17 May 2018: President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits the White House. Photo: Sipa USA / SIPA USA / PA Images. All rights reserved.Less than two years after being elected in December 2016, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was received in Washington in May 2018. The relatively short turnaround attests not only to Mirziyoyev’s growing credibility as a reformist, but also to just how much the international context has turned in illiberalism’s favour. Mirziyoyev’s predecessor Islam Karimov waited nearly five years after Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union to be received by the White House.
Much has been written and said already about Mirziyoyev’s first years in office, which has been defined as the Uzbek “thaw” or “spring”. Mirziyoyev has certainly striven to resolve or at least mitigate tensions in the region, mainly Uzbekistan’s persistent quarrels with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Border controls, strict visa regimes and high tariffs, on top of stagnant – not to say conflictual – governmental relations had turned the region into a place of relatively low intraregional trade at the global level. Were that not enough, Mirziyoyev’s international efforts have extended further, as he organised a major summit in March 2018 in Tashkent focused on drawing a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan.
Besides aiming towards external openness, Mirziyoyev has also sought to foster internal change by launching a manifesto for political reform, releasing political prisoners and journalists, restructuring the much loathed National Security Service and encouraging the fight against nepotism. He has also taken unprecedented steps towards liberalising Uzbekistan’s currency, the som, after Karimov’s failed attempts in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
For the casual observer, all such foreign and domestic initiatives reveal much about Mirziyoyev’s agency, particularly his wish for and capacity to instil change. But scepticism in relation to Mirziyoyev’s commitment to change still runs deep, not least because his is a push for liberalisation with the executive power reigning supreme. Not only did his appointment to the interim presidency in September 2016 flout constitutional procedure, insofar as the chairman of the senate should have taken the post, but Mirziyoyev also shows no discomfort with leading the country on his own terms. Not unlike under Karimov, politics and economics are to be managed from above, rather than from below.
On top of a measure of domestic continuity, key foreign policy priorities remain largely the same as before. Aside from a regional thaw, Mirziyoyev has acknowledged his commitment to Uzbekistan’s self-reliant foreign policy conception, intent on foregoing military blocs and multilateral integration. This is all the more revealing considering that, even in the early Karimov era, the government of Uzbekistan had toyed with the idea of regional cooperation, while at the same time dismissing the pursuit of liberal political and economic reforms.
Bearing in mind such parallels, how should change and continuity in foreign policy be evaluated, considering the distinct international contexts under which both presidents operated?
Continuity across different contexts
While Mirziyoyev has ignited greater regional cooperation, it is important to bear in mind that Karimov had not entirely fallen shy of such attempts. Uzbekistan’s first president toyed with the idea of “Turkestan – Our common home” and participated in regional forums meant to foster economic and political integration. Karimov also sponsored one of the first frameworks for resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, the so-called 6+2 initiative. Hence, Mirziyoyev’s recent UN-sponsored regional conference on Afghanistan is not exactly a radical departure from Karimov’s own policy in the 1990s. The same could also be said for Mirziyoyev’s attempt to foster regional cooperation.
And yet, one can accuse Karimov of hypocrisy. Though he sometimes praised regional cooperation in the early 1990s, he also sought to enhance Uzbekistan’s political and economic self-reliance. But the surrounding context also played a part in accounting for Karimov’s growing disdain for integration. Not only was Tajikistan enveloped in civil war throughout most of the 1990s, the government of Kyrgyzstan had failed, at least according to Karimov, to secure its borders against cross-border incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1999 and 2000. All such events, coupled with Karimov’s admiration for economic self-sufficiency and stability, in contrast to economic openness and political change, led to growing regional tensions.
While Mirziyoyev has ignited greater regional cooperation, it is important to bear in mind that Karimov had not entirely fallen shy of such attempts
Moreover, the centralised form of political authority that Karimov frequently praised, and which Mirziyoyev has continued to pursue, was highly contested at the broader international level in the 1990s. Kyrgyzstan, led at the time by Askar Akayev, came to be labelled as “the Switzerland of Central Asia” in light of its apparent commitment to economic and political liberalism. Russia, too, at least until 1992, embraced a liberal transition, the pursuit of which has since been deeply contested in the country and in Central Asia. Karimov, however, opposed all such liberal “reformist” trends. He was a post-communist advocate of illiberalism, before the likes of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, and well before the more recent rise to prominence of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia.
By way of contrast, Mirziyoyev has found a very different audience for his illiberal tendencies. Washington in the early 1990s operated under the aegis of the Freedom Support Act, intent on fostering liberal democracy abroad. The US government under Trump, instead, has spoken of developing relations which speak to so-called American economic interests in the absence of political preconditions.
As concerns regional relations, the situation has changed substantially since the 1990s. No longer enveloped in civil war, Tajikistan has witnessed the spectacular increase of its president’s executive power, while Kyrgyzstan is no longer praised as Central Asia’s Switzerland, although it remains by far the most pluralistic country in the region.
All in all, with the US government no longer speaking as dramatically about the need for liberal reform, with Uzbekistan’s neighbours no longer maligned by the type of instability against which Karimov spoke so caustically, Uzbekistan’s overarching foreign policy conception has faced little external contestation.
Soft power as novelty
As highlighted by some Uzbekistani analysts, Mirziyoyev’s adherence to soft power is by far his more novel undertaking.
Karimov, in contrast to Mirziyoyev, practised a confrontational approach to politics. He criticised liberal advocates in the US government, Russian unilateralism and the policies of his Central Asian counterparts. Besides rhetorical bombast, Karimov also spoke of power and domination in a more traditional manner. He preferred to highlight material investment in core industries, such as oil and gas, as well as in technology, mainly aircraft and car manufacturing. In short, Karimov remained an adherent to hard power tout court.
The insecurity that enveloped Central Asia in the 1990s was a major reason for Karimov's abstention from deeper regional cooperation
Mirziyoyev, on the other hand, has been more receptive to soft power broadly conceived. According to Harvard University Joseph Nye Jr., soft power is “getting others to want the outcomes that you want” in that it “co-opts people rather than coerces them.” It is about attraction, building trust, fostering openness and admiration, and this conception has found a receptive audience beyond the United States, in China most evidently. In effect, soft power allows one to speak of liberalisation in the absence of liberalism, of brokering economic and political openness in the absence of major structural and legal reforms. In China, Xi Jinping's Communist Party remains the key arbiter of change. Likewise, in Uzbekistan the executive authority continues to be the major catalyst of reform. When compared to Karimov, Mirziyoyev has prioritised dialogue over confrontation in the region, spoken of connectivity and showed openness to World Trade Organisation membership.
Karimov’s tenure in office was systematically characterised by scepticism of global financial markets, as Uzbekistan was kept away from international money lenders. Mirziyoyev has, instead, sought to liberalise Uzbekistan’s currency and to open a financial and informational hub named Tashkent City. Financial services rely deeply on trust and openness, and Mirziyoyev’s soft power approach, in strong contrast to his predecessor, has been conducive to introducing Uzbekistan to that facet of globalisation.
Many of Mirziyoyev's key initiatives had already been spelled out by Karimov in the past. Save the soft power approach, the degree of novelty is not stark, although the different regional and global contexts allow Mirziyoyev to advance his priorities in the absence of major insecurity and contestation, domestic or otherwise. Even the pockets of domestic opposition which Karimov brutally repressed in the early 1990s have been absent in the Mirziyoyev era. Were any of those issues to arise again, however, to the effect of compromising the foreign policy priorities of his government, including its core illiberalism, then a retraction of some sort is certainly possible.
For one, should the global context change again in such a way that key international powers, such as the US government and the European Union, were to push for liberal political and economic reform as precursors to international engagement, this may force Mirziyoyev to spend more time and resources in defending the inherent illiberalism of his executive authority, rather than on emphasising potential economic cooperation.
Great power reassertion in the region, be it China, the United States or Russia, is also something that might force Mirziyoyev to brush openness aside. Moscow’s attempt to push for growing multilateral integration in the former Soviet region found only scepticism within Uzbekistan. China, by contrast, has been able to put forth its major investment projects, as found in the One Belt One Road Initiative, without necessarily contradicting Uzbekistan’s key foreign policy conception. But here too Mirziyoyev is likely to refrain from becoming dependent on any one partner alone. Self-reliance and its trenchant commitment to sovereignty remains the cornerstone of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, and Mirziyoyev is unlikely to compromise on this issue, much like his predecessor.
Finally, the insecurity that enveloped Central Asia in the 1990s was a major reason for Karimov's abstention from deeper regional cooperation. The IMU’s incursions and escalating civil wars in both Afghanistan and Tajikistan meant Karimov opted to strengthen Uzbekistan’s borders; openness was decidedly put on hold. While there is nothing to suggest a repeat of the 1990s, a regional crisis may certainly pose a threat to Mirziyoyev’s commitment to openness.