Barely a day seems to pass these days without Uzbekistan’s President-elect Shavkat Mirziyoyev circulating a fresh initiative smacking of democratization.
The latest proposal from Mirziyoyev, who was elected with a Soviet-style 88 percent of the vote in the December 4 polls, is for regional governors and mayors to be elected directly by the public.
Mirziyoyev outlined his thoughts on the matter during an official event to mark the 24th anniversary of the adoption of the constitution in a speech that was televised in full on the evening of December 7. He cast the proposed reforms as a way to reconnect with the population.
“To defend the interests of the people, you must in the first place talk to the people, and better understand their concerns, aspirations, life problems and needs,” he told his audience. “During recent campaign encounters, I became convinced of one thing: We have late forgotten how to talk to the people. Holding meetings with people, talking to them honestly, listening to their problems has, unfortunately, slipped to the bottom.”
Under the late President Islam Karimov, only the head of state was authorized to appoint and remove governors and mayors. Traditionally, Karimov would travel to attend sessions of regional assemblies to fire and hire officials.
Mirziyoyev’s initiative is theoretically forward-looking, but as the non-competitive nature of this weekend’s presidential election demonstrated, the reality may fall short of expectations.
“Of course, the concept of electiveness sounds good, but to be honest I do not know and I do not understand how it would work in conditions where there is no [political] competition or freedom of speech,” political analyst Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org.
Photo: Landmarks in Uzbekistan by Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 bit.ly/2gZcQw1
Uzbekistan has scrapped tourist visa requirements for citizens of 27 nations in the country’s boldest opening yet to the outside world.
News website Uzreport reported that President-elect Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree on December 2 allowing visa-free travel to Uzbekistan for citizens of the countries in question for a period of up to a month.
The freshly adopted rules will come into effect from April 1 and apply to Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea and Japan, among others. Citizens of several other countries, including the United States, France and Israel can enter Uzbekistan without visas if they are aged 55 or over. Chinese tourists traveling in a group also qualify.
The stated aim of the measure is to allow for the rapid development of Uzbekistan’s tourist industry, which has indeed been hampered by the bureaucratic procedures related to acquiring a visa.
The government also plans to introduce an e-visa system as of 2018.
UN figures show that 2 million people visited Uzbekistan in 2013. Of that total, nine-tenths were citizens of former Soviet republics, many of them visiting friends and family. And among those coming purely for tourism, the main source nations were Russia, Turkey and India, suggesting that Uzbekistan is struggling to attract high-spending visitors from advanced developed nations.
Breaking down figures and anecdotal evidence even further, one finds that tourists from countries like Israel and Japan often come in organized tours — meaning that the economic benefits of the tourism sector tend to absorbed by limited parts of the population. The relatively high cost of organized tours also deters many from wishing to travel to Uzbekistan in the first place.
The main intrigue in Uzbekistan now the presidential election is over concerns the identity of the next prime minister.
As was expected, Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the December 4 election handily by securing more than 88 percent of the vote. He will now be coronated president, but will yield the office of prime minister, which he never abandoned following the death of President Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoyev has been prime minister for 13 years and the identity of his replacement will fuel speculation about how the incoming leadership is going to run affairs and whether some elite infighting lies ahead.
Under the accepted procedure, the prime minister should be nominated by the party in the lower house of parliament with most seats or a coalition of parties able to muster a majority. Uzbekistan’s legislature is a dummy institution and such distinctions are fundamentally meaningless, but for the sake of outlining the facts, the largest party in the Oliy Majlis, with 52 out of 150 available seats, is the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, or UzLiDeP, which supported Mirziyoyev’s bid for the presidency.
While the president wields the most authority, some observers argue that it does not follow that this person is the most decisive for the country’s fate.
“Shavkat Mirziyoyev was primarily associated with perpetuation of the status quo inside the country and as the person that would continue the path of Islam Karimov. But it is the person that takes the job of prime minister on whom the economic future of the country depends,” political analyst Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan signed an agreement this week for flights to resume between the two countries for the first time in 24 years.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz cited Dushanbe international airport on November 30 as saying that that under the agreement there will be twice-weekly flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent serviced by Uzbekistan Airlines and Tajikistan’s Somoni Air.
On the same day, an Uzbek charter plane made a flight to Dushanbe, setting the model for the way forward. The route is due to begin operating regularly in January.
Asia-Plus reported that both countries agreed on conditions for transit flights and air cargo traffic.
Air links between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were suspended in 1992 at Tashkent’s initiative as Tajikistan began its descent into several years of bloody civil conflict. The late President Islam Karimov had previously made tentative gestures toward restarting the flights, but those overtures were dashed by Tajikistan’s plans to build the Roghun hyrdropower dam, which Tashkent strongly opposed.
Observers note that initial passenger traffic is unlikely to be great, however, since a visa regime has been in place between the countries since 2001 — sign of how much mutual trust had deteriorated between the former Soviet republics.
Tajik journalist Muzafar Yunusov told EurasiaNet.org that he believed that unless the visa system was annulled, “flights would only be for a select few.”
A draft presidential decree in Uzbekistan posted on a government portal on November 28 has laid out plans to liberalize the currency market, an apparent fresh step in acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s mission to improve investment conditions and kick-start the moribund economy.
The draft has been posted online and internet users are being invited to offer suggestions and modifications before December 14.
In its current form, the decree proposes major financial reforms to “further liberalize and improve monetary policy, develop and increase the efficiency of the domestic foreign exchange market and improve conditions for the foreign transactions of enterprises.”
The US Department of Commerce details the plight endured by companies forced to navigate Uzbekistan’s onerous foreign currency rules.
“All legal entities, including those with foreign investments, must receive special permission from the Central Bank to access foreign currency. Officially, it is a routine procedure, but in reality an applicant must go through many layers of bureaucracy, which entails extensive time and effort. Moreover, the government regularly issues classified instructions telling banks which transactions requiring currency exchange are allowed, and which are not,” the website export.gov explains.
The government says it will level the playing field for companies operating in foreign currency and halt the practice of providing loans and preferential conditions to some companies over others.
Authorities also propose to allow the exchange rate to float in line with market mechanisms, while preventing legislation that could negatively affect the stability of the national currency, the Uzbek sum.
Uzbekistan has in a long-awaited move freed a political activist who has languished behind bars since 1992, when he was jailed on corruption charges that rights groups say were politically motivated.
Moscow-based news website ferghana.rureported on November 23 that 72-year-old Samandar Kukanov was met outside prison by his son, Sardor.
Kukanov will remain under supervision for a year after his release, ferghana.ru reported.
Freeing Kukanov represents a notable about-face by the Uzbek authorities.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had issued a statement earlier this month demanding Kukanov’s release and protesting a decision by prison authorities in October to extend his sentence by three years.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time that the extension of the prison sentence indicated that acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev appeared intent on continuing the repressive policies of his late predecessor, Islam Karimov.
As HRW has documented, Uzbek prison authorities have routinely resorted to extending the sentences of political prisoners on spurious grounds.
“The action is often taken just days before the person is to be released, on bogus grounds such as possessing ‘unauthorized’ nail clippers, saying prayers, or wearing a white shirt, and may result in years of additional imprisonment,” the group noted in its recent statement.
The oldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s late president and fraud go together like a horse and carriage, as the latest online fantasy involving Gulnara Karimova has neatly illustrated.
In oddly matter-of-fact fashion, Uzbekistan-focused website centre1.com ran a piece on November 22 claiming to have received reliable evidence from a solitary would-be security services source stating that Karimova had perished, the victim of a poisoning plot. The mysterious source, which foreign-based centre1.com takes at his word, adds further that Karimova died on November 5 and was secretly buried in the Minor cemetery in an unmarked grave.
All the details were preposterous enough not to be taken seriously, one would have imagined, but many of the world’s media cannot resist the lure of the psycho-drama around Karimova and duly took the bait. Foremost among them was British tabloid The Daily Mail, which ran a breathless report about the “astonishing claims.”
The newspaper cited centre1.com editor Galima Bukharbayeva as saying she personally spoke to the source of the information.
“We got the information about a week ago and all this time we tried to cross check and verify it. I would love it not to be true because of how horrendous this is,” Bukharbayeva was cited as saying.
Dozens of websites ran similar reports, taking centre1.com largely at face value, albeit occasionally leavening their own reports with a dose of skepticism.
The visit to Uzbekistan last week by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been comprehensively covered by local media in a show of the importance it has been accorded.
Erdogan flew into Samarkand on November 17 and immediately laid flowers at the grave of President Islam Karimov, who was buried in the city in early September.
The visit to the grave was a purely pro forma exercise, however, and the main focus was on the meeting with acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is to be formally confirmed in his post at the December 4 election.
Erdogan had a huge contingent of top officials in tow, demonstrating the value that Ankara has placed on the visit. The delegation included deputy prime ministers Veysi Kaynak and Tuğrul Türkeş, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak, Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, the Chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, and the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan
“President … Erdogan stated that Uzbekistan and Turkey should upgrade their bilateral relations to a new level. He recalled that the head of the Foreign Ministry, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, [recently] visited Uzbekistan and during the visit the sides agreed on developing a roadmap on developing bilateral relations. He declared his hopes that Uzbekistan and Turkey would soon complete work on this document,” news website Uzdaily.uz reported.
The late president of Uzbekistan’s wife and youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, have created a foundation in his honor in the surest sign to date that while they may be sidelined, they will not be completely run out of the country.
Karimova-Tillyaeva announced the creation of the foundation in a Facebook post in which she also explained some of the goals of the organization.
“In order to perpetuate the memory and principles of my father, my mother and I have created the Islam Karimov Foundation. Plans for the foundation are to create a museum to the first president of Uzbekistan and to publish the works of the father-founder of our republic’s independent statehood,” Karimova-Tillyaeva said.
But the foundation isn’t to be devoted entirely to perpetuating Karimov’s post mortem cult of personality. Another objective is to promote the historical, cultural and literary heritage of Uzbekistan inside and outside the country. It will also organize educational and cultural programs to take full advantage of the potential of Uzbekistan’s youth, as well as train university lecturers, teachers and health workers, Karimova-Tillyaeva gushed.
"I ask the lord that he bless the soul of my father in that other world. And that in this world, all our good and noble strivings for the prosperity of our Uzbekistan be destined to be fulfilled,” she concluded.
Well may Karimova-Tillyaeva and her mother, Tatyana Karimova, pray to the lord, given that some observers had predicted the late president’s family could be in for a rough landing following the sudden death of their pater familias.
"This decision is the result of internal budget considerations and doesn't have any political character," Puglisi said. "There has been no pressure from Uzbekistan or from other states working with our office. On the contrary, we've always had a warm reception in the region."
NATO opened the Tashkent office in 2013, and used it to coordinate the alliance's activities in the region. That meant, primarily, the logistics of moving war materiel in and out of Afghanistan, the then-special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, said at the time.
The office was tiny -- only four staff members, including two local administrative assistants -- but its departure still seems to represent a further Western military retreat in Central Asia that has been going on for several years.