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For many Western observers, the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan has been a rare, positive example in the debate on whether authoritarian governments can change their ways. In this view, under a new president, Uzbekistan has since 2016 moved on from being a pariah state, infamous for torturing its political prisoners and forcing millions of its citizens to pick cotton. It has been toasted for economic liberalization and opening up to its regional neighbors, including Afghanistan. 

Many governments have reactivated dormant diplomatic and trading ties. International investment and World Bank projects have increased, though accusations of links to global corruption remain constant. Uzbekistan even joined the United Nations’s top human rights body this year.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev receives Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (not pictured) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on April 05, 2021. © 2021 Uzbekistani Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Given the significant number of brutal, oppressive rulers around the world, the debate on how to find ways out of authoritarian rule is crucial. 

Uzbekistan is at a turning point. The government has introduced some important human rights reforms, but the country remains deeply authoritarian. Uzbekistan’s powerful security state operates unabated, courts and judges are not independent, police torture is common, and speaking your mind or criticizing the government can still land you in jail.

So, after five years of mixed messages, is the country really on track to break with its autocratic past or are the reforms so far a form of fool’s gold that anxious allies, in their desire for change, are willing to take for the real thing?

For the United States, the debacle of its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has reinforced its focus on Uzbekistan as a potential ally in a volatile region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that America’s ties to Uzbekistan are “vital.” In October alone, his deputy, Wendy Sherman, and two congressional delegations visited the capital, Tashkent, to test the political temperature.

There is no doubt that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will win re-election, the first since his election in late 2016. He took office soon after the death of Islam Karimov, his strongman predecessor, who had ruled over an isolated, increasingly impoverished surveillance state for 25 years. 

Mirziyoyev has led the country on a different path. Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia, with a relatively young population of 34 million. To avoid economic collapse and possible instability, his government has sought to tackle the country’s dire international image, begin economic reforms, and build bridges to its wary neighbors.

The strategy has worked in some ways. Uzbekistan is increasingly an economic and diplomatic pacesetter in the region, posing a challenge to more wealthy and worldly Kazakhstan. The economy and society are more dynamic, and its image has improved. Diplomats in September listened to, rather than dismissed, Mirziyoyev’s speech at the United Nations at the United Nations, where he talked of a “new Uzbekistan” and set the goal of becoming a per capita  “above middle income” country by 2030 (predicted per capita income this year is a lowly $2,000).

Yet these reforms do little to alter the fundamentally authoritarian political system under which Uzbeks live, or to make the exercise and enjoyment of their rights any more real.  

The immediate signs for the future are not encouraging. The election is an example. Credible international election observers have never declared an Uzbek election free and fair. Mirziyoyev’s government has, despite international advice, prevented opposition or independent candidates from running against him. 

There has been a crackdown this year on independent bloggers, with one sentenced to a lengthy jail term and two others under arrest. And proposed improvements to laws harmful to human rights have stalled.

In optimistic moments, diplomats in Tashkent argue that, with the election all but over, Mirziyoyev will be emboldened — though probably not to throw off the authoritarian straitjacket, at least to loosen its ties.

To be credible, several steps would be needed. First, an overhaul of legislation, including a new criminal code, effective anti-torture legislation, and the lifting of heavy restrictions on independent media, civil society and public protests. 

This would lay the basis for a more grounded respect for the rule of law. Second, and related, respect for everyone’s human rights, including religious and sexual minorities and people who have different views than the government’s. Moves toward more democracy also would be an important signal — within Uzbekistan and across a region dominated by the influence of Russia and China.

Third, Uzbekistan makes a great play of being ready for more international responsibility. Now is the time to show what this means. Afghanistan is a prime example. Tashkent wants friendly ties with the country’s new rulers, but says it expects the Taliban to create an inclusive government that respects the rights of women and minorities. Helping to persuade Kabul to deliver on these priorities would be an important step, as would being ready to receive Afghans fleeing the Taliban for their lives.

For their part, Uzbekistan’s international partners would be correct in this next crucial phase to offer critical support, but not at any price. Meaningful reforms that promote the interests and human rights of ordinary people in Uzbekistan should be priorities — for the country and as a sign that change can come, even in authoritarian states.

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