Interviews | Politics | Central Asia

Checking in on Uzbekistan’s Political Progress in 2020: An Interview With Farkhod Tolipov

“Despite obvious advancement in reforms in various spheres, one direction of reforms remains very slow: it is the sphere of political reforms.”

Catherine Putz
Checking in on Uzbekistan’s Political Progress in 2020: An Interview With Farkhod Tolipov

An election advertisement in Tashkent in December 2019, days before the election.

Credit: Catherine Putz

In December 2019, Uzbekistan held parliamentary elections, the first under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rule. After a year, one filled with unexpected turns courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic, how has the new Uzbek parliament fared?

The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz checked back in with Farkhod Tolipov, founder of the Uzbek non-government research institution Caravan of Knowledge, to assess the country’s political progress. In January 2020, Tolipov had offered his thoughts on what he’d be watching for in regard to the new parliament. Here, he discusses those measurements and others key topics in Uzbekistan’s political development.

In December 2019, Uzbekistan held parliamentary elections which were cast, by the government, as another step on President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reform push. In what ways did the unique stresses of 2020 – the pandemic and resulting economic pressure – impact the overall reform process?

On one hand, pandemic did negatively affect the national economy and social life, just like everywhere. At the same time, some drivers of reforms were not always and not directly exposed to the pandemic and could work quite efficiently. The year 2020 was called “Year of Development of Science, Education and the Digital Economy” by the Uzbek government. In this context, on October 5, 2020, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree “On Strategy ‘Digital Uzbekistan’ and measures on its effective realization.” The decree stipulates that modern information-communication technologies are being introduced in all branches of the economy and the social sphere as well as in state management, health care, and agriculture. In the framework of the year of digitalization, a novel IT-Park was created in Tashkent. Another big example: In December this year a new metallurgical plant was opened in Tashkent. 

So, in general, the macro-reform process is quite dynamic. But the micro-reform process is facing different controversies and “underwater rocks.” For example, with the coming of the winter season a huge and severe problem suddenly shocked many cities and districts, namely: the shortage of gas and electricity supply to houses and apartments. The problem became so prevalent and outraged the population that the Senate had to raise the issues in one of its session.

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Despite obvious advancement in reforms in various spheres, one direction of reforms remains very slow: it is the sphere of political reforms. Hopefully, political reforms will also be spurred in the near term. 

When last we talked, you said you would be watching for four specific “innovations” as the new parliament got to work. These included whether parties gave up unanimous voting and engaged in pluralistic debates; whether voting became open, allowing people to know how individual MPs voted; if broadcasts of parliament sessions became more regular; and if parliamentary committees became more open, engaging outside experts and voices. Did you see any of these innovations take root in 2020?

Parliament’s visibility has been slightly increased. We more often see some fragments of its sessions; the speaker of the Senate makes some critical statements on certain issues; hearings are organized with ministers; media more often covers the parliament’s work, and so on. However, it seems the legislative body still continues the old practices. 

The “innovations” that you mentioned are not yet strongly embodied. For instance, recently MPs unanimously voted for the appointment of the Fergana province governor as a deputy prime minister. The governor was harshly criticized last year for his abuse of power in the province but the question of his appointment to a higher state post wasn’t critically and pluralistically discussed in the Senate.

Voting on key issues remains closed and in general, unfortunately, parliamentary committees still are reluctant to engage outside and independent experts.

With regard to Uzbekistan’s political parties, what’s happened after the fanfare of the election died down? Have they continued to try and develop greater sophistication, for example engaging with constituents, or have they faded into the background again?

I think the overall party system of Uzbekistan needs fundamental reforming. The absence of pluralist and critical debates between party fractions in the parliament just confirm this thesis. They are in a political slumber and become visible mostly during the elections. I think Uzbekistan’s political parties lack highly qualified political leaders and members. They often look and behave like state agencies. I think one of the innovations that can trigger parties’ independent activism is the practice of press conferences in which they must participate with some frequency and thereby increase their visibility among constituents. Another innovation could be the reconsideration of their political platforms and ideologies – the process which could lead to the merger of some parties and split of others and even the rise of new ones. 

The Eurasian Economic Union and Uzbekistan’s potential membership was a hot-button issue last year. Can you explain what’s happened in 2020 regarding the EAEU and Tashkent?

In January 2020 the president tasked the parliament to organize hearings on this issue with experts and work out suggestions for adopting a state decision. However, such broad discussions in which independent experts would take part were not organized. There were TV debates on the EAEU which left the impression of artificial and orchestrated shows, not a serious and pluralist discussions. In the course of this intricate process, national mass media announced that the Senate had consultations with three think tanks: Boston Consulting Group (BCA) from the United States, Gaidar Institute from Moscow, and the Center for Economic Researches and Reforms under the Uzbek president’s administration. Surprisingly, two of the centers are not local and the third is local but not independent. Moreover, the reports of these centers were not published publicly.

Finally, in May this year the Senate decided that Uzbekistan would join the EAEU with observer status, which is an excess in a sense that even without observer status Uzbekistan could normally develop its cooperation with Russia on the bilateral level.

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By the end of 2021, there should be a presidential election. Do you have any expectations about that process? Is there any possibility of Mirziyoyev facing serious political challengers?

Yes, next year Uzbekistan will conduct presidential elections, which will be a new test for political system of the country. There is no doubt that the incumbent will have all chances to be re-elected because, first, he is really a reform-oriented leader supported by the people; second, there is not any alternative to him to challenge during the next elections. But political parties should step-by-step learn to advance alternative political programs and leaders. And this progress on the part of political parties, among other things, will be one of the greatest success of the president’s reforms per se toward consolidation of the democratic system. 

It was an irony that in all previous presidential elections political parties, although they nominated their chairmen as candidates, couldn’t promote alternative political programs and even fully supported the incumbent. Because there is little probability that existing parties will become real, competitive, and popular political forces, much will depend on the extent to which party system of Uzbekistan will be reformed. Hypothetically speaking, I think during his second term President Mirziyoyev will speed up political reforms and work toward consolidation of more open and pluralist political system.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.