Once-repressive Uzbekistan begins a post-Karimov opening
More than a year after the dictator’s death, Tashkent may be coming in from the cold
© FT montage / Reuters /
In Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, near the blue-domed madrassas of central Registan Square, young Uzbeks still jostle for selfies by the statue of a local boy made good, the late dictator Islam Karimov. But, 17 months after Karimov’s death, there are signs that a country that democracy watchdog Freedom House long ranked alongside North Korea on political rights and civil liberties is starting to loosen the screws.
Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, laid flowers at Karimov’s statue late last month on what would have been his 80th birthday. The next day he took a step that a year ago would have seemed unimaginable. He sacked, or at least moved aside, Uzbekistan’s secret police chief of 23 years, Rustam Inoyatov. A key Karimov henchman, Mr Inoyatov, was a pillar of a system known for imprisoning, and often torturing, political opponents, journalists, human rights activists and Islamists.
While Mr Mirziyoyev was part of the old system too, as prime minister for 13 years, his ousting of Mr Inoyatov was the boldest in a series of steps apparently designed to start opening the country up. He has freed 18 high-profile political prisoners — even if thousands more remain in jail — and taken nearly 16,000 people off a 17,500-strong security blacklist of potential extremists that stopped them travelling or getting jobs.
He has launched an online “virtual reception hall” where Uzbeks are encouraged to air grievances against the authorities; 1.5m have done so. In September, he lifted exchange restrictions on the Uzbek soum — in effect devaluing it by 90 per cent, but also removing the biggest obstacle to foreign trade and investment. “Uzbekistan,” one foreign official suggests cautiously, “is coming in from the cold.”
An Uzbek spring could have big consequences. A strategically important regional linchpin, 32m-strong Uzbekistan is the most populous of Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics and the only one that borders all the others — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — as well as Afghanistan. If its reforms deepen, it may show a region dominated by ageing authoritarian leaders that political change is possible when they die. As well as promoting integration of a 100m-strong region, an easing of Karimov’s paranoid isolationism could make Uzbekistan a player in the “New Great Game”, the jostling between Russia, China and the US for influence over the heart of Eurasia.
For now, Mr Mirziyoyev’s changes are more economic than political, and his commitment to real political liberalisation remains unclear. The president, elected in December 2016, with 88.6 per cent of the vote, has not committed to allowing genuine political opposition, still less free elections. Much of the country’s repressive apparatus remains intact. Even with the secret police boss gone, powerful lobbies, including a bloated state bureaucracy, could still stymie the changes. And in a region dogged by Islamist extremism — the ostensible pretext for Karimov’s brutal police state — loosening constraints in hope of stimulating the economy carries risks.
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Re: (Inglés) El antes represivo Uzbekistán empieza una apertura tras la muerte de su antiguo presidente
Officials in Tashkent repeat the president’s mantra that the government must be put at the service of the people, reversing the old order.
Acá está el ejemplo de una sociedad represiva, en la que el líder se da cuenta que las cosas no funcionan y empieza un cambio de rumbo. Al final comprenden que no se trata de crear una isla de bienestar en un mar de represión.
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