Accessibility links

Breaking News

Uzbekistan 'Opening Up To The World,' But Politically Shuttered

President Shavkat Mirziyoev now seems able to remain in charge until at least 2037.
President Shavkat Mirziyoev now seems able to remain in charge until at least 2037.

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan -- May has been a month for messages in Uzbekistan.

On the one hand, President Shavkat Mirziyoev's announcement of a snap presidential election and his participation in the vote alongside three friendly candidates confirmed the status of Central Asia's most populous country as a closed shop in the political sense.

On the other hand, the return of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's (EBRD) annual meeting after a two-decade absence showcased an investment and credit-hungry government keen to expand its global economic ties -- which wasn't always the case under Mirziyoev's predecessor, the late Islam Karimov.

The July 9 date for the presidential election was announced just a week after the country passed constitutional changes that included extending the presidential term from five to seven years.

Moreover, the very fact of passing the new constitution has allowed 65-year-old Mirziyoev to reset his term count under a new constitution, bypassing the basic law’s enduring -- but seemingly meaningless -- limit on consecutive terms, a sleight of hand Karimov used to clock up a quarter century in power.

That means the 65-year-old Mirziyoev can rule at least until 2037, by which time he would have clocked up nearly 21 years in office and be even older than Karimov was when he died.

But for many foreign businesses eying a market of 35 million people where opportunities have expanded greatly in recent years, the fact the vote is a fait accompli will not be a major concern, argues Alex Melikishvili, principal research analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

In fact, a win for Mirziyoev "safeguards political stability and policy continuity in Uzbekistan, which is what foreign investors typically look at when weighing market entry," he told RFE/RL.

People visit Samarkand's Registan Square at sunrise.
People visit Samarkand's Registan Square at sunrise.

Meetings With History

The city of Samarkand, where the EBRD's three-day annual meeting began on May 16, was once a powerful hub along the historic Silk Road trade route linking East and West, and is now the center of an Uzbek tourism industry that has been thrown wide open by Mirziyoev's reforms.

But it is also the birthplace of Karimov, whose statue in the historical district is a short walk from the grandeur of the Registan Square's trio of bedazzling, intricately patterned madrasahs.

Cast in a benevolent, statesman-like pose, the strongman renowned for his brutality has become a cherished photo opportunity for couples and families from all over Uzbekistan, his pate an occasional stopping point for birds.

Next to the Hazrat Khizr Mosque -- another example of Samarkand's rich Islamic civilization -- is the domed mausoleum where Karimov was laid to rest, still drawing large crowds more than six years after his death.

Samarkand's Karimov monument
Samarkand's Karimov monument

The last time Uzbekistan hosted an EBRD annual summit -- in the capital, Tashkent, in 2003 -- it was a fiasco.

The Human Rights Watch account from the time described how then-EBRD President Jean Lemierre and British Development Minister Clare Short used keynote speeches to call for improvements in Tashkent's dismal human rights record, particularly on torture.

Karimov, who had reportedly resisted pressure to use his own speech to condemn torture, "removed his headphones and demonstratively covered his ears" during the speeches, HRW wrote.

After that, the bank gradually wound down its projects in the country, as Uzbekistan began a long journey into isolation that grew deeper following a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests in Andijon in 2005.

As the statue, mausoleum, and the name of Uzbekistan's main airport in Tashkent all testify, Mirziyoev has honored Karimov's legacy. But he has also looked to create distance from his rule by championing what he calls the New Uzbekistan -- a country where economic reforms have taken precedence over the political type.

Addressing the EBRD's board of governors in a May 17 speech, Mirziyoev referenced the 2003 meeting directly, though he did not mention Karimov.

"In this context, I would like to emphasize one point: Today's Uzbekistan is not yesterday's Uzbekistan. The fundamental reforms that we began six years ago have completely changed the image of our country.... [We] welcome you, dear friends, in a completely new environment of the New Uzbekistan, which is opening up to the world and is committed to cooperation in all areas," he said, according to the presidential website.

Debt Accrual

Uzbekistan is certainly open to the EBRD again.

The bank spent $900 million on projects in 2022 alone, a record disbursement for Central Asia.

Of the $4 billion the bank has invested since the country gained independence, $3 billion has come during Mirziyoev's six years in office, targeting a bare-bones but largely debt-free economy left behind by Karimov.


Melikishvili, the S&P analyst, said the rapid foreign-debt accrual from the EBRD and other creditors under Mirziyoev's rule was mitigated by "healthy and robust levels of foreign currency and gold reserves" and "should not be a matter of concern given [Mirziyoev's] ambitious plans for the development of Uzbekistan's economy."

"However, obviously much will depend on the successful implementation of the said plans," he added.

As to Mirziyoev's claims of a wholly changed Uzbekistan, observers with a critical eye offer a more nuanced picture.

While his arrival in power precipitated the end of systematic forced labor in the national cotton harvest, the release of political prisoners and the easing of draconian restrictions on freedom of speech, civil activists complain that those gains have been rolled back in the last three or so years.

A lethal crackdown last year on protests in the environmentally devastated autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, meanwhile, has left many questioning the gap between presidents current and former.

"After they allowed space for some criticism, bloggers, journalists, and activists used these opportunities to raise problems, like corruption and other issues," explained Gulnoz Mamarasulova, a Sweden-based Uzbek rights activist, who attended the conference. "This perhaps caused some real concerns for officials, and now we are seeing new challenges in the enabling environment."

Some of those challenges were even on display at the meeting in Samarkand, as seemingly exasperated EBRD staff were more than once called upon to moderate their co-hosts' sometimes officious policing of the event.

On one of these occasions, a security staffer physically prevented a journalist from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from filming Sardor Umurzakov -- Mirziyoev's powerful chief of staff and a former EBRD staffer -- as the official passed through the venue's lavish conference hall.

On another, security guards briefly appeared set to prevent an activist registered at the event from entering it on account of his rainbow-colored bag -- an apparent affront to a government that has retained its Soviet-style ban on homosexuality.

The activist, Nezir Sinani, was subsequently able to enter.

Compared to the 2003 event, when HRW counted more than 60 Uzbek NGOs in attendance, there were few independent organizations from Uzbekistan this time round -- a fact that activists attributed to systemic barriers to registration that emerged in the second half of Karimov’s reign.

'The Repression Is Coming'

Among the businesses that were present at the 2023 EBRD event, there seemed to be little appetite for turning back the clock.

The venue was the upscale Silk Road Samarkand development, opened last year and boasting an eternal city with replicas of Uzbekistan's most famous heritage sites, as well as five-star hotels and glittering conference facilities.

One of the companies represented at the event was the Saudi Arabia-headquartered ACWA Power, whose CEO, Marco Arcelli, told RFE/RL by e-mail that the Uzbek market "holds immense importance" for his company.

ACWA Power's "transformative portfolio of energy projects," including key projects in Uzbekistan's fast-growing renewables sector, now represents a total investment of $7.5 billion, according to Arcelli.

"In fact, Uzbekistan is currently one of the fastest-growing portfolios and our second-largest market in terms of investment, after our home base of Saudi Arabia," he said.

"Gas development, or trying to," a smiling North American businessman said when asked why he came to the conference. He said he had been coming to Uzbekistan for "the last few years now."

"They are still learning, and we are trying to help them in terms of learning about how contracts tend to be structured in the industry. But the opportunities are definitely there," the businessman said, also requesting anonymity.

At a table nearby, a representative of one of Uzbekistan's top commercial banks, Asia Alliance Bank, expressed excitement about his forthcoming trip to Prague for a conference on green finance. "This is very much a new direction for us," he told RFE/RL.

Immediately after his address to the EBRD, Mirziyoev was bound for Xian, China, and the May 18-19 China-Central Asia summit, the first-ever, in-person meeting between Beijing and the region's five countries after the 5+1 debuted in an online format last year.

That follows a trip to Germany at the beginning of this month and prefaces a visit to Italy slated for June.

He need not worry too much about missing days on the campaign trail.

On July 9, the incumbent will face three vetted opponents that have no track record of opposition to the government and have instead served in positions as his subordinate, including, in one case, as education minister.

Mirziyoev's own nomination came from the same party that used to nominate Karimov back in his day, the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, a jarring indicator of continuity rather than change.

Top officials, for their part, continue to talk up a desire for further progress, with Mirziyoev's deputy chief of staff, Komil Allamjonov, giving Uzbekistan's freedom of speech a "5.5 out of 10" rating in comments earlier this week, acknowledging there is "still much to be done."

Uzbekistan this month fell to 137th place out of 180 countries in the annual press-freedom rankings published by Reporters Without Borders, four places below its standing last year.

But Dilmurad Yusupov, a Tashkent-based activist for disability rights and one of several civic voices to emerge in the early years of the Mirziyoev opening, says that Uzbeks do not need to look at rankings to get a sense of receding freedoms.

"You can see it with your own eyes. People are self-censoring because they are afraid," he told RFE/RL. "In 2017 you could feel the freedom in the air. But now it feels like the repression is coming."

NOTE: This article was updated to include an on-the-record comment from ACWA Power.

  • 16x9 Image

    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.