Earlier this month during his visit to Uzbekistan, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commended the country for “its reform efforts aimed at a more free and open society with a more accountable government”, and that it “deserves praise for its progress on human rights issues.” He made these comments following a meeting with the country’s president – Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who, since the death of his predecessor, Islam Karimov in 2016, has presided over the Central Asian nation.
Since its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan, under the tutelage of Karimov, had been ruled autocratically and has consistently been scrutinised for its poor human rights record. Oppression in the form of forced labour, massacres of civilians, imprisonment of journalists and serious democratic deficiencies has characterised the infant state as being one of the most authoritarian in the world.
Upon the death of Karimov in 2016, Mirziyoyev vowed to reform the nation, promising reconciliation with the country’s neighbours, improved human rights and electoral transparency. Three years on however, the outcome of these reforms is still unclear, information coming out of the country is sparse and onlookers fear that it may be business as usual in Uzbekistan, with Mirziyoyev merely continuing where Karimov left off. The question remains, is Uzbekistan truly liberalising, or is it masking an oppressive regime under the guise of reform?
From its inception in 1991, President Karimov consolidated a powerful authoritarian regime, bound by his ‘cult of personality’. The state was strictly isolationist and deeply repressive, freedom of speech was non-existent, with dissident journalists, political opponents and religious leaders regularly imprisoned. The use of violence against civilians was commonplace, torture is well documented, political assassinations common, and massacres of civilians, namely the 2005 Andijon Massacre, were known to the international community. The country’s main export, cotton, was farmed primarily by employing slave labour amongst the country’s rural population, and Karimov was frantically suspicious of the country’s neighbours, epitomised by the erection of a border fence, spanning the entire nation.
Upon the death of a cultish leader in authoritarian states, succession crises are not uncommon. Yet Karimov’s hand-picked successor – Mirziyoyev, walked into power, reaffirmed by a sham election, in which he garnered 88.6% of the vote. Having been at the helm for over three years, we can paint a somewhat clear picture as to whether these reforms have been enacted or not.
Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record was brought to the world’s attention in 2005, when protestors were killed in their hundreds in the easterly city of Andijon. The government denied wrongdoing, yet this massacre is one of many human rights abuses committed by the Uzbek government during Karimov’s tenure.
The issue of imprisonment and torture of political rivals, journalists and religious leaders was of particular concern to human rights watch groups. Uzbekistan’s notorious Jasylk Prison, often nicknamed “The House of Torture”, saw scenes of prisoners being beaten and their bones broken in attempts to force confessions. The prison was opened in response to the attempted assassination of President Karimov in 1999, where it initially housed the thousands of alleged “religious extremists” that were supposedly behind the plot.
An early indicator of a thaw in the country’s authoritarian tendencies was when Mirziyoyev ordered the closure of the Jasylk Prison as a federal entity in 2019. Mirziyoyev also released hundreds of Muslims believed to have been imprisoned on trumped-up, extremism-related charges. About 16,000 more were removed from the some 17,000-strong blacklist of potential extremists. Mirziyoyev has been quick to rubber-stamp his name onto these reforms and is keen to show that he is distancing himself from Karimov’s policies. This is typified through the manner in which he has gone about charging and imprisoning former, high-ranking government officials who served under Karimov, in an attempt to signify that he is doing away with the country’s corrupt past.
Whilst on the face of it these seem to be positive signs for the human rights of the Uzbek population, freedom of expression still remains limited, with certain religious texts and websites being added to the government’s list of ‘banned materials’. Jaslyk Prison also remains open despite the announcement in 2019, with the prison simply being run by the local government, rather than the central government.
One of the issues that has caught the attention of Western observers is that of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s largest industry- cotton. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and the government uses one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labour to produce it. Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million citizens to grow and harvest cotton, and the fashion industry has been heavily criticized for turning a blind eye to this method of production.
Since the death of President Karimov in 2016 however, Uzbekistan has attempted to display a shift in this policy, with independent observers reaffirming that the use of slave labour has been drastically reduced in recent years. There has been a significant reduction in the use of child labour of children as young as 11, and forced labour in general, however, there are still signs that at a local level, problems persist. An International Labour Organisation report states that 6.8% of labourers were still subject to forced labour. When considering 2.5 million individuals work as cotton pickers during harvest season, this amounts to 170,000 forced labourers participating in the annual cotton harvest.
During his 26 years in power, Karimov endured four elections, in which he garnered, on average, 91% of the vote. International observers decried these elections as shams due to the lack of any true political opposition and serious voting irregularities.
In the history of Uzbek elections, all opposition parties have been loyal to the president, with none directly opposing his platforms. Opposition parties are banned, in the most recent parliamentary elections in December 2019, five ‘government-sanctioned’ parties ran for seats in the country’s parliament.
Uzbekistan has been criticized for attempting to counter allegations that pluralism was not taking place. Its five main parties have been criticized for not actually offering contrasting policy positions, merely advocating for different policies, effectively standing as single-issue parties. The Uzbekistan National Revival Party campaigns for the ‘revival of Uzbek culture’, the Liberal Democratic Party stands up for ‘business interests’, whilst the Ecological Party ensures ‘environmental interests’. Despite advocating for different policies, all five parties support Mirziyoyev for president, the illusion of a multi-party democracy hides the fact that all power resides with the personalistic dictator, combine this with irregularities in vote counts, and preposterously high turnouts of 90% or more on average, it is clear to see that democracy in Uzbekistan is effectively non-existent.
Whilst the most recent parliamentary elections saw a decline in turn out to a more reasonable 71% and increased representation of women in parliament, the election was still regarded as a sham. Many observers such as Human Rights Watch saw this election as a chance for Mirziyoyev to prove that his promises of reforms had sustenance, however, concluded that Uzbekistan still maintains all the qualities of an authoritarian state.
Since its independence, Uzbekistan has struggled to establish lasting positive relationships with a number of its neighbours. It borders five countries, Kazakhstan to its north, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to its south and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to its west, the latter two nations having been the site for the most noticeable flare-up in tensions.
Prior to independence, all of Uzbekistan’s neighbours bar Afghanistan were ethnically based autonomous republics under the banner of the Soviet Union. They enjoyed open borders, shared infrastructure and integrated economies, but the collapse of the union put these fragile areas at risk of descending into economic and social downturn. The day of the collapse, the Turkmen deputy foreign minister stated that “We are not celebrating—we are mourning our independence.” The next morning the leaders declared that they would all join the newly formed loose union called the Commonwealth of Independent States, however tensions have arisen between the fiercely nationalistic states that have developed in the 29 years since that day.
In order to stay in power and maintain a firm grip on his infant state, President Karimov incited a fiercely nationalistic tone when state-building. He was deeply distrusting of outsiders, particularly following the attempt on his life in 1999, which was blamed on Islamic militants based in Tajikistan. Whilst attempting to portray Uzbekistan as a powerful and economically prosperous nation, Karimov regularly scorned Kyrgyzstan as a fledgeling and failing society that was putting the security of Uzbekistan at risk. A border fence was erected by Uzbekistan upon the turn of the century, separating historically connected peoples and ancestral lands, ethnic riots in the border city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 2010 only heightened tensions between the two states.
Upon the death of Karimov, Mirziyoyev stated one of his top priorities was to improve Uzbekistan’s frosty relations with its neighbours. In his first year in office, Mirziyoyev visited Kazakhstan four times, Turkmenistan thrice and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan once each. Considering Islam Karimov had not officially visited Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan since 2000, these trips were extremely symbolic for the region.
Accompanying these visits came genuine policy change as well. From 2010 until 2017, only two of the 16 checkpoints that allowed crossing between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were open. Following the visit, Tashkent announced that they would reopen nine additional checkpoints, christening the event with a celebration rife with food and music. Direct flights between the two nations also resumed in 2018 for the first time since 1992.
Following a visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2017, the two presidents signed a pact on the demarcation of more than 80% of the countries’ border, a sticking point in the relations between these two nations since the erection of the border fence in the early 2000s.
Whilst the reforms that Mirziyoyev has put in place seem to be a step in the right direction, there is no denying that Uzbekistan remains an extremely repressive and authoritarian regime. Starting at basic democratic freedoms, the right to a free and fair election still eludes the citizens of Uzbekistan. This is arguably Mirziyoyev’s biggest failure, he possessed an excellent opportunity to concretely prove that his promises had sustenance by providing a free and fair election, yet his failure to do so shows that a rotten regime still presides over the state.
Whilst on the face of it, human rights have improved in the three years since Karimov’s death, in a state as closed and secretive as Uzbekistan, it is impossible to truly conclude that these changes are actually taking place. The lack of a free press and government transparency stamps out any possibility of independent observers truly knowing whether modern slavery, torture and improper imprisonment have been eradicated from Uzbekistan.
The behaviour of autocrats is often erratic, the former tyrant Islam Karimov started his tenure by portraying himself as a reformer, promising the Uzbeks a bright future, free from the grips of the Soviet Union. He promised a state that would work in eternal cooperation with its neighbours and enshrined his vision of a prosperous society. Now, as we reflect on Karimov’s tenure, marred by repression, violence, economic strife and fear, who is to say that this new reformer is not merely another wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Written by Jack Ainsworth
Photos by Matt Feurtado