziyoev took over the presidency in 2016. Both the leaders discussed issues pertaining to bilateral military technical cooperation and regional security. Mirziyoev was candid in stating: “A detailed exchange of opinions has taken place on countering terrorism, extremism, and especially the radicali-sation of youth.” During the last about two decades Russia and Uzbekistan have been victims of these threats to security as also drug trafficking emanating from Afghanistan. Hence both the leaders were in agreement about the policy-measures needed with regard to Afghanistan.

Equally important is the fact several documents, including a plan of Russian-Uzbek cooperation for 2019-2024, a memorandum on cooperation in oil and gas sectors, a programme on cultural and humanitarian cooperation, and other agreements were signed during Putin’s visit. On October 19, 2018 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mirziyoev launched the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan’s western region of Navoiy, which Moscow estimates will cost $ 11 billion. It is a matter of great significance that, as stated by Putin, this will be the first nuclear plant in Central Asia and will have two reactors with a capacity of 2.4-megawatts to produce cheap and clean electricity for customers both in Uzbekistan and also other Central Asian countries. This will ensure energy stability not only for Uzbekistan but for the whole region of Central Asia.

Fourthly, Uzbekistan as also other landlocked Central Asian countries face acute problems of water mainly after the two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, were diverted for Soviet irrigation projects and therefore the Aral Sea has lost 90 per cent of its size since the 1960s. Hence leaders of five former Soviet republics in Central Asia met in Turkmenistan on August 24, 2018 to discuss the way to save the Aral Sea, which is facing severe environmental issues and Aral Sea degradation is one of the world’s worst disasters. In this background Mirziyoev announced that his country would spend $ 2.6 billion over five years to develop the area around the Aral Sea, which is an evidence of his policy of close regional cooperation and support to neigh-bouring countries, overriding conflicts that prevailed between Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz republic in the past.

Fifthly, as opined by Western analysts and contended by Mirziyoev himself, Uzbekistan had been suffering from corruption, protec-tionism, and government intervention in various aspects of the economy that had hampered growth. Hence the new government is aware of the need to improve the investment climate and is taking incremental steps to reform the business sector, float the exchange rate, offer financing and tax advantages to potential foreign investors, and remove some capital controls. To implement his policy, Mirziyoev embarked on an anti-corruption campaign that has purged scores of top government officials including the powerful head of the country’s security service, Ruslan Inoyatov, who many had seen as untouchable.

Sixth, as per the World Bank report in 2017, the Uzbek Government launched an ambitious programme of market-oriented reforms that are unprecedented in the country’s modern history. At the same time there is need to prioritise and implement reform policies to sustain economic growth and create employment opportunities. Efforts have been made by the present government to implement policy-decisions to reform the economy. For instance, the government’s National Development Strategy for 2017—21 aims to transform the country by liberalising the economy, reshaping the role of the state in the economy, modernising the agriculture sector, strengthening governance, creating markets, including financial services, enabling private sector growth, investing in human capital, and improving social protection and service delivery for all citizens. Mirziyoev has proposed to give priority for the economic development of the Fergana Valley which, as reported by Western analysts, was neglected by the former President and his family as it was under their control. Mirziyoev was frank in stating that over the past 27 years, not a single new factory had been set up in Ferghana which is a vital region of the country.

Seventh, several democratic reform measures have been undertaken by Mirziyoev and, as opined by several Western analysts, he has been trying to move away from the oppressive policies of his predecessor. This has made some positive impact on the image of the country. For instance, on September 26, 2018, 78-year-old Tolib Yoqubov, a prominent Uzbek human rights activist and outspoken critic of Karimov, returned to Uzbekistan after more than a decade in exile in France. He was the founder of the Uzbek Human Rights Society but fled Uzbekistan in 2007 fearing for his safety. The Uzbek authorities had withdrawn his citizenship in 2014.

Eighth as opined by Mike Eckel, the publicity and propaganda that prevailed during the regime of Islam Karimov and his family members have been drastically curtailed since Mirziyoev has taken over the presidency. Stanislav Pritchin of Chatham House confirmed this contention: “Islam Karimov and his family were at the centre of power and the economy, and, of course, when the personality changed, the system had to be changed.” It needs to be mentioned that the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov, Gulana Karimova, was and has been under house arrest on corruption charges and another daughter, Lola, has been forced to leave her position as the Uzbek ambassador to UNESCO and at present lives outside the country.

 Thus in lieu of conclusion it may be stated that even as several social, economic and problems persist, Uzbekistan has been undergoing major developments and transformation under the new regime of Mirziyoev.

Dr Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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