TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — On Oct. 24, voters in Uzbekistan overwhelmingly re-elected President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his Liberal Democratic Party to a second term, with 80.3% of the 16.1 million ballots cast. The runner-up was Maqsuda Vorisova of the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, while Alisher Qodirov of the Uzbekistan National Revival Party came in third—marking the first time since independence in 1991 that more than two candidates won more than 5% of the vote.
Immediately following the election, Victor Shiblie, publisher of the Washington Diplomat—who had been invited to Uzbekistan as an election observer—sat down with Daniel Rosenblum, the US ambassador in Tashkent, for an exclusive Zoom interview. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
What do you think of Uzbekistan’s recent presidential elections?
First of all, the fact that they took place and that a lot of people voted is good. We did some of our own monitoring from our embassy, which we always do, sending out teams to something like eight different regions. I actually had a chance to do some monitoring myself southwest of Tashkent. Turnout was high, and a lot of effort was put into the campaign and sharing information. But at the same time, there were a number of concerns about some aspects of the process. And also, frankly, the most important part is the period that led up to the election, which was overly restrictive, in our view, in the sense of allowing alternative candidates, opposition parties and so on. This is a reality of the political system Uzbekistan has today. And I don’t think anyone was surprised by it. Nonetheless, I think it was a step in the right direction.
And how would you describe President Mirziyoyev?
Having been the prime minister under President Karimov for a dozen years or so, there wasn’t any great expectation there’d be a lot of reform or change. And he completely blew up those expectations. He’s been very proactive and pushing for change and modernization—much more so than anyone ever imagined. He’s extremely hard-working, maybe to a fault in the sense that I don’t think he rests enough. But he says publicly that he can’t rest, because he feels like he has to keep working to improve his country. I think one of the best things he’s done is to recognize the errors of the past and even of the present. He’s very self-critical, and that’s a quality you don’t often find, especially in top-down systems like this one. He’s also willing to listen to advice from not only from people around him, but from people outside the country. In general, he’s been very open to learning from the experience of other countries.
If maybe there’s a weakness, it’s that he’s impatient and wants to see things happen yesterday. A lot of these reforms and processes take time, and it’s not going to change overnight. And sometimes maybe the expectations can be unrealistic as a result. But my general sense is that as a leader, and in terms of the reforms he’s initiated, it’s generally very positive. What we’re all interested in seeing is what’s going to happen now that the elections are over.
What about press freedom? Uzbekistan doesn’t get high marks when it comes to this.
In the last year leading up to the election, there’s been some backsliding that was worrying to many of us. And we spoke out about it here in Tashkent in the diplomatic community, in terms of some actions taken against bloggers or journalists who stepped over some lines in reporting on corruption. When I travel around the country, I always make a point of meeting with local journalists and asking them what they are reporting on now. And the universal response I get is that it’s incomparably more free and open than it was five years ago. It’s like night and day. And there’s also a lot of openness and space for debate and criticism on the internet and social media, which also didn’t exist five years ago. However, the rhetoric about the need for openness and critical reporting isn’t matched by the reality. There are journalists who have had probably spurious charges brought against them, or have been otherwise intimidated into stopping the reporting they’re doing. Every time that happens, there’s an outcry. Sometimes the charges are dropped, sometimes they’re not, but it’s a give-and-take. Overall, I’d say there’s been more progress than not.
In what other areas have you seen progress in Uzbekistan?
Two notable areas have been religious freedom and trafficking. These are areas we focus on a lot because we have legislative mandates to do annual reports on both. Just in the past few years, they have made it much more safe for Muslims to practice their rituals, holidays and observances without any fear that the government’s going to come in and interfere. A number of Christian faiths are also practiced here—not only the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, but also Protestant denominations. And the environment for them has improved in terms of their ability to register churches and have worship services without having police raid them and break them up, which used to happen. But all these positive changes have occurred in the past four or five years, and a lot of is a result of the dialogue we’ve had with them and our annual report on religious freedom.
Similarly with trafficking, there’s been a big change there, especially with respect to forced labor in the cotton harvest, which has been an issue for decades. But just in the last five years, there’s been huge progress to the point where pretty much all observers agree that child labor has been more or less eradicated. And adult forced labor in the cotton harvest has been reduced to almost minimal levels. We’re waiting for the results of this last harvest that’s just winding up now to see what the ILO [International Labor Organization] says.
How has the US withdrawal from Afghanistan affected Uzbekistan’s security?
Uzbekistan’s location is important to consider here. It borders on all four other Central Asian countries and Afghanistan. That makes it automatically important to anyone who cares about security in this region. The other thing is that Uzbekistan, under the previous president, often was an obstacle to regional cooperation. President Mirziyoyev has turned that around 180 degrees to the point where it’s now a catalyst for regional cooperation.
What have been the most significant policy reforms in the five years since Mirziyoyev came to power?
The most impactful reforms have actually been in foreign policy, more than domestic, because what has had the biggest ripple effects is this turn in his relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors, which he set out right from the beginning. They have this project concept that they would like to implement, and they haven’t given up on it despite the change in government in Afghanistan, which is to build a railroad line that would connect Uzbekistan to Pakistani ports via Afghanistan. Yeah, it’s ambitious, and some would say it’s going to take many years to accomplish. But that hasn’t discouraged the Uzbeks from pushing it.
They also want to build a big free trade area in Termez along the border that they’re hoping will encourage more trade to flow through. And they’re committed to this idea that Afghanistan is part of Central Asia and should be integrated to everyone’s benefit. You know, Uzbekistan is doubly landlocked, meaning that it only borders on other landlocked countries; the only other country like that in the world is Liechtenstein.
How much of a threat is Islamic radicalization coming from Afghanistan?
There’s no question they are concerned about that. It comes up every time we have a dialogue about security cooperation. And this is not new, either. This has been a concern for years. But with the Taliban takeover, they feel like now, some of these extremist groups might find fertile ground to grow. And so they maintain very close tabs on the border. Obviously, we are also concerned about the export of radicalism from Afghanistan. That’s why we really want to foster this security cooperation with Uzbekistan.
Can you offer any advice for US companies hoping to invest in Uzbekistan?
We have an American Chamber of Commerce here in Tashkent, and the American Uzbek Chamber of Commerce based in DC. When I meet with them, I tell them that the economic reforms are real, and that they’re intended to welcome foreign investors. I also tell them that it’s still not easy to do business here. There are a lot of obstacles, and they must be prepared to be patient and stick it out for the long run. It would be useful to find a local partner. It helps a lot if you can do a joint venture, or partner with a local distributor.
What companies have been successful here to date?
There’s a lot of opportunity in the energy industry—both the more traditional oil and gas sectors and electricity generation, but also renewables. There was a really big investment made by SkyPower, which is actually a Canadian company whose shares are mostly owned by Americans. They are building a very big solar project, but they ran into some problems with the local conditions. There’s also a fair amount of activity going on in the medical area. For example, Abbott Laboratories has signed a memo of understanding with an Uzbek partner. I’ve been talking to Medtronic, and Honeywell is also quite well established here already. General Motors still has a foothold here, although it’s different than it used to be. They’ve had this joint venture to produce cars that dates back 15 years or more.
Any other final thoughts on what it’s like to be US ambassador to Uzbekistan?
I encourage people to visit, just to experience all the Persian, Turkic and Arab influences. You can pick apart all these strands in the culture, the art, the language, everything else. It’s really remarkable. No question, this is the best job I’ve ever had in my life.