Uzbekistan, as any geography nerd will proudly tell you, is the world’s only landlocked country — aside from European microstate Liechtenstein — that’s completely surrounded by other landlocked countries.
More trivia: In 2017, a team of Uzbek chefs prepared a plov weighing more than eight tons, earning the country a place in the Guinness World Records as the largest rice-based meat dish of its kind ever created. Not too shabby for an obscure, former Soviet republic that already boasts the world’s largest gold mine (Muruntau), its deepest cave (Dark Star) and one of its oldest cities (Samarkand).
Less admirable is Uzbekistan’s longstanding reputation as one of the most repressive places on Earth.
Thanks to sham elections in which he consistently received roughly 90 percent of the vote, President Islam Karimov managed to rule his California-size nation with an iron fist from the day of its birth on Sept. 1, 1991, until his death 25 years and one day later, on Sept. 2, 2016.
The Karimov dictatorship was marked by brazen acts of corruption, human rights abuses and forced labor that still resonate nearly three years after his replacement by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister who won the December 2016 presidential election with 88.6 percent of all ballots cast.
Mirziyoyev’s election certainly did not herald a democratic awakening in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Graft, political persecution, a tightly controlled state-run economy and severe restrictions on civil liberties are the enduring remnants of Karimov’s ruthless, paranoid rule.
But Mirziyoyev’s election has shaken up politics — not only at home, but around the region as well. Next door in Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev recently resigned after three decades in power. While Nazarbayev will remain a powerful figure behind the scenes, many have speculated that Karimov’s death spurred the strongman to prepare for his own eventual demise.
Alexander Gabuev, the Russia chair of the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted that the likely trigger for Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation was Karimov’s death. “The lesson for Nazarbayev was: If you want to keep your loved ones free, alive and wealthy, dying in office isn’t an option.”
While Nazarbayev still pulls the strings in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s new leader is firmly in charge — and using his authority to enact a series of promising reforms, including economic liberalization, improved ties with the West and reducing the powers of the feared security apparatus.
But change won’t come overnight in a country where Uzbek security forces once shot hundreds of protesters and dissidents were savagely tortured. Mirziyoyev is still very much a member of the old guard and isn’t likely to end media censorship or allow free elections any time soon, if ever.
Javlon Vakhabov, Uzbekistan’s new ambassador in Washington, acknowledges past abuses but insists that Uzbekistan has completely changed under Mirziyoyev, who he says has “jolted” the entire political system.
“As you may know, since 2016 when the new president came to power, the government has embarked on a very ambitious program of drastic reforms,” he said during a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat. “All these reforms are organized around a solid commitment to providing good governance, ensuring the rule of law, liberalizing the economy, strengthening our social policy, focusing on education and health care and building up constructive relations — primarily with our neighbors in Central Asia and, of course, with huge powers — but not by sacrificing our independence and sovereignty.”
Tapping Uzbekistan’s Potential
In many ways, Vakhabov himself represents a new generation of Uzbeks who may be able to help nudge the country out of international isolation.
In October 2017, Vakhabov arrived in Washington as Uzbekistan’s sixth envoy to the United States since independence. The youthful diplomat is 38, which makes him the second-youngest ambassador in Washington (Kosovo’s Vlora Çitaku is the youngest, by two months).
Vakhabov and nine other diplomats work at the Uzbek Embassy, a mansion off Dupont Circle that was built in 1909 by a Canadian businessman who died in the Titanic disaster three years later. For 70 years, it was owned by the Canadian government, which sold the building to Uzbekistan in 1996.
With 33 million people, Uzbekistan is by far the most populous of the five Central Asian “stans” that came into being after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since 1989, the country’s population has jumped by 65.8 percent — and within 20 years, Uzbekistan will overtake rapidly shrinking Ukraine as the largest of the 15 former Soviet republics, besides Russia itself.
Its capital, Tashkent, is a booming metropolis of 2.4 million, making it the largest city in Central Asia after China’s Urumqi and Afghanistan’s Kabul. Tashkent is famous for its gleaming subway system, towering Soviet-era monuments and handicrafts markets. The country itself is among Central Asia’s most impressive in terms of its rich history as part of the Silk Road, which left behind a string of ancient cities and stunning Islamic-inspired architecture. Lonely Planet notes that in the year following Mirziyoyev’s reforms, tourism to Uzbekistan has jumped by 25 percent.
But 25 years of Soviet-style economic mismanagement took a huge toll on the country. GDP stands at only $50 billion and nearly 13 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line — despite the fact that Uzbekistan boasts an abundance of hydrocarbons and minerals.
So Mirziyoyev’s government has enacted a raft of reforms, including efforts to expand private businesses and attract foreign investment. With more than 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s economy in government control, the private sector is tiny. The current government is trying to sell off nearly 30 state-owned enterprises in a bid to jumpstart the economy. That includes banks, gold mining conglomerates and the national airline.
“Our president’s key slogan is that the period when the people of Uzbekistan serve the government is over,” Vakhabov said. “Now the government should serve the people.”
In a July 6 article, The Economist praised the president for overhauling the economy by, among other things, installing business-friendly technocrats; abolishing most capital and currency controls; opening borders; and curbing forced labor in the cotton industry.
The magazine also noted that “Uzbek diplomats have been instructed to focus on drumming up investment above all.”
Yet, despite robust economic growth over the last three years, it remains to be seen if the growth will be fast enough to support 41 million Uzbeks by 2039.
“Uzbekistan’s large population will fuel consumer-led growth and could even lead to the arrival of large investors in search of a low-cost workforce. Yet so far, incomes have remained too low for consumption-led growth on any significant scale,” said the business site BNE Intellinews.
Under Karimov, it noted that “foreign investment was stymied by laws such as that banning repatriation of profits, not to mention investors being at the mercy of a rapacious local elite, with the late president’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova — dubbed the ‘robber baron’ in a leaked U.S. Embassy cable — being a prime example. As a result, it was oil- and mineral-rich Kazakhstan, rather than more populous Uzbekistan, that shot ahead of its neighbors during the transition period.”
This past March, a federal district court in New York indicted Karimova on corruption charges for using her official position to solicit $865 million in bribes from three telecom companies, then laundering the money through U.S. banks. In a statement, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said this was only “the third installment in a trilogy of cases arising from an almost $1 billion bribery scheme that reached the highest echelons of the Uzbekistan government and was orchestrated by some of the largest telecommunications companies in the world.”
It’s little wonder then that Transparency International ranked Uzbekistan 158th out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perception Index 2018, with a dismal score of 23. Among former Soviet republics, only neighboring Turkmenistan, which scored 20, was perceived to be more corrupt.
Vakhabov conceded that corruption is an enduring problem in his country.
“One of the first laws the new president signed right after he came to power was the anti-corruption law,” he told us. “This law strengthens criminal penalties for convicted officials. In this regard, we’ve started working closely with Transparency International about how we should tackle challenges related to corruption in Uzbekistan.”
Rehabilitating Uzbekistan’s Image
Graft is not the only corrosive leftover of a brutal regime that crushed all dissent through arbitrary arrests, torture and other abuses.
In the Freedom in the World 2019 index, published by Freedom House, Uzbekistan had among the worst scores in terms of civil liberties, freedom and political rights.
“Reports of torture and other ill treatment remain common, although highly publicized cases of abuse have led to dismissals and prosecutions for some officials,” according to Freedom House. “Despite some high-profile releases, the government still holds numerous prisoners on political and religious grounds.”
In general, said the Washington-based think tank, “while ongoing reforms under [the] new president have led to improvements on some issues, Uzbekistan remains a consolidated authoritarian regime. No genuine opposition parties operate legally. The legislature and judiciary effectively serve as instruments of the executive branch, which initiates reforms by decree, and the media remains tightly controlled by the state.”
Vakhabov sees things quite differently.
“It is not true,” he told us. “Currently, five political parties are represented in our parliament. The Green Party, which was created a few months ago, was previously called the ecological movement, and now they are a full-fledged political party. And this coming December, parliamentary elections will be held in Uzbekistan.”
What about his country’s “tightly controlled” media? Vakhabov says that’s not true, either.
“Our government has prioritized strengthening the role of civil society, especially mass media,” he insisted. “Last year, we allowed the Voice of America to set up a representative office in Uzbekistan. They’re free to highlight current reforms — both domestic and international — taking place in our country, without any restrictions. Just a few weeks ago, VOA visited previously closed areas of Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan to eyewitness how we’re easing travel for people living in border areas. We’ve also accredited a BBC representative in Uzbekistan. Such requests previously addressed to the government had been pending for more than 15 or 20 years.”
But the ugly reminders of Karimov’s iron-fisted rule won’t be easy to erase.
It was no secret that, under Karimov, Islamic fundamentalism was ruthlessly suppressed. After a series of car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, Karimov warned on Uzbek radio that “I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic.”
In 2002, Uzbekistan received more than $500 million in aid and credit from the Bush administration, in return for the Pentagon’s use of the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in southern Uzbekistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Three years later, Uzbek security forces used live ammunition against a crowd of protesters in Andijan, killing several hundred people, including women and children, according to rights groups and survivors (although the government put the death toll at 187 and blamed Islamists for inciting the violence).
The massacre soured relations with the West, as the U.S. and EU imposed an arms embargo on the government. Meanwhile, Karimov kicked the U.S. out of its military base on the Afghan border, established closer relations with Russia and continued his crackdown on what he perceived as the threat from Islamist fundamentalism.
Over the years, according to critics, thousands of Muslims were arrested and tortured; several were even said to have been boiled alive.
While not addressing those specific allegations, Vakhabov said such tactics have ended, and said the new government has made it a point to ensure religious freedom.
In fact, as Reuters reported in late 2017, some emboldened Uzbek imams have begun to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from loudspeakers for the first time in a decade without seeking government permission — an act that under Karimov could have resulted in imprisonment.
“Since 2016, the new president has removed from the so-called blacklist almost 20,000 Uzbeks who had previously been charged with religious extremism and crimes of international terrorism. More than 3,000 of our people who were jailed have been pardoned, for the first time in our history,” said the ambassador. “The president is the only person authorized by the constitution to pardon our people, and he has used his authority properly. Besides that, we’ve significantly improved Uzbekistan’s perception internationally.”
Vakhabov also said that since 2016, “a real breakthrough has taken place” in Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors — which the government hopes will improve regional connectivity through infrastructure, transportation and other projects.
“Despite many predictions, the newly elected president paid his first state visit to Turkmenistan. During that visit, we signed a treaty establishing a strategic partnership with Turkmenistan. And his second state visit was to Kazakhstan. We’ve also significantly improved our relations with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In the past, relations with both of these countries were challenging because of water management and border issues.”
Relations with the United States are also on the upswing, he said. In May 2018, Mirziyoyev met President Trump at the White House, marking the first visit by an Uzbek president to the United States since March 2002.
U.S. military engagement with the strategically located Central Asian nation has also ramped up. Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper just met with his Uzbek counterpart on July 12, praising Uzbekistan as “a respected and valued partner, especially with regard to military operations in Afghanistan.”
From Cars to Cotton: Turning Things Around
In 2018, said Vakhabov, bilateral trade between the United States and Uzbekistan exceeded $400 million — more than double the $150 million recorded in 2017, and nearly 20 times the $21 million in 1991.
Uzbekistan’s top customers for its goods are China, Russia and Kazakhstan — in that order — with exports led by finished textile products, automobiles and fruits such as apples, cherries, pomegranates, strawberries and watermelons.
Yet American investment is also trickling in. General Motors has two plants in the country; one, in Tashkent, makes engines, primarily for its other operation in Andijan province that exports more than 200,000 Spark, Malibu and other Chevrolet vehicles to Russia and elsewhere. Cars, in fact, now account for more than 10 percent of Uzbekistan’s total exports.
Uzbekistan is also a major cotton producer, with some 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year, making it the world’s largest recruitment operation. But for years, human rights groups, along with the U.S. State Department, had accused the Karimov regime of using child and forced labor to harvest the crop.
Following a worldwide outcry, authorities have largely put a stop to the practice.
“Previously, the State Department’s annual report placed us at Tier 3; now we’re at Tier 2. It’s a recognition of how significantly we have moved forward to eliminating so-called child and forced labor — an issue for which my country has been criticized for decades,” Vakhabov said, pointing also to the latest report of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which says 93 percent of all Uzbek cotton fields are now free of child or forced labor.
“With the remaining 7 percent, yes, we have a challenging issue, but these are very individual cases, occurring mostly at a very local level,” Vakhabov said. “We are confident that this coming fall, during the harvest of 2019, we will be able to entirely eliminate forced labor in Uzbekistan.”
That assessment is backed up by the ILO’s Beate Andrees.
“In many ways, the 2018 cotton harvest was a real test for Uzbekistan,” Andrees said. “A year ago at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, President Mirziyoyev committed his government to working with the ILO and the World Bank to eradicate child and forced labor in the harvest. This political commitment was followed by a number of structural changes and reforms in recruitment practices. The ILO monitors have observed that these measures are working and people on the ground can feel a real difference.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.