Crossroads Asia

Uzbek Foreign Minister on Reforms: ‘There Is No Way Back‘

The foreign minister was clear that Uzbekistan’s ongoing reforms are irreversible.

Uzbek Foreign Minister on Reforms: ‘There Is No Way Back‘
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov is the first among Uzbek officials to speak about the impermissibility of alternatives during late President Islam Karimov’s reign. Kamilov also assured there would be no backtracking on the ongoing reforms under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Since reforms began in Uzbekistan when Mirziyoyev came to power, there has been healthy skepticism inside and outside the country over whether the changes are real rather than window-dressing for the international community. One can imagine that when Uzbek officials travel abroad, something that has became far more frequent under the current president, the question “are the changes real?” comes up often. Kamilov was the latest to receive such a question, this time posed by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung around the time Mirziyoyev paid an official visit to Germany from January 21-23.

“Many ask how long these reforms will last, and whether there are risks of a backward step. There is no way back,” was Kamilov’s straightforward response. Kamilov elaborated that the bottom line of Mirziyoyev’s political and economic liberalization is to move Uzbekistan economically forward, and that the president sees no other alternatives for this purpose.

Kamilov assured his interviewer that Mirziyoyev will not be following China’s path of greater freedom in economic activities in exchange for less freedom in political life. Kamilov specifically stated that Uzbekistan is not China and that reforms are planned far beyond some domestic interests. Kamilov also indicated that in contrast to Karimov’s supposed policy of prioritizing economic developments ahead of anything else (Karimov’s favorite quote was “first economy, then politics”), Mirziyoyev has adopted the policy of prioritizing social, political, and economic reforms simultaneously.

The current president served as Karimov’s number two for 13 years; when taking over the presidency, Mirziyoyev vowed to continue Karimov’s legacy. Kamilov himself served as foreign minister under Karimov more than once and is the only minister to keep his post after Mirziyoyev came to power. Except for some high-level arrests of 2018, such as Rashid Kadirov (former prosecutor general), Botir Parpiev (former head of State Tax Committee), Shuhrat Gulomov (deputy head of the State Security Service), and Adham Ahmedbaev (former minister of interior), most personnel from the Karimov era are still around.

Therefore, there is skepticism over how these individuals can bring reforms now when they did not then. Kamilov’s response was that Karimov’s heavy control never allowed dissent or alternatives. Although officials were aware of issues and wrong courses the country was taking, all they did was keep silent: “Mr. Karimov personally controlled everything. Nobody could do anything beyond his policy. It was difficult to even discuss such topics.”

Kamilov’s interview also confirms a certain phenomenon in the government of Uzbekistan. Mirziyoyev neither encourages frontal attacks on Karimov nor does it himself, akin to Deng Xiaoping in China after the death of their authoritarian leader Mao Zedong. Therefore, Kamilov limited his evaluation of Karimov’s period and maintained reverence for the former president.

Kamilov’s pithy “There is no way back” is, in fact, Mirziyoyev’s line. The president repeatedly brings it up in front of his officials as if to hammer in the idea that bridges back were burnt. Kamilov became the first senior official to relay this message to a foreign audience, and more importantly, assured that reforms will be taking place in politics, social life, and economics simultaneously.