Post-Soviet Uzbekistan's political regime transformation

Adelya Zainullina,
a second year master student, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Abstract: The research paper gives an overview of the transformation processes in Uzbekistan in the post-Soviet period. The article analyses reasons and prerequisites for the democratic transition’s failure and the establishment of the authoritarian regime during the presidency of Islam Karimov, which lasted for almost 27 years. As it was revealed both structural factors and the nature of the transition contributed to consolidation of power by Islam Karimov. Finally, the research paper outlines future perspectives of Uzbekistan’s regime under the rule of the new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Key words: Uzbekistan, political regime, democratization, transformation.

Political changes occurring in the post-Soviet countries are of great interest among researchers. The Soviet Union's collapse led to creation of different political regimes, causing wide discussions on reasons and factors for their diversity and scenarios of development in the future. Additionally, traditional transitological approaches turned out to be unsuitable as their view of political transformation as the modernization and democratization of a political system were not relevant in this instance. The aim of the research is to define reasons of the transition’s failure and to outline future perspectives of Uzbekistan’s regime.

In 1991, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union Uzbekistan gained sovereignty for the first time in its history. Political transformations of Perestroika had little impact on political system and culture of Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s some political discussion clubs and national movements appeared there. However, the Birlik Popular Movement (Unity) was the only supporter of democratic and constitutional principles, which managed to build a mass movement. It formed a basis for the Erk Party (Freedom), which became the most vocal opponent of Islam Karimov, the first Uzbekistan’s President, although only for a short time. Thus, in 1991–1993 Karimov could restrict the few liberal freedoms allowed during the transition period. Moreover, politicians, who opposed Islam Karimov, subsequently emigrated in order to avoid reprisals.

Hence, after Uzbekistan declared independence, despite some democratic movements a noncompetitive regime was set up there. As the research showed, both structural factors and the nature of the transition itself are among the reasons, why Islam Karimov could consolidate his power.

The most important structural factors include a statehood experience, a degree of national consolidation, a predominating sector in the economy, political and religious traditions, living standards and a culture. So, in Uzbekistan a single Uzbek nation was not completely formed and clans still existed there. The Uzbek society was traditionally agrarian and the living standard of its population was low. The religious factor should also be taken into consideration, as Islam plays a significant role in the Uzbek society. Furthermore, it was very traditional, as evidenced by complete negation of anything new introduced into the usual way of life from outside. Therefore, structural factors hindered the establishment of a polycentric democratic regime in Uzbekistan.

However, there were certain forms of political protest in Uzbekistan, which could lead to a revolution and overturn the political heritage. For example, in 1970s members of the republic’s Writers’ Union began to discuss a wide range of the country’s problems. Subsequently, in 1980s an opposition movement appeared uniting the liberal elite of Uzbekistan and basing primarily on the population of the republic’s large cities. Large-scale demonstrations under slogans of national revival, democratization and independence of the republic were held in the country’s major cities. Therefore, there were alternative political forces with mass support in the country and this opposition movement potentially could change the transition path and establish a more democratic regime.

Nevertheless, Islam Karimov managed to remove other political activists from the scene and set up a monocentric regime by justifying his actions as necessary for stability in the region. Firstly, Islam Karimov occupied the post of the First Secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party’s Central Committee and used his position to eliminate opposition forces. Thus, in September 1991, some moderate members of the aforementioned Birlik movement could register the Erk party in exchange for cooperation with the authorities. They also had to abandon tactics of demonstrations. In December 1991, the head of the Erk party Muhammad Salih even participated as a candidate in the first presidential elections. Though, Islam Karimov was elected as the president. Karimov then started to remove other influential actors from the political scene by adopting restrictive laws and persecuting the opposition. Most notably, in January 1992, the republic’s authorities violently dispersed the student demonstration, detaining many of its participants. So, in order to avoid reprisals many opposition leaders emigrated from the country. In this way, Karimov retained the reins of power in his hands and ensured relative stability in the republic.

As a result, the transformation process had special features, as it was affected by both structural and procedural factors, being a kind of extension of each other. It is evidenced by the possibility of using force tactics by the authorities during the transition period. This could not be possible if, for instance, the previous regime envisaged more political freedoms or the Uzbek society was not traditional. In such way, a monocentric regime was established in Uzbekistan, relying both on informal and formal institutions.

During his presidency, Islam Karimov continued to consolidate the regime. Although several new political parties were founded, they remained under the government’s control. Restrictive registration procedures, established by the authorities, did not allow registering independent political parties. The government actively suppressed the activities of political movements, banned unsanctioned public meetings and demonstrations and suppressed opposition figures.

2016 year marked the end of 27 years Islam Karimov’s rule in Uzbekistan. And after the elections in December 2016 the then prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the next president. This was the first change of power in Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet history.

Mirziyoyev’s presidency has already caused some changes for Uzbekistan. For instance, now in the media sphere newspaper and TV news programs can indirectly or sometimes even directly criticize the government’s policies and advocate for changes, what was not previously visible. The new president has also undertaken some economic reforms, simplifying trade and economic regulations and taking steps toward floating the national currency.

Yet these measures seem simply superficial and being aimed at strengthening Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s positions in power. The government mostly focuses on economic issues and tries to distract the Uzbek society from reforming the political system. However, in the process of opening up the tightly controlled media, exploring previously taboo topics, and expanding freedoms, the Mirziyoyev government may inadvertently change Uzbeks’ expectations of their government and could, in the longer term, face increased demands for changes in the political system.


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