Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 07, 2016
Strategies underlying the power transition is reminiscent of Soviet era practices in Uzbekistan & remains to be seen how bilateral relation with US pans out
Will new Presidents of Uzbekistan, US impact bilateral relations? Uzbekistan held early presidential election on 4 December 2016 due to the death of President Islam Karimov, who passed away after suffering a stroke at the age of 79 on 2 September 2016. Candidates from four political parties of Uzbekistan participated in the presidential election – Shavkat Mirziyoyev from the ruling Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party (UzLiDeP), Hotamzhon Ketmonov from the People's Democratic Party (PDPU), Sarvar Otamuratov from Milly Tiklanish (National Revival) Party, and Nariman Umarov from the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party. Umarov and Ketmonov had contested the previous election too. When the results were announced on December 5, it  was no surprise that Shavkat Mirziyoyev won with 88.6% of the votes. Mirziyoyev had emerged as the consensus candidate given the absence of other credible candidates from the ruling party, including the President’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova, head of the National Security Service Rustam Inoyatov and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov. Gulnara’s fate, following her house arrest in 2014, has been the subject of speculation. Infighting within the former President’s family, that became public knowledge, had overshadowed Uzbek politics, and the ‘image’ of a state caught in the crossfire of a domestic power struggle had gained momentum in the international press. A major allegation against Gulnara was that her actions had shed ‘negative limelight’ on her family and Uzbekistan by her being the target in a Swiss money laundering investigation and related corruption cases. Her disappearance from the political scene is complete. She was conspicuously absent at her father’s funeral. President Karimov was the only leader independent Uzbekistan had known and his death raised questions about transition within the context of the ‘Uzbek Model’. So far, the Uzbek government has followed a stability based programme of political, social and economic development, which has expanded the ambit of state control. In particular, state control over the rural economy and the establishment of an enforcement apparatus allowed the creation of an uninterrupted line of political patronage at all levels – from the centre to the regions. Because political patronage and control over the economy remained were seen as one, the possibility of change was regarded as a threat to political stability. Given Uzbekistan’s geopolitical position, maintaining peace and preventing internal disorder and conflict, that could have a possible spill over effect, was recognised as the priority by both the state itself and the international community. Strategies underlying the power transition reflected this concern, but was also reminiscent of Soviet era practices. Succession was considered settled when Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev appeared at the helm of the commission organising Karimov’s funeral.  It was cemented after President Putin visited Samarkand, to pay respects to the departed leader and meet with President Karimov’s family. Following the visit, which saw President Putin meeting with Karimov’s family, accompanied by Mirziyoyev, he was appointed interim president. This was probably the moment when the emerging leadership was announced to a wider audience as well as to the international community. His appointment and observations in the days following Karimov’s death underlined the ‘need to preserve stability, security, law and order’ but also suggested the possibility of Uzbekistan moving closer to Russia due to the personal relationship between Mirziyoyev and Russian elites. The run up to the 2016 elections had created the impression of a political system in transition with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission describing the electioneering as ‘moderately visible’. According to the OSCE, each contestant has 642 billboards displayed across the country and equal access to 36 electronic screens to broadcast campaign messages. Daily television news bulletins open with reports about various election campaigns. The aim seemed not just to bolster Mirziyoyev’s legitimacy, in a still fragile period of post Karimov transition, but create the appearance of competitive politics. Presidential candidates who travelled widely in the regions to meet with citizens however, tended to stress socio-economic issues, themes that have been reiterated over the years in Uzbekistan. Hotamzhon Ketmonov’s primary electoral theme was to promote social equality. Sarvar Otamuratov, a trained sociologist, focused more on the idea of “national renewal”, and the idea of bolstering greater national self-awareness. His main practical proposal was for the Uzbek language to abandon the Cyrillic script and adopt the Latin alphabet. Nariman Umarov emphasized broad access to education. If elected, Umarov said he would overhaul the university admissions system and revise the mechanism for recognizing foreign educational qualification. Unfortunately, these abstract notions of equality, ‘self-awareness” and higher education have limited appeal in a state where everyday life has been complicated by inflation, the state of the national currency and with the approach of winter, a lack of fuel. Unemployment is another concern with increasing numbers being obliged to move to Russia or Kazakhstan as gasterbaiter (migrant worker). Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s main message had been to protect private enterprise and promote foreign investment. He pledged to double gross domestic product by 2030 and bring the share of industry in the economy to 40 percent, up from 34 percent as registered in the first half of 2016. He also pledged to launch 657 investment projects worth a total of $40 billion within five years. He argued that this would ensure threefold growth of the textile industry and the more than double the pharmaceutical sector. Another pledge was to build 15,000 homes for low-income families in 2017 and make mortgages more affordable. In addition, Mirziyoyev wants to build 50,000 apartments in major cities over a three-year period. But above all, as a veteran of government administration, he portrayed himself as a champion of continuity arguing that stability and development in the social sphere would be crucial. This seems to indicate that change would be an unlikely outcome of the emerging political process, particularly where the question of a basis of negotiation between the state and the people is concerned. While a more moderate path of reform would have provided space for mediation the all-embracing consensus on ‘security first’ seems to reduce its possibility from the realm of potential outcomes. Analysts note that this is a common trend throughout Eurasia where collective needs, as defined by the political elites in the respective state, tend to triumph over individual liberty. “Traditional values” and nationalism, as defined by Eurasianism, is also a consequence of Russia seeking to re-envisage its influence over the region through a network of institutions but also like minded leadership. Debates, once again seem to be around implications of a new national leader in an unstable neighbourhood, competing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, and the extent to which the new American Presidency would impact on future US-Uzbek relations. While it remains too early to predict a major transformation of neighbourhood policy, initial trends seem positive. Continuity seems to be more on the cards where policies within the larger global arena are concerned. Mirziyoyev, in his first address to a joint session of the Parliament as interim President, had reaffirmed Uzbekistan’s policy of rejecting membership in international military alliances and military bases. The probability of a better investment environment, may be on the cards with the publication of a presidential decree with plans to liberalise the currency market thereby creating a more viable investment environment. These measures, particularly, reduced border controls and removal of visa regimes is likely to create opportunities for small time traders and generate domestic employment. The fact that borders were open on polling day this time would also indicate a somewhat reduced emphasis on security. The emergence of a leader more open to regional linkages seems a possibility with the official resumption of flights between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan after 24 years. As the joint statement during a meeting between Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon indicated “water, energy, transport, logistics and mutual cross border movement of citizens” are issues that could reset regional connects. Similarly, the reopening of a long sealed border crossing with Kyrgyzstan and attempts to circumvent unfavourable tariff barriers created by Kazakhstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union are indicative of the possibility of change. However, it remains unclear whether Mirziyoyev will steer a path towards Uzbekistan’s accession to what is identified as a common Eurasian Economic Union, which counts Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan as its members.
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