Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is scheduled to visit Washington, DC, from May 15 to 17, the first Uzbek president to do so since Islam Karimov in 2002. The visit occurs at a particularly dynamic time for Uzbekistan, which has undergone a bevy of reforms over the past year and a half.
Ahead of Mirziyoyev’s visit, The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz sat down with Uzbek Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov to talk about progress in Uzbekistan, human rights protections, and the herculean task of rewiring how a government interacts with its people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Catherine Putz: What have been some of the most meaningful reforms in the last year and a half?
Minister Ruslanbek Davletov: Reforms have touched every sphere: social life, economic life, political life. The main achievement that we can be proud of is the start of real, constructive dialogue with the people. That was the first initiative of the president. He named the year 2017 the year of dialogue with the people. This is something new in Uzbek politics, it has never been like that. And it wasn’t just words, it was reflected in real steps that all government bodies have taken.
First, I have to mention the new president’s reception offices in all rural areas and in all cities. Two hundred offices of the president were opened in all districts of Uzbekistan. We have 14 regions and 200 districts. So every district saw the opening of a new office of the president. People would come to these offices and petition, laying out their problems — social problems, problems with law enforcement bodies, with the pension system, with getting state aid, medical problems, and so on. In one and a half years, we received 1.9 million petitions, this is a big number in Uzbekistan when you have 32 million people. Then an online system to petition was established, so citizens don’t have to go somewhere, they just write directly to the president’s office. There is a 100-man office working under the president dealing with these issues. Every petition is controlled by the president’s administration. I worked there as well for eight months when it was just starting.
I think this has transformed our society, it is a new phenomenon in Uzbekistan. Never before could people refer their cases directly to the president and sometimes in his speeches he would cite the petitions of real people. It really made an impact on people in terms of believing in the new policies.
The president said that we had stopped talking to people, we don’t know the problems of people so he would make everybody work with people. This concerned us as civil servants as well because we needed to change the way we worked. A new initiative stated that all civil servants should not sit in their offices with comfortable air conditioning, et cetera. They should go out to the street, they should each out to the people, find out their needs and address their concerns.
So, as the Ministry of Justice, we have our own functions and sectors where we exert control, such as rendering the public services, a notary system, civil registration system, and so forth. We started working directly with the people. We started visiting households and gathering information about the situation. This led to the establishment of the new strategy of action of the president which comprises five pillars. First is public governance, improving the work of the parliament; second is economy; third is the judicial sector; fourth is social sector; and fifth is foreign policy.
In terms of the judicial sector, what are some of the things you experienced when going out and talking to people about their interactions with law enforcement or the justice system more broadly?
In terms of the judicial system, we did have many problems with standard of proof in court proceedings; it caused a lot of unhappiness among the people. Hundreds of thousands of petitions concerned the judicial system. So big reforms were introduced. We introduced completely new administrative courts, where citizens can sue state bodies. This is very new, unseen before in Uzbek state history. There were never any separate courts to consider cases against state bodies, which is really a good achievement. And then of course, we have to open more courts. We opened administrative courts and we opened district level economic courts. A lot has been done to improve access to justice, the physical access to justice. And the numbers that I am telling you are real numbers. For example, 350 more judges have been introduced.
In addition, the president has openly addressed the problem of torture in pre-trial and in detention centers. A special resolution was passed to introduce video surveillance in detention centers. Of course, torture is prohibited by our laws but there were problems with administering this law in conformity with international standards. So the problem, for the first time, has been addressed — the torture problem — and we have practical results from this policy. A new scheme was introduced in police stations as well. The police have been taught new rules of behavior, talking to people, even introducing themselves on the street. A new culture has been introduced. I’m not saying that it’s all perfect now, but a lot has been done in this regard.
If a person alleges torture, then there is a special procedure to check whether it was the case or not. Many people have referred already their cases alleging torture and there is a system to check this.
So there are efforts to address impunity in law enforcement?
No impunity, no impunity.
One point regarding the judicial system is that before the reforms, we almost didn’t have any acquittals of the accused. If the prosecution referred a case before the court, it was almost definite that people would be judged and sentenced to some kind of punishment.
In the last five years only 7 percent of cases were acquitted, in the last 10 months, courts issued 350 acquittals. In addition, preliminary investigation bodies have terminated 2,511 criminal cases. This an achievement for the Uzbek judicial system to all of a sudden behave more independently.
As for the impunity that you talk about of state officials. There is no impunity, in part because of the mass transformation of the society and development of social media. People started to write everything on social media. And because of these hashtags and hot topics, they are attracting the attention of the state authorities. This is part of the checks and balances system where civil society really has an impact in drawing attention to issues.
The Ministry of Justice now takes into consideration the mood, the opinion of the people and experts from civil society. It’s not like before when you just make the decision and implement it. All initiatives are on a special website for public consideration, where citizens can criticize draft laws.
In your role as Minister of Justice, what kinds of initiatives have you been able to pursue to address problems people have brought up?
Any reforms that are put in place are done by writing legislation. As the Ministry of Justice, we take part in every single initiative whether they are acts of the parliament, acts of the president, acts of the cabinet or ministries… they all go through the Ministry of Justice for legal expertise. So we kind of take part in all of the reform process.
For instance, I can tell you that we actively took part in developing the latest resolution regarding civil society. Many new ideas from the Ministry of Justice have been included in the last version of the resolution, including issues such as the easing of registration, making online registration available, simplifying the way the ministry works with NGOs — the Ministry of Justice is the regulator of the NGO sphere. There was one initiative which was also in the resolution to lower fines in case of infringement of existing legislation for NGOs.
Do you see a relationship between the economic reforms making it easier to invest and the perception of Uzbekistan that springs from the social reforms?
Of course they are linked.
This has a lot to do with the overall level of freedom in Uzbekistan, which is changing. People are free in pursuing their commercial interests because the economy is opening up. We’re encouraging more foreign direct investment (FDI) because of the liberalization process that we’ve been through lately. We opened up almost all spheres for investments. For instance, before we didn’t even have the possibility to convert currency. It was a big impediment to work as an investor because you could come to Uzbekistan, you could invest money and you could earn your Uzbek national currency but you could not convert it to hard currency, like U.S. dollars or the Euro. This was a shame for the Uzbek economy. Now this is all sorted out, there are no problems with convertibility. This is an incentive for people to come and invest their money. Even local investors, they feel confident in state policies.
And people look at what the state is doing for them, for their benefit. The state is building roads, the state is renovating schools, investing in kindergartens even. We have a state program for the next five years, by 2021 we’ll have 100 percent of of kindergarten-age children covered. This is a really big state program, the state is investing money and encouraging public-private partnerships in this sphere.
These kinds of reforms are giving more confidence to people: they know that when they talk, when they start to demand their rights there is change. They came out with their problems and openly talked about them, asking and demanding… and if you don’t answer they go to a higher level. There is a vertical complaint consideration system which is making the lower level civil servants really responsible for their interactions with people.
This is a lot of work — rewiring how an entire government works with people plus all the economic initiatives and foreign policy changes. What are some of the challenges?
There are many challenges in front of us. But any expert that we invite and ask to look at what we are doing says we are doing the right things. The challenge is here is to administer legislation, to implement fully all the ideas, all the new mechanisms and reforms into real life to transform them into effective results. In implementation there is a human factor. We need to train our civil servants so that they conform to international standards.
Out of this arises another problem: human resources. We need to put a lot of emphasis on education, especially higher education. Because in Uzbekistan we have fewer than 70 higher education institutions and each year we have more than 550,000 graduates from [secondary] schools.
We need to improve the higher education system. Take legal education for an example. There is only one university in Uzbekistan, with 600 graduates each year… just 600 is not much and president opened 25 new agencies. Of course, you need very skilled personnel in those agencies. Developing a skilled workforce is an issue.
Another issue is, of course, corruption. The government has started openly fighting corruption. We concede that corruption has eaten many aspects of social life and the economy, but steadily, firmly, decisively we are taking actions against corruption. For the first time since independence, we adopted new legislation on fighting corruption. This is a very important step for us. We introduced a completely new system of state procurement, one of the risk spheres where corruption exists. Everything is done online now, so there is less and less of a human factor in deciding who is going to sell products to the state. We are working at closing all the possibilities for corrupt practices.
Are there international organizations that you’ve been working with which have been giving advice in terms of developing these human resources?
We’re talking with all the international organizations that in some way or another deal with issues that we are interesting in. These are UN bodies, like UNDP, and there are foreign international organizations like Japanese NGOs, Korean NGOs, and U.S. NGOs; many ministries have their projects with USAID, with Turkish counterparts, and we do a lot of work with the International Labor Organization (ILO). There is no restriction or anything against those kinds of partnerships. This is encouraged, very much encouraged.
Given that President Mirziyoyev is visiting Washington, DC, this week, how do you think the relationship with the United States will develop?
This is not my professional field, but I can say that we are hoping U.S. and Uzbek relations will enter a new phase. The experts and politicians are talking about the strategic partnership. As the Ministry of Justice, we’ve always had really good relations with our U.S. counterparts in judicial reform, training legal professionals and expertise. I hope this partnership will grow into something really big and will bring benefit for our people.
This is the main thing: what we do should bring benefits for the people.