In a recent article, I honed in on Uzbekistan’s notable reengagement with the international community, particularly its budding embrace of multilateral cooperation on top of bettering bilateral relations with its neighbors.
Changing the tone of external relations is one thing; domestic reform and shifts in managing human rights are another issue.
Regional experts remain rightfully circumspect about how much Uzbekistan is really changing and whether the door that seems to be opening will remain open and under what circumstances.
The release of a handful of political prisoners is weighed against the dozens more still in jail; plans to shift cotton fields to fruit and vegetables are contrasted with reports of continued use of forced labor — followed by news that students and teacher had been ordered out of the fields.
A few steps forward, a few steps back.
The case of Uzbek writer Nurullo Otakhonov, who uses the pen name Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon, is illustrative of both caution and optimism when it comes to Uzbekistan’s progress, particularly with regard to human rights. Caution, in this case, trumps optimism.
Raufkhon’s plan to return to Uzbekistan after being removed from a massive blacklist (along with thousands of others who were reportedly cleaned off the lists), was profiled recently by Reuters. The article highlighted the unease which Uzbek exiles continue to feel toward their homeland.
“They would have come back in an instant, but what stands in their way is uncertainty about what is going to happen to them upon return,” Raufkhon told Reuters last week.
This week, Reuters reported that Raufkhon was detained upon landing in Tashkent. So much for uncertainty about what is going to happen if exiles return.
As Eurasianet reports, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev had told a group of U.S.-based Uzbek expats that he supported and encouraged their return to the country.
If Raufkhon was to be a test case for such returns, the country failed in a very high-profile way. Uzbek expats — for example, the more than 55,000 Uzbekistan-born persons living in the United States and the similar number residing in Turkey — are unlikely to try their luck at returning having seen what happened to Raufkhon.
Mirziyoyev has sought to cast himself as a reformer. Those looking closely, however, would note that to date most of the presented reform efforts target economic rather than human rights issues. Yes, Uzbekistan welcomed in its first Human Rights Watch delegation in more than a decade recently and also its first-ever visit by a UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. But, such visits and the attendant discussions are starting points — talk not action — and the more critical observers may cast them as placating moves, done for image not substance.
A tightly controlled, authoritarian system cannot be overturned in a year. More importantly, the people in positions of power — from the very top, down to local officials — would have to reorient how they exercise their power, how they understand the relationship between people and the state.
One recent incident underscores this issue. A video appeared online showing the mayor of Saikhunabad district berating — yelling at and hitting — the local school principals, apparently, as Eurasianet put it, “for failing to organize sufficiently elaborate celebrations for Independence Day.” The mayor had been “rapped on the knuckles by his superior. He in turn decided to take out his frustration on his underlings.” Reportedly, the Uzbek General Prosecutor’s Office said it would investigate the mayor, though regional observers posit that this has more to do with the outrage generated by the video than the actions themselves.
The state system in Uzbekistan — developed under Karimov, with Mirziyoyev in the prime minister’s seat for more than a decade — has long been run on fear and subservience, engendering a state which eschews criticisms that move up the chain of power, rather than down. Raufkhon’s work was critical of the status quo in Uzbekistan since independence, earning him the ire of the state and leading to his exile in Turkey. Such an atmosphere cannot be cleared quickly, especially because those who have benefited from the system continue to run it.
Changing direction in any meaningful fashion will step on good number of toes that have long been comfortable in their position, and the power of those positions.
In early September, Mirziyoyev shuffled some key security posts. Karimov’s defense minister, Qobul Berdiyev, was replaced with Abdusalom Azizov. Azizov had been appointed interior minister soon after Mirziyoev became president. His position as interior minister was filled with another of Mirziyoyev’s allies, Pulat Bobojonov. Bobojonov had most recently been a regional governor, but back between 2006-2011 he was chief prosecutor in Jizzakh region, from which Mirziyoyev hails.
One security figure left in place, however, was Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the SNB state security service (the heirs to the Soviet KGB). Inoyatov has long been described as a very powerful individual in Uzbekistan and before Karimov’s death was always among those short-listed by observers to take over when he died. According to Reuters, Inoyatov is the only Karimov-era senior security official still in office.
What happens next in Raufkhon’s case will be critical, not just for him and his family, but those watching both internal political dynamics in Uzbekistan and those concerned with human rights. Will he be released with a mea culpa from Mirziyoyev? Will the detention be pinned on an underling and a mistake? Will he disappear into detention indefinitely? The real question — how and why this happened — may not be answered publicly or satisfactorily at all.