Crossroads Asia

What are the Prospects for Reform in Uzbekistan?

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Crossroads Asia

What are the Prospects for Reform in Uzbekistan?

A panel of experts say that prospects for genuine reform in Uzbekistan look promising, but are not guaranteed.

What are the Prospects for Reform in Uzbekistan?

On May 11, the Uzbek government announced that it had resolved “certain technical issues” and restored access to a dozen news and rights groups websites. The announcement came a week after a roundtable on the prospects for reform in Uzbekistan at the annual convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. The panel, organized by Eurasianet, brought journalists and scholars with extensive knowledge of Uzbek politics into dialogue about governance and accountability under Mirziyoyev’s rule.

Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor Peter Leonard opened the discussion with an observation that novelty has been the primary frame for articles about Uzbekistan since long-time leader Islam Karimov died. Leonard explained that “for the first time ever” is a common trope in many articles pitched and published about Uzbekistan. To be fair, plenty of things taking place in Uzbekistan are happening for the first time — like the country’s first international half marathon and direct elections of neighborhood council leaders.

The process of opening up elections for local governance is representative of broader reforms in the country. It is not clear that these elections will actually be competitive, but the decision to shift away from indirect appointment suggests future decentralization and an opportunity for more transparent politics.

Jennifer Murtazashvili, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been to Uzbekistan several times in the last year for fieldwork and is optimistic about the reforms. Based on what she has seen, the role of government in Uzbekistan has undoubtedly decreased since Mirziyoyev took office. People are less afraid to speak about the government, which is “more than just a mood,” but reflects real change.

Murtazashvili explained that the Uzbek government officials she has met are eager for technical support and are striving to solve complex governance challenges. Even so, it remains a puzzle how far the government wants reforms to go; this applies not only to journalists, scholars, and development practitioners, but also to the Uzbek officials.

Rowan University professor Lawrence Markowitz focused his discussion on state infrastructure and the structural obstacles to reform. According to Markowitz, where political, economic, and coercive power are fused, there will always be a chokehold on reform. These channels of power are not evenly distributed across the country, meaning it will be a choppy path to cross the urban-rural divide and enact reform vertically through administrative levels.

Markowitz spoke of the importance of external checks on the executive, potentially from media, the legislature, and courts. The challenge is that the executive — where power is currently concentrated — does not have much of an incentive to delegate authority. As such, it appears the government is trying to manage the process of reform very carefully and slowly to “avoid opening the floodgates.”

Nargis Kassenova, who is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Program on Central Asia and a professor at KIMEP University in Almaty, framed her discussion at the interstate level and talked about the prospects for regional integration. Kassenova expects that cooperation rather than integration will define relations between Central Asian states in the near future.

The Central Asian Union — an intergovernmental organization dedicated to economic integration between post-Soviet states in the region — only lasted from 1994 to 2004. Rather than reviving this institution or relying on the Eurasian Economic Union to foster integration, Kassenova explained that Uzbekistan and its neighbors will rely on comparative advantage to develop trade and business links.

Uzbekistan is not only concerned with improving relations with its neighbors, but also with carving a new position in the international system. The panelists agreed that global rankings serve as a real motivator for the Uzbek government. While these rankings are in many senses superficial, reliable information is nonetheless required to climb the ranks.

In Uzbekistan, data collection and analysis processes are lacking; this means accurate data is sparse and of poor quality. Murtazashvili pointed out that it is telling that officials specifically want help in this sphere.

For a country that has so carefully crafted the image it projects to its population and the world, the shift to transparency can be a rough transition. The panelists explained how statistics that seem troublesome — such as a spike in perceptions of corruption, or a drop in economic growth — reveal less about the situation on the ground than a change in how information is collected and what information is allowed to be shared.

The move to unblock a dozen independent websites is one example of this. While the prospect of a wider and freer media field is certainly exciting, the roundtable offered a sobering reminder that reform is rarely linear.