Interviews | Politics | Central Asia

Reform in Uzbekistan: An Interview with Farkhod Tolipov

With Uzbek politics in the news, an Uzbek political analyst reflects on the evolution of the countrys’ political and party systems.

Catherine Putz
Reform in Uzbekistan: An Interview with Farkhod Tolipov

Boxes with cast ballots sit at a polling place in Tashkent on December 22, 2019.

Credit: Catherine Putz

In December, Uzbekistan’s political arena garnered more attention than it has in decades. As Uzbeks went to the polls to elect their first post-Karimov parliament, The Economist declared Uzbekistan its country of the year. Since 2016, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has pushed through a wide-ranging reform program that Uzbek officials insist is “irreversible.” 

Farkhod Tolipov, founder of the Uzbek non-government research institution Caravan of Knowledge, spoke to The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz about the state of Uzbekistan’s political and party systems and the future of the reform program.

The recent parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan resulted in a parliament similar in composition to the previous body. From your perspective, what was different in this cycle’s election process?

There is just a little difference. When I compare the current political regime and political process to the previous one I use the word “more.” The current regime and process are more open, more reformist, more dynamic, and more result-oriented than the previous one. From this perspective, one can assume that, although there is a little difference, the main result of elections is that they were conducted in the context of reforms initiated by the new president three years ago. During the election campaign political parties were engaged in more critical debates, which couldn’t but attract greater attention of citizens and cause greater expectation on their part. 

In what ways are Uzbekistan’s current five political parties underdeveloped? Do you foresee an opening for new opposition parties to arise?

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The existing parties were created on the principle “from top down” under full control of the political regime, which wanted to create an artificial pluralistic image of the political system of the country. That’s why these parties couldn’t demonstrate real political competition with each other and couldn’t become popular and independent political forces in the country. Nevertheless, during the last parliamentary elections they were given a new opportunity to rise up to some form of real competition. These elections were the litmus test of their readiness and capacity to exit out of that artificial comfort zone. 

The term “opposition” has been included in the legislation of Uzbekistan even in President Karimov’s time. However, none of the existing parties dared to proclaim itself an opposition party. Meanwhile, this time, the possibility of the emergence of a new opposition party becomes very likely in the near future. This was again recognized on the official level during the elections. All in all, the political leadership and the society now understand that the time has come for deep reforming of the political party system in Uzbekistan.

As the new parliament gets to work, what will you be watching for to establish whether there really has been political progress?

I would be interested in four “innovations” in the work of the newly elected parliament, which I think are needed: 1) Whether party fractions give up the unanimous (or quasi-unanimous) voting tradition of the previous parliament and demonstrate real pluralistic debates over particular draft laws; 2) whether an open voting procedure is introduced in which we will be able to watch how every individual MP votes (for or against) with respect to draft laws; 3) whether citizens are provided the opportunity to directly watch the parliament’s sessions — for instance, the live special TV program “Parliament Hour” might be broadcasted from the session hall regularly; and 4) whether the parliament’s committees will be open to communication with civil society institutions, particularly think tanks, and to advocacy activities pursued by these institutions — for instance, it would be important to establish the practice of hearings held with individual experts and think tank representatives.

The question of joining the Eurasian Economic Union became a hot button issue in 2019 after a Russian official said Uzbekistan had decided to join and, officially, the Uzbek government said it was still considering its options. What is the likelihood of Uzbekistan joining the EAEU? What would be the benefits and what would be the risks?

I recently published an analysis of this issue in CACI Analyst. Also, I would add that this issue is of strategic character and requires careful examination of all pros and cons. I think the EAEU is less about economic goals than about the geopolitical objectives which Russia pursues. The announcement that was made in September last year about the would-be membership of Uzbekistan was so sudden that it split the expert community and the society, which were dumbfounded by the announcement. 

All the economic calculations that economists displayed in order to justify Uzbekistan’s joining the EAEU are not so strong and convincing for a number of reasons. In particular, the EAEU didn’t provide much benefit to its members, other than Russia, in terms of trade balance. When we analyze economic and trade issue we see that cooperation between Uzbekistan and Russia is developing successfully on the bilateral level. All who discuss EAEU as such and Uzbekistan’s joining it mostly focus on Russia and advance arguments linking them to bilateral relations with Russia; so the EAEU obviously is rather a Russia-centric structure than a genuine multilateral one. Moreover, in my opinion, the organization is not free from geopolitical rationales that force Moscow to speed up the process. Given this, it’s not unlikely that Uzbekistan’s international behavior and geopolitical maneuvering will be constrained with membership. That’s why, for the time being, observer status in the EAEU would be more relevant for Uzbekistan than full membership.

Reform has been the consistent mantra of the Mirziyoyev government, with an emphasis that the reforms are “irreversible.” Why do you think the government is so insistent that its reform progress cannot be reversed?

The irreversibility of reforms are always actual for any country standing at the beginning stage of those reforms. The emphasis on irreversibility is stipulated by novelty of the socio-political situation in the country where the reforms woke up not only erstwhile dormant progressive forces but also those who are not interested in losing their privileges and comfortable positions they used to take advantage of during the pre-reform period. Let’s remember Gorbachev’s reforms – “Perestroika” – in the former Soviet Union in 1985-1991. As we know he really faced two opposing forces and fell victim of his own reforms.

The term “irreversibility” serves as the cliché that contains a message addressed to the people and international community about the pace and direction of reforms that the state is not fragile and the government is self-confident; the society is resilient against different challenges; there shouldn’t be nostalgia about the past; and resistance to reforms will be useless. 

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And lastly, what areas of the reforms do you think have been the most successful and in what areas has the Uzbek government been slower to make changes?

So far, reforms have been relatively successful in such areas as entrepreneurship and small business, education, social issues, religious issues, tax policy, de-monopolization policy, attraction of investments, tourism, as well as regional cooperation with Central Asian countries. 

Political reforms lag a little behind from other areas because, obviously, political reforms are the most complicated and sensitive sphere. They include the parliament, parties, executive branches of power, civil society, as well as the system of recruitment of cadres and presidential administration. Since political reforms are all about deep democratization of the state and the society, they should lead to the radical transformation of the authoritarian nature of the current political system. That’s why the area of political reforms requires a longer period to gain an efficient pace.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.