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 Somon 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.
Under the government-mandated target in Uzbekistan, harvesters should this year gather around 3.5 million tons of raw cotton.
It is 10 days into November, however, and only two regions — Kashakadarya and Khorezm — have hit their figures. As a result, thousands of workers continue to toil away in the fields, even as the weather grows colder.
In the Fergana region, every harvester is expected to bring in 20 kilograms daily. Large numbers of university students, teachers, medical workers and other government employees have been enlisted, as always, to do the work.
A teacher in the Dangara district of Fergana region has told EurasiaNet.org that although there is barely any cotton left on the plants, local authorities are still driving people into fields in the hope of squeezing out a few more tons.
The farmers that grow the cotton are the only ones with a full understanding of the situation.
“The quota is not being met for one simple reason — (acting president) Shavkat Mirziyoyev has clamped down on the falsification of figures. Now he is demanding real tons and kilograms of raw cotton,” one farmer, who gave his name Muhammadsidyk, told EurasiaNet.org.
Muhammadsidyk said that Mirziyoyev has given instructions to install electronic weighing machines and computers at cotton collection points so as to collate accurate information about the amount of crop harvested. The data is then sent directly to Tashkent. The old trick of handing in hyped-up numbers is not flying any longer.
According to an employee at the city hall in Guliston, some 200 kilometers from Tashkent, the cotton regime has been particularly strict this year, as compared to the days of the late President Islam Karimov.
A website in Kazakhstan, which bills itself as a platform for regional analysis, has reported that authorities in Uzbekistan are mulling the creation of a fake opposition group.
Polit-asia.kz claimed in an article published on November 8 that the proposition under consideration is to revive a banned political party called Ozod Dehkonlar (Free Peasants) that was founded by 52-year old Nigora Khidoyatova, a political emigre based in the United States.
The writer of the piece, Akbar Asanov, claimed that Uzbekistan is endeavoring to persuade the international community that it is embarking on a path of democratization in order to attract inward investment.
Askarov wrote that talks have taken place between the head of the security services, Rustam Inoyatov, acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Khidoyatova to allow for the Ozod Dehkonlar leader to return to Uzbekistan in exchange for acting as a pliant opposition force. Khidoyatova has been provided security guarantees for her, family and friends as part of the deal, Askarov wrote.
Asked for comment on the report, Khidoyatova told EurasiaNet.org that only some parts of the story were accurate.
“A lot of what is written there is true, but as far as coordinating with the government, that is a red herring,” Khidoyatova said.
Khidoyatova is a historian by training and the daughter of another celebrated Uzbek historian, Gogi Khidoyatov. Her political activities culminated in 2003 with the creation of the Ozod Dehkonlar party, which was refused registration. Party members were denied permission to stand in the 2004 parliamentary elections.
By the party’s own estimated, in 2012, when Khidoyatova finally fled the country fearing arrest, it counted around 100,000 rank-and-file members.