Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters
(Berlin) — Uzbekistan is certainly an unlikely good news story. The Central Asian country famous for its fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara had for decades one of the worst human rights records in the world. Torture and the jailing of political prisoners were commonplace.

While many countries are moving in the wrong direction on human rights it’s sometimes the unlikely ones, such as Uzbekistan, that show signs of hope. The country’s president since 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who will visit Berlin for the first time this week, has ushered in some major human rights improvements. Serious human rights abuses remain, but the release of dozens of political prisoners and a reduction in the use of forced labor in the country’s annual cotton harvest, among other steps, are important. Some brave grassroots and social media protests have helped fuel the process.

What’s happening in Uzbekistan, the largest country in Central Asia with 32 million people, is relevant for Germany for reasons that go beyond these changes on their own. The distance Uzbekistan has travelled in two years, its strategic location between Russia, China and Europe, and Berlin’s own, at times controversial, relations with Tashkent underline this.

Caution is called for as Mirziyoyev’s reform process is almost entirely top-down, so could be stopped or reversed. That said, the changes in Uzbekistan offer some lessons for policymakers, businesspeople and others in Germany.

Abusive governments can change

The country’s post-independence authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, in power for almost 27 years, stamped out almost all opposition, dragging Uzbekistan into political and economic isolation. It was his death in September 2016 that brought unexpected changes. Mirziyoyev’s government saw the urgent need for economic recovery and foreign investment. Ending the country’s isolation was a first essential step. Such triggers for change could happen elsewhere.

Improved human rights helped open the country

Before Karimov’s death Uzbekistan had a terrible global reputation on human rights. Uzbek officials have since 2016 acknowledged that improving Uzbekistan’s human rights is a key task in resetting Tashkent’s international relations, especially with Europe and the US. Hence, a sustained international diplomatic focus on human rights issues even in countries where change appears unlikely makes strategic sense.

Germany should review its engagement

Germany’s record on raising human rights issues in Uzbekistan is mixed. Unfortunately, Germany led efforts in the EU to weaken political sanctions imposed by the bloc on Tashkent over a massacre in 2005. Also, for 13 years, until 2015, Germany used the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan to supply its troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Berlin downplayed sensitive issues such as human rights in bilateral talks with Tashkent to protect this security deal. On the other hand, Chancellor Angela Merkel refused Karimov’s overtures for a Berlin visit due to concerns over human rights, and Berlin has more recently sought to help human rights activists in Uzbekistan. The changes in Uzbekistan offer Berlin a chance to review its Karimov-era engagement and learn for the future.

Russia and China do not call the shots

Human rights groups often hear the argument that it’s little use for Germany to criticize abusive governments because these countries are more interested in ties with Russia or China, or both. Uzbekistan could be such a country, but it is not. While Russia and China are important, Germany is also a key economic partner for Uzbekistan and Tashkent is keen on German know-how. Uzbekistan is also forging closer ties with the EU. Germany and the EU have much that is attractive to countries such as Uzbekistan, which means more leverage on sensitive issues. They should use this.

Business has a key role to play

Uzbekistan is trying to lure investors and tourists (visa free travel for Germans started this month) and Mirziyoyev will try to attract German companies. In the past foreign investors have been put off, with many hit by corruption and the country’s poor legal framework. Companies that see new openings would do well to insist on universal standards that respect human rights and make long term business sense, such as no forced labor, no co-operation with abusive government entities, and respect for labor rights.

Keep your guard up! The positive changes in Uzbekistan are from a very low base. Free elections and democracy are not even under discussion. Karimov’s authoritarian power apparatus is still largely in place. Despite some progress forced labor remains common and there is no independent judiciary. So Germany and other countries need to calibrate their support in line with real improvements in the human rights of ordinary citizens. 

Mirziyoyev’s visit is an opportunity for Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to welcome progress but to make clear the terms on which Berlin will engage further with Tashkent. They should call for the release of the thousands of people still behind bars on politically motivated charges, and for an end to internet censorship and to pressure on civil society.

This would help Uzbekistan – and enable Germany to show what’s possible in relations with other difficult countries, beyond the Silk Road.