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Uzbekistan election exposes limits of image-polishing reforms

China's economic influence will inevitably become political, experts say

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan has embarked on an ambitious reform agenda over the last three years, but as the country prepares to elect a new parliament on Sunday, meaningful political change remains elusive.

Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president in 2016 after the death of Islam Karimov, the isolationist strongman who ruled Uzbekistan for 25 years, the government has sought to clean up its international image, boost investment and kick-start the moribund economy.

But while Central Asia's most populous country has the veneer of a multiparty system -- with five parties battling for 150 seats in the legislature -- on closer inspection it becomes clear that they are all pro-presidential and offer no genuine choice for voters. No opposition parties are registered, or have attempted to register, for the election. Independent candidates are barred from standing.

"President Mirziyoyev is still in the process of consolidating his position and is reluctant to leave an opening for competitors or popular opposition movements," Ben Godwin, head of analysis at London-based Prism Political Risk Management, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

This puts Uzbekistan on a similar path to the one taken by its neighbor and regional rival Kazakhstan, which has combined an autocratic political system with an economic climate that is favorable to private business.

Mineral-rich Uzbekistan, with 32 million people, is the most populous of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

"[Mirziyoyev] believes he can successfully follow the same model of combining authoritarian rule with a relatively liberal economy," said Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

The presidency dominates in Uzbekistan, with the executive wielding the bulk of the power. One thing Mirziyoyev has done, though, is charged parliament with playing a bigger role as "the initiator and decisive force in the implementation of reform."

Earlier this year, Uzbekistan adopted a revised Election Code making parliament's lower chamber directly elected; previously, 15 seats were allocated to an environmental group. The five officially sanctioned parties running in the upcoming election advocate policies ranging from promoting business to upholding traditional values, and from protecting society's vulnerable groups to highlighting justice and ecological issues.

On the ground, however, many voters find it hard to distinguish the parties from one another and are hazy about policies.

Mashkura Kadyrova, who runs a stall in a market in Tashkent, was unsure who she would cast her vote for. "I'll seek advice, but my whole family will definitely vote for the right people," she said. "I don't know the parties by heart but I know that there are five parties."

Another stallholder, Dilshod Murzakov, said he would be voting for the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (O'zLiDem). "They promise different things. I can't remember. But I like the O'zLiDem party."

In a move to inject some vibrancy into the campaign, the authorities urged candidates to get out to their constituencies and fight for votes. Yet, on the streets of Tashkent there is little sign that an election is even taking place. Campaign posters are few and far between and the main references to the election are numerous billboards reminding people of the date.

This election did bring the country's first ever televised debate between party leaders. The debate, held in November, was notable for raising the question of Uzbekistan joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, a foreign policy hot potato for Tashkent.

As a doubly landlocked country, Uzbekistan relies heavily on its neighbors to keep imports and exports flowing. The EEU brings together Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan in an integrated single market of 180 million people and would bring benefits to Uzbekistan, but there are also political concerns.

"For Uzbekistan, both joining and not joining are overt political acts," Godwin said. "Therefore, it has chosen to join both the EEU and balance this relationship by setting out a course to join the WTO in parallel."

Godwin sees advantages to EEU participation. "With its lower costs of labor and manufacturing potential, Uzbekistan is well-positioned to benefit from closer integration with its key partners."

Election campaign posters are few and far between in Tashkent. Most billboards simply remind voters of the date. (Photo by Paul Bartlett)

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is also looking to China, which has overtaken Russia to become its biggest trade partner. Trade with China was worth $3.52 billion in the first six months of 2019, versus $2.53 billion with Russia, according to official Uzbek statistics. Tashkent wants to do even more business with China by opening a rail link through neighboring Kyrgyzstan to complement the existing road link.

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with visiting Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov in Beijing in August, calling for the two countries to jointly push the Belt and Road project forward.

Up to now, China has played a primarily economic role in Uzbekistan without making overt political demands on Tashkent, but the University of London's Ilkhamov thinks this will change. "Over a certain period of time the economic influence will inevitably translate into the political one," he said.

There are already signs of this: Uzbekistan has been reluctant to criticize China over its policy of forcing ethnic Uighurs, a minority Muslim group living in the western province of Xinjiang, into "re-education camps."

In parallel with Uzbekistan's economic reform agenda -- which has seen currency controls abolished, visa laws eased for foreigners and better conditions for investors -- the country has sought to deflect criticism of its own treatment of political prisoners and use of forced labor.

This year it closed Jaslyk prison, notorious for harsh conditions and torture, and released a number of political detainees. The practice of making workers pick cotton has also been significantly curtailed. These moves have made the country a more attractive prospect on the international stage.

Nevertheless, Godwin does not think the reform mood will reach into the political sphere anytime soon. "I do not believe [Uzbekistan] will extend political reforms beyond what is needed to rehabilitate its reputation with the international community," he concluded, "with the exception of some tokenism."

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