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Qishloq Ovozi

How much has Shavkat Mirzyaev changed Uzbekistan?

It's been six months since Uzbek President Islam Karimov died and Shavkat Mirziyaev took over leadership of Uzbekistan.

Mirziyaev has made a lot or promises and raised hopes the country would start to implement some reforms and become a more active player in Central Asian affairs.

Six months is not a long time to change a system that Karimov spent 25 years creating but there have been some alterations since September, as well as some indications about facets of Karimov's policies that seem likely to be preserved in the Mirziyaev government.

One encouraging early sign is that Mirziyaev does not seem, so far, to want to be the sole focus of state media as Karimov did. State television for example, has for years shown sessions of government or parliament but the only voice people in Uzbekistan heard was that of Karimov. Newscasters usually summarized what ministers, members of parliament, or other officials said.

Since Mirziayev took over, broadcasts include officials speaking. It's a small thing but it could be interpreted as meaning Mirziyaev is not obsessed with being the one and only voice of government, as Karimov was, or as has been true in neighboring Turkmenistan, where only the presidents speak on television and radio.

The media itself is enjoying a very slight new ability to report critically on some issues. Self-censorship became the norm under Karimov but as Eurasianet noted in a recent article, at least one newspaper has been able to write about financial and trade matters in a way that would have been unthinkable under Karimov.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, confirms that some reporting since Mirziyaev assumed power has pushed ever so slightly against the previously established boundaries of journalism in Uzbekistan.

That certainly does not extend to criticism of the government or Mirziyaev himself. One example of an area that remains off-limits to the media is criticism of Mirziyaev's appointments to state posts, which have already included some people with controversial backgrounds.

The new Uzbek president also did away with snap audits of businesses by the financial police. Such inspections were often used to extort money from businessmen, seriously poisoning the entrepreneurial spirit in the country. Businessmen in Uzbekistan have told Ozodlik the change has been beneficial, inspiring new confidence and ambition.

Freeing Political Prisoners

Probably the most hopeful signs coming from the Mirziyaev administration have to do with political prisoners, though the Uzbek government still does not admit there is anyone fitting that description in Uzbekistan.

At the start of March there was news about the release of Jamshid Karimov from a psychiatric hospital. Karimov, who is a nephew of the late president, once wrote for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and was a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He was first put in a psychiatric hospital in 2006 and had rarely been out since.

Others have been released from prison. Muhammad Bekjon, who Human Rights Watch said was one of the longest imprisoned journalists in the world, was freed on February 22. Bekjon, now 62 years old, had been imprisoned since 1999.

Rights activist Bobomurad Razzaqov, 63, who was convicted of human trafficking in 2013, was released in October; Samandar Kukanov, 72, a former member of parliament who criticized the government, was freed in November after more than 23 years in prison; and political activist Rustam Usmonov, 69, the founder of Uzbekistan's first private bank, was let of out of prison in February after being convicted of illegal hard-currency transactions and imprisoned in 1998.

While welcoming these releases, and pointing out that none of these men should ever have been confined to begin with, international rights organizations have called upon Mirziyaev to release hundreds, possibly thousands of others who remain wrongfully imprisoned in Uzbekistan.

Others have noted that the four men released from prison were elderly and some had simply served their sentences.

On March 1, a court upheld a five-year sentence against Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan member Agzam Farmonov. Farmonov, 39, was convicted of extortion in 2006 and on the eve of his release in 2015 the sentence was extended by the five years Farmonov was just seeking to have annulled.

And while Jamshid Karimov might have been released from a psychiatric hospital, on March 2 there was news that rights activist Elena Urlaeva had been forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Opening Up To The World?

Mirziyaev also promised, right after being elected president in early December, to waive, or ease visa requirements for citizens of 27 countries as of April 1, 2017, but on January 9 he announced that would be postponed until 2021.

He said at the end of November that the government would loosen its tight control over the rate of the national currency, the som, and work toward currency convertibility, but nothing has been said about this since then.

Mirziyaev's policy toward Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors has shown great promise. He said from the beginning that better ties with those countries would be a priority.

That was extremely good news for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, all of which had at one time or another, some nearly always, been at odds with Uzbekistan since they became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991.

Any attempts at Central Asian regional cooperation during the last 25 years have been doomed from the start, largely due to ex-President Karimov. Uzbekistan's policy toward its Central Asian neighbors seemed based on Karimov's personal relationship with the other countries' leaders, and he didn't like very many of them.

Some Signs Of Progress

Under Mirziyaev, more progress has been made in demarcating Uzbekistan's borders with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in six months than had been made in the previous 15 years. Mirziyaev awarded the head of Kazakhstan's delegation to the talks, First Deputy Prime Minister Askar Manin, Uzbekistan's "Dustlik" (Friendship) order on February 8.

Progress along the Kyrgyz frontier has been even more dramatic, with scores of previously disputed areas having been agreed upon recently. However, while it is clear pen is being put to paper on these agreements, it is less clear what that actually means along the border.

Uzbek-Tajik ties have also improved significantly since Mirziyaev came to power. Delegations from the two countries have been going back and forth and there has been talk of restoring severed communications links -- roads, railway, and air.

Attempts at resuming the latter, however, showed Uzbekistan is not willing to go too far, too quickly.

The two governments agreed to resume flights between their capitals -- Tashkent and Dushanbe -- that had been suspended since 1992. A test run was made without incident in early February but the official first flight on February 22 was suddenly canceled.

Uzbekistan claimed Tajikistan's Somoni Airlines had not filed all the necessary documents 30 days prior to the flight. The head of Somoni Airlines, Alisher Rustamov, was quickly fired but a second planned flight a few days later also did not happen. Uzbekistan announced at the end of February the flights would start in April, but Uzbekistan's national airline, Uzbekistan Havo Yollari, would run the flights, not Somoni Airlines.

Things are changing since Mirziyaev took over, without a doubt. Turkmenistan under current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov looks a lot like Turkmenistan under first President Saparmurat Niyazov. But Uzbekistan under Mirziyaev already looks different than Uzbekistan under Karimov.

Alisher Sidikov and Sirojiddin Tolibov of Ozodlik contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
There's been bad blood between Omurbek Tekebaev (above) and his former political ally, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev, for months now.

The detention on arrival in Bishkek of Omurbek Tekebaev, a veteran politician and leader of the Ata-Meken party, immediately set off political friction in Kyrgyzstan.

Modest protests started the same day and continued on February 27, when a court ordered Tekebaev held for two months while he is investigated on charges of fraud and corruption. The demonstrations continue.

There's been bad blood between Tekebaev and his former political ally, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev, for months now, and something like this was almost bound to happen.

Tekebaev, who was in politics before Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union, is no stranger to controversy. His Ata-Meken party was the second political party to be registered in the newly sovereign republic in late 1991. (Erkin Kyrgyzstan was the first.) Over the past 25 years, Tekebaev has variously been an ally or an opponent of many of Kyrgyzstan's most senior political figures.

He has been a speaker of parliament, a presidential candidate, and an outspoken critic of Kyrgyz presidents. (Once, as speaker of parliament, he called then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev a "disgrace" and invited him to take advantage of the first available tree to hang himself.)

Tekebaev is from the Akmak Bazar-Korgon district in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Jalal-Abat Province, where some of his supporters attempted to block the main highway between Osh and Bishkek on February 27, to protest Tekebaev’s detention.

Tekebaev was a high-school teacher in the village of Akman in the 1980s when he launched his political career by becoming a local activist. In 1990, he became a people’s deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, and in 1991 he became a member of the Supreme Soviet Council and sat on the Committee for Judicial Affairs.

Tekebaev was elected to parliament in 1995 and later that year attempted to run for president, only to have his registration rejected.

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He was reelected to parliament in 2000 and became deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament. He successfully registered as a presidential candidate later that year and placed second to incumbent Askar Akaev.

He was reelected to parliament in 2005 and named speaker four days after unrest chased Akaev into exile, and shortly thereafter proposed transforming the country’s political system to a parliamentary form of government.

By early 2006, Tekebaev had become an opponent of Akaev's successor. Less than a year into his presidential term, Bakiev refused to attend a February 2006 session of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council while Tekebaev was present, forcing the latter to leave the room.

Tekebaev quickly resigned, but even that proved contentious as parliament refused to accept the resignation. Tekebaev left the post by the end of February 2006 but remained in parliament and became one of Bakiev’s leading opponents.

In September 2006 came the so-called matryoshka affair. Customs agents in Warsaw, acting on a tip from Bishkek, searched a Russian nesting doll in Tekebaev's possession and found 595 grams of heroin inside. A subsequent investigation linked the president's brother and first deputy chief of the security service, Janysh Bakiev, to the incident, although he rejected suggestions that he had any part in planting heroin in Tekebaev’s luggage. Janysh Bakiev was dismissed from his position but not charged. (National Security Service chief Busurmankul Taabaldiev resigned amid the scandal.) Janysh Bakiev would later file suit against Kyrgyzstan’s parliament for suggesting he was involved in the whole business.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev

By then, Tekebaev found himself at the center of another scandal when then-Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who had defended Tekebaev during the heroin incident, cited an audio recording handed over by an "unknown person" of a purported conversation among opposition leaders -- including Tekebaev -- and NGO representatives plotting to overthrow the government.

Tekebaev acknowledged it was his voice in the recording but said it was heavily edited. He threatened to sue Kulov and the chief of the National Security Service.

After a constitutional referendum in October 2007 that approved adding 15 seats to the previously 75-seat parliament, President Bakiev called snap parliamentary elections. Tekebaev failed to win a seat, and the subsequent period until parliamentary elections in October 2010 marks the only time in independent Kyrgyzstan’s history that Tekebaev has not been in parliament.

Tekebaev continued to help lead opposition to Bakiev until the latter’s downfall in April 2010, after which Tekebaev emerged as a deputy chairman of the interim government led by Roza Otunbaeva and was named chairman of the Constitutional Council charged with rewriting Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. Tekebaev helped draft the constitution, approved in a national referendum in June 2010, which officially transformed Kyrgyzstan from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government.

Meanwhile, Tekebaev’s Ata-Meken party looked ready to win a plurality in parliamentary elections in October 2010, but Tekebaev’s perceived pro-Western posturing seems to have bothered the Kremlin. In what many regarded as an example of soft power emanating from Moscow, Russian television programs -- widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan -- aired footage that portrayed Tekebaev in an unfavorable light, and an unknown person, or persons, posted video online of Tekebaev in an intimate meeting with a woman who was not his wife.

Ata-Meken placed fifth with 18 seats in the 120-member parliament in 2010 -- last among parliamentary parties. Tekebaev was nominated to be speaker but failed to receive sufficient support.

Then, in 2015, Ata-Meken won 11 seats in parliament, again lowest among the parties that cleared the threshold for representation.

Tensions between Tekebaev and the current president, Atambaev, were noticeable in the run-up to the 2015 elections. Atambaev’s Social Democratic Party took the largest number of seats -- 38 -- an improvement over its second-place showing in 2010 behind Ata-Jurt.

Atambaev’s strong support for a referendum on constitutional amendments held in December was the last straw for Tekebaev. The Ata-Meken leader publicly criticized the idea, as did other former leaders of the interim government that took over after Bakiev was ousted in 2010.

Atambaev used his August 31 Independence Day address to attack Tekebaev and others, including ex-President Otunbaeva, who was in attendance and walked out in the middle of Atambaev’s speech.

Since then, Tekebaev and some of his supporters have publicly called for investigations into how Atambaev acquired property on which to build a residence outside Bishkek and into how Atambaev, a successful businessman before his presidential term, earned his fortune. Atambaev and some of his supporters have countered with calls for probes into Tekebaev’s business activities and the sources of his wealth.

Something had to happen, and it just did. And some in Kyrgyzstan see this as Atambaev’s revenge, with a presidential election scheduled for the autumn.

By itself, this latest episode with Tekebaev is unlikely to spark the sort of protests seen in 2005 or 2010. But it does add to a list of problems that includes unemployment, poverty, government corruption, a controversial deal with Canada's Centerra to work Kyrgyzstan’s Kumtor gold deposit, and dozens more issues that Kyrgyzstan’s political opposition has always been able to play upon to challenge the president.

Ulan Eshmatov of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.
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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