The original article by Glenn Kates in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on January 6, 2020

TASHKENT — If you happen to be in Uzbekistan’s capital in the next few months, you’re likely to hear the number three a lot.

Speak to officials or flip on the news, and you’ll hear about how much the country has reformed over the past three years.

You’ll hear about how, in a scene that would have been difficult to imagine three years ago, candidates engaged in lively televised debates in advance of the December 22 parliamentary elections. (What you’re less likely to hear about is the lack of any genuine opposition candidates).

Or you’ll hear about how over three years a regime of strict censorship has evolved into an atmosphere of somewhat greater press freedoms. (Though some outlets, including the Uzbek Service of RFE/RL, whose journalists cannot receive accreditation or open a news bureau, are still censored and their websites often blocked.)

But what you’re unlikely to hear is what exactly happened three years ago to precipitate these changes — namely, the death of Islam Karimov, the authoritarian leader who ruled Uzbekistan with an iron first for 27 years.

But outside of the de rigueur — and without saying it directly — officials in Tashkent are attempting to trumpet what they portray as serious efforts at reform by creating a clear contrast with Karimov.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Mirziyoev’s former press secretary and the head of the country’s communication agency was as explicit as ever.

“Of course, there’s a huge difference between that time and now,” said Komil Allamjonov, who is thought to be close to Mirziyoev and whose deputy is the president’s daughter, Saida Mirziyoeva. “But considering that we have a mentality against criticizing people who have been buried, and giving respect to those people, we don’t openly talk about that. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to compare.”

“[Karimov] had a certain method,” he added. “During his time a lot of problems accumulated. Really a lot. And accordingly, these problems had to be solved by our president, Mirziyoev. And he’s solving them now.”

In 2005, the security services of the former Communist Party boss ruthlessly suppressed protests in the country’s eastern city of Andijon, reportedly leading to hundreds of people being killed. And a system of forced labor — including the use of children — in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields caused hundreds of Western companies to stop buying what was long one of the country’s most-valued exports.

With Uzbekistan desperately seeking foreign investment, many of the reforms set in place since Karimov’s death have pleased Western officials.

That includes some 50 people widely considered to be political prisoners who have been released, and there have also been public efforts to reduce forced labor during the cotton harvests.

Meanwhile, in February, Mirziyoev established the communications agency that Allamjonov runs.

The campaign appears to be paying off.

In one week in December, The Economist named Uzbekistan the “country of the year,” an honor granted to the state that has “improved the most” over the past year, and CNN featured the architecturally rich country as a Top Travel Destination For 2020.

But some rights groups have warned that the accolades have come too quickly.

In a letter written on the eve of the election, Umida Niazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum on Human Rights, called the reforms “window dressing” in a system that has continued to prevent real political opposition.

Despite a law banning the practice, there are continued reports of torture in Uzbek prisons and still an unknown number of political prisoners that may number in the thousands who remain locked away.

“Old habits die really hard and the security services seem to be holding on to a lot of influence and power and are not democratizing,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert.

“The conventional wisdom of the ‘reformer class’ — if you want to call them that in quotes — is to only look forward and to refer to Karimov as ‘thou who shall not be named,'” he said. “There’s a lot of implicit hacking of his image or implicit dissing of what Karimov did but almost no willingness to speak openly about human rights abuses and who committed them.”

Many of the people who make up Mirziyoev’s administration — including the president — served for years under Karimov, and the same political parties that now profess support for the president were once also subservient to Karimov.

The full article is available here