Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, is in Washington D.C. with a small delegation this week for the sixth edition of the U.S.-Uzbekistan annual bilateral consultations. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal met with the delegation on January 19. According to RFE/RL, the two sides addressed “political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade, and other issues of mutual interest.”
The visit comes at an interesting time: a week after news broke that a prominent political prisoner had died back in 2010 and a few weeks after the Uzbek parliament quietly greenlit a new law on presidential elections. In addition, Eurasianet’s Joanna Lillis says that Uzbekistan recently launched “an offensive to recover millions of dollars frozen in a U.S. corruption case involving the Uzbek president’s daughter.”
It seems likely that all of these things will impact the discussions in one way or another, even if the end result is maintenance of the United States’ wait and see (or just wait and wait some more, previously branded as “strategic patience”) strategy with regard to Uzbekistan.
First, the news last week that Akram Yuldashev had died back in 2010 emerged only a few weeks before he was to be released. Yuldashev was an Uzbek spiritual leader who gathered a sizable following through the 1990s in the Fergana valley area. His teachings instructed his followers to “live a moral life under Islam” as Human Rights Watch summarized. In 1999, Yuldashev was arrested after a series of bombings in Tashkent and sentenced to 17 years in prison. In 2005, he was accused of organizing the unrest in Andijan. The Uzbek government said he headed an extremist group “Akromiya” and claimed it instigated the violence in Andijan. But it’s unclear “Akromiya” ever existed in the form the Uzbek government says it did.
Human Rights Watch and other such organizations have been pressing the Uzbek government for years to release information about Yuldashev and his condition and allow his family to see him after the authorities cut off their contact in 2009. As Yuldashev’s February 2016 release date approached, the news leaked out that he died of tuberculosis in 2010. HRW wants the U.S. to push in their consultations with the Uzbeks the need for an investigation and transparency regarding Yuldashev’s death and for information regarding more than two dozen other political prisoners.
The second piece that makes the timing (and likely the discussions) interesting is the election reform quietly signed into law on New Year’s eve. As Zabikhulla Saipov outlined for RFE/RL this week, “the country’s president quietly approved a new version of The Law On Presidential Elections Of The Republic Of Uzbekistan.” The legislative sneaking belies the substance which, on the surface at least, lowers the registration hurdles for potential future presidential candidates–lowering the number of signatures necessary to register from 5 percent of the population to 1 percent. Saipov notes that previous amendments (in 2004, 2008, 2011) all tightened regulations. “Now, years later, and out of the blue, it has opted to ease part of the registration challenge for future presidential candidates. That development alone is highly intriguing.” It’s a tiny reform and entirely on paper, skeptics (like me) would wait until an election to give Tashkent too much praise but it’s also the sort of tiny carrot diplomats in Washington might hold up as progress.