Uzbekistan’s anniversary of 30 years of independence is a day on which Uzbek citizens, may ask themselves whether the country’s development is possible without the establishment of independent, democratic institutions, a free media, an independent judiciary, and a vibrant and vocal civil society. None of these things has been achieved since Uzbekistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union.
Former communist party leader, Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years, destroyed a nascent democratic movement and independent media that emerged in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The first years of independence were remembered for the unfamiliar appearance of independent newspapers expressing critical opinions, heated debates in the parliament, and the time when even journalists from state TV channels who had spent their lives repeating Soviet propaganda, joined rallies with placards proclaiming “We’re tired of lying”.
The reality of this newly won independence was sobering. Karimov won the new republic’s first election with 86% of the votes while opposition figures fled into exile or landed in jail. Uzbekistan descended into a period of darkness following the Andijan massacre in 2005: independent media was shut down and critical journalists and human rights defenders were either hounded out of the country or behind bars. The infamous prison Jaslyk became synonymous with torture and death in custody. Uzbekistan was considered one of the most closed countries in the world, second only to North Korea. Karimov’s legacy is one which today’s reformers under President Mirziyoyev are now keen to erase from the public consciousness. Indeed, the recent rehabilitation of 115 victims of Soviet oppression suggests President Mirziyoyev would prefer to ignore the victims of the Karimov era.
Mirziyoyev’s reform program has undoubtedly brought significant positive change to Uzbekistan. But in 2021, Uzbek civil society remains marginalized with very few officially registered independent NGOs due to constructed barriers to discourage attempts to register and operate with legitimacy. The media, despite liberalization and an abundance of online platforms, is under constant threat of reprisals and censorship. Particularly in the lead up to the 2021 presidential elections, human rights activists, opposition leaders, bloggers and journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the line between the president’s public commitments and the reality of exercising these professed new freedoms.
Ahead of Mirziyoyev’s second presidential election, less than two months away, the mahalla (neighborhood) committees, in tandem with the security forces, are intimidating citizens who signed the petition of an independent candidate for the registration of his political party to run in the election. Such tactics are highly reminiscent of the Karimov era when dissenting voices were not only silenced but destroyed.
Admittedly, Mirziyoyev has thus far refrained from inflicting the abject cruelty of the Karimov regime. The president’s reforms have resulted in the release of most political prisoners as well as the lifting of restrictions on the Internet, giving citizens access to information that is independent of state censorship.
However, the recent decision by the Uzbek authorities to restrict the use of social networks including Twitter and TikTok “due to violations of legal requirements in the processing of personal data of Uzbek citizens” brings back disturbing memories. More worryingly, a recent amendment to the criminal code prohibits insulting the president online, resulting in the first arrest for doing just that.
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence, it is impossible to determine what direction the country is going in its development. In the absence of democratic institutions, the possibility that Mirziyoyev could remain in power for a long time to come cannot be excluded. Will Mirziyoyev go for a third term, which would violate the constitution? Will the media be able to exercise true independence and push the boundaries of what is permitted? Will the state continue to prevent the registration of independent NGOs? Can corruption be eradicated in the absence of civil society?
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of independence, Uzbek citizens should start an honest rethinking of these past years and what would be required to push Uzbekistan’s reform program into the civil and political spheres. This must include acknowledgement of past injustices, the rehabilitation of political prisoners, and accountability for perpetrators of torture and corruption. Uzbekistan has enormous potential for development, but only if economic reforms are accompanied by an empowered civil society, the establishment of democratic institutions, and rule of law.