By Yuriy Korol
As Uzbekistan headed for the polls on December 4 to choose a successor for longtime strongman Islam Karimov, his prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was all but guaranteed to succeed Karimov as president.
This came as no shock to analysts of the Central Asian nation as Mirziyoyev had long been in Karimov’s inner circle serving as the country’s prime minister since 2003. With Uzbekistan’s notoriously high turnover rates in senior government posts due to extensive infighting exacerbated by the country’s clan based power dynamics, Mirziyoyev’s political longevity has been attributed to his ability to effectively manage these dynamics, especially among the Tashkent and Samarkand clans, widely considered to be the most influential.
Despite rumors that the transition of power following Karimov’s death would dynastically pass to one of his two daughters, Mirziyoyev emerged as the clear frontrunner after he was appointed to organize Islam Karimov’s funeral where he was seen meeting with various heads of state including his Russian counterpart Dimitri Medvedev. His succession was placed beyond reasonable doubt after he was named interim president, a position which according to the Uzbek constitution should have passed to the little known Senate Chairman, Nigmatilla Yuldashev.
Preliminary results point to Mr. Mirziyoyev winning with approximately 88.6% of the vote. This would be considered a remarkable feat in almost any other country, but is a fairly common occurrence in Uzbekistan as Mr. Karimov had been winning elections with poll numbers upwards of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s current figure. Fraud had long been rampant in previous Uzbek elections and, despite attempts to increase transparency, all feasible political opposition had been heavily suppressed by state actors making this election devoid of any realistic competition.
However, an independent Uzbekistan has never known another president other than Islam Karimov and Mr. Mirziyoyev has already promised a range of reforms designed to increase his popularity domestically and abroad. What are these proposed policies and what effects would they have for the people of Uzbekistan?
Domestic Policy – A New Tone?
Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for three decades by stamping out dissent with threats of imprisonment, torture, and violence, all the while continuing with Soviet style secularism in a Sunni majority population. Like its people, the Uzbek economy has also been tightly controlled.
The domestic economy has been propped up by a combination of small scale free enterprise, foreign investment in natural resource extraction, particularly in natural gas, and a cotton industry which is still supported in part by child labor. However, one of the most important sources of income for the average Uzbek population comes from remittances from abroad sent by migrant laborers who mostly live and work in Russia. Figures point to Twelve percent of the Uzbek GDP coming from migrant laborers sending money from Russia alone. That said, the fall of the Russian Ruble has reduced that figure by about half.
With the Uzbek economy on course to grow at its slowest rate in over a decade, Mr. Mirziyoyev has made economic reform a central pillar in his election promises. His main economic liberalization promises consist of mainly reforming the country’s currency market and easing restrictions for small businesses. While not earthshattering, these policies aim to placate some of the most apparent economic issues affecting the country.
As stated earlier, much of Uzbekistan’s economy is based on remittances from abroad, yet convertibility of the Uzbek currency in either direction is strictly controlled by the state. With official monthly quotas in place for converting the Uzbek Som into U.S. Dollars or Russian Rubles, a thriving black market exists to handle the excess demand. This naturally brings with it a level of criminality and corruption which makes successful business ownership all but impossible for those not part of the government elite. A streamlined currency convertibility market would also serve to attract foreign investment, a part of the economy which could most benefit the largest market in Central Asia of approximately 30 million people.
Solving Regional Differences
Uzbekistan geographically straddles the divide between Asia and Europe. This is representative in the people, the culture, and in its diplomatic mindset. In the ‘near abroad,’ Uzbekistan borders and has varying relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The ethnic boundaries between these countries are not represented with the current borders. Despite frequently conflicting national interests, it is important to maintain a base degree of relations in order to protect the interests of the fluid ethnic boundaries. In recent history, this has been easier said than done. Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors can be described as a range from stability to almost vitriol. For example, while Turkmenistan’s hermit state status keeps relations uneventful, Uzbekistan fell just shy of armed conflict with Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s chief economic rival in the region, has experienced the most cordial relations out of the rest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics owing to the degree of coordination needed for mutual efforts to tackle drug trafficking through their mutual border. Uzbekistan is one of the main arteries for the opiate trade which originates from Afghanistan, its southern neighbor. The longtime Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev saw an equal in Islam Karimov as they were both their respective countries’ sole heads of state since independence and therefore approved of each other’s authoritarian grips on power by stifling dissent and opposition. Mr. Nazarbaev visited Uzbekistan to pay his respects at Mr. Karimov’s funeral in Samarkand and sat down for an official meeting with Mr. Mirziyoyev to discuss the improved development of ties between the two countries, particularly in trade. For continuity’s sake, it is most likely in Mr. Mirziyoyev’s best interest to attempt to maintain these relations especially as there have currently been few proposals to overhaul relations in any major way.
Mr. Mirziyoyev has also travelled to Tajikistan in late September to foster improved relations which have soured due to various reasons. The main strategic disagreement, and the main source of discussion in Mr. Mirziyoyev’s diplomatic has been over Tajikistan’s planned construction of the massive Roghun hydroelectric dam in one of the region’s major rivers. Tashkent has expressed concerns that the proposed dam will deplete the much needed irrigation canals and therefore harm its lucrative agricultural sector. No agreement has been made so far, but the fact that Mr. Mirziyoyev has attempted to create some dialogue on the issue is promising. If Mr. Mirziyoyev’s demonstrated intentions serve as a baseline for future relations, then they spell out more cooperative future for these two neighbors.
Uzbek regional relations with Kyrgyzstan have been the most problematic. Shortly before Mr. Karimov’s passing, Uzbekistan had security service members occupying a strategic point on a disputed part of the Kyrgyz border. Uzbek authorities also sealed the border indefinitely into Kyrgyzstan even for private individuals which heightened tensions with ethnic Kyrgyz who live in the border regions of Uzbekistan. This again highlights the imperfect borders of distinct ethnicities within Central Asia and the additional strain it places on mutual relations and diplomacy. Following the passing of Mr. Karimov, the occupied territory was promptly vacated and the border was reopened. This indicates a rapid shift of opinion coming from Tashkent which seems to favor a reconciliatory tone. While open negotiations about expanding ties with Kyrgyzstan have not yet taken place, it seems like Mr. Mirziyoyev has taken a step back from conflict and successfully de-escalated the situation.
The election of Shavkhat Mirziyoyev has brought with it exciting possibilities for the people of Uzbekistan and its regional partners. While his proposals have not been implemented, they signal a clear departure from Islam Karimov’s heavy handed politics and diplomacy. What is fairly certain, however, is the continued tradition of authoritarianism and widespread human right violations which had kept Islam Karimov in power to continue under his protégé. Ultimately, Uzbekistan’s future is uncertain. With increased attempts to exert their influence, major powers like Russia and China, and to a smaller extent the United States and Turkey, a ‘Great Game’ scenario may occur in an attempt to court the new president into a respective sphere of influence. It is too early to say how Mr. Mirziyoyev may respond to these outside pressures, but if his presidency maintains his predecessor’s neutrality while enacting liberalized economic reforms and and improving regional relations, then Uzbekistan has a chance to make the most of its potential.