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Qishloq Ovozi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with interim Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev after laying flowers at the grave of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov on September 6, 2016.

Uzbekistan holds a presidential election on December 4, the fifth such vote in the country’s 25-year history as an independent state. But for the first time, the name Islam Karimov will not appear on ballots.

Karimov’s death, announced on September 2, has given some hope that there could be changes, however slight, to the authoritarian government in Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL assembled our panel podcast, Majlis, to look at the clear front-runner in this weekend's election, what he has done in his brief time as acting president, and discuss the problems he faces in getting the country moving forward after the vote.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Bakhtiyor Nishanov, regional deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute, participated from Washington. From Prague, Alisher Sidik, the director of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, joined the conversation. And also from Prague, though from a different studio, I tossed in a few comments.

Shavkat Mirziyaev has been Uzbekistan’s prime minister since 2003. But since September, he has also been interim president, due to what Nishanov described as an “unconstitutional” process that circumvented a constitutional stipulation that should have seen the Senate speaker take over as acting president until an election was held.

Sidik said the December 4 poll is “not about an election, it’s just an approval for current acting President and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev.”

Mirziyaev’s election as president seems a foregone conclusion, and in that sense the vote mirrors earlier elections won by the late Karimov.

Nishanov noted a small change in the way this latest campaign was conducted. “In the past it was very Soviet-style, 'Go do your duty as a citizen,'” he said, whereas, “This one was a little bit more light-hearted; there were pop artists that would appeal to younger folks.”

Turnout will be important, because Uzbekistan’s second-ever president needs a clear demonstration of his popularity, the enthusiasm of Uzbekistan’s people casting ballots for him.

Mirziyaev is running against three little-known opponents, though two of his rivals in the election -- Khotamjon Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party and Nariman Umarov of the Adolat Party -- ran against Karimov in the March 2015 presidential election.

There were numerous accusations of vote rigging in previous elections in Uzbekistan, but those alleged activities were presumably to enhance Karimov’s portion of the vote.

Sidik suggested that, this time, election officials might also have to manipulate the vote count but that, ironically, that might be because Mirziyaev “will get 99 percent; and because they [presumably] don’t want to show that he’s a dictator from the very beginning, they would need to lower his percentage.”

The portion of the vote that Mirziyaev receives might be the only interesting part of the election. A count that shows he received more than 90 percent of the votes could be interpreted as showing he is not confident in his new position and needs a high publicized vote count that speaks to his popularity.

A vote count under 90 or even 80 percent could show Mirziyaev is firmly in power and also would send a message that he and his administration are willing at least to pay lip service to concerns -- expressed mostly in the West -- about Uzbekistan’s commitment to possible democratic reforms.

After the election, Mirziyaev faces some formidable challenges in moving Uzbekistan forward.

“The Uzbek government has got an enormous...problem on their hands, and that’s the economic situation in the country,” Nishanov said.

Sidik noted one of Mirziyaev’s campaign promises has been plans "to attract a lot of investment.”

Where this investment might come from is a big question. China has invested large amounts of money into Uzbekistan, but nearly all it has gone toward projects that bring Central Asian resources to China.

Russia has already signaled it is prepared to invest more money into Uzbekistan. At the end of November, LUKoil proposed building a chain of gasoline stations across Uzbekistan. In the few months that Mirziyaev has been in charge, Russia is virtually the only party that has shown interest in investing in Uzbekistan.

But the Uzbek government has always been wary of getting too close to Russia, and since Mirziyaev assumed power, statements from Uzbekistan have emphasized the country is not interested in joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

At the same time, Uzbekistan officially has some 1.5 million migrant laborers working in Russia; the actual number could be nearly twice that.

But remittances from Uzbek workers in Russia have fallen drastically, and that has hurt Uzbekistan’s economy. Russia’s central bank reported remittances to Uzbekistan in 2013 of some $6.63 billion; the figure for the first half of 2016 totaled just $952 million.

Eurasian Economic Union member Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, saw its number of migrant laborers increase in 2016 along with the figure for remittances.

Another ostensible postelection plan is to allow the Uzbek national currency, the som, to float. But it was noted that Kazakhstan took that step that in late 2015 and it led to some of the worst social unrest that country had seen since the late 1990s.

Concerning domestic policies on matters like freedom of speech or political pluralism, our Majlis participants voiced doubts about any positive changes.

On freedom of the press, Sidik said: “Mirziyaev never expressed his opinions on this.... He never gave a single interview... never answered journalists’ questions, and I don’t know whether he plans any press conferences.”

It was also noted that Uzbekistan has recently released some political prisoners, which could be taken as a hopeful sign.

Nishanov welcomed these moves but said this was similar to what has been seen previously. “One of the tactics that Karimov had employed was, ‘'We’re going to release somebody [prisoners] and make us look good,’” Nishanov said.

There appeared to be seemingly little hope of change with Mirziyaev as president. But Mirizyaev has hinted that his administration might court better regional ties, and the dire economic situation in Uzbekistan could force his government to make some changes.

There is hope that, as a means to gaining some genuine popularity, Mirziyaev might offer gestures that actually benefit the public, as was true in the first year that Turkmenistan’s second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, was in power.

So Mirziyayev will not be a second Karimov; he cannot be. What he might be is further discussed in the Majlis podcast, along with a deeper look at the issues mentioned in this text.

An audio recording of the discussion can be heard at:

Majlis Podcast: What's Next In Uzbekistan?
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The exact route through Afghanistan is still under discussion, and with good reason. The planned route of the railway line goes through parts of Afghanistan where fighting has been increasing in recent years.

The proposed railway line from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan, via Afghanistan, marked a milestone on November 28 when the first station on the Afghan side of the Turkmen border opened.

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attended the ceremony at the Aqina railway station and watched as the first train reached the station after a 3.5-kilometer journey from the border.

Ghani called it a "historic day for Afghanistan and its people," and Berdymukhammedov said the Imamnazar-Aqina railroad "could play a key role in trade between the two countries."

Possibly, but it's likely to be some time before trade really picks up along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway line.

The opening of the station at Aqina is a small step in what promises to be the very difficult task of constructing the railway line to Tajikistan. Turkmenistan completed the 85-kilometer section of the railway on its territory in November 2015, so it has already taken almost a year to advance the line less than 4 kilometers into Afghanistan (track work was completed in late October 2016).

The exact route through Afghanistan is still under discussion, and with good reason.

The planned route of the railway line goes through parts of Afghanistan where fighting has been increasing in recent years. From Aqina, the TAT railway is to go some 30 kilometers south to Andkhoy before turning east toward Sheberghan, Mazar-e Sharif, Kholm, and Kunduz, then entering Tajikistan at the Shir Khan Bandar border post.

Aqina and Andkhoy are located in Afghanistan's Faryab Province, whose capital, Maymana, has been in danger of falling to insurgents at least twice this year. Parts of the highway from Sheberghan to Mazar-e Sharif have fallen under Taliban control several times this year, requiring the Afghan government to launch security operations to clear the highway. And the last stretch takes the railway line through Kunduz Province, including Kunduz City, which the Taliban and their foreign militant allies have seized twice since late September 2015.

The TAT line is billed as being part of a greater Asian transportation network. The ceremony in Aqina came right after Turkmenistan hosted a UN Global Sustainable Transport Conference.

But TAT was originally conceived as a way of connecting Turkmenistan to Tajikistan without having to cross Uzbekistan. A champion of the project was Iran, since Tehran has been experiencing problems shipping goods to Tajikistan via Uzbekistan. Iranian authorities hoped to ship cargo by rail to and from Turkmenistan along the new railway to Tajikistan. So the project's foundation came not as part of regional cooperation but rather as a way to avoid Uzbekistan's involvement in a transit route to Tajikistan.

And it is still not clear where all the funding will come from to construct the remaining section of the railway line. The Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank have promised to help fund the estimated $2 billion project.

Turkmenistan paid for and built the section on its territory. Tajikistan has already said it cannot afford to build the approximately 50-kilometer section on its territory and Afghanistan of course will need financial assistance for TAT construction on its territory.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan Singled Out Over Enforced Disappearances
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