“In the recent two years the behaviour of political elite of Uzbekistan has slightly changed. They have become more open and willing to build a dialogue with the population in a new way, stopped being frightened of holding a dialogue with the international community, and have even accepted the representatives of the new generation. Nevertheless, the elite should get rid of old methods of administration and establish effective dialogue with the civil society in order to implement the reforms qualitatively”, – expert Yuriy Sarukhanyan wrote in his article for CABAR.asia.
Yuriy Sakukhanyan — participant of the CABAR.asia School of Analytics
Follow us on LinkedIn!
Brief review of the article:
- In political sphere Uzbekistan was a reserved country, reluctantly cooperating with the rest of the world;
- The international community, in general. has taken the new trends in development of Uzbekistan quite positively;
- Mirziyoyev is trying to maintain the image of reformer by reformatting the political system of the country;
- The main obstacle to the transformation of public administration system is its personification;
- The current political elite is a mix of representatives of the old guard and modern generation. The team in power is hardly changing;
- The government is trying to attract foreign investors, in particular by opening free economic zones, introducing tax reliefs, and reducing bureaucratic hurdles preventing from operations in the territory of the country;
- The continuation of protectionism policy, lobbying local monopolies’ interests, inhibition of reforms amid declarations of privatisation and liberalisation of trade seem rather weird.
Upon coming to power in 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has started to actively reshape the public administration system. The international community has taken the reforms enthusiastically and seems to be ready to remove Uzbekistan from a list of poor students and put a higher mark. The political elite is also demonstrating willingness to get rid of the image of enfant terrible and to make honour roll. Leaving aside foreign political actions, the main areas for demonstrating intentions have become national administration and economy. However, the reform process itself is not without serious contradictions. Often, for every significant step forward, there are similar steps backward. Therefore, at the moment it is difficult to clearly specify if the reformation trend is long-term or the country prone to authoritarianism will become isolated again. So, we’ll try to understand the essence of changes taking place in the country and what the political elite should do to not lose credibility of the international community.
Uzbekistan-2016 – complex legacy
In 2016, Uzbekistan confronted a serious challenge. The death of Islam Karimov was unexpected for the political system that was in lifeless sleep. The Uzbek political elite has, in fact, coped with the situation and promptly selected the successor.
Mirziyoyev has inherited the state in a difficult situation. The country could be compared to the deficient estate, which no one had been really engaged in for a long time, managers had solved their own tasks, and the system had functioned rather by inertia. Mirziyoyev (like any potential candidate at the time), being one of the key actors in the existing system, had been well aware of the situation.
The economy based on the export of raw materials and energy resources had actually functioned in vain. Statisticians had obviously made up annual 8% of GDP growth. However, Mirziyoyev called this number fictitious figures . Industrial development had been characterised by the maintenance of unprofitable state monopolies. State control over agriculture provoked its inefficiency and, as a consequence, the outflow of people from the regions. The absence of currency conversion shifted its flows to shadow economy. This, in turn, provoked the soaring corruption, decreased business activity and the unattractive image of the country for foreign investors.
Deficiencies in economic development had led to the decrease in personal income, rise in unemployment, and human capital outflow. At the same time, labour migrants were a rather painful issue for the ego of Uzbek political elite. This is vividly demonstrated by Karimov’s statement about idlers in 2013. But according to official data, only in Russia there were about 2 million of Uzbek citizens at that time. In fact, the authorities had ignored the problem of labour migrants, and hadn’t deal with their status, organised departure, official employment and protection of rights in host countries. Therefore, being one of the donors in the national economy (in 2016, nearly US$ 2,7 bln were transferred from Russia to Uzbekistan), labour migrants have been absolutely deprived of their rights.
This situation, however, should not make an impression that the new president inherited ruins. A range of factors have simplified the launch of structural reforms. First, Karimov, despite his controversial nature, had not been involved in any military conflicts with neighbours, ethnic cleaning, or in interference against other states. The tarnished image of Uzbekistan had been caused by the authoritarian style of governance.
Second, the national system had been rather stable. This concept had been misrepresented by propagandists, who turned the phrase “peaceful sky” into a kind of a cult justifying any gaps and excesses. However, putting aside the slogans, Mirziyoyev took control of the system that had not been exposed to any destabilizing factors like civil conflict, terroristic threat etc. by the date of transition of power.
Thus, Uzbekistan has appeared to be very contradictory in its new age. Tired of stagnation, the country needed a review of the state mechanisms functioning and the implementation of long overdue reforms.
Image-based reform policy
The shift in power in Uzbekistan has given the international community a reason to take a fresh look at the processes taking place in the country. Mirziyoyev started to rebuild the old system and has replaced Karimov’s five principles with his own 2017-2021 Development Strategy.
The international community, in general. has taken the new trends in development of Uzbekistan quite positively. We can even say, the new president was given certain credibility. The first sign of the credibility was the participation of a full-fledged OSCE observer mission in the early presidential elections of 2016 and its positive report on their organisation . Mirziyoyev is warmly welcomed at various international forums. He has held meetings with key actors of international organisations, and recently has received a formal invitation to visit Brussels. Probably, his main advantage is that, being in the shade a long time, he has not turned into a inconvenient interlocutor to foreign partners. Thus, the relations with him are, in fact, being established from scratch.
The main feature of Mirziyoyev’s tactics compared to Karimov’s is the increased attention to the image. It is the reason for a release of several political prisoners, launch of a dialogue with human rights organisations, recognition of the forced labour issue, elaboration of strategy regarding labour migrants. Uzbekistan stops being closed-off and starts communicating not only with those whom the political elite considers to be friends, but also with those whom they have long regarded as detractors. There’s a feeling that the authorities have realised that the image losses because of their own actions cause more damage to the state than criticism by international organisations. The government has officially declared its intention to improve the positions of Uzbekistan in international rankings, including the “World Justice Project’s” Rule of Law Index, “Transparency International’s” Corruption Perceptions Index, and the “Reporters Without Borders’” World Press Freedom Index.
The incident that vividly demonstrates the new approach to image-making is the dismissal of the Deputy Prime Minister Zoyir Mirzayev. The latter has become notorious during his visit to Tashkent Region, forcing civil servants to stay in water. Despite the fact that Mirzayev has long been the member of the Mirziyoyev’s team, his dismissal was immediately approved. Moreover, participation of ILO’s chief technical adviser Jonas Astrup during the meeting has created a precedent of dismissal in the presence of the representative of international organisation. It’s no surprise that such a step immediately met with approval from both the ILO and the UN.
New design of the old political kitchen
Mirziyoyev is trying to maintain the image of reformer by reformatting the political system of the country. The implementation of virtual offices has preconditioned the launch of the dialogue between the political elite and civil society. Today the authorities try to explain any, even unpopular, decision. Moreover, the key persons of the political elite have stepped out of the shade and regularly appear in the media by giving comments regarding various spheres of the national policy.
The main obstacle to the transformation of public administration system is its personification. In fact, it is based on the personality of the president, not the state mechanism. In his speech dedicated to the dismissal of Mirzayev, Prime Minister Aripov has emphasised that the actions of his deputy “are inconsistent with the policy of our president”. References to the president, not the state, are eye-catching. If the political elite take these two concepts equally, the country is far from having effective system of governance.
Serious problems remain in the shaping new mindset among officials. The state system, in which the decision-making process is based on the top-down approach, leads to the lack of initiative among officials and they cannot perform their duties effectively and properly, so they just pretend to work hard. The most vivid example of this problem has been described by Labour Minister Kudbiyev. He has noted that after the meetings regarding the prohibition of forced labour heads of regions ask him about the quota for cotton-picking, and added that strict measures should be taken against such officials.
In general, in the recent two years the behaviour of political elite of Uzbekistan has slightly changed. They have become more open and willing to build a dialogue with the population in a new way, stopped being frightened of holding a dialogue with the international community, and have even accepted the representatives of the new generation. Nevertheless, the elite should get rid of old methods of administration and establish effective dialogue with the civil society in order to implement the reforms qualitatively.
Economy: what are the limits of liberalisation?
Economy that has long been in the groggy state (a state of being out-of-it or dazed due to being sick or tired – editor’s note) is today actually the main scene of state policy. Such concepts as “demonopolisation”, “free trade”, “investments”, “freedom of enterprise”, “liberalisation”, etc. peculiar to many countries of former USSR and socialist camp in the 1990s, periodically make headline news.
The authorities have declared their plans to increase personal income of the population, reduce state control of economy, promote entrepreneurship and etc. New relations with the businesses forced underground due to constant pressure from law enforcement agencies. Mirziyoyev has made it clear commenting the appointment of Jakhangir Artykkhojayev, the founder of Akfa Group, as the mayor (khokim) of Tashkent city.
In September 2017, free conversion returned to the country, contributing to the partial elimination of the black market and the return of the legal currency exchange flows. Any high-level contact is accompanied by a business forum aimed at signing investment and trade agreements. The tax system reform is in its final stage and promises to reduce the tax burden of entrepreneurs. The authorities have declared their intention to let private businesses into such once prohibited sectors as civil aviation, car industry, energy and chemical industries. A range of enterprises that have been monopolies in agricultural trade have been liquidated.
The state has also demonstrated its intention to expand trade and investment relations with the international community. The idea of joining the WTO that has long caused smirks in the political environment and among special path supporters can be heard more often. Recently, a WTO accession advisor has been appointed to the Foreign Trade Ministry.
Declared economic reforms are of interest to international financial institutions. Thus, after a break of 2004 for unsatisfactory political and economic reforms, EBRD developed a new country strategy and launched six new operations in the amount of 153 million Euros by the end of 2017. In 2017, ADB approved the country operations business plan (COBP) for 2018-2020 in the amount of 2.9 billion dollars. The Islamic Development Bank has announced the allocation of 1.3 billion dollars to project implementation. Special relations have been established with the World Bank. President Mirziyoyev has already met twice with the President of World Bank Jim Yong Kim. The current operations portfolio of the World Bank in Uzbekistan amounts to 3.3 billion dollars.
The government is trying to attract foreign investors, in particular by opening free economic zones, introducing tax reliefs, and reducing bureaucratic hurdles preventing from operations in the territory of the country. Last year Uzbekistan jumped 13 positions and ranked 74th in World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 Report. It’s obvious that this compliment has been paid in advance and is the so-called carrot in the “carrot and stick” approach. At the same time, it’s an opportunity for the political elite to understand the direction of reforms. By the way, “the carrot” has turned to be so sweet that the government wants to make it to TOP 20 in the Doing Business by 2022.
Foreign investors will not come to the country until they are confident that political and economic systems function in a new way. Recent messages about foreign investors who regret their investments in free economic zones should raise concerns of the government. Moreover, investments can yield results only when they are accompanied by zero corruption, zero allocation of financial flows among privileged representatives of business elite, sustainability-enabling conditions and independent management of investment project results.
How to stay in the top league?
There’s no doubt that any person who would come to power in 2016 would have been considered as a reformer initially. The system in stagnation makes any changes equal to breakthroughs.
Today, despite the changes in the country, some problems remain unsolved. Corruption is still on the agenda. The news about detention of officials still appears, while no efficient measures have been taken so far. Multiple cases of illegal liquidation of assets, arrests and prosecution of human rights activists, forced labour cases reflect the human rights situation far from an ideal. Moreover, increased control over the Internet, including social media blocking, has caused perplexity. It is no coincidence that Uzbekistan is among outsiders on the freedom on the net list recently published by Freedom House.
“Mirziyoyev can refer to the legacy issue during his first term. However, during his second term (which is obvious) such declarations will not be applicable because they will mean the inability of his team to carry out necessary reforms.”
The government should change the mentality of both officials and the public in order to not lose the trust of the international community. The officials have to get rid of old methods of administration and think in a modern way. A mixture of old and new generations of officials will inevitably lead to conflicts among them. Thus, the confusion of minister Shermatov over a scandalous coverage of school uniform by journalists close to the rector of the University of Journalism, Kudratkhodzhaev is a good example. Relying on officials of the new generation who are free from opportunism and ideology can shape a firmer foundation for the implementation of reforms. The population, in its turn, should position itself as a consumer of services provided by the political elite and get rid of the role of obedient servants. To achieve this t, the civil society needs to develop effective tools of influence on decision-making process and take the initiative on dialogue.
Another important aspect that will allow Uzbekistan to maintain its positive image is the depersonification of the public administration system. It is possible only if the country gets the third president in 2026. Moreover, this should not be accompanied by the shift of Mirziyoyev to the post of Prime Minister, changes in the constitution, etc. The real power transition will return the constitution the status of the basic law and approve the rules of the game.
Reforms will be successful only if political elites of Uzbekistan stop taking the tenure in office as the peak of political career and stop trying to retain it at all cost. This will shape the system when the administration will make all efforts to meet the agenda within the time specified by the constitution. The development of political culture, when officials and people will not have such talks as “who else if not him?”, will secure the achievement of long-term results. Under these conditions, state administration will become an autonomous mechanism, whose rules should be adopted by the elite, and not vice versa.
Source of information:
 “Uzbekistan: its own path of renovation and progress” is one of the first pieces of work by I.Karimov
This article was prepared as part of the “Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes” Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinion expressed in the article does not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.