“The ability of people to express themselves more freely with less interference from the state has an enormous psychological effect,” – says Jennifer Murtzashvili, a scholar on Central and South Asia, an author of “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan,” Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
What are your observations on the latest reforms in Uzbekistan under the new government?
The reforms are quite astonishing to many of us who have been long-time students of Uzbekistan (I first visited Uzbekistan in 1997 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer). The excitement and the general positive attitude of many, despite some bumps in the road, after two years has also surprised me. There does not yet seem to be a sense of fatigue, but general optimism.
The most significant reforms have come to the economy and in foreign relations. The liberalization of the currency and the opening of trade and foreign relations are very promising. It has become far easier for small- and medium-sized enterprises to form and register. Similarly, travel both to and from the country has also become easier, especially to neighboring countries. Along with efforts to eliminate forced labor and reduce torture, citizens of Uzbekistan are certainly breathing easier. There are signs of a political opening, but there is not wide-scale political reform.
The reforms are driven by the central government. Given the fact that the legislature is not yet an effective veto player, the president’s office and ministry officials are having a free hand to issue decrees and new laws. Many of the changes have been positive, but there is still no effective way for citizens to have an effective role in the policymaking process. This means that people are dependent on the good will of the central government to support reforms that are in the interest of citizens.
In recent months, we have seen how citizen protests and activism are playing an important role in constraining government action. There is no better sign of this than recent citizen protests over the demolition of homes all over the country. Citizens complained quite vocally that local provincial and district governors were not fulfilling promises to adequately compensate them for losing their homes. In early August 2018k President Mirziyoyev removed governors who faced the largest citizen opposition and protests. The President put a halt to new demolitions and promised to review policies. What is significant here is not that the president responded, but that citizens felt comfortable and empowered to stand up for their rights. They were not afraid to challenge authorities. This is a deeply empowering change whose significance cannot be understated. Yet, this empowerment is the first step in a longer-term process.
What political reforms have been made so far and what is their meaning/impact?
The most important political reform in Uzbekistan is not one that you will find written in any law or decree. It is the space that has been given back to citizens for creative expression. While many scholars and analysts look to the government to come out with latest policy changes, many other changes that are happening outside the reach of the state are having a significant impact. To my mind, the freedom to create and build—in the private and public sector—is what I see to be the most significant change. It creates opportunities for both entrepreneurs and social activists to have an impact.
The most important reform is the fact that the government is simply getting out of the way of citizens in so many ways. This is creating less fear among people, a willingness to criticize officials, but also the positive space for people to enjoy associational life that is so important to life in Uzbekistan. I believe this will shape the way politics and the economy evolves in the years to come.
The government has spoken so much about generating investment and jobs. Yet, investments will yield very little return unless people have the space to create, imagine, and even fail.
Thus, the most important political reform is the kind of “negative liberty” that the government is willing to respect. It means that authority is less concerned with pursuing cultural uniformity under the guise programs promoting manaviat and ma’rifat, but understanding that Uzbekistani society is diverse. Scaling back on these state-driven ideological programs creates space for more diversity and more tolerance. It gives space for all people, especially young people, to form groups, to debate issues on the internet and in public, to express themselves more freely. People are no longer afraid to film police officers if they believe they are behaving badly. As discussed above, they are no longer so afraid to stand up to their governors and report harm. The ability of people to express themselves more freely less interference from the state has an enormous psychological effect. It allows people to see their world and their community in new ways. It fosters a new sense of community engagement. In my mind, this growing freedom has generated such strong support across the spectrum for the reforms taking place.
The space to express views is not just isolated to those advocating “liberal” values, but also to those who oppose it. It is just as important for people who oppose some of the reforms from a more “conservative” perspective to have space to do this as well. For example, a member of the Bostanlik District Kengash (elected assembly) in Tashkent Province, Kabul Dusov, has used his Facebook page to make some controversial statements lately about the role of women in politics and government. He said that the country would break apart if more women participated in politics. He has also advocated for increased religious education. On the other hand, he has spoken out quite vocally about the repression of the Muslim Uyghur population in China, when the government has remained silent on these issues.
Liberal commentators on social media erupted with rage when they saw Dusov’s comments, but to me this kind of debate represents the emergence of healthy conflict that a vibrant society and economy requires. Rather than keep these views hidden, people now share them and debate them. It is important that there is space to discuss these issues as people like Dusov likely represent interests of significant swaths of society. Rather than pretending differences do not exist, these differences are now surfacing into the public sphere where ideas can be contested.
How centralized is the current political system under Mirziyoyev’s government? are there any signs for the future liberalization/decentralization even for the sake of economic benefit?
The political system under Mirziyoyev remains quite centralized and it is uncertain what direction the government will take with respect to decentralization or a deconcentration of power. There seems to be a contradiction in rhetoric and policy. The discussion of reform in this area has certainly raised citizen expectations about future liberalization in this area.
When Mirziyoyev came to power, he spoke about the need to decentralize power, but the future of these reforms is unclear. He laid all of this out in a decree on the “Approval of the Administrative Reform Concept in the Republic of Uzbekistan,” which came out in September 2017. The reform made a powerful statement about the direction of reform. It spoke about implementation of separation of powers at the national level by strengthening the parliament. At the local level, this was to be done by strengthening district and provincial Kengashes. The decree also spoke about gradual decentralization of public administration, criticized excessive decentralization, and even spoke of the introduction of future election of district and provincial governors (hokims) to ensure effective monitoring of local officials.
Although there have been some moves to increase citizen participation in the policy process through online portals where citizens can raise complaints (virtual receptions), increased citizen participation in government affairs through elections has not happened. Nor has there been significant decentralization of authority. On the contrary, we have seen the government centralize its authority vis-à-vis provincial and district hokims in the past year. For example, the central government took away many powers hokims had over the local system of public education after reports of hokims engaged in corruption along with the reports of school principals forcing teachers and citizens to engage in forced labor). So, we see powers from hokims being given to line ministries, which is in fact centralization of authority. On the other hand, the central government and many citizens complain that it is the hokims who are drivers of corruption and malfeasance.
A good example of that we do see in public policy is the changing role of the mahalla in politics. Under the Karimov government, the mahalla was used as an instrument of social control as well as welfare redistribution. Mirziyoyev has tried to make elections for mahalla leaders more systematic and transparent (no longer dependent upon closed-door sessions). He has also eliminated the position of the posbon (“defender of the people”) who was the representative of security services in each neighborhood. Formal elections for mahalla leaders were held earlier this year. We do not have a lot of good information about how they were contested, but there does not seem to be a huge change from the past. They did not involve political parties to any significant degree. On the other hand, the legislation that mandated these elections created the processes and institutions that could facilitate more systematic participation in the long run. We are seeing the same kind of thing emerging with the parliamentary elections coming this December. The government is creating the scaffolding for future democratic reforms and greater citizen participation. It will be interesting to see how these issues play out in the years to come.
The staff shuffles that Mirziyoyev undertook in higher levels of government seem to bring new cadres and high skilled emigrants, but will this help change the old system? How would you compare it with what the Georgian government did with old system officials? Any similarities?
The government has brought in some immigrants and others to advise changes. Most notably, we have seen the creation of a new organization Buyuk Kelajak, which is an association of Uzbekistanis who have lived overseas for extended periods or who have become citizens of foreign countries, to advise the country on policy reforms.
This seems to be a positive step in terms of promoting reforms. Rather than try to quarantine these individuals and limit their influence, as was the case before, the government is looking for ways to harness their talents. We have also seen the appointment of a few talented young Uzbekistan native–even some that gave up their citizenship years ago, to high-level government positions. But the country has not seen the kind of wide-scale change seen in Georgia more than a decade ago.
The pace of reforms is so brisk that is becoming hard for even government officials to keep track of all of them. The rapid pace of reforms is becoming an issue. Often decrees and regulations are coming so quickly that officials have little time to implement all of what is being asked of them. The reforms have attracted many young people to seek out work in the government because they see that they might have an impact. But many of these young officials quickly become exhausted from long hours because they cannot keep up.
A challenge with the pace of reforms is that new reforms may contradict existing reforms or laws, which could lead to a sense of policy instability. This rapid pace of reforms compounded by a constant shift of personnel in ministries could present a challenge to perceptions of stability in the country and predictability of reforms. Constant turnover undermines the kind of predictability necessary to give both citizens and investors confidence in the steadiness of reforms.
What I do sense is tension emerging between young reformers and those who grew up in the status quo. Change is hard. Change from the top is even harder when it is not accompanied by systematic pressures channeled through public institutions from below.
In your article on autocratic stability in Uzbekistan during the previous rule, you argue that the regime had endured not only due to the political repression but also due to other factors such as above average economic performance and employment of social policies. What is your assessment of the current government’s approach to stability? What is the source of stability for Mirziyoyev’s regime?
That 2012 article described the sources of legitimacy of the Karimov regime. While many colleagues in the West focused only on Karimov’s deplorable human rights record, I always sensed the situation in the country was more complex. Certainly, Karimov used sticks to stay in power, but many outside observers often neglected the positive incentives the government used. I think those positive incentives are now helping the country move forward as it reforms. The previous regime was not as black and white as many people saw it to be: it was far more complicated. The government was not weak but was strong and purposeful. The country did use social welfare and investments in infrastructure to help it win legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. The country also benefited from the fact that chaos and disorder, and growing poverty, seemed to grip neighboring countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and of course Afghanistan as they engaged in democratic reforms. This diffused pressure for democratization.
Right now, Mirziyoyev’s source of legitimacy comes from his charisma as well as the way he opened discussion for long-festering problems. Last year a government official in the Ferghana Valley told me that, “President Karimov told us to hide all of our problems and cover them up. This president tells us to show everyone all of our problems, but this is not easy for us.” There is now a vibrant discussion of problems. For example, if you turn on Uzbek state television you will see a shocking discussion and depiction of rural poverty that was simply unimaginable two years ago. However, the government’s solution to this problem often involves creating new infrastructure and demolition of homes. This has led to part of the public backlash. The problem Mirziyoyev faces are typical in any country undergoing reforms: people are thankful for the reforms but will punish the government because memories are short. Reforms unleash unexpected problems. Therefore, citizen participation in the process is key to help ensure that citizens are also just as responsible for the reforms as the government.
Although the reforms are exciting, the demands of citizens are becoming more complex. Citizens now seem to be demanding more than “virtual citizens’ receptions,” which was an online platform the government introduced a couple of years ago, where they can air their grievances. They seem to be demanding more systematic participation in local and even national decision-making. This is what the snos (property demolition) protests tell us loudly and clearly. The president has responded by firing governors who he said were responsible. This was a bold move on this part, but what if this happens again? It certainly will. What will the president offer to citizens that is different than what he did before? This remains a big question.
We will not understand the real sources of stability the country has until the government faces a real crisis. This could come from any kind of issue that face governments everywhere: a natural disaster, economic shock, or political calamity. We will have a far better understanding of this once there is real stress on the government.
What areas are you focusing on in doing research on Central Asia (Uzbekistan) now?
First and foremost, I am most interested in supporting the work of Uzbekistani social scientists who are looking for opportunities to do rigorous research. I am also exploring ways to support social science education in Uzbekistan. This is more important to me right now than doing my own research. It is such a special moment for the country, and it has been absolutely exhilarating for me to learn from so many young social scientists in Uzbekistan who have done remarkable work under very difficult circumstances.
The more open environment for research is allowing me to work on a few projects in Uzbekistan. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this. The first is a series of papers based on original survey data I helped design with the World Bank from the Listening to the Citizens of Uzbekistan survey. One paper looks at drivers of poverty in women-headed households. I am also exploring some data on hashar.
Second, I am in the very early stages of a book manuscript that explores the political economy of reforms in Uzbekistan. This book explores the origins of reforms as well as the consequences of the reforms in a wide variety of sectors (both political and economic).
Third, I am working with a group of Tashkent-based scholars to start several new research projects, which should have promising results. One project is a new policy monitoring index that will monitor reforms across different sectors. A second is a survey of regional development and local governance. A third project is a survey on citizen attitudes towards housing demolitions. We hope to have this survey underway this fall. I have collaborated on some research on citizen attitudes towards housing demolitions in China (China faces a similar problem). I am trying to build on this research in the Uzbekistani context.
Over the past 15 years, I have focused most of my research on Afghanistan because it was not possible to conduct research in Uzbekistan (even though I lived in Uzbekistan for five years prior to returning to graduate school). I view Afghanistan and former Soviet Central Asia as part of one region: they are all part of Central Asia. It is unfortunate that many scholars of former Central Asia consider Afghanistan to be a different region, as this allows colonial residues to limit the scope of our imagination and our scholarly work. In fact, one of my missions as an academic is to help bridge understandings of these regions, which were so artificial. It is a real lost opportunity for scholars of the region. It is exciting to see Uzbekistan finally opening up its doors to Afghanistan and even seeing students from Afghanistan studying in Uzbekistani universities.
Finally, how do reform changes and liberalization in Uzbekistan are perceived among the scholars? Are they encouraged to do more studies on Uzbekistan political system?
There is an interesting debate among scholars about what is happening in Uzbekistan. Some believe that the reforms are not “real” and are simply authoritarian window dressing. They believe that Uzbekistan is simply mimicking other countries in the region such as Kazakhstan in order to attract more foreign investment and improve its image globally.
Others see the reforms as more substantial and systemic.
One question that I am often asked is whether the reforms are “real.” I think when people ask this question is that they mean whether reforms are “democratic.” Over the past 25 years we witnessed the failure of the transition paradigm: that countries would somehow automatically transform from authoritarian states to democracies. It puzzles me that the first question so many people ask about Uzbekistan relates to democracy. From a normative perspective, greater citizen participation is important. But from a scholarly perspective, our job is to understand and explain the changes taking place. If we have learned anything from the past 25 years, it is that we should anticipate hybridity and not necessarily democracy. On the other hand, the government now speaks of its own democratic transition.
For many years, it has been so difficult for scholars to study Uzbekistan. I spent most of the past fifteen years of my career focused on Afghanistan and Tajikistan because I was not able to do scholarly research in Uzbekistan. The situation is changing very fast and universities, scholars, and the government are now very open to exchanges and joint projects.
Uzbekistan will attract more attention by scholars if academic freedom can be guaranteed. The government can facilitate more open inquiry. This means that for social scientists—and especially those of us who do both qualitative and quantitative work—that there should be few barriers to conducting public opinion or household surveys. I am working with talented scholars in Uzbekistan who have worked with data from so many countries except their own. This means that they do not have a good understanding of domestic poverty and other important dynamics. The reforms will not succeed unless there is an honest assessment of the situation in communities. This requires data from third parties, especially academic research. I sense government is beginning to see independent scholars as a complement to their reforms rather than a threat to them, but this will take time.
I do hope that more scholars consider doing research in Uzbekistan. The environment for this has opened significantly over the past year. The more scholars that are doing work in the region, the better.
There are also so many young scholars based in Uzbekistan whose tenacity and ability to develop in a relatively closed environment with very few resources, is simply inspiring.