When he came to power in 2016 after the death of Uzbekistan’s long-time strongman leader President Islam Karimov, Shavkat Mirziyoyev professed a commitment to reform. But, after nearly five years in office, little suggests that President Mirziyoyev, the official victor of Uzbekistan’s October 24 presidential vote, will bring about all the reforms that the international community may expect, Uzbek analysts say.
Facing four candidates from parties generally seen as pro-government, the 64-year-old Mirziyoyev, who served as Karimov’s prime minister for 13 years, had been expected to win. Based on preliminary official data, he received slightly less support than in 2016 (80.1 percent versus 88.61 percent) but, again, a nearly identical figure was recorded for voter participation (80.8 percent of 21 million voters versus 88 percent in 2016).
Central Election Commission Chairman Zaindillin Nizamkhojaev asserted that no election law violations had been reported.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted, however, the lack of a “genuinely pluralistic environment,” with the separation between Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party and his government “blurred.” No opposition or independent candidates were registered for the race.
Whatever presidential campaign took place largely passed unnoticed, with no direct debate between the candidates themselves and no clear media coverage of what Mirziyoyev’s rivals were proposing, noted RFE/RL’s October 17 Majlis podcast.
“These elections, in essence, show that they don’t especially differ from the Karimov elections because there’s no political competition,” commented Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a Berlin-based, non-governmental advocate for human rights in Uzbekistan.
Yet, with Uzbekistan seen as a strategic counterbalance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, its southern neighbor, little suggests that Western powers will publicly chastise Mirziyoyev over the election and risk alienating him.
Hope persists in Europe that Mirziyoyev’s second term will see an intensification of reforms that could lead to a “real transformation of society” economically as well as politically, commented Alisher Ilkhamov, the Eurasia program officer at the Open Society Foundations, an international, pro-democracy grant-making organization.
After Mirziyoyev’s government liberalized currency exchange, trade and visa policies, and slashed red tape, foreign investment spiked to $2.3 billion in 2019, a 92-percent increase from Karimov’s last year in office. Though it sagged during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Uzbekistan’s official 1.6 percent growth in Gross Domestic Product ranked it above average for that year, according to the Investment Monitor newsletter.
But, as yet, despite the release of political prisoners earlier in his term and a loosening of some media control, some rights observers do not expect similar progress for civil liberties and rule of law.
“Uzbekistan is now at a crossroads -- whether Shavkat Mirziyoyev is ready to lead the country further toward liberalization,” said Niyazova.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH: 'DEMAND OF THE TIMES'
“Of course, many local officials don’t like sharp and critical content [in the press]. They disrupt their peaceful and carefree existence. But openness and freedom of speech are the demand of the times, the demand of the reforms in Uzbekistan.”
- President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, December 29, 2020
Freedom of expression within Uzbekistan is an area where the state’s authoritarian roots remain strong, rights monitors contend. Although social media and blogger discussions now broach topics considered off-limits under Karimov, such as forced labor in the cotton industry, conventional media outlets, mostly under state control, do not criticize the president, his family, or his government.
“Yes, there are dilutions [of the restrictions] for mass media, journalists have been permitted to say more than under Karimov, but Uzbekistan remains a classic authoritarian regime,” commented Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a Berlin-based, non-governmental advocate for human rights in Uzbekistan.
This May, blogger Otabek Sattori, who regularly tracked corruption and abuse of office allegations against a state-run gas company and local officials, was sentenced to 6 ½ years on charges of alleged defamation and extortion – accusations that his family believes are retaliation for his reporting.
His father, Abdumannon Sattori, points to President Mirziyoyev’s February 2021 call for journalists to “not stop delivering justice” and to not fear retribution since “The president is behind you.”
Describing the charges as “trumped up,” Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S. non-profit, believes Sattori’s case was meant as an example for others. Said called Sattori’s conviction “a clear attempt to frighten the press away from covering sensitive issues as [the] presidential elections grow near.”
After publishing investigations into alleged government corruption ahead of the presidential elections, journalists at RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, began to receive online insults and threats that warned of beheadings and sexual violence. Two of the posts came from accounts connected to individuals who handle government PR with the Uzbek armed forces, RFE/RL reported.
Ozodlik charges that the State Security Committee also hacked into an October 22 rehearsal of its October 24 election broadcast – most likely, via interviewed activists’ phone or Internet lines. Clips were posted on social media accounts to which it has access.
The government does not appear yet to have responded officially to these allegations.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry denied Radio Ozodlik and Current Time, both part of RFE/RL, accreditation for covering the elections.
CORRUPTION: A FIGHT 'TOGETHER WITH THE ENTIRE PUBLIC'
“Saying that there’s no corruption would not be true. Corruption remains among us. We should fight corruption together with the entire public.”
- President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, September 28, 2021
The hack of Radio Ozodlik’s trial broadcast occurred two days after it had published an investigation into a $42.5-million increase in the construction cost of Tashkent’s Center of Islamic Civilization, a cultural facility ordered by President Mirziyoyev. The $161.5-million (1.7-trillion-som) project’s developer is Trest-12, a construction company owned by Construction Minister Batir Zakirov’s wife, Muazzam Zakirova, and his son, Jasur Zakirov.
Such apparent conflicts of interest are not a first.
The Mirziyoyev administration claims to have spent 80 trillion Uzbek soms ($8 billion) on the campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic. According to government documents investigated by Radio Ozodlik, roughly $100 million of this total was given out, tender-free, to construction and engineering firms linked to or owned by First Deputy Prime Minister Achilbai Ramatov, Tashkent Mayor Jahongir Ortiqhojaev, and oligarch Bakhtiyor Fazylov, a frequent partner with Russian energy companies.
The three firms do not have to pay any taxes or tariffs related to the project, Radio Ozodlik found.
But other such government-financed projects have a narrower application.
Located 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the southeast of Tashkent, construction of the Shovvozsoy complex, which includes an artificial lake and a drone area, could have cost Uzbekistan hundreds of millions of dollars, according to another Radio Ozodlik investigation.
President Mirziyoyev and the government, however, insist that the residence is a state-owned vacation area “very much in demand” for Uzbek railway workers. Google Earth maps examined by Current Time, however, appeared to show checkpoints en route to the facility.
Documents related to the project have been marked “secret,” one official at the state railway company, which oversees the complex’s construction, told blogger Andrei Garshin.
Concerns about alleged benefits for the presidential family extend beyond Shovvozsoy.
An in-depth Radio Ozodlik investigation linked President Mirziyoyev’s son-in-law, Otabek Umarov, the deputy head of the presidential security service, to the ownership of a string of private firms, including in the mining and hotel industries, via an alleged younger brother, Oibek Umarov. Otabek Umarov is married to Mirziyoyev’s younger daughter, Shakhnoza, who oversees a policy department at the Ministry of Preschool Education.
Mirziyoyev’s second son-in-law, Oibek Tursunov, works within the presidential administration, but his role has not been confirmed. Tursunov is married to the president’s elder daughter, Saida, who serves as deputy chairwoman of the board of trustees for the Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media and represents the country at various international gatherings.
Despite Mirziyoyev’s promises to introduce such a measure, Uzbekistan does not require annual income declarations from government officials.
Although the country’s rating in anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has slightly improved since Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, the country, with a score of 26 points out of 100, still ranks near the bottom of the 180-country ranking.
MOVING UZBEKISTAN 'FORWARD'
Aside from alleged corruption and restrictions on media freedom, reports of prison torture and use of forced labor in cotton farming still persist, as do concerns that Uzbekistan has not dispensed with the Karimov era's practice of jailing alleged Islamic extremists for years on spurious charges.
Ordinary Uzbeks are displeased that arbitrary rule by officials and security forces continues, while the income gap between the wealthy and underprivileged appears to be growing, making labor migration still a necessity, contends political analyst Rafael Sattarov.
Nonetheless, without a robust opposition, few political obstacles appear in Mirziyoyev’s immediate future, commented Sattarov, an outspoken critic of the president.
The analyst speculated that the Uzbek leader could follow the path of Russian President Vladimir Putin and promote constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in power past his term limit in 2026.
“He’s now saying farewell to the Karimov period. The first five years were a farewell,” said Sattarov. “A new Uzbekistan is coming, and in this new Uzbekistan, a new mass of games will appear, all the way to a new constitution.”
At an October 25 celebration to mark his official victory at the polls, Mirziyoyev emphasized the new, but without any mention of such changes.
“Today’s Uzbekistan is different from yesterday’s …” he told participants. “I repeatedly say one thing, and I will say it again: There is no going back. Uzbekistan will only move forward.”
-With additional reporting from AFP and KUN.uz.