Understanding and explaining the differences among politics of countries are the core concern of comparative politics. After the disintegration of the USSR, the change of political system became one of the most prominent aspects of reform for the newly independent Central Asian republics. Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics have inaugurated new structural changes, and their search for establishment of new system of citizens’ engagement was based on certain principles of democracy, as well as unique national values and identity. In some cases, it was not in the same way that the international community wanted.
During the last few years, there were numerous changes and amendments to the constitutions of the republics in an effort to bring further democratization and to ensure a more balanced distribution of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government. But there is still a lot needs to be done. The separation of powers requires every unit to be “put itself in a position to be able to take care of itself since no one else can be counted on to do so” as American political scientist Kenneth Waltz once pointed out. In Uzbekistan, the future of democratization and liberalization is inseparably linked with processes of democratic renovation of the whole society. But these processes would probably come in much gradual pace than we would like it to be.
On September 2, 2016, Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, passed away and the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the acting president. In his speech on September 8, 2016 at a joint meeting of the Parliament of Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev called his main task as the continuation of the democratic reforms and transformations in the political, economic, and social spheres, and ensuring the rights and freedoms of citizens. He also determined one of his most important priorities to be strengthening cooperation with foreign countries.
On December 4, 2016, presidential election was held, and according to the Central Election Commission, Shavkat Mironovich Mirziyoyev, the acting president and a candidate from the Liberal Democratic Party, received 88.61 percent of the votes and won the election. In February 2017, President Mirziyoyev initiated the Strategy for the Further Development of Uzbekistan in 2017-2021. The strategy covers five main priorities: improvement of state construction, judicial and legal system, economic liberalization, development of the social sphere, and implementation of active foreign policy.
The first four priorities were connected mostly with internal politics. Within the framework of these priorities, a number of innovations were already introduced. One of them is "virtual reception" where the President, Prime Minister, ministers and other officials digitally receive the feedback to citizens, and monitor the implementation of laws. So far the President has received more than half a million appeals from its citizens and most of them were resolved. Practically, now any citizen could freely send petition to the president or any government agency. These efforts can also be considered as part of a gradual move toward improving the current rights and freedom of the people of Uzbekistan.
Moreover, the position of the First Deputy Chairman of the Senate was introduced in order to create a system of effective parliamentary control over foreign affairs, and to institute a system of accountability over the khokims (governors) of all levels. At the same time, due to unforeseen issues and challenges several of the new President’s plans were either corrected or postponed. For example, the implementation of Uzbekistan’s visa free status for visitors from 15 countries was postponed until 2021 most probably due to security concerns. Also the issue of full convertibility of Uzbek currency—Sum—still lingers. Convertibility is one of the key priorities in Uzbekistan’s attempt to increase foreign investment to usher economic and structural reforms.
In the coming years, for Uzbekistan, it is essential to continue political reforms and civic institution development. There are important tasks pending, including further diversification of its economy, the expansion of the private sector, attraction of foreign investment, and widespread adoption of renewable energy. There is a need to deepen reforms in the sphere of education—especially in higher education—and to strengthen university autonomy that would help Uzbek scientist to collaborate with their international peers.
It is also extremely important for the international community to support Uzbekistan and Central Asian republics at this critical juncture to enact political, social, and economic reforms. But perhaps it is prudent to point out that only evolutionary approaches are suitable in the region. In the more than two decades of transformation within the region that is advancing at different paces, a continuous and gradual process of trial and error is appearing to be the only option that would ensure a sustainable long-term solution.
The fifth priority for 2017-2021 concerned the security and foreign policy of Uzbekistan. In particular, implementing a balanced and constructive foreign policy, creating a security belt around Uzbekistan, achieving stability, and maintaining a friendly relations with its neighboring countries have been identified as the main particularities of this priority. In September 2016, when serving as the acting president, Shavkat Mirziyaev intensified Uzbek-Kyrgyz and Uzbek-Tajik dialogues, including on boundary commissions, which signaled to the region the importance of the fifth priority.
In December 2016, as a newly elected President, Mirziyoyev mentioned Central Asia as the priority of his foreign policy. His first two international visits were in March 2017 to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. During the visit to Turkmenistan from March 5-6, 2017, Presidents Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan and Mirziyoyev adopted a Joint Statement and signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership. Also both countries signed several documents on the consistent development of cooperation in many vital sectors, including developing transport communications, which will substantially contribute to the development of the Central Asia region.
From March 22-23, 2017, President of Uzbekistan paid a state visit to Kazakhstan. President Mirziyoyev and President Nazarbayev signed the Joint Declaration on Further Deepening of the Strategic Partnership and Strengthening of Good-neighborliness. During the visit, 13 documents related to the cooperation in the field of parliamentary, taxation, transport, defense, trade, and industry were signed. Within the framework of the visit, the National Industrial Fair of Uzbekistan and a business forum were held in Astana. More than 500 entrepreneurs from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan took part in this forum. As a result of these two events, trade contracts and investment agreements for a total of about USD 1 billion were signed.
Today, Central Asians are still confronted by complex threats including international terrorism, religious extremism, illegal drug trafficking, ecological degradation, and water shortage. The still evident water-sharing problem will require the countries in the region to find common grounds and acceptance of legal framework for the main regional or transnational rivers. This effort will be greatly complemented by the use of international best practices in solving water-sharing problems.
The border delimitations process has been completed between China and Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But still a more complicated situation exists in the cases of arranging the Uzbek-Kyrgyz, Tajik-Uzbek, and Kyrgyz-Tajik boundaries due to a large number of contentious plots of land located in the border regions. In coming years, the inter-state delimitation and demarcation should be accomplished on the basis of mutual compromise and balanced approach. Security threats in Central Asia are transnational, which makes the national and regional security as interdependent and interconnected.
Stability of Afghanistan is also important for the region, and Uzbekistan’s new administration expressed willingness to extend cooperation with Afghanistan. In January 2017, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan, Abdulaziz Kamilov, made his first official visit to Kabul and met with his Afghan counterpart Salahiddin Rabbani. Stabilization and positive changes in Afghanistan would open up new opportunities for Central and South Asian cooperation.
For the new President of Uzbekistan, one of the main tasks in his foreign policy would be the maintenance of a geopolitical balance, especially between Russia, China, the U.S., and the EU, as well as the creation of a multilevel system of partnerships with different countries and international organizations. Moreover, it is important to point out that there are number multilateral initiatives and institutions with different interest at play in Central Asia: US (NATO, C5+1), Russian and Chinese (CIS, CSTO, EEU, SCO, Silk Road Economic Belt), EU (the strategy toward Central Asia), Japan and South Korea (Central Asia plus Japan, Central Asia – Republic of Korea).
President Mirziyoyev continues Uzbekistan`s approach on prioritizing bilateral relations, but made several corrections. In particular, for number of years, Uzbekistan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) had extremely low level relations. On March 16, 2017, EBRD President Sir Suma Chakrabarti visited Uzbekistan and held negotiations at the Senate, the Cabinet of Ministers, and other agencies. Discussions focused on priorities of the economic development of Uzbekistan and potential areas of partnership. The Memorandum of Cooperation between Uzbekistan and the EBRD was signed and it sets out the areas for cooperation, including financing for small and medium-sized enterprises, cross-border trade and cooperation, and measures to improve the competitiveness of the Uzbek economy.
In April 4-5, 2017 President Mirziyoyev paid official visit to Moscow and during the visit he signed more 50 bilateral agreements on the economy, transport, agriculture, industry, military, migration health, cultural and other fields, which are worth more $ 15 billion. It was the biggest by scale in Uzbek-Russian relations, but at the same time, Uzbekistan is making sure to keep away from Russia’s main initiative—Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). It is very likely that President Mirziyoyev`s next official visits will be to China and India.
The stability in Uzbekistan and whole Central Asia is affected not only by the degree of success of institutional and economic reforms, but also by patterns of regional and global challenges. From a Central Asian perspective, it would be the best to have a strong dialogue and cooperation based on bilateral and multilateral relations with other countries and international institutions, where interests are different, but coordination and cooperation are active.
Dr. Prof. Mirzokhid Rakhimov is the Head of the Department of Contemporary History and International Relations of Uzbekistan’s Institute of History of the Academy of Science.