Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has faced significant challenges due to a lack of constitutional precedent, an economic crisis, and neighboring unrest. In twenty-eight years of independence, Central Asia has remained somehow under the shadow of the Soviet era: various Soviet-era presidents and elite have remained in power, limiting freedom of speech and ability to dissent, and putting obstacle to the emergence of a civil society.
Central Asia in general is a region that is often overlooked, given the closed nature of its political regimes, their opacity, as well as a limited coverage of media. Additionally, the absence of major conflicts in the region makes it less prompt to attract the attention of the international community. However, it is a particularly interesting time to examine the region given that the old leaders from the Cold War era, who had remained in power for decades in some cases, are now dying off. Their deaths raise the question of political succession and possibly opening the door for a change in government.
Generally, Central Asian states can be regarded as relatively “strong” states, with near-complete domination over their respective societies and legislatures, access to reserves of natural resources, and political and economic alliances with other nations, such as Russia or China. However, upon closer examination, the states could also be perceived as weaker, given the existence of dangerous trends of economic stagnation, repression of civil society, and corruption, among others.
Key Factors Shaping the Socio-Political Reality
Apart from its geopolitical importance as the eighth largest natural gas producer worldwide, a factor often utilized to assert dominance in the region, Uzbekistan is also the most populous country of Central Asia that shares borders with all other Central Asian states plus Afghanistan. Three other factors are also of great importance for understanding the country: corruption, authoritarian tendencies, and ethnic tensions. Uzbekistan ranks among the most corrupt nations in the world; while pervasive corruption reaching the highest levels of government siphons off public funds, the state is rendered incapable of providing basic goods and services, such as sufficient welfare services, to its citizens. Furthermore, the political elite maintains a tight grip on power by limiting political pluralism and restricting freedom of expression. Finally, to add ethnic tensions to the mix, historic animosities between ethnic Uzbeks and minority Tajiks have been exacerbated by rhetoric against Islamic extremism and a state antiterrorism campaign.
In the short-term, the regime appears stable and likely to continue without sudden or significant change. The authoritarian repression established a system of corruption, and discrimination against ethnic minorities serve to maintain the status quo and keep the concentration of power in the hand of the governing elite. Opposition parties have been banned from government, corruption is endemic, and ethnic Tajiks have suffered deliberate religious persecution.
Nonetheless, these could also be seldom sustainable trends, as seen in cases of civil resistance against repressive, corrupt governments, and unfortunate economic situations elsewhere in the world. Like the Arab Spring, the people end up calling for change sooner or later.
Opportunities for Change?
In Uzbekistan, there were two opportunities to change the regime in the recent past. The first was during the period of the Color Revolutions in the former satellite states of the USSR in the early 2000s, notably the Tulip Revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. An atmosphere of hope and change had emerged as the Kyrgyz people were able to successfully remove President Askar Akayev following fraudulent elections. However, the Andijan unrest inspired in Uzbekistan, a rare, mass protest against government injustice in the eastern city of Andijan, was quickly shut down by the government and ended in massacre.
The second opportunity arose with the death of president Islam Karimov in 2016, leaving the leadership open for the first time since his ascension into power in 1989. But, despite apparent reforms, his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a member of the political elite, was also quick to secure the presidency, casting some doubts about his plans to seriously reform the Uzbek state. Indeed, so far, Mirziyoyev has implemented more democratic policies, such as the reduction of media censorship, the removal of currency restrictions, and the release of some political prisoners. On this basis, one could deem it possible that the road for change in Uzbekistan could come through a gradual shift toward greater democracy. Just as a gradual shift away from Soviet-style rule was promoted immediately following the end of the Cold War, the current evolution towards a further democratic regime may take time. If this is the case, the current socio-economic situation could remain stable and sustainable, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet, as more time passes, the tipping point where Uzbekistan would transit from one rule to another has yet to make its proof. There may be higher chances for political change today, particularly in the event of another significant political or economic shift; but the question is whether it will come based on a slow top-down or a more significant bottom-up impulsion.
Sachi Tan is a Political Science and International Studies student at Saint Louis University – Madrid campus.
To quote this article, please use the following reference:
S. Tan (2020). “Uzbekistan: Change or Continuity?”, Observatory on contemporary crises, February 27, 2020, URL: https://crisesobservatory.es/uzbekistan-change-or-continuity-s-tan/