Uncertainty in Uzbekistan: The Presidency after Karimov

By Katie McAfee (Graduate student at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs)

Until September of last year, Islam Karimov was the only President Uzbekistan had ever known. A long-time member of the Communist Party, Karimov became the President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in March of 1990 and remained the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan after declaring independence from the Soviet Union in September of 1991. Almost exactly 25 years later, Karimov died of a stroke at the age of 78 on September 2, 2016. During his tenure as President, Karimov established a legacy of heavy-handed rule, characterized by intolerance for dissent and elimination of political opposition. For over a quarter century, Karimov was the face of the Uzbek government.

Prime Minister since 2003, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the ‘mourner-in-chief’ at Karimov’s funeral and succeeded him as Interim President. According to the Uzbek Constitution, the Chairman of the Senate succeeds the President, but following Karimov’s death, Chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev stepped aside so that Mirziyoyev could assume the role of Interim President.

On September 9, 2016, Uzbekistan’s Central Election Commission met and scheduled the presidential election for December 4, 2016, as the Constitution dictates that an election must be within three months of the death of the President.

Four candidates were on the ballot in December. Khatamjob Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party campaigned for social equality, particularly for people with disabilities. Narimon Umarov of the Social Democratic Party ran on the platform of education. Both Ketmonov and Umarov ran in the March 2015 election and secured 2.9% and 2% of the vote, respectively. Sarvar Otamuratov of the National Revival Democratic Party promoted national renewal and strengthening national self-awareness. Mirziyoyev ran as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, and his campaign was the most complex. He focused on economic issues, promoting private enterprise and foreign investment and promising to double Uzbekistan’s GDP by 2030.

According to the Central Election Commission, 87.8% of Uzbekistan’s 20 million eligible voters participated in the election, and Mirziyoyev won 88.6% of the vote. Based on election laws in Uzbekistan, the four candidates had equal access to billboards and screens throughout the country, but the campaign was not competitive. A victory for Ketmonov, Umarov, or Otamuratov would have meant significant change for Uzbekistan, but none of these candidates challenged Mirziyoyev’s qualifications or policies during the campaign. Such non-competitiveness echoed the precedent of Uzbek elections. Karimov was re-elected in each of the six presidential elections since independence, and he secured over 90% of the vote in the most recent of these elections in March of 2015. Western governments and international monitors, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), have often criticized Uzbek elections for being undemocratic, reporting signs of fraud and calling for reform.

A sense of uncertainty characterized the interim before the election. Few doubted that Mirziyoyev would win the election, but it was unclear the implications of his victory would be. After working his way up through the Communist Party in the 1980s and becoming a member of the legislature in 1991, Mirziyoyev is a product of the Soviet system, and his loyalty to Karimov suggested continuity and stability for Uzbekistan. Rhetoric of this continuity and stability was a significant aspect of his campaign last year, but he also pledged economic reform, such as liberalizing Uzbekistan’s tightly-controlled foreign exchange market. With simultaneous talk of reform and of continuing down the political path of Karimov, no one quite knew what to expect from Mirziyoyev’s presidency.

During the interim, Mirziyoyev established an online portal for citizen complaints and released Samandar Qoqonov, a political prisoner for 23 years and former politician convicted of embezzlement. It is still unclear if these actions were strategic signs of goodwill or truly indicative of a broader goal to ease governance domestically. Regionally, Mirziyoyev seeks to strengthen relations with Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors. During the interim, he worked with officials from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to discuss border disputes and vowed to re-establish airline travel between Tashkent and Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for the first time since 1992.

Given Uzbekistan’s exports of natural gas and cotton and nearly two million Uzbeks working abroad in Russia, the international and regional communities have a vested interest in continued stability. In one of his first speeches as President, Mirziyoyev said that Uzbekistan would not join any international military alliances or host any foreign military bases, a critical signal that, at least on this issue, he would continue his predecessor’s policy.

After a quarter century under Karimov’s leadership, Uzbekistan enters a time of uncertainty. The first few months of Mirziyoyev’s tenure suggest that he seeks to entertain a mix of economic reforms and social stability, consolidating his political influence both domestically and regionally. Uzbekistan’s neighbors and members of the international community will be watching carefully to see where Mirziyoyev will break with the established policies of his predecessor.

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