Uzbekistan: Are Things any Better under Shavkat Mirziyoyev?
Back in September of 2016, Central Asia’s most iconic and infamous strongman took his last breath. Concerns about Islam Karimov’s health had been rife in the preceding months as the president limited his public engagements. There had also been unconfirmed reports of his death in the days prior to the official announcement, with many speculating that the news was withheld several days in order to redraw and clarify the lines of succession and minimize the chances of a coup amidst the vacuum of power left behind after Karimov’s demise.
And so as the country prepared to mourn its leader, the government was more preoccupied with calculating the future trajectory of the country that had only seen leadership under Islam Karimov since its independence in 1991. Without the overwhelming presence of Islam Karimov, the country might as well have been a rudderless ship.
Karimov’s style of governance was hardly in keeping with global expectations of a national leader. He cracked down on opposition, squashed dissent, unapologetically rigged elections and did not hesitate to use the full force of the state against unarmed protestors; but despite all these concerns, there was no question that he managed to keep the country intact and cultivate a society that he saw as perfect in his own image.
On the question of foreign policy, the president appeared wary of great power politics. He maintained cordial relations with Russia, the US and China but always engaged with them at an arm’s length. When the US started becoming too vocal about Uzbekistan’s human rights problem, the administration was quick to close down the Karshi-Khanabad Airbase and evict US troops despite sharing the American goal of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.
And yet on 2nd September 2016, Uzbekistan stood at a cross roads. Would the baton of leadership pass onto a member of the Karimov household? Gulnara Karimova seemed to be favorite for succession. As the oldest of Karimov’s children, she had been exposed to mainstream politics by her father and was groomed to assume the role of leadership. Over the years, she had held a number of key political and diplomatic positions, has received a doctorate in Political Science and was also a pop culture/fashion icon in her home country.
She had been placed under house arrest in 2014 after allegations of corruption and bribery came to light; whereas Gulnara responded by stating that the allegations were a conspiracy to drive a wedge between her and her father. Placing her under house arrest pending investigation was seen as a shrewd face saving move by Islam Karimov. With the motive being to avoid dispensing the same punitive justice for his daughter that he had been infamous for ordering on the general Uzbek populace and yet at the same time, take the bare minimum action necessary to avoid being seen as an impotent leader. Nonetheless, she was still regarded by many as the heir-apparent despite the ostensible falling out.
However, in an inexplicable turn of events, the Chairman of the Uzbek Senate Nigmatilla Yuldashev nominated the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev for the position of president.
Mirziyoyev has been considered by many to be Karimov’s political protégé. He rose to political prominence rather quietly and until being appointed as Prime Minister, had only been considered a mediocre player in the Uzbek political theatre. However, he learned the tricks of the trade quickly, something he proved without a doubt by securing a staggering 88.6% of the popular vote in the presidential elections, widely believed to be rigged like the elections held under Islam Karimov’s tenure.
Before the elections, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was eager to show the world that his Uzbekistan would be starkly different to that of his predecessor. He released Samandar Kukanov of the opposition Erk Democratic Party after 23 years of imprisonment, Uzbek journalist Bekjon after almost 18 years and Uzbek banking pioneer Rustam Usmonov after 19 years in jail.
On the other hand, there are concerns about Gulnara’s well-being. Most recently, her son, Islam Karimov Jr, living in self-imposed exile, has spoken to the media and demanded that Uzbek authorities allow him access to his mother who he maintains is still being detained illegally. Reports that she had died in custody had also surfaced earlier.
Thus, it can be safely assumed that the internal political situation of the country has not changed much with the transfer of power and the regime remains as repressive as ever. Any actions taken at the onset to build confidence in a more open society and accommodative regime were merely cosmetic.
On the foreign relations front however, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has proven to be significantly more dynamic than his predecessor. In the short span of time since taking office, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has committed himself to a grueling regimen of meeting regional and foreign leaders to expand trade and cooperation. Since March, the president has made visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia while a visit to China for next month is also in the cards. These visits have been aimed at fostering closer relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors, establishing their trust in the new regime and securing Uzbekistan’s position as the regional political powerhouse.
The economic dividends reaped from these visits have also been substantial, including the signing of a number of MOUs on bilateral relations and business. The Kazakh visit coincided with the first Uzbek-Kazakh Business forum which is expected to generate around $1 billion in contracts. While investment projects worth $12 billion and trade contracts worth $3.8 billion were secured during the two day visit to Russia.
From what can be observed with the little information coming out of Uzbekistan, it seems that Shavkat Mirziyoyev is not straying far from the moves outlined in his mentor’s playbook. Although he has initially released dissidents, curbed police power and revised punishments for various crimes, his continuing approach towards his predecessor’s family seems to reflect that leniency will only be extended to domestic actors who do not endanger his position. Whereas Mirziyoyev does seem to accord foreign relations more importance than Islam Karimov, he has yet to reach beyond his immediate regional neighborhood and it will be interesting to see if he continues to engage with the greater global community with the same momentum.