The yawning, decades-long divide between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will get that little bit narrower next week when a senior Uzbek delegation travels to Dushanbe for talks on trade and economic cooperation.
The delegation will travel to Tajikistan on December 26 and be led by Uzbek deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, whose recent removal as finance minister appears for now to signal his transition to a role as the lead on development of Uzbekistan’s external economic ties.
Talks will focus on reopening railway and road links that have now been closed for several years. At the heart of the historic disaccord is Tajikistan’s plan to build a giant hydropower dam that Uzbekistan could threaten its access to vital irrigation water. Tashkent has tried by multiple means — mainly by imposing a de facto transit embargo — to hinder progress on that dam and force Dushanbe to back down.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia Plus reported that the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission convening in Dushanbe will agree on the reopening of specific railway and road links, suggesting the talks may go beyond an rhetoric exchange of goodwill messages. The website cited unnamed Tajik government sources as saying the two sides will agree on the opening on new border crossings.
This comes on the heels of an announcement in November that flights are set to resume between the two countries in January for the first time in 24 years.
With every minor hint of a concession on human rights, the government in Uzbekistan looks determined to stumble with a worrying violation.
This week, for example, saw the unusual spectacle of a tiny protest picket outside a court building in Tashkent reaching its conclusion without police unceremoniously bundling away participants.
The two-hour vigil was organized by Elena Urlaeva, the indefatigable leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, on the morning of December 15 in protest at what she described as an unjustly imprisoned man. While police arrived at the scene during the event, they looked on impassively without taking action.
This is the second picket in Tashkent that has taken place in the past two weeks without being broken up. The first, also organized by Urlaeva and a small number of other activists, was held on December 5 outside the presidential administration.
According to the head of the Uzbek–German Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, this toleration of minuscule pickets signals only a shift in tactics. Breaking up small and largely inconspicuous rallies typically creates more noise than allowing them proceed unhindered.
But Niyazova warned against allowing such anomalous events to distract from the persistence of systematic rights abuses and lack of access to justice. She mentioned, particular, the plight of Muhammad Bekzhanov, the editor of an opposition newspaper who was jailed in 1999.
Amnesty International issued a statement on December 16 expressing concern that Bekzhanov, who is due for release next month, has been placed in a punishment cell and that this could signal a prelude to his sentence being extended.
A man one time considered a possible successor to Uzbekistan’s late president Islam Karimov has been squeezed out of his job as finance minister, signaling his waning influence under the new regime.
Rustam Azimov will retain his other title as deputy prime minister, but he is being replaced at the Finance Ministry by another veteran apparatchik, Batir Hodzhaev.
According to government sources, the presidential decree ordering the reshuffle was signed on December 15.
Hodzhaev previously served as deputy economy minister and chairman of privately run lender Ipoteka Bank. According to information available from online biographies, from 2000 to 2006, Hodzhaev was held of the state tax service and then served as economy minister from 2006 to 2009.
From 2009 to 2011, he was deputy prime minister with a portfolio for transportation, construction and municipal services. For the last five years he has been deputy economy minister in charge macro-economic projections, monetary policy and state investment programs.
Azimov has been at his job in the Finance Ministry since February 2005. He will still retain his post as deputy prime minister in charge of macro-economic development, structural reform, management of foreign investment, education and science.
When news of Karimov’s death began circulating in late August — before it was officially confirmed — Uzbekistan-watchers feverishly speculated about who was to succeed the long-time leader. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was officially inaugurated as president on December 14, a long-serving prime minister proved to have the edge over Azimov.
Uzbekistan’s upper house of parliament, the Senate, on December 13 adopted the 2017 budget with a deficit equivalent to 1 percent of gross domestic product — a rare if marginal acknowledgement of the country’s economic struggles.
That deficit amounts to 2.4 trillion sum, or around $750 million.
The budget was initially presented to lower house of parliament by deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, who also fulfils the position of finance minister.
Last year’s budget was also adopted with 1 percent to GDP deficit, then around $650 million.
The scale of the reported deficit is eminently manageable by the standards of Western economies, but it is the gesture of transparency that it noteworthy in this instance. The government tentative efforts at privatisation programs and drumming up foreign investment are sorely constrained by common perceptions that Uzbekistan’s is mired in corruption and hampered by opaque bureaucratic practices.
It is likely that authorities understand that it is misguided to continue talking up claims of unalloyed success when everything around screams economic malaise.
Azimov provided no details about how the deficit is to be covered.
Uzbek economist Yuliy Yusupov sugested it would be done through a combination of loans and cash emissions.
“Considering that in Uzbekistan the real rate of inflation is far higher than what is officially declared, we run a significant deficit that we cover by printing money. What the real situation is, it is impossible to say, since all the relevant information about the budget and cash emissions is kept secret,” Yusupov told EurasiaNet.org.
According to official figures from 2015, Uzbekistan’s debt-to-GDP is 18.5 percent, which is extremely low by Western standards.
The political council of Uzbekistan’s ruling party has nominated a former deputy prime minister implicated in a telecommunications corruption scandal in 2012 to become the new prime minister.
With that show of support from the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, or UzLiDeP, Abdulla Aripov’s remarkable return from the wilderness is all but guaranteed.
UzLiDeP said in a statement that the council considered Aripov a patriot able to “fully take on the responsibility of successfully implementing reforms.”
The party’s political council gathered to consider the nomination on December 12. Under Uzbek law, the largest party in parliament, UzLiDeP, is authorized to put forward its proposal for the prime minister. All parties in the legislature are unambiguously pro-government, so the appointment should pass without trouble.
Aripov was returned to the fold following the announcement of the death in September of President Islam Karimov, who was quickly replaced by Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Returning to his old position as deputy prime minister, Aripov was charged with a portfolio including youth, culture, information technologies and telecommunications.
Aripov had served as deputy prime minister for more than 10 years, from May 2002 to August 2012. His main responsibility lay in the running of the telecommunications sector. From 2005 to 2009 he also ran the Uzbek communications agency.
He was fired by Karimov in 2012. In September that same year, the General Prosecutor’s Office filed criminal charges against Aripov on suspicion that he illegally issued permits to Russian mobile telephone company MTS to install hundreds of extra relay stations.
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.