Uzbekistan's interim leader, Shavkat Mirziyaev, appears to have divided the country's far-flung dissident community at a crucial juncture.
On one side, there are those who have embraced him in hopes of reform after decades of one-man rule in Central Asia's most populous state. On the other are avowed critics who insist the long-serving prime minister's power grab after the death of authoritarian President Islam Karimov was illegitimate and he is just like his predecessor.
Nearly three months into the post-Karimov era, with a December 4 presidential election heavily stacked in Mirziyaev's favor, there is a surprising amount of optimism among opposition figures that the 59-year-old former mechanical-engineering student will be more open to the world and allow more freedom at home.
"I am expecting something good from Mirziyaev," said Ahmad Haji-Harezmiy, a former deputy governor who fled to Britain in 2005 after becoming a critic of Karimov. "[Mirziyaev] is completely different from Karimov.... He's not a dictator."
A billboard of presidential candidate Khatamjon Ketmanov -- one of three official candidates allowed to run against Mirziyaev.
But others accuse Mirziyaev, who served as prime minister for 13 years until the announcement of Karimov's death in September, of merely window-dressing a brutal, undemocratic system that he helped create and perpetuate.
"We have a report that in 2000, when [Mirziyaev] was [Jizzakh] regional governor, he beat up a math teacher because the students of that teacher were apparently picking cotton too slowly," Steven Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told RFE/RL's Majlis podcast. "He's known for his fiery temper...[and] for being a very tough personality."
Unconstitutional Power Grab?
Six days after news of the death of Karimov, Uzbekistan's parliament named Mirziyaev interim president by circumventing a clause in the Uzbek Constitution crafted specifically to prevent a prime minister from grabbing power. The move was eerily similar to that of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov a decade earlier, when he snatched the president's office in Turkmenistan following the unexpected death of Soviet-era holdover Saparmurat Niyazov.
The passing over of the Senate chairman for the post -- as prescribed in the constitution -- has led many prominent Karimov opponents to appeal publicly for Uzbek reforms while they continue to question Mirziyaev's legitimacy.
Great Economic Expectations
But despite his questionable start, some dissidents expect at least to see economic reforms under Mirziyaev if he wins the presidential vote as expected.
"I couldn't think of any other leader [in Uzbekistan] who could do this job," Johangir Mohammad, an Uzbek exile who was kicked out of parliament and had his home confiscated by Karimov's henchmen in the early 1990s, told RFE/RL from the United States.
"Because in Uzbekistan now we have the clan of money: everywhere corruption, everywhere bribery," Mohammad said. "We are hopeful that Mirziyaev will change it slowly. I think he will keep politics [in check] but will allow economic freedom, maybe like the models in China or Kazakhstan."
Mohammad added that with Uzbekistan's economy hobbled and millions of Uzbeks convinced of the need to find work abroad -- mainly in Russia -- economic reforms and investment in infrastructure could be powerful sweeteners for the average Uzbek.
"Lots of parts of the country do not have electricity, or gas, or water," he said. "If you ask ordinary Uzbeks, they say, 'I don't need democracy, I need electricity.'"
It is difficult to know whether Mirziyaev might be open to the kind of allowances that the governments in Beijing and Astana make for private businesses and other forms of entrepreneurship -- a sharp break from the highly centralized approach of Soviet times and subsequent decades, when state-led investments have been the rule.
A sign that Tashkent might slightly loosen its grip on the economy occurred in late October, when Mirziyaev announced that the country's 10 largest firms would be partially privatized in the next year.
Good Neighbor, More Water?
Dissidents and longtime observers of Central Asia are united in praise of an apparent tack in foreign policy as Tashkent under Mirziyaev appears to be trying to mend frayed or frozen ties with its neighbors, primarily Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Mirziyaev "understands that if...he continues with dictatorship, then Uzbekistan will collapse," Mohammad said, adding, "He also understands that Uzbekistan cannot survive without [satisfactory relations with] its neighbors."
Sizable delegations of Uzbek entrepreneurs and government officials from tense regions along the borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have made goodwill trips in recent weeks, even crossing undemarcated frontiers where civilians have been shot by border guards during disputes.
Tashkent has also pledged to ease visa and entry regimes with Uzbekistan's neighbors, which would provide welcome relief to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks living as minorities among Central Asia's five post-Soviet republics. Such residents currently face myriad bureaucratic hurdles even for short, cross-border visits to relatives.
"[These groups] lived centuries together and then Karimov separated them. That is a big problem," Mohammad said. "I think Mirziyaev will open the borders and make [travel] easier for people."
Soon after Mohammad's prediction, on November 30, Tajikistan announced that direct flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe would begin within weeks, breaking a stoppage of nearly 20 years.
Some of Mirziyaev's staunchest critics call his overtures to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan a cynical attempt to curry favor with countries rich in water -- a resource that is in short supply in parched and heavily rural Uzbekistan.
Journalist Expulsions, Harassment
The Mirziyaev administration's attitude so far toward pluralism and the media -- in a country where Karimov scrupulously suppressed journalists' freedom and people's freedom of speech -- has been hostile.
In November, Uzbek authorities detained and expelled Russian journalist Yekaterina Saineva of Moskovskiy Komsomolets and German freelancer Edda Schlager in separate cases.
Shortly after Mirziyaev took over as interim president, RFE/RL accused the government of targeting the family members of journalists working for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
"Uzbekistan's new leaders should know that RFE/RL vigorously condemns any attack on the family members of our journalists, and any attempt to intimidate or silence us," RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said on September 22.
Arrests and other forms of official pressure against Muslims accused of being radicals have continued unabated since Karimov's death.
Reports say Mirziyaev has ordered security services to conduct house-to-house searches targeting individuals with previous convictions on religious-extremism charges, particularly in border areas and the capital, Tashkent. Such raids and persecution have also included the families of citizens who have spent extended time living or working outside Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is the birthplace of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, and Karimov made the fight against militant Islamists and extremist violence a key point of emphasis in speeches at home and abroad.
Freedom At Last
While a mass prisoner amnesty in September came as little surprise in a region where such releases are routine, Uzbekistan's freeing of three men whom rights groups regard as political prisoners raised hopes among even Mirziyaev's doubters. Those released included Murod Juraev, who was set free on November 12 after serving 21 years on what rights groups say were trumped-up charges.
Murod Juraev (center) after his release from prison
Mirziyaev also got his critics' attention by setting up an online complaint box and phone line that reportedly received hundreds of thousands of responses and led to the resolution of at least some citizens' grievances. Most of the public's complaints are almost certain to have gone unanswered, however, and many have dismissed it as a PR stunt ahead of this weekend's presidential election.
Faith in Mirziyaev's reformist intentions has been derided by some as aspects of the long-held and often disparaged Uzbek notion of the "Yaxshi Padishoh" -- the proverbial "good king" who returns to lead the country to health and happiness.
But such faith has come from some surprising circles.
Singer-musician Dadaxon Hasan -- a Soviet-era dissident and Karimov critic who was harassed by Uzbek officials after he dedicated a song to the victims of the 2005 massacre of demonstrators at Andijon -- has signaled support for Mirziyaev.
Other Karimov-era dissidents who have so far offered praise of Mirziyaev include Ismat Khushev, a former chief editor of a state newspaper who was jailed for alleged involvement in a coup d'etat after opposing Karimov; and Namoz Normumim, who praised Mirziyaev's openness and declared in a Facebook post in October that "the opposition can cooperate" with Uzbekistan's new leader.
Exiled Uzbek writer and veteran opposition leader Mohammad Solih has been among the few dissidents to categorically condemn Mirziyaev. He has said the ex-prime minister is part of the "same regime" as Karimov and there is "no hope" for change in Uzbekistan.
Solih rankled many when he suggested that a violent uprising -- he used the highly charged term "jihad" -- against Mirziyaev's "state coup" would be legitimate, an approach that has been widely condemned by the Uzbek dissident community. He later said he had meant the spiritual sense of jihad.
Mohammad Solih (file photo)
Mirziyaev is running as a candidate of the late Karimov's Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, long the overwhelmingly dominant political grouping in the country.
Facing a weak field of political also-rans, that is likely to translate into victory in a country where Western observers have never declared elections free or fair.
Most Uzbeks are likely to have set their expectations accordingly for December 4 and beyond.
"[Mirziyaev] will not grant freedom to the media or allow the opposition members who are abroad [to] reform elections," said the exiled Mohammad. "We cannot talk today about real democracy [coming] to Uzbekistan."
With reporting by the Uzbek Service's Alisher Siddique and Noah Tucker and Bruce Pannier's Qishloq Ovozi blog