Since taking office in 2016, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has introduced encouraging reforms, notably to clean up the country’s cotton industry and liberalize the economy. But a recent presidential election was an unwelcome return to type.

The outcome of the presidential election in Uzbekistan, held on October 24, came as no surprise, with voters overwhelmingly choosing to return Shavkat Mirziyoyev to power for a second term.

Turnout was, as usual, high – 80.4% of the country’s voters voted – as was Mirziyoyev’s margin of victory: the outgoing president won 80.1% of the vote. However, alternatives were scarce: only four other candidates cast the ballot, all from parties close to Mirziyoyev’s government.

The fact that no real opposition figure has been able to run for president has cast doubt on much of the progress Uzbekistan has made since Mirziyoyev took over from the very authoritarian Islam Karimov in 2016, promising to introduce reforms and open the country to new ideas and investments.

Mirziyoyev’s reforms

Mirziyoyev, who was Prime Minister of Uzbekistan from 2003 to 2016, is unquestionably popular. His tenure compares well with that of his predecessor, and the commitment to a reform package known collectively as the “New Uzbekistan” has been widely welcomed.

Unlike Karimov’s heavily regulated and closed Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev welcomed foreign investment, improved relations with all of the country’s neighbors, relaxed restrictions on religious practices, and freed political prisoners.

During his first term, Mirziyoyev transformed the lives of many Uzbeks by abolishing several restrictions from the Karimov era, such as the need to obtain exit visas before traveling abroad and limitations on exchange. foreign currency.

However, some analysts are disappointed that Mirziyoyev, like his predecessor, continues to wield unrestricted political power.

According to Temur Umarov, research consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center, in order to win the 2016 elections and gain popularity among citizens, “Mirziyoyev has embarked on a program of economic deregulation.”

“The first signs of free speech were seen and the political elite began to reestablish their ties with society and with other nations. The main reason Mirziyoyev put reforms at the center of his presidency was that he saw them as an effective way to gain public support and retain power, ”he said.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have eclipsed some of Mirziyoyev’s reforms and economic gains, and led to a rise in the unemployment rate and a spike in the cost of living.

Strikingly, however, the Uzbeks have become more involved in politics and around 300 anti-government protests have taken place over the past three years, which was unimaginable under the previous regime.

“The main rationale for the reforms has been Uzbekistan’s economic position and related challenges,” said Anna Jordnaova, researcher at the Association of International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank. “Mirziyoyev wants to make the country a regional leader and an attractive place for foreign capital. “

Ripe cotton in an Uzbek field
Clean cotton

One of Mirziyoyev’s most positive reforms has been to clean up the country’s cotton sector: known in the past for its use of child labor and forced labor.

In January, the International Labor Organization (ILO) released a report that, although some local vestiges remain, “the systematic and systemic use of child labor and forced labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan has taken end “.

According to the ILO, the country has made significant progress in terms of fundamental labor rights in the cotton fields. Over 96% of the workers in the 2020 cotton harvest were working freely, and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has ceased altogether.

Wage increases played a key role. The Uzbek government has significantly increased wages since 2017 and introduced a differentiated pay scale so that pickers are paid more per kilogram of cotton towards the end of the harvest, when conditions are less favorable and there is less cotton. to pick. It has also led to a significant drop in the prevalence of forced labor.

Also important was the March 2020 elimination of production quotas, abolishing a system first instituted in the 1920s under the Soviet Union’s Gosplan system. This quota system, an integral part of the Uzbek economy for nearly a century, has contributed to systemic human rights violations by encouraging the use of forced labor.

“Forced labor is not only socially and morally reprehensible, but constitutes a serious violation of human rights and a criminal offense in Uzbekistan,” said Tanzila Narbaeva, president of the Uzbek Senate and the National Commission on Forced Labor and human trafficking, when the report was released. “To change behavior, you have to change the way people think. We do this by working together as legislators, government officials, employers, unions and civil society activists. “

Constructive opposition

Despite success in the cotton fields, however, Mirziyoyev’s administration still struggles to counter a narrative that his government has failed to implement enough reforms. This is what analysts say led to the cautious management of the presidential vote. It is noteworthy that Mirziyoyev’s 80% share of the vote fell below the 90% he achieved in 2016.

According to Kristian Lasslett, co-director of UzInvestigations, the decline in support was intended to choreograph pluralism in order to allow foreign donors to “point the finger at a positive program of general change”.

International election observers called the absence of real opposition candidates “very problematic” and pointed to a myriad of irregularities in the polls.

In June, the government rejected a request by anti-corruption activist Khidirnazar Allakulov to register a new opposition party, Truth and Progress (Hakikat va Tarakkiyot), claiming that half of the 20,000 signatures required to support his request were invalid. Only candidates supported by a registered political party could participate in the presidential election.

According to Heidi Hautala, head of the European Parliament’s control delegation, Mirziyoyev’s reforms are an encouraging sign of Uzbekistan’s progress. However, she believes that the lack of competition in the elections, as well as the irregularities, remain “substantial obstacles on the way to the democratization process of Uzbekistan”.

A post-election report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Joint Observation Mission indicated that large swathes of voters were added to the electoral rolls without proper checks, that people voted without present the required identification documents, and that there had been cases of ballot stuffing.

Jordanova says the entire electoral process was managed and directed to preserve the public image of Mirziyoyev.

“The participation of candidates fiercely opposed to the system could have called into question this image,” she says. Emerging Europe.

“In authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes, a so-called ‘constructive opposition’ can exist – as long as it does not challenge the system as such.

It remains to be seen whether the Uzbeks will have a real choice in the next presidential election in five years. Until then, they hope the limited reforms introduced so far will continue – and sooner.

Top photo: Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Kremlin.ru).

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