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Uzbekistan in 2019: balancing on the brink of losing independence

The Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies presents an article by Alisher Ilhamov, a well-known Uzbek expert, sociologist and associate research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, on whether Uzbekistan is truly opening up to the world, whether there is any improvement in the fight against corruption human rights, the “manual” parliament and the peculiarities of Russian influence in the country.

The purpose of this material is to analyze the main trends in the events in Uzbekistan in the past 2019. By "major" the author refers to the trends regarding the progress in economic reforms, which Shavkat Mirziyev made a stand on coming to power in 2016, as well as how these efforts on the economic front relate to the course of the new president in the domestic and foreign policy.

Difficult economic reforms

From the very beginning of his presidency, Shavkat Mirziyev took the course of changing the status quo in the economic sphere, aiming to free the economy from undue control by the state, unleash the potential of private enterprise, and attract more foreign direct investment. The first and most significant step in this path was the liberalization of currency exchange policies, undertaken September 2017 Simplified the process of registering a new business, and, importantly, and the process of liquidation of companies. These efforts were crowned with an improvement in the country's position on the international Doing Business ranking. Uzbekistan on this indicator rose up compared to last year from 79th to 69th place. Uzbekistan has the best positions in terms of registration speed and business start-up (8th place), the worst positions in cross-border trade (152nd position). Indeed, the situation with cross-border trade has improved little. Moreover, in the last months of 2019, the government began to raise customs tariffs on imports of several categories of goods, doing so ostensibly in the interests of protecting local businesses. Some liberal-minded economists saw in this protectionist policy, the result is lobbying by internal monopolists and government-controlled enterprises that are not interested in competing in their economic sectors.

It should be borne in mind that the Doing Business Index does not sufficiently take into account how the country protects property rights and how independent the courts are in their mandate to protect citizens and businesses from the arbitrariness of the authorities. Meanwhile, in terms of protection of property rights against arbitrariness of the authorities of the case in Uzbekistan is still unimportant. Last year, the arbitrariness of some local authorities over the illegal demolition of real estate in the housing sector and small businesses. In Kashkadarya, in July this year, a local businessman whose shop was demolished by a local deputy hockey player, being in a state of despair, poured gasoline and set fire to moreover. This case has received widespread resonance in the country, provoking sympathy rather for the entrepreneur than for the representative of the state body, which forced the authorities to remove the post of zhokokim and to soften the punishment to the entrepreneur.

With such illegal demolition of homes, the motives behind such decisions were privately corrupt, resulting from the collusion of unscrupulous developers with local hokimamai. Not surprisingly, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Uzbekistan remains one of the last places in the world, occupied in 2018, the 158th place, even worsening its position slightly compared to 2016 (156) and 2017 (157).

In May 2019, the Government accepted a two-year anti-corruption reform program, but so far there is little information on how much progress has been made in its implementation. In light of the continuing problems with arbitrariness and lack of rule of law in the country, serious investors are not particularly in a hurry to invest their money in the economy of the country, and if they do so, they are usually under government guarantees or underwriting their risks.

According to UNCTAD, foreign direct investment in the country remains small, although there is a noticeable tendency to increase their inflow. According to the results of 2018, the volume of FDI was $ 412 million, up from $ 98 million in 2017. The increase in FDI inflows was apparently triggered primarily by the liberalization of foreign exchange policies in 2017. Now, companies do not need to, as in the past, resort to the services of the black market and all sorts of shadow schemes to buy and repatriate their profits in hard currency. At the same time, per capita FDI in Uzbekistan in 2018 amounted to only $ 12.7, while in neighboring Kazakhstan - 210. Even less resource-rich and disadvantaged Tajikistan is ahead of Uzbekistan by this indicator (35.6 dollar in 2018).

It is also noteworthy that among the countries from which the investments mainly came, in 2019 dominated China, the Russian Federation, Turkey, and South Korea. The share of FDI from EU countries and the West as a whole is negligible.

Rule of Law: Progress is still minimal

As noted above, there remain serious problems with the rule of law in the country. According to the results of the 2019 rating, Uzbekistan has only slightly improved its position on the Rule of Law Index, conducted by the World Justice Project, having moved with 96th place on 94th. According to the WJP report, the situation remains particularly unfavorable in terms of limiting the arbitrariness of the authorities (118 positions from 126 countries), openness and transparency (119th position), corruption of the authorities (95th position), respect for fundamental rights of citizens (109) , that is, according to the key criteria of the rule of law.

Recently, international donors have stepped up to assist Uzbekistan in its reform of the justice system. In June 2018, a memorandum was signed between the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan and USAID, and in 2019 running a $ 12 million three-year program to reform the justice system. It is mainly aimed at enhancing the professional level of judges, as well as enhancing the role of civil society in the oversight of the judiciary, as well as of public authorities as a whole. But so far, the executive is not yet ready to give the judiciary full autonomy. She, this power, especially its higher echelons, prefers to remain outside the law, and there is no indication yet that the ruling regime intends to change this status quo.

The government is not even going to restore the Law Association, which was liquidated in 2008. As a matter of fact, there is no body in the country representing the interests of professional lawyers. Instead, the Bar operates, which is accountable to the Ministry of Justice and is rather a body of political control over lawyers.

Karimov's legacy in the political sphere remains intact

Perhaps the main event in the political life of the country last year was the parliamentary elections, which took place on December 22. However, these elections brought little to the existing order in terms of relations between society and government. They have in no way altered the authoritarian nature of the system of government in the country.

All five parties admitted to the elections to the Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis (the name of the parliament in Uzbek) are, in essence, "pocket" projects of the previous Karimov regime. These are:

  • The Liberal Democratic Party, which was intended to represent the interests of private business in the design of its founders;
  • The People's Democratic Party, a former Communist Party;
  • Adolat Social Democratic Party (in justice);
  • The Milliy Tiklanish Democratic Party (translated into national revival), called upon to speak from nationally-patriotic positions; and
  • Ecological Party.

On their political spectrum (from the "right" to the "left"), these parties mimic the corresponding pattern of political ideologies in democratic countries, apparently in order to, according to the authors of the project, the party-political schedule of the country correlate with world trends.

However, when nominating and registering candidates for parties, there were no oddities. Thus, from the perspective of the professional composition of the pro-business candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party, according to the Uzbyuksalish resource, did not turn out not one entrepreneur, while the Social Democrats representing the left-center camp have 12 entrepreneurs, and even former communists have one. At the same time, there are no workers among the candidates of the NDPU (former Communists), mainly the category of intellectuals.

First of all, the fact that none of the real opposition parties is allowed to the elections is what makes the elections free, which leaves the voters with no real choice. The assets of parties such as Erk (Will) and Birlik (Unity) are still largely based abroad, and their leaders are not even allowed to return to the country, such as Erk Party leader Muhammad Solihu. Political dissidents who left the country at one time to escape repression are still forced to remain in exile.

There are still no indications that the Uzbek authorities are ready to register parties that are being re-created at the initiative of citizens. The restrictions imposed in his time by the Karimov regime continue to apply even to the registration of non-political public organizations, and the current authorities are in no hurry to change anything substantially in this regard.

In June this year was accepted updated Electoral Code. He has made little difference to the existing procedure for holding elections. Uzbekistan was not accepted to guide the recommendation of the Venice Commission of the European Union to allow independent candidates not affiliated with any party to stand for election. Only two more or less noticeable changes were adopted. First, the Ecological Party, which by no means represents the country's real environmental movement and still had a fixed quota in the lower house of 15 seats, is now deprived of this quota, but given the opportunity to fight for the votes of voters, along with other parties. Second, a mandatory quota for women of 30% of the total number of candidates from each party was introduced. This is certainly a step in the right direction, although its value is diminished by the fact that women MPs elected by the "pocket" parties will most likely only formally represent the female part of the country's population, being "nomenclature" MPs in their essence.

Another novelty is the fact that the leaders of some parties have become more critical of certain issues, but this is likely due to the sanction from above, to make the election look more legitimate and credible in the eyes of voters and international observers. At the same time, no party has dared to criticize the president for one or another of his actions and to advocate for a more democratic system.

This time, according to official data in the elections accepted 67.8% of voters' participation, a figure closer to reality than in the previous election, but still at odds with the observed picture, given that many voters, especially in Tashkent, were deliberately boycotting these elections. As a result, the Liberal Democratic Party (43 seats) received the largest number in parliament, which is not surprising - it was from this party in 2016 that Shavkat Mirziyev was elected president.

Relative progress in press freedom

Along with some steps towards liberalization of economic activity, relative progress in the field of media is by far the second most significant achievement of the Mirzieev regime. The situation in this area as a whole has actually improved a bit: local journalists have felt more freedom in their professional activities, more critical material has appeared in the press. Ordinary citizens also became more free to speak on social media. If in 2018 there was a practice of restricting access to some social networking applications, especially Facebook and Youtube, then blocking these two networks was filmed 2019 early years.

It was also a positive step providing accreditation some foreign media outlets that have been blocked for many years by the country's authorities, such as the BBC's Uzbek service and Fergana.Agency (formerly Fergananews.com). At the same time, there was accreditation refused Ozodlik radio (RFE / RL Uzbek service), which is by far the leading news source in Uzbekistan, with a wide network of informants and citizen journalists throughout the country.

At the same time, in the second half of the year, attempts were made by the authorities to restrict freedom of expression and cases of intimidation of journalists. So, in early November, he was suddenly, without prior warning and explanation closed news site Tugri.uz, which was created in July this year, but has gained popularity at the time of closing due to bold materials. Just one morning, the founders' representatives came to the editorial office and announced the immediate closure of the site. Most likely, the founder was pressured by the Information and Mass Communications Agency (AIMK) under the Presidential Administration of Uzbekistan.

On August 14 Kun.uz was on journalists undertaken physical attack by the deputy hokim of the Almazar district Abdurasul Vakhobov in their attempt to make a video report from the hokimiyat building. The case has received wide public resonance. For his actions, the zamkhokim was dismissed, but the prosecutor's office refused to bring an action against him, claiming that his actions did not contain any offense. In August, Tashkent Mayor Jahongir Artikhodzhayev invited both sides to his office to reach reconciliation between them. But when they refused reconciliation, he did collapsed against journalists, blaming and insulting them while admitting homophobic statements. In his speech, whose audio recording received publicity, there was also a threat of possible reprisal against journalists. Despite the huge resonance in the society caused by this behavior of the mayor, the prosecutor's office has not yet taken any action against the offender.

In the fall, some journalists and bloggers were also subjected to repression. Yes, it was late September detained local journalist Davlatnazar Ruzmetov, who previously covered the practice of forced labor in the Khorezm region. After being released from a seven-day arrest, he was killed in suspicious circumstances, according to the official version - downed by car when crossing the street at night. In the same month, she was in the same area for participating in a street protest in the Khorezm region delayed blogger Nafosat Ollashukurova was beaten in a police car and then forcibly placed in a psychiatric dispensary, which was perceived by observers as a sign of a return to punitive psychiatry.

These recent events have marked a certain trend in the regulation of the media sphere. The Uzbek authorities have allowed some freedom of the press, but have designated a "red line" by which the publication or individual journalists and bloggers become subject to sanctions and repression. To cross the line means to openly criticize the actions of the authorities.

Civil rights are still limited. Socio-economic too

Civil liberties such as freedom of association and assembly remain restricted in the country. Draconian restrictions on the registration of non-governmental organizations, adopted in 2005, are still in force, and there is no noticeable increase in officially registered non-governmental organizations created at the initiative of citizens.

Although the scale of orchestrated forced labor in the cotton sector has been shrinking over the past two years, the government has not taken steps to reform the cotton sector and to abolish the forced cotton quota (a policy plan to hand over cotton to farmers every year), which is an institutional driver. Roadmap for agricultural sector development, accepted in October 2019, does not contain any measures to abolish the command and administration system of management in the cotton sector.

In 2019, there was a widespread practice of attempts by the authorities to illegally demolish housing for new construction, which caused widespread public discontent. Many saw the practice of corrupt collusion between local governments and construction companies. In such cases, the law requires a master plan for the development of urban settlements and a number of other conditions that have not been met in this case. The numerous appeals of citizens to the presidential reception, their complaints and claims in court, did not receive due consideration. This indicates that the judiciary is still under the control of the executive.

In July 2019, tensions over illegal house demolitions increased so much that in one of the regions, Khorezm, began street protests. Only then did the central government take measures to limit the compulsion of tenants to evict from their homes, resulting in a somewhat stabilized situation in the country. However, in stabilizing the situation, the justice system has played almost no significant role, nor has it become a conduit for legal resolution of conflicts and the satisfaction of citizens' complaints. The effect was achieved mainly by the "fire" actions of the executive.

Foreign policy challenges are linked to Moscow

In the area of ​​foreign policy, the issue of relations with the Russian Federation was and will remain central. Since the inauguration of Shavkat Mirziyev, he has seen a significant increase in the Kremlin's influence on Uzbekistan's foreign and even intra-economic policies. So, decision The Uzbek government's construction of a nuclear power plant in the Jizzakh region, despite the absence of any convincing economic calculations and comprehensive environmental expertise, was apparently the result of pressure and lobbying by the Kremlin.

Moscow's increased influence on Tashkent has also affected Uzbekistan's vote in the UN over the occupation of Crimea by Russia. If in Karimov, for example, in the vote in 2014 for United Nations General Assembly Resolution A / RES / 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the representative of Uzbekistan abstained, then under Mirziyev, Uzbekistan began to speak openly on the Kremlin's side when voting for a resolution on the Crimea. So it was December 19, 2017 at voting for a resolution on human rights in the annexed Crimea - Uzbekistan then opposed the draft resolution, in one company with Moscow. In the same way Tashkent entered November 15, 2018 - Vote in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly for the updated draft resolution "The situation with human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, Ukraine". In December of that year, Uzbekistan again turned among the few countries that voted against the resolution, now condemning the militarization of Crimea and Sevastopol.

It should be noted that in the last time this trend has started to change a little. So, on November 14 this year in the same Third Committee on the same issue of human rights in Crimea, Uzbekistan, did not participate in a vote that is close to the "abstention" position. Shortly afterwards, on December 9, a vote on the militarization of Crimea and parts of the Azov and Black Seas again represented Uzbekistan did not participate in the vote. Both times, the representative of Uzbekistan behaved differently than in 2016 - 2018 with a similar vote, which apparently reflects the attempts of the Uzbek leadership to distance themselves a little from the Kremlin's policy. The reaction of the latter did not take long. Right after the last vote, on December 9, it was announced Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Tashkent in January, the formal purpose of which is to speak to the students of the MGIMO branch, but the actual goal is likely to be "twisting our hands" to the Uzbek president to force him to withdraw from the course.

Sensational in 2019 was statement Speaker of the Russian Senate Valentina Matvienko following his October visit to Uzbekistan, from which Uzbek and international audiences learned about Mirziyev's decision to start the process of joining the Eurasian Economic Union, and learned not from the president himself, or his press secretary. Matvienko announced this decision to Mirziyeva at her meeting on October 2 with the Speaker of the Legislative Chamber of the Parliament of Uzbekistan Nurdingon Ismoilov. The awkwardness of the situation was exacerbated by the fact that after a lengthy pause following the announcement by the Speaker of the Russian Senate, during which the Uzbek side neither denied the fact of the decision nor confirmed it, the president or his press secretary again made no explanation, and even did not Foreign Minister, and Deputy Speaker of the Uzbek Senate Sadyk Safayev. He tried to soften the effect of the thundered news, заявивthat Uzbekistan is only "carefully studying the prospects, the possibilities of joining this structure."

The paradox of the way the public is informed of the strategically important decision taken by the leadership of the country is indicated by the fact that the Kremlin is not only Uzbekistan's foreign policy partner, but also, to some extent, a courtier in the decision-making processes of Mirziyev.

The negative reaction from Washington, whose location Tashkent has been pushing hard for the past three years, did not wait. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross saidthat Uzbekistan's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union could complicate and prolong the country's accession to the World Trade Organization, without which it will be difficult for Uzbekistan to count on a significant inflow of Western investment.

A number of local experts came together on the view that, at its core and in its essence, the EEU is a political project initiated by Moscow to bind the former Soviet republics to its foreign policy course and also to begin the “collection of lands” lost as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, with all the talk about whether the EAEU is a purely economic union or a political project, one obvious tendency is overlooked: Uzbekistan has already in fact begun to move closer to Russia in the military-strategic sphere with Mirziyev.

Military-strategic cooperation: in the CSTO's "area of ​​responsibility"

Even at Karimov, in 1994, the parties concluded military cooperation agreement. In 2004 was signed Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries. Since then, there have been ebb and flow in the process of this collaboration. For example, Uzbekistan was part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) controlled by Moscow, and then withdrew from it, for the last time in 2012.

However, as in the past, Russia will remain the main arms supplier to Uzbekistan. In 2016, the parties were signed Treaty on the Development of Military-Technical Cooperation. And at the end of 2017, Uzbekistan concluded contract with Rosoboronexport for the purchase of 12 Mi-35 attack helicopters. In 2019, Uzbekistan and Russia signed a contract for delivery to Uzbekistan of a large batch of K53949 Typhoon 4X4 armored vehicles. In addition, Uzbekistan purchased armored personnel carriers BTR-82A in Russia, Tiger armored vehicles, Sopka-2 radar.

In March 2019, the Uzbek Parliament was ratified agreement with the Russian Federation on the use of airspace of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation by military aircraft of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation. In fact, this agreement gives unilateral access to the airspace of Uzbekistan by the Russian aviation, which means that it can quickly transfer its special forces here. For what? There is no answer to this question. However, according to insider information, which has not yet been confirmed from other sources, such a transfer of the Russian special forces to Tashkent has already taken place once, in late August-early September 2016, when the issue of the election of a new head of state was decidedly behind the scenes.

In addition, hundreds of Uzbek officers are currently trained in Russian specialized universities, and military formations are participating in joint exercises. So, on December 4 this year at the Gumarsaray range of the Eastern Military District ended tactical exercises "East-2019" with the participation of Uzbek and Russian servicemen. A little earlier, in November, took place joint Russian-Uzbek exercises in the training complex "Novaya Binaradka", located in the Samara region. The Delegation of the Special Operations Forces of the Republic of Uzbekistan participated in them together with colleagues from the special purpose units of the Central Military District of Russia. It was also agreed that joint exercises will be continued at the Forish range in the Jizzakh region of Uzbekistan.

Как said in this regard, Russian military observer Alexander Khrolenko, "objectively Uzbekistan is in the area of ​​responsibility and under the protection of the CSTO." Thus, as long as there are disputes about whether the country should enter into an "economic" alliance with Russia and its satellites, Uzbekistan has already been in the "area of ​​responsibility" of a military organization created and controlled by Kremlin strategists.