High expectations. Those two simple words summarize the current state of Uzbekistan. Over the past few years, Uzbek citizens and the outside world alike have come to expect continued improvement and accountability from the former dictatorship.
In fact, Uzbekistan was recently named The Economist’s 2019 “country of the year,” a title not granted for overall success, but for greatest improvement. Uzbekistan’s achievement seems like a breath of fresh air given the abundance of conflict and human rights abuses around the world, such as the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the abuse of the Uyghur people in China, and protest movements in Hong Kong and Latin America. However, we must recognize the accolade with a grain of salt: Uzbekistan still has tremendous strides to make before democracy and freedom are fully realized.
Over the last two years, Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, initiated a series of reforms that present a stark contrast to the isolationist policies of his predecessor, Islam Karimov. Mirziyoyev’s administration opened its doors to foreign journalists, released political prisoners, extended visa access, prohibited bureaucrats from soliciting bribes from local businesses, and took steps to end forced labor. On paper, these sound like incredible achievements. In practice, many of these policies simply have not structurally changed the Uzbek government.
In its 2020 World Report, Human Rights Watch asserts that despite the reforms, the Uzbek government “remains authoritarian.” They raise concerns over the lack of legal redress for released political prisoners, barriers to NGO registration (which prevents human rights work from taking place), and hate crimes against the LGBT community. Furthermore, they note that forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector remains widespread despite a recent prohibition of the practice. In another recent publication, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern over “reports of widespread, routine torture” within Uzbek detention centers. Though President Mirziyoyev has passed reforms and promoted liberal rhetoric, in reality, the human rights of everyday Uzbeks are not adequately protected.
Uzbekistan’s recent elections further demonstrate that the country still has a long way to go before achieving the basic human rights of freedom and democracy.
On December 22nd, Uzbekistan held its first set of parliamentary elections since the dawn of the reform era. However, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who oversaw the voting process, these elections were largely similar to previous elections. All five political parties on the ballot remain loyal to Mirziyoyev, and the allocation of parliamentary seats remained virtually unchanged. Furthermore, according to OSCE, founding new political parties in the country is “burdensome and open to arbitrary application,” meaning that it is virtually impossible to challenge the ruling status quo. And, on election day itself, there were serious irregularities in the voting process, such as the casting of multiple ballots by individual voters.
Admittedly, there were various pros to this election cycle, such as the first-ever televised candidate debate and more choice and autonomy for citizens. This is a glimmer of hope for the country. Shukhrat Abdurakhmanov, a 61-year-old retiree in Tashkent quoted in an interview with eurasianet, perfectly embodies the cautious optimism with which many Uzbeks view their government: “I voted for our democracy. For the future of our country. What I expect from our new parliament is… a sense of responsibility for their words and the promises they have made to the voters.”
Overall, The Economist is right: Uzbekistan has certainly made remarkable strides towards democratization and unity over the past few years. However, the international community should monitor these developments closely. Let us not forget the recent failure of Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people by Myanmar’s military. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for democracy in Myanmar and in 2015, her election as head of state was expected to usher in a new era of reform for the nation. She instead jailed journalists and critics and failed to condemn the genocide of the Rohingya people committed by her own military generals.
With this precedent, after recognizing the reforms of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, we should not turn a blind eye, particularly when there are still documented human rights abuses in the country. The monitoring of the recent elections by the OSCE and the reports on human rights by Human Rights Watch and the UN are prime examples of how outside entities can be involved in the democratization process while allowing the process to play out naturally. While the democratization of Uzbekistan will likely continue, as recent reforms, liberal rhetoric, and elections have swayed public opinion, Uzbekistan has a long way to go before it can be called truly democratic. Overall, the international community should take an acute interest in Uzbekistan while it is in this precarious state to ensure that democracy is fully realized, the voices of the Uzbek people can be heard, and the high expectations placed upon the nation can be achieved.