It’s been two months since Shavkat Mirziyoyev officially became the new president of Uzbekistan.
The former Soviet republic last year lost its first president, Islam Karimov, who had run the nation with an iron fist for 27 years.
Did power change hands peacefully – or was there a bust-up?
The power transfer was supposed to be violent. Uzbekistan had teetered on in a state of uncertainty when it lost the only leader it had known for decades. But the nation didn’t slide into disorder – 89 percent of Uzbekistan’s voters elected the 59-year-old Mirziyoyev for a five-year term on Dec. 4.
That’s because Uzbek elites wanted to preserve the status quo. The country’s clans came together and agreed to Mirziyoyev’s rule. The rich have long benefited from public coffers – a yawning gap between them and ordinary Uzbeks that was inherited from Soviet times.
Any change to Uzbekistan’s system could threaten their political position and economic power.
But foreign actors also favoured continuity. Central Asia, where Uzbekistan is located, has served as a Central Asian linchpin for China, Russia, and the United States, because of its location.
It’s also anchored in the midst of five countries that are host to vast amounts of natural resources, including oil and gas. Global powers know that any instability in Uzbekistan could cause a global crisis.
The fall of the strong man of the Caucuses
Karimov came to power in 1991, winning Uzbekistan’s first elections after the fall of the Soviet Union.
During his autocratic rule, he established closer ties with Western countries in a bid to reduce Uzbekistan’s dependence on its Soviet-era master, Russia.
But he always kept a wary distance, creating a country that is economically and politically isolated from the world.
Is change on the horizon?
Mirziyoyev’s rule offers few clues. In a short space of time, he has promised to liberalise the tightly controlled foreign exchange market. He promised clan leaders that he’d continue to balance relations with Russia and China.
True to form, his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin hot on the heels of his election showed Uzbekistan making good on his promise.
And the new head of state has acted to ease strains in relations with Central Asian countries.
“We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors – Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,” Mirziyoyev said. He sent and received diplomatic missions to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and is now working on resolving border disputes.
He’s also put in motion a new visa system for 27 countries, relaxing border controls for nations, including the US and parts of western Europe. But that plan won’t see the light of day until 2021, likely because of blowback from a clan leader, Inoyatov, whose Tashkent clan rivals Mirziyoyev’s Samarkand clan.
Is the new president another dictator?
Karimov was known for his repressive and dictatorial policies. He was long lambasted by critics for brutally crushing dissent.
At least 12,000 people – including human rights defenders, independent journalists, and activists – were jailed between 2002 and 2016, Human Rights Watch said in a report it released last year.
“Torture is endemic, and authorities regularly harass human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Muslims and Christians who practise their religion outside strict state controls are persecuted,” the rights group said.
Mirziyoyev had always been in Karimov’s shadow. According to a 2008 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, he “instructed the state-controlled media to never show him on TV” – because it would induce jealousy in Karimov.
Time is needed to see whether he would establish the same grip on authority as Karimov did. Mirziyoyev has also ordered the Uzbek armed forces upgrade – to “strengthen and develop” – so he’s no pacifist.
Pandering to the public – or responding to real needs?
But the new president has begun his task on a softer footing than was Karimov’s hallmark.
Mirziyoyev may give priority to solving the nation’s social problems – but without making any radical changes, Aidarbek Amirbek, deputy director of the Eurasian Research Institute in Kazakhstan said.
And he’s also given attention to some difficulties the public has faced.
For example, he opened the Presidential street in Tashkent for public use. Before, people were barred from using the street for the sake of Karimov’s “security.”
And since taking office, “the governor of Djizak Province, the attorney general of this province, some district mayors and the president of Uzbek Energy Inc, Iskandar Basidov, were dismissed on the grounds that they did not respond to the needs of the public,” Amirbek wrote.
This gives observers some measure of hope that Uzbekistan may indeed be ushering in a new spring.