Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 31, 2016
With President critically ill, Uzbekistan now at crossroads?

Uzbekistan President Islom Abdugʻaniyevich Karimov’s recent hospitalisation and more significantly the official bulletin about it has led to speculation about what the future holds for the post- Soviet state. It has also brought back into focus the debate on political transition.

As in most post-Soviet states, transition has been the abiding theme in Uzbekistan over the last twenty years with the assumption that the transition would be from a command economy to a market economy and from authoritarianism to democracy. However, transition is hardly ever a linear process, particularly in states like Uzbekistan where the political elite remained in place and were able to transform their political power into advantages for their immediate family, ‘clan’ or regional factions.

Uzbek politics has been dominated by weak formal state agencies and disproportionately influential informal institutions. Historically, regional and clan affiliations played a prominent political and economic role and Uzbek identity in public and private life is traditionally determined by an individual’s belonging to five distinct geographical areas that make up separate provinces: Tashkent, Samarkand, Ferghana, Surkhandarya, Syrdarya and Khorezm. During the Soviet period, members of the Samarkand-Tashkent clans established dominant key economic and political positions.

Patronage politics, in contrast, has been in constant flux. The current elite hierarchy consists of two tiers. The top tier consists of three influential groups whose leaders are members of President Karimov’s inner circle: Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, National Security Service Chief Rustam Inoyatov, First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and Elyor Ganiev, Minister of Foreign Economic Relations Investment and Trade. Because power and wealth are interlinked, they have developed reputations as the country’s major oligarchs. The lower tier is made up of oblast governors, wealthy industrialists, land owners and informal power brokers. Leaders of these lower tier groups are subordinate to those in groups linked to major oligarchs.

Some analysts argue that patronage groups are based on regional affiliations, as was the case during the Soviet period. Mirziyaev is said to represent the powerful Samarkand clan; Azimov and Ganiev, the Tashkent clan; and Inoyatov, the Surkhdarya clan. However, the reality is far more complex and fluid. Regional affiliations do play a role in Uzbek politics. However, patronage groups are now built on several factors, including individual loyalty to officials, common pragmatic interests, regional ties, family ties and professional ties. In a clear sign of pragmatism, Uzbek officials maintain their membership with multiple patronage networks to hedge their bets and defend their economies and political resources.

At the juncture of transition to independence, the Peoples’ Democratic Party replaced the Uzbek Communist Party, but while adherence to the party was not essential for political advancement, interpersonal ties of loyalty remained crucial. In Uzbekistan, as in a number of other post-Soviet states, the state remains a major actor in the economy as in social affairs. In such a context, social advancement can only be pursued by participation in state institutions. At the same time, any wealth that is accumulated can hardly be invested without political protection.

Even though embryonic forms of market economy are emerging in various sectors, all economic activity is closely monitored by the state through fiscal and legislative means. As such the maintenance of informal networks for political protection remains critical. There is a complex process of reproduction where the nomination and selection of political personnel takes place in central academic institutions which are the real antechambers of power. However, this regional elite has only limited access to resources and there is central control to ensure that they do not come as a threat or pose an alternative to the central authorities.

Uzbekistan’s potential power transition in March 2015 had generated serious analytical discourse, rumours and mass speculation till President Karimov declared his intention to participate and elections upheld his victory. Until Karimov declared his intention to participate in the elections, the question of who would take the reins was of particular interest. The President’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova and the head of the National Security Service Rustam Inoyatov were seen as the main actors in the struggle. There were of course other contenders and powerful clans in the fray, and more importantly, various political factions vying for power away from the immediate ranks of the ruling circle. Two other potential candidates were the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov.

Once again, the potential power transition seems to have brought back these names into the political fray though it should be kept in mind that in Turkmenistan, a successful transition in the post Niyazov era was made by a relatively unknown candidate who has held on to power.

The Presidential family, and infighting within the family that became public knowledge, has overshadowed Uzbek politics in in recent years and the 'image' of a state caught in the crossfire of a domestic power struggle gained momentum in the international press. A major allegation against Gulnara Karimova was the fact that her actions had not only shed 'negative limelight' on her family, but also on Uzbekistan through her involvement in a Swiss money laundering investigation and related corruption cases. On the other hand, in the course of the controversy surrounding Gulnara Karimova’s business deals, President Karimov’s image as the impartial leader of the state was reinforced as her business activities were curtailed and she herself put under house arrest.

As at other moments of transition, the symbolic significance of a threat perception and therefore the importance of stability were underlined. On the occasion of the Day of Defence of the Motherland on January 14, 2015, President Karimov drew attention to the expansion of the range of threats to international security and Uzbekistan in particular, bringing back into the national discourse the theme of 'nation under threat.' These include, increased geopolitical competition manifest in the Ukraine situation, serious aggravation of relations between Russia and the West, the creeping expansion of extremism, the threat posed by the ISIS including the fact that its ranks have now been joined by immigrants from many former Soviet countries including Uzbekistan. The withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and the possibility of chaos in the neighbouring states have once again provided impetus to the rhetoric.

Political stability and economic progress have been showcased by the Uzbek state in recent times through lavish celebrations of events like Independence Day or Navruz. Unlike its neighbours, Uzbekistan emerged from the global economic crisis unscathed, largely because of the relative isolation of the state from global financial institutions. The domestic political situation also seemed to have stabilised after the 2008 constitutional changes. Uzbekistan’s international reputation, which was significantly damaged because of the May 2005 Andijan events, improved after a number of western states and international organisations lauded Tashkent for hosting refugees during the June 2010 inter-ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan and because of Uzbekistan’s key role in the Northern Distribution Network.

The continuing possibility for chaos in the neighbourhood and the fact that Uzbekistan is the northern neighbour of Afghanistan has meant that Tashkent is key in efforts to contain radicalism. This has meant that despite being listed as 'county of particular concern' in the US State Department list, Nisha Biswal, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia argued that US policy should involve the right balance of pressure, partnership and a certain amount of strategic patience as far as Uzbekistan was concerned. The 'image' of a state with questionable rights record has not hindered Uzbekistan’s international legitimacy as a state with enormous geopolitical significance. On the other hand, there is continuing state effort to foster a more progressive image. One such effort is through government allocation of funds for sport youth programmes. It is argued that this is impelled by the desire to keep the Uzbek youth occupied and apolitical and to foster a 'positive international image of Uzbekistan.' This according to some is an effort to promote through sports an image of themselves as a progressive, modern country as well as regional power. In fact, President Karimov is said to have collapsed in the course of a reception he held to honour Uzbek Olympians.

While on the one hand, the state creates an 'image' for itself, an interesting aside is an on-going debate in the Uzbek social media on the 'image' of the appropriate leader that seems to suggest that opinions vary. There is reference to Amir Timur as the ideal leader who conferred with his people, but also the call for an Uzbek citizen who would be a non-ethnic and thereby a solution to the state’s endemic corruption. In portals where questions about the future Uzbek society are being debated, the emphasis is on a clear understanding of the 'image' for the future leader. 'Change' is the keyword and it is underlined and much would depend on the leadership that comes to power.

It is being argued that Uzbekistan is now at crossroads and a conscious decision has to be made by society to move towards modernity leaving behind an inertia that is both endemic in the social fabric of society but also in the mentality of the people. Here, the role of a 'creative minority' who will be able to balance the contradictory forces of development within society will be crucial. This is a reference to the reformist Jadid movement at the turn of the last century and the 'modern creative minority' is identified as neo-Jadid. The neo-Jadids would be able to identify all that was positive in the past and creatively adopt it to suit modern Uzbek society. There is obviously an expectation that the 'creative minority' would constitute the leadership in the future.

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