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Perspectives | Scholar Contemplates the Limits of Change in Uzbekistan

While questions still surround the new president’s intentions, it's clear that his reforms to date are fostering optimism inside Uzbekistan.

Since assuming power over 18 months ago, Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has cultivated a reputation as a reformer. But a prominent regional expert cautions that Mirziyoyev’s clearly expressed desire for change shouldn’t be conflated with the intent to liberalize Uzbekistan’s top-down political system.

Mirziyoyev’s efforts to shake up the status quo that existed under former Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016, have focused mainly on reviving Uzbekistan’s moribund economy.  

Among Mirziyoyev’s most prominent moves is currency reform. He has also promoted a diplomatic rapprochement with neighboring Tajikistan, something that could give Uzbek trade a boost. At the same time, Mirziyoyev has moved to curb the influence of Uzbekistan’s National Security Services, known as the SNB, underscored by the firing in late January of the agency’s long-time chief, Rustam Inoyatov, and the release of some political prisoners.

Viewed from afar, some observers have described recent developments as an “Uzbek Spring.” But during a lecture at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, Luca Anceschi, a professor of Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, sounded a note of caution: Those hoping to see Uzbekistan open up politically could end up disappointed. 

“Death is not a conduit of [political] change” in Central Asia, said Anceschi, whose March 9 lecture was titled, “When First Presidents Die: Understanding Political Change in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.” 

Anceschi noted that there were high hopes for a political shift in Turkmenistan in 2006, when that country’s mercurial dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, died suddenly and a then-relatively obscure official, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, became acting president. A dentist by training, Berdymukhamedov initially showed signs of wanting to modernize the educational and health systems, raising hopes that Turkmenistan’s draconian political system would slowly open.

But other than a few cosmetic moves, Turkmenistan’s repressive, authoritarian system didn’t change much under Berdymukhamedov. In many respects, Berdymukhamedov’s leadership style emulates that of his predecessor.

Mirziyoyev seems more willing than his Turkmen counterpart to tinker with the economic system, hoping to make it more efficient and integrated with global trade, but Anceschi suggested that Mirziyoyev's changes may be intended to modernize Uzbekistan’s authoritarian system, not open it up.

Mirziyoyev’s removal of Inoyatov, in Anceschi’s view, was an act of elite consolidation, not a significant step towards political liberalization. Berdymukhamedov similarly strengthened his position in Turkmenistan in May 2007, when he imprisoned Akmurat Redzhepov, then-head of the Turkmen Presidential Guard. Both moves were intended to help new leaders strengthen their holds on power, and were not acts intended to erase the authoritarian legacies of their predecessors, Anceschi said. 

While questions still surround Mirziyoyev’s reform intentions, it's clear that the changes to date have fostered a greater sense of optimism inside Uzbekistan. Visiting observers report a palpable change for the better in the public mood, with regular citizens more hopeful than previously about the prospect of rising living standards. On a regional level, the Uzbek-Tajik rapprochement has improved the prospects for regional cooperation on a variety of issues, including water resource management.

The death of Karimov in 2016 left Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev as the only living Central Asian leader, or “first president,” whose tenure in power pre-dates the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In recent years, speculation has mounted about who will take over in Kazakhstan when Nazarbayev, now 77, leaves the political stage. The country has no clearly articulated transition process in place.

Anceschi indicated that a transition in Kazakhstan could follow a pattern established in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan when their “first presidents” died in office. A key element of the pattern, Anceschi said, was a significant gap in the time between the leader’s death and the time it was publicly announced. It is during this gap that members of elite groups work out behind closed doors the specifics of the transition, including who assumes the top spot, Anceschi said.  

Perspectives | Scholar Contemplates the Limits of Change in Uzbekistan

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