TASHKENT -- “He’s been in power for a while, so he is not so hungry [for money] anymore. A new person would be hungry and start stealing.”
That's how Islam Kayupov, a 58-year-old plumber in the Uzbek capital, explained why he put an "X" on the ballot next to the name of President Shavkat Mirziyoev during the October 24 election that the incumbent won handily.
Kayupov was citing an old adage heard throughout Central Asia, where the region's autocrats usually stay in office for term after term or amend their country's constitution to extend their hold on power.
“I couldn't vote for any of the others. This one’s doing alright so far,” Kayupov told RFE/RL over a steaming cup of green tea and a hot samsa meat pie.
Lack Of Real Choice
No one in Uzbekistan or abroad doubted that Mirziyoev would win the managed election, in which no genuine opposition candidates were allowed to run.
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the 64-year-old former prime minister hours before the preliminary results -- which gave Mirziyoev 80 percent of the vote and an easy victory -- were announced on October 25.
His four rivals, including a woman, who finished second, were largely seen as nominal figures fielded to create the illusion of choice.
Even though Mirzoyoev is credited with bringing in sweeping economic reforms that have improved the living standards of many, observers say his attempt at a political thaw during his first term was too cautious to dismantle the autocratic model of government created by his predecessor, Islam Karimov.
Karimov's iron-fisted rule began before the 1991 Soviet collapse and ended only with his death in 2016.
“Uzbekistan has never had free, democratic elections," Nadejda Atayeva, the France-based head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, told RFE/RL. “Understandably, the majority would vote for Mirziyoev, and this vote is not a choice. It’s the [result of the] propagandistic influence of the current government and oligarchs.”
“The presidential elections were not as inclusive as one would have hoped for so many years after Karimov's death,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog, told RFE/RL.
With the result in the bag, voter turnout seemed to be the government’s biggest concern.
Uzbeks were constantly reminded about the election, with the government declaring that almost 81 percent of eligible voters came to the polls.
But many Uzbeks were adamant that their vote didn’t matter -- and some noted they had far more important matters to take care of.
“Who should I vote for if the [state-run] kindergarten refuses to accept my [6-year-old] son?” Abduvali, a construction worker in northern Tashkent, told RFE/RL. His mother had taken care of his two children before she died of COVID-19 in July. “The [kindergarten’s] director wants $100 [in order to accept them].”
Kayupov said election officials visited his apartment seven times and stuffed endless pamphlets in his mailbox in order to prod him to vote. He insisted, however, that he needed no reminders or phony tributes on state television to convince him.
Born in Uzbekistan's Silk Road city of Samarkand, Kayupov fumed about Karimov's more than a quarter of a century in power.
Karimov, also born in Samarkand, neglected the city during his rule. Brownouts occurred constantly and some apartment buildings didn't have running water until recent years.
After coming to power in 1991, Karimov turned Uzbekistan into one of the world’s most authoritarian countries, with ruthless repression of the opposition, complete control of the media, and hefty allegations of state corruption among the first family.
“They stole so much,” Kayupov said about Karimov and his two notorious daughters.
One of them, Gulnara Karimova, was sentenced in 2020 to more than 13 years in jail for corruption and financial crimes.
“It is so right that Gulnara is in jail now,” Kayupov said.
Compared to Karimov, Kayupov called Mirziyoev a "people’s president."
Kayupov claims he has witnessed many improvements -- fixed roads, a children's playground built next to his apartment, a reduced official bureaucracy -- since Mirziyoev came to power five years ago.
And Uzbekistan’s economy joined the 21st century as countless ATMs sprung up throughout the country of some 36 million, Central Asia's most populous.
Hard currency has become more plentiful at banks in recent years and unlimited access to the Internet no longer costs a small fortune. Businesses have also been largely liberated from endless inspections and chaotic, contradictory regulations.
“Seventy percent of the problems for businesses are gone,” Abdumumin, who sells electronics at a brand new shopping mall in southern Tashkent, told RFE/RL, asking that his family name be withheld because of the “remaining 30 percent."
Though Kayupov voted for Mirziyoev while professing a certain approval of his job as president, after several cups of tea and conversation he confessed that he wants to leave Uzbekistan.
A qualified plumber can make it anywhere in Russia, he said, and his sister already owns a small business in Moscow.
“If I leave, I am not ever coming back,” he said, admitting he would surely miss his three children and six grandchildren. “No matter how you try here, you can never earn enough.”
Kayupov would join the millions of Uzbek labor migrants who have flocked to Russia, neighboring oil-rich Kazakhstan, Turkey, South Korea, or even Europe seeking work because of the still-high rate of unemployment and low salaries in their home country.
Their exodus embodies the chronic problems Mirziyoev inherited from Karimov that went unfixed since the Soviet era.
Tens of thousands of kilometers of irrigation canals need repairs as water shortages and poor irrigation practices bred desertification and have decimated farmers' harvests.
Meanwhile, young people are pushed out of the overpopulated countryside into cities where there are no jobs, and Chinese exports undermine local production.
There are still chronic energy and heat shortages throughout the country, with predictions for worse conditions during the coming winter.
Mirziyoev abolished the draconian registration rules that prevented villagers from moving to cities, but police officers in Tashkent are still seen herding provincial youth into vans to search them under the pretext of identifying drug mules who deliver synthetic marijuana known as "spice."
The government is also limiting raw cotton and natural-gas exports to boost domestic textile and chemical industries -- but high birthrates make jobs scarce.
Mirziyoev’s critics say his economic actions have not been trailblazing enough.
“He made some moves, liberalized the economy somehow, but didn't conduct the deep, most necessary reforms,” Nigara Khidouytova, who was forced out of Uzbekistan after forming the Free Farmers opposition party in the early 2000s, told RFE/RL.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Dale agreed.
“Uzbekistan's reforms [under Mirziyoev] have been welcome, but far too slow-moving and not thorough enough,” he said.
Welcome, perhaps, but not good enough to make Kayupov want to stay in the country.