The president of Uzbekistan called in a wide-ranging and consequential four-hour speech on December 22 for the power of the feared security services to be contained.
“The National Security Services [or NSS] operates on the basis of a statute adopted by the government 26 years ago. We must reform this structure. The NSS should be a protector of our external and internal security,” Shavkat Mirziyoyev said to audible rustling in the hall.
Those words constitute the most transparent and full-frontal assault on the NSS, which has in effect arguably been running the country since independence, primarily through relentless repression.
The speech was made before a large gathering of lawmakers, foreign diplomats and reporters with local and foreign media. Also in attendance was the low-profile chief of the NSS, Rustam Inoyatov, who listened to the address in a hunched pose.
Although Mirziyoyev was only due to arrive at the conference hall in Tashkent at 10:30 am, the room was already packed an hour before. The head of the Youth Union of Uzbekistan, Kahramon Kuranbayev, asked those present to perform the national anthem, but it went poorly as many appeared not to know the words. Eventually, sheets with the words were handed out and after a fourth rendition, the exercise was brought to a close.
Mirziyoyev arrived on time and energetically made his way to the lectern. He began his speech by dwelling on some economic figures — and smashed yet another long-standing taboo.
“Economic growth in 2017 was 5.5 percent. This is the real pace of economic growth. We always used to state that the economy was growing at a rate of 8-10 percent. But these were concocted figures, and what good did that do us?” he said.
Mirziyoyev focused heavily on plans for economic reforms and said that the emphasis would be placed on entrepreneurs, because it is they, he said, that create jobs, goods and services. In news that will come as music to many business-owners’ ears, there are plans afoot to ensure private enterprises are freed from the burden of government inspections for a period of two years, he said.
He then borrowed words from wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to suggest how attitudes toward the private sector need to change in Uzbekistan.
“Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon,” Mirziyoyev said, channeling Churchill. “This outstanding politician respected business and that is how I urge everybody to look upon entrepreneurs. I very much love to read and quote Churchill, but it is sad that I have very little time to read everything that is written about him.”
But it was the remarks on the need to more clearly define strict boundaries for acceptable conduct by the nation’s security bodies that were the most striking. Mirziyoyev said that law enforcement agencies would no longer have the right to performs searches and run wiretaps without court orders. Torture and physical intimidation of citizens by law enforcement personnel should become a thing of the past, he said.
“It is unacceptable to arrest people on the basis of false testimonies. Until investigators can prove a person’s guilt, they should not be placed in prison. We will investigative facilities with close-circuit cameras,” he said.
Shukhrat Ganiyev, an expert on human rights, welcomed the president’s remarks on circumscribing the role of the security services.
“A law regulating the security services is indeed something that we in civil society have for long years been demanding from Uzbekistan’s authorities. A law will help us clearly determine their function and the inadmissibility of illegal actions when they are applied in trials,” Ganiyev told EurasiaNet.org.
Turning to the topic of the media, Mirziyoyev complained that Uzbekistan lacks modern journalism and that a journalism and mass communications university would be opened next year.
Much of Mirziyoyev’s speech was of a whole with the broadly reformist language he has adopted over the past year. But although much of it was broadly progressive in intent, implementation will be the real test.