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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev arrives at a rally in Tashkent earlier this month.

After 25 years, Uzbekistan has elected its second president. Former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev won the December 4 election easily, as expected, receiving nearly 90 percent of the vote.

Mirziyaev’s December 14 inauguration officially marked the start of a new era for Uzbekistan, one without late President Islam Karimov, who died in office at the start of September after leading Uzbekistan for all its years as an independent country.

There are all sorts of predictions, and renewed hopes, for Uzbekistan’s future now that there is a new leader.

What should Mirziyaev change? What must he change to keep the country together or to move it forward? What changes has he already initiated and why?

These are some of the topics that were addressed in the latest Majlis podcast (listen below). But this one differed a bit. This Majlis podcast was an in-house talk for RFE/RL colleagues at our Prague headquarters.

Moderating the talk was Tom Kent, RFE/RL’s president and formerly a longtime journalist at the Associated Press, including time as its Moscow bureau chief. Alisher Sidik, the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, was also on the panel, as was Noah Tucker, who now works for RFE/RL but has been well-known for years for his work on Central Asia, including heading the Registan website. I also sat in on the panel and spoke about the promising changes to Uzbekistan’s regional foreign policy since Mirziyaev took over.

Sidik provided a brief history of the means by which Mirziyaev became acting president, which included circumventing the constitution. He also talked about some of the moves Mirziyaev made in his three months as interim president: "Businesses were relieved of adverse pressure and bribe extortion [and] the law on protection of businesses was immediately approved."

And Sidik said that Mirziyaev appeared to be reaching out to the people: "[Mirziyaev] improved accountability by establishing a virtual hotline -- people can address their problems directly to the prime minister and hope that the problems [are] resolved."

One of Uzbekistan’s biggest problems is its economy. Reported figures, often backed by international financial organizations, paint a picture of a thriving economy. For 2016, the IMF predicts 6 percent GDP growth, while the Asian Development Bank forecasts 6.9 percent growth, and the Uzbek government says 7.8 percent.

Testimony from the ground suggests something different.

There are shortages of gasoline, despite the fact that Uzbekistan has oil and refineries. There are still power outages, and every winter dozens of villages, towns, and even parts of cities are suddenly cut off from natural-gas supplies. The black market rate for the U.S. dollar is more than twice the official rate.

Uzbekistan’s population is approaching 32 million, according to state statisticians. At least 2 million people from the eligible workforce -- possibly twice that number -- are migrant laborers, working mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan.

"Tashkent," Tucker recalled, "was once the location of most of the big international organizations [and] media organizations. Everything really happened in Tashkent, and it had enormous international investment from participation in the national economy throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s."

That has largely dried up, mainly due to the policies of Karimov’s government and voracious elites.

"International investors dropped away, as more of them were expropriated of the investments that they made, as people were cut out of the country and it became increasingly unattractive for them to try to participate," Tucker said.

Uzbekistan became semi-isolationist. The country obstructed cargo transiting its territory en route to neighboring Central Asian states. It chose a few mainly East Asian countries as its trade partners and sources of investment.

Tucker suggested that the wealth that accumulated inside Uzbekistan during the 1990s and early 2000s has dwindled, and he argued that this will force Mirziyaev’s government to change Uzbekistan’s economic and trade policies.

"The elites that are in power have divided up everything that they can. They’ve cut out as many of their competitors as they can," Tucker said. "It’s no longer in their interests to live in an economy, in a political economy, that’s as closed as this one has become."

Uzbekistan’s government has already stated it will move toward currency convertibility in 2017. The panel suggested that that will be a challenging process, particularly since powerful people are allegedly involved in the black-market currency exchanges.

The Majlis podcast also considered the possibilities for Russia. Moscow and Tashkent had tense relations for most of the Karimov years. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended Karimov’s September 3 funeral in Samarkand. Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived a few days later on his way from a G20 summit in China. Mirziyaev said before his inauguration that his first foreign visit as Uzbekistan’s president will be to Russia.

Sidik mentioned that Russia’s LUKoil boosted its ties with Uzbekistan once Mirziyaev took over. So has Gazprom. Sidik said Mirziyaev has close contacts with Russia, and Uzbekistan’s population tends to view Russia positively.

Responding to a question about possible Russian interference in Uzbekistan’s succession process, Tucker said that appeared unlikely, but he added that the Kremlin seemed to want people to believe it had a hand in making Mirziyaev Uzbekistan’s second president.

A recurrent topic in the discussion was whether these early fair words and a few fair deeds denote a genuine change in policy.

Mirziyaev has released two aging political prisoners, but there is no indication that any of the thousands of other people seemingly imprisoned on dubious charges will be set free. In a bid to boost tourism, the government released a list of 27 countries whose tourists could travel to Uzbekistan without a visa.

But as Sidik pointed out, Mirziyaev has given no signals about his policies toward the independent media or the return of foreign NGOs to Uzbekistan, for example.

And domestic politics has not changed much under Mirziyaev so far. The use of forced labor in the cotton fields at harvest time continued again this season. There are still reports of security forces raiding flats, looking for Islamic extremists or sympathizers.

It took Islam Karimov 25 years to construct Uzbekistan’s current system, and Mirziyaev is a product of that system. Changing it will not be easy.

These issues and more were discussed during the podcast, and the panel took questions from an audience that included members of RFE/RL's other Central Asian services, as well from our Afghan and Iranian broadcasters.

Majlis Podcast: A Look At Uzbekistan Under New Leadership
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Listen to or download the latest Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis podcast on iTunes.

Nick Megoran: "When I first went there 20 years ago, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were more theoretical realties...." One look at an Uzbek border crossing in the Ferghana Valley shows how this has changed.

The Central Asian states marked 25 years of independence this year. Kazakhstan was the last of the five countries to celebrate its 25th anniversary as an independent country on December 16.

There have been some good articles already published looking at a quarter-century of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Majlis, RFE/RL's weekly podcast about Central Asia, wanted to do its part to mark the anniversary also, and to mark it in a unique way.

So, with RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir moderating, the Majlis brought in two of the legends of Central Asian studies: Gregory Gleason, currently at the Germany-based Marshall Center for Security Studies, and Nick Megoran, professor at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

Gleason and Megoran, besides contributing a voluminous amount of material on Central Asia, have been watching the region since the first days of independence. They remember what was happening in the early years of independence, they were there, and they continue to follow events in the region.

On a personal note, I will add that Gleason and Megoran were among the first Western scholars writing about Central Asia in the era of independence. I knew their names in the early 1990s, and I benefited greatly from their articles.

So they were exactly the guests the Majlis needed to provide some insight about where Central Asia is today and how it got to this point.

I have a few decades of experience with Central Asia myself, so I was happy to take a place around the campfire, reminisce, and talk about some of the things that shaped the course of a region.

The topic -- Central Asia's 25 years of independence -- is a thick subject. This is a longer Majlis than usual and therefore we decided to break it up into two parts.

The guests explain how they came to be involved in Central Asian studies, and recall the situation in the early days. For example, Megoran lived in the Uzbek section of the Ferghana Valley in the mid-1990s. Commenting on the border situation, Megoran says, "When I first went there 20 years ago, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were more theoretical than realities...."

That border is very different today, a sign of the disintegration of Central Asia that has characterized the region for most of the last quarter-century. The panel notes that Uzbekistan played a large role in preventing regional unity and looks at how that affected the evolution of Central Asia.

The first contacts with the West are also discussed. Megoran recalls that "NATO had formed some partnership agreements, so I would occasionally meet NATO soldiers in Ferghana."

These soldiers were visiting Central Asia as part of NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Turkmenistan was the first country to join the program in May 1994 and Tajikistan the last in 2002.

And Gleason explains the West's understanding of Central Asia in those early years was "a kind of unjustified...unchallenged assumption that the countries were in what was called 'transition.'" This misperception would often lead to complications in relations.

The Central Asian states generally welcomed ties with the West in those early days. Relations with Washington and European countries provided a counterweight to the former colonial master, Moscow.

But as Gleason points out, not long after Central Asia's independence, Moscow would make clear that Central Asia would never stray too far from Russia's orbit. "In explicit form in 1993, [Russia's very first Foreign Minister] Andrei Kozyrev talked about the border of the Soviet Union being the limit of Russia's sphere of influence."

That, and much more are in the first part of the Majlis.

Part 2 of the Majlis looks at the systems of government that developed in Central Asia and explores some of the possible reasons for these evolutions.

The panel delves deeper into the relations between the West and Central Asia, particularly in the post-9/11 era and obviously with special attention to the United States' role, the souring of those ties in recent years, and what the West's expectations for ties with Central Asia look like in the future.

And the Majlis also looks at the arrival of China, and Russia's reinvigorated efforts to assert influence in the region through Russian-dominated organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union.

We couldn't get everything in, but much ground was covered, and the opinions being expressed represent about 100 years, combined, of experience with Central Asia. Here is the full audio recording of the discussion, in two parts:

Majlis Podcast: Central Asia's Last 25 Years, Part 1
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Majlis Podcast: Central Asia's Last 25 Years, Part 2
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

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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. Content will draw 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.