In 2016, Uzbekistan’s longtime leader, President Islam Karimov, died and his former prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, soon ascended to the presidency. In the seven years since, Mirziyoyev has consolidated himself in power and reshaped Uzbekistan on both the regional and international stage. Under the tag-line “New Uzbekistan,” Mirziyoyev’s administration pursued a range of reforms; and yet much about “old” Uzbekistan persisted.
In a new book — “Nowy Uzbekistan” — available only in Polish for now, journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska charts the course of Uzbekistan’s recent history, analyzing how the Uzbek political, social, and economic system has developed, changed, and resisted change. Pikulicka-Wilczewska lived in Uzbekistan for three years and has reported for a variety of outlets, including The Diplomat and Reuters, from across Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, Pikulicka-Wilczewska outlines what is new and what is not so new in Uzbekistan, how the internet has shaped the country and discourse in it. She also discusses her own experiences in Uzbekistan at a time of change.
“New Uzbekistan” is a slogan adopted by the government of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came into power in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first president. What is actually new about “New Uzbekistan”?
After coming to power, Shavkat Mirziyovev introduced a number of changes, which included improving relations with all Uzbekistan’s neighbors, Turkey, Russia, and the West, opening up to foreign investment, and liberalizing the economy. In the following years, he also began to shape the new image of the country by replacing – sometimes forcefully, without regard to human rights and historical value – Soviet and pre-Soviet architecture with Dubai- or sometimes Italy- or Disneyland-inspired buildings, parks, and business centers, which now constitute the tangible symbols of Mirziyoyev’s rule.
He also allowed more freedom to practicing Muslims, at least in some respects, and even announced that the country was entering the phase of its Third Renaissance (following the Islamic Golden Age and the so-called Timurid Renaissance), which means that it would connect Islam with scientific and educational development.
But when we look beyond the surface, what is new about “New Uzbekistan,” in my opinion, are the societal changes brought by a freer internet. During the Karimov times, access to the internet and especially social media in Uzbekistan was limited. Mirziyoyev unlocked access to numerous websites, which suddenly gave rise to dozens of new news sites and independent bloggers, which started shaping public opinion. Since increased access to the internet coincided with allowing more space for Islam in the public domain, Islamic profiles mushroomed on social media and many of them popularized ideas seen as radical from the perspective of a secular state.
At the same time, liberal voices, including feminist ones, have also grown in prominence, which led to a serious polarization within society, largely hidden in the Karimov era. Social media also helped to radicalize views on both sides of the spectrum. This polarization is visible when it comes to virtually all issues affecting Uzbekistan, whether it comes to relations with Russia and the West, the war in Ukraine, nationalism etc.
What vestiges of “old” Uzbekistan remain? Do you see parallels between the administrations of Karimov and Mirziyoyev?
The core of the system remained the same. Both administrations heavily relied on the structures created back in the Soviet times and that includes centralized power, central economic planning (though to a lesser extent today), politicization of all public institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, huge powers in the hands of the security services.
Reforms introduced firstly by both Karimov and Mirziyoyev have been cosmetic and did not affect the oppressive nature of the state system. While it is undeniable that Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan is less paranoid, much freer and tolerant than Karimov’s, there is still no opposition; it’s almost impossible to register a non-governmental organization or expect a free trial. So the very nature of the system remains unchanged.
Mirziyoyev isn’t the first Uzbek president to toss around a slogan or two. What was the meaning of “maʼnaviyat” in the early days of independence?
Ma’naviyat, that is spirituality or morality, was the central tenet of Karimov’s new order, the ideology of national independence. The concept has evolved over the years but eventually came to define the supposedly natural, original features of Uzbeks, thanks to which the nation has survived centuries of oppression, and a roadmap for the future.
Maʼnaviyat means life in peace and harmony, cooperation between people, attachment to the homeland, family, and mahalla – the local community. It means respect for the elders, development of young generations, and love for the Uzbek language. It entailed a new – although eternal – Uzbek spirituality, which was supposed to help citizens achieve a higher level of morality. Islam Karimov, as the nation’s father, and the state had the obligation to uphold morality and introduced mechanisms to correct any deviations from the rules. In essence, therefore, ma’naviyat was a corrective mechanism, an ideology imposed on society to make sure it’s easily controlled.
Your three years living in and reporting from Uzbekistan ended abruptly in 2021. What did that experience illustrate for you about modern Uzbekistan?
It showed me that Uzbekistan is not ready for journalism as we understand it in the West. It is still paranoid and afraid of critique, especially well-founded critiques. While on the one hand in his speeches the president encourages journalists and bloggers to be brave, write about problems, and criticize the authorities, it’s all a show for audiences both Western and domestic, because journalists and bloggers in Uzbekistan know the red lines perfectly well. And these are becoming increasingly strict.
While in the first few years of Mirziyoyev’s rule there was still hope that journalism in Uzbekistan would follow Kyrgyzstan’s example, we were soon reminded that the limits of free speech will be defined by the authorities and the security services and not the boldness and skills of local and international journalists.
But it has also showed me that in his second presidential term, Mirziyoyev did not even pretend to be a democrat anymore. His version of Uzbekistan had already been accepted by the international community and the West, including his authoritarianism, which is softer than that of his predecessor and therefore more acceptable.
In your recently published book, which is currently only available in Polish, how do you go about telling the story of Uzbekistan? Give our readers a sense of the book’s organization and what themes you seek to highlight in it.
The book begins with a story of a rave in the faraway desert of Karakalpakstan, where the long-gone Aral Sea used to be – the first open air techno party in Uzbekistan’s history, which took place in 2018. It was a prelude to changes which came in the following years, and at the same time an event that brought me to Uzbekistan and eventually made me stay there for the next three years.
In the next chapters, I analyze how the Uzbek political, social, and economic system has developed, by focusing on the Karimov era, his philosophy, writings, politics, which I tell by focusing on human stories. Then I look at the Mirziyoyev era, the changes that took place and the lack of change, always trying to give voice to local people.
In the book I also tell my story, which begins with a huge fascination and hope for change and ends abruptly with an entry ban. I’m working on translating my book into English and I really hope it will eventually be available for an international audience.