In the three years since Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected president of Uzbekistan, he has embarked on a wide-ranging reform process including currency liberalization, eliminating forced labour and abolishing exit visas. This has encouraged foreign investors and the population, but a rare protest last week over natural gas and electricity shortages shows that the Uzbek population’s faith in change under the new leadership could be wearing thin, while foreign direct investment that adds real value to the economy is in short supply.
When Mirziyoyev came to power, Uzbekistan was on the verge of bankruptcy. A former prime minister of 13 years, and a pragmatic economist, the new president set on a rapid course to open Uzbekistan up to its neighbours and remove barriers to trade and foreign investment. The alacrity and ambition of the reform process and the monetary and economic liberalization has at times been overwhelming for lawyers and businesses.
However, allowing the free movement of capital, people and goods are natural moves to boost an economy after 20 years of stasis. The country is now immersed in the more challenging and substantive phase of development, including privatization, the breakup of monopolies and capital markets reform.
Despite a marked increase in foreign direct investment, the country is not receiving the investment it needs. Much of it comes from Russia or China through bilateral arrangements, with debt from China washing through state-owned banks and state-owned enterprises. Uzbekistan’s debt to China has increased three times since the end of 2016.
Meanwhile, European and US companies still appear unsure about the business environment and the staying power of reforms. A lack of consistent policy, alongside hastily drafted decrees and legislation that often require presidential decrees to clarify their meaning as well, as opaque carve outs, are further deterring Western investors. A workforce that is still in transition from a Soviet to a free market approach exacerbates the situation.
Opposition within the government to implementation of some of the reforms, as well as competing government interests, have led to backtracking on some reforms (such as free and unrestricted currency convertibility) and creeping protectionism in some sectors. Some reforms simply get lost in the long chain from presidential decree to implementation. After 2018, import tariffs were abolished but recently, a list of protected domestically produced products has been drawn up raising concerns that vested interests are replacing state monopolies with private ones.
Despite progress on the economic front, political and social reform has lagged. Uzbekistan is still largely run by senior cadres from the previous administration of Islam Karimov. While the government has attracted younger reformers, often returning from abroad, it has also been rehabilitating key figures from the Karimov years that were implicated in corruption scandals. Progressive senior officials, such as the former general prosecutor Otabek Murodov, have been removed with little explanation as to why; trials take place behind closed doors.
The new leadership has transformed the media environment, but the country still lacks objective analytical reporting. Direct criticism of the president or the ruling family remains taboo. Economic and monetary liberalization has come at a cost to the population in the form of double-digit inflation, while utility prices are moving to the level of the free market. Popular discontent is growing at the grass roots level and some hark back to the stability of the former government, in spite of its reputation for appalling human rights treatment.
Small and innovative steps have been taken to improve the rule of law, but more can be done, including introducing transparency over judicial processes and ensuring regional authorities have less impunity before the law. An initiative to address the issue of conflict of interest – whereby mayors, senators and other senior civil servants have been able to benefit commercially from their positions during an era of government economic stimulus – would signal a commitment to fundamental reform.
With great promises of political and economic reform, the government has set a high bar for itself. A continuing paternalistic form of governance, with its restricted civil society freedoms, human rights, stifling bureaucracy and corruption, against continuing lack of opportunities, will clash with the expectations of a growing young population.
Mirziyoyev is trying to make the parliamentary elections on 22 December, the first during his presidency, more dynamic. Yet no opposition parties have been able to emerge to serve as a check on the executive branch. A product of the system he ostensibly wishes to reform, Mirziyoyev will need to prioritize the strengthening of independent institutions to deliver results to his expectant people.
Kate Mallinson, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.