What would an open Uzbekistan look like?


As Uzbekistan prepares for transition from the Karimov era, what room is there for positive, if pragmatic, thinking?


Nate Schenkkan
5 September 2016

3 September, 2016: Uzbek men gather to pay their last respects during the funeral of President Islam Karimov in Samarkand. (c) AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Islam Karimov is dead, and Central Asia observers are warning of either a descent into factionalism and violence, or a continuation of the same inward-looking, dictatorial rule that Karimov pioneered for Central Asia over the past 25 years. 

If the question is prediction, my bet is on the latter. But it is worth thinking through what is needed for Uzbekistan to attempt even a partial relaxing of the regime that Karimov built — perhaps not a 180-degree pivot, but 90 degrees, say. 

Although Central Asia observers may remain pessimistic about what is likely to happen next in Uzbekistan, I will focus here on ways Uzbekistan could open up — and why that would be a good idea. 

Leader in the field

Stories about Karimov and Uzbekistan usually focus, for good reason, on the regime’s brutality — the hundreds of civilians slaughtered in Andijan in 2005, the religious prisoners boiled alive, the dissidents assassinated abroad

As I wrote last week for Foreign Policy, Karimov was a kind of “thought leader” in dictatorship. But Uzbekistan has been distinctive not just for the brutality of its system of governance, but for its closed economic model and recalcitrant approach to foreign relations. 

Uzbekistan maintains a defiantly controlled, state-led economic system that seems to struggle along despite decades of dysfunction. GDP figures and other official economic statistics have long been transparently false, and independent journalists, analysts, and scholars have very limited access to the country, leaving the real state of the economy difficult to discern.

Changing Uzbekistan’s economic model would require a new government that is willing to confront the interests that benefit from it 

The system is propped up to a large degree by migrant labourers working in Russia, who send back the equivalent of 20-30 % of annual GDP (accurate data for annual estimates is difficult to acquire). The state maintains an official currency rate that is currently about half of what a dollar sells for on the black market. 

Every year, the state forces thousands of doctors, teachers, students and civil servants to work in the cotton fields for weeks, interrupting normal economic activity in service of a wildly inefficient agricultural model. Foreign investors are frequently subject first to extortion followed by expropriation, as the scandals of Gulnara Karimova’s control of the telecoms sector demonstrated. 

Much of this can seem irrational, and these features of the system have surely held Uzbekistan back economically. But they are retained because people have grown accustomed to them and have found ways to live within them. They benefit a large number of people in the system, and not just the elites at the top of the heap.

Migrant labourers bring back a steady supply of hard cash and keep young men occupied outside of the country. The supply of dollars at the official rate is strictly limited; insiders buy up the limited number of dollars for cheap at the official rate and then resell them for an enormous profit on the black market. The cotton harvest is a blunt expropriation of the labour of public sector workers and students, who see none of the profits from the sale of cotton on international markets, which is instead kicked back in part to officials in charge of organising the harvest. When you’re the one doing it, extorting and expropriating are only bad if you get caught.


1 September: Uzbek girls stand next to a banner showing Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, in Tashkent. (c) Umida Akhmedova / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.So changing Uzbekistan’s economic model would require a new government that is willing to confront the interests that benefit from it — perhaps unlikely when the only real candidates for succession either come from those very interests or will be picked by them.

At the same time, opening up the economy and encouraging greater freedom for trade, especially with neighbours, might provide a popular boost to a leader interested in establishing a new legacy, distinct from Karimov’s. Uzbek citizens would enjoy being able to travel and trade more freely with their neighbours; cross-border trade would encourage the kind of small businesses that could provide a backbone of support for a new government trying to break ranks with the old top-down ways of doing things.

Lifting the much-abused exit visa system would win support from many in the country, including among elites, who would like to travel more widely without government interference. 

Careful what you wish for

More liberal policies might also pay dividends for Uzbekistan’s neighbours, particularly the large number of ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan who have been largely cut off from across the border since the events of 2010

Increased trade between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is necessary for the development of communities along the shared border in the Ferghana Valley, including Jalal-Abad and Kyrgyzstan’s second city of Osh, which could boom as a hub connecting Uzbekistan’s Andijan to China. Train traffic with Tajikistan is another low-hanging fruit which Karimov spurned (either for personal or security reasons), putting a chokehold on Tajikistan’s train traffic that crossed its territory and eventually building the Angren-Pap line to skirt Tajikistan and ensure Uzbekistan’s self-sufficiency. Demarcating borders and agreeing not to use economic barriers as leverage could spur development in Ferghana and produce a windfall for a new government. 

Naturally, there could be a “careful what you wish for” here. Kyrgyzstan already fears Uzbekistan’s influence on ethnic Uzbeks in the south. Some in Kyrgyzstan have likely been grateful that Karimov saw his co-ethnics abroad as a threat, and not a potential vehicle for Uzbekistan’s interests or a tool for mass mobilisation. As Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon has descended into his own pit of paranoia and grand corruption, he could very well see a more open Uzbekistan as an even greater threat than a closed one. 

None of these things will work in isolation — without allowing more political rights and civil liberties

At the same time, there could also be major international credits to be won in opening up. Regional trade connectivity has been a feature of the United States’ priorities in Central Asia for years. The Afghanistan-oriented “New Silk Road” plan launched during Hillary Clinton’s time as US secretary of state was always too focused on large-scale infrastructure projects, but was also stripped of any possible local impact in no small part by Uzbekistan’s recalcitrance.

Engaging in actual trade and border liberalisation would be a clear way for a new Uzbek government to show it is ready to help Central Asia become a new kind of region. China would also be likely to support the economic side of such an agenda, which would be in line with its own stated ambitions to increase regional trade and encourage development in Central Asia as a means to undercut the appeal of extremism.

The cotton harvest has also been the subject of avid campaigning by international human rights organisations. Banning forced labour and taking steps to reform the agricultural system would be major steps to change Uzbekistan’s image, as well as to help develop a more efficient, modern economy. 

Opening up

None of these things will work in isolation — without allowing more political rights and civil liberties, including political pluralism and the rights to organise, speak and associate freely. These are the least likely areas where there will be change, but as Kazakhstan has shown, without them it is very difficult to make sustained economic progress.

Astana has tried to continue to allow officials to engage in rent-seeking through large vanity projects and skimming the cream off of oil and gas deals — while trying out what is supposed to be a more technocratic economic approach. But Kazakhstan still finds itself mired in economic crisis during the current downturn, as the system continues to rely on top-down decision-making, and institutions like the Central Bank lack the independence to guide their own policies.

Effective policy-making requires freedoms of expression and association (i.e., political pluralism) because there are no purely technocratic answers to public interest problems. Especially in trying to unravel the corrupt and closed economic system, allowing grievances to be aired and policies to be publicly vetted is the only way to ensure that the dislocation of economic transformation is kept to a minimum and that policy changes can be sustained.

As I stated at the beginning, I am doubtful that the new government in Uzbekistan will attempt any of this agenda, or anything like it. Indeed, this is only a small fraction of what it would take to transform Uzbekistan after decades of misrule.

But perhaps by talking about what could go right, and not just what could go wrong (as we so often do when discussing Central Asia), we could help encourage some positive risk-taking. This could help form a more open Uzbekistan, and a more open Central Asia. 

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