There was little suspense ahead of Uzbekistan’s presidential election on October 24: no one doubted that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev would easily get reelected for a second term. Many, however, were disappointed by how little the elections in Mirziyoyev’s supposedly new Uzbekistan differed from those held under the late president Islam Karimov, with scant heed paid to any criticism.
There were observers, including international ones, at nearly every polling station, but there was still no real competition. No independent candidates were allowed to run, including the well-known singer Jahongir Otajonov, who was denied registration and complained of threats against himself and pressure on his parents. The brand new Truth and Progress party (Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot) and People’s Interest party (Xalq Manfaatlari) were also denied registration, meaning their presidential candidates could not run either.
Uzbekistan may have earned a reputation as a land of flourishing reforms and openness in the last five years, but its international image was never the main aim of those reforms: if anything, it was seen as an agreeable side effect. The main reason Mirziyoyev put reforms at the center of his presidency was that he saw them as an effective way of securing public support and holding onto power.
Even unexpected crises like the pandemic were not enough to ruin Mirziyoyev’s successful first presidential term, and there are few in Uzbekistan today who are opposed to him staying on for a second term. During the reform years, however, Uzbek society has become far more demanding of the authorities: at the very least, people now have a measure of comparison. For this reason, the real challenge begins now for Mirziyoyev: how to retain that popularity until the end of his second term in 2026, when the issue of the power transition will have to be resolved.
The Uzbekistan that Mirziyoyev took charge of in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov was a classic Central Asian autocracy: heavily regulated and closed off from the world. Back then, many said the new president’s inheritance was an unenviable one. On the other hand, public expectations were very low, with many people just relieved to see a peaceful handover of power.
In order to win over other stakeholders and shore up his position, Mirziyoyev embarked on a program of economic deregulation, the first signs of freedom of speech were seen, and the political elite began to restore ties with society and with other nations. Mirziyoyev will likely continue this path during his second term, but it will be more difficult to carry out reforms. The Karimov era is becoming an increasingly distant memory, and it will get harder and harder to put the blame for any failures on Mirziyoyev’s predecessor. In addition, people are no longer afraid to be critical, either on social media or in person: more than 250 protests have been held in the last three years.
It will become increasingly difficult for Mirziyoyev to carry out reforms in a way that doesn’t weaken the foundations of the regime. In his first term, he was able to simply repeal the most onerous Karimov-era restrictions—such as exit visas, limitations on currency exchange, and so on—and simplify interaction between ordinary Uzbeks and the authorities by increasing the number of courts and digitizing some procedures. Everyone stood to gain from these reforms, and so they were uniformly popular. In his second term, he will have to embark on more far-reaching—and, therefore, more risky—changes.
From January 2022, for example, all civil servants and heads of state-controlled companies, along with their spouses and underage children, will have to declare their income and property ownership. This is a serious challenge for Uzbek bureaucracy, in which conflicts of interest are endemic.
Reforms like that, which increase government transparency and simplify public oversight, inevitably impact on the interests of many influence groups in the Uzbek elite, and they’re unlikely to give in without a fight. Some recent reforms have already had to be rolled back because of resistance from within the system. In 2018, for example, Mirziyoyev reduced import tariffs on a range of goods, only to raise them again just a year later. While no official explanation for the increase was forthcoming, it was clearly connected to the fact that overly accessible imports were a threat to certain Uzbek monopolies and those who control them.
That doesn’t mean that in the next five years Mirziyoyev’s reforms will be thwarted entirely by the internal battle among the Uzbek elites, just that the president will have to tread carefully, and make active use of the experience of neighboring autocracies—above all, Russia.
Under Mirziyoyev, relations between Russia and Uzbekistan have blossomed, and Mirziyoyev’s first state visit after his reelection will be to Russia next month. The long-awaited trip (postponed from February 2020 because of the pandemic) is expected to result in the signing of some key agreements.
Both the Uzbek public and leadership have an interest in their country’s integration into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), for example. The former expects it will make life easier for Uzbek migrants working in Russia and will make Russian imports more accessible, while Mirziyoyev appears to be counting on EEU integration to help him reform Uzbekistan’s economy. After all, it will be easier to convince local interest groups to accept lower tariffs if the imperative is coming from Moscow.
Russia’s authoritarian know-how is also of interest to the Uzbek leadership. During Mirziyoyev’s first term, Uzbekistan adopted multiple new laws borrowed from Russia, such as the law on personal data, which obliges internet companies to store the data of Uzbek users in Uzbekistan. If in Russia the same law only resulted in the blocking of the website LinkedIn, in Uzbekistan it has affected the functioning of Twitter, TikTok, VKontakte, and Skype.
Tashkent has also taken a leaf out of Moscow’s book when it comes to shutting down criticism on social media, with armies of internet trolls appearing. The Uzbek Interior Ministry has proposed setting up groups of “patriotic bloggers” to monitor social media for “negative ideas and comments and work on establishing an atmosphere of intolerance for such ideas.”
Finally, Russia’s experience of amending its constitution may also prove useful. It’s entirely possible that in the foreseeable future, Uzbekistan will also reset the clock on presidential terms, just as Russia did last year to allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power beyond his current term. At the start of 2021, the Uzbek parliament passed a range of constitutional amendments, mainly relating to the functioning of the legal system. In theory, this could be used to assert that Mirziyoyev is only now starting his first term under the new constitution.
Whatever comes next, there is no point in expecting Uzbekistan to transform into a liberal democracy. The Uzbek leadership’s approach to reforming the country is cautious: it’s not opposed to revitalizing the economy, or even to modernizing the system of power to some extent, but it has no intention of changing it for a new one. The most likely outcome for Uzbekistan’s political regime, therefore, is a modern autocracy without excessive repression or the excesses of the Karimov years.