As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to journalist Aleksey Volosevich about recent political changes in Uzbekistan and what they might mean for civil society.
1.From outside Uzbekistan, it appears that socio-political reforms are underway, at least to some extent. How real have reforms been, and what are the limitations?
There is no real socio-political reform; most of what you hear about this is noise and government propaganda. There are very few changes. I would characterise what is happening rather as the elimination of the worst excesses and restrictions committed under the late President Islam Karimov. This is mainly happening in the economic sphere and in establishing relations with neighbouring countries, as under Karimov relations were very bad. For example, current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was Prime Minister under Karimov for 13 years, was able to establish relations with neighbouring Tajikistan and both countries abolished the visa regime and set up transport and air services, for the first time in around 20 years.
But there have been almost no institutional changes. All reforms are half-hearted and almost none are fully implemented. President Mirziyoyev does not bring many reforms to an end. But all the state-controlled media makes noise about the so-called great reforms, and this noise, unfortunately, is picked up by foreign media that do not understand what is happening here.
There are some achievements. Recently, a tax reform was carried out, which most economists evaluated as a positive change. The forced mobilisation of the population during the annual cotton harvest campaign has been partially abolished. The ban on photography has been lifted, and it is now possible to take photographs on the metro, for example, when earlier this would have led to the photographer being immediately detained and dragged to the police. Things have become less paranoid than under Karimov, which was a reflection of his psychopathic personality. The atmosphere in the country has improved; it has become a little easier to breathe.
In addition, the government has begun to change the way its reacts to publications in the press. Now there is some kind of response to 10 to 20 per cent of critical messages. The country's leadership shows signs that it understands criticisms, and there are examples of it abolishing unpopular decisions, dismissing officials and governors who are at fault, and attempting somehow to improve the situation. Under Karimov nothing like this happened.
Almost all political prisoners, around 20 people, have been released. But none of them have been rehabilitated, and none of their investigators, who tortured them and fabricated criminal cases, have been punished. So this positive move has not been brought to its logical conclusion.
And still the law does not ensure the rights of private property. A house, a shop, an enterprise of any kind can be demolished immediately, in order to build something else, while the compensation given is scanty or non-existent. Recently, along the so-called ‘presidential highway’, several dozen cottages and country houses, some built at great cost, were demolished. And no one could do anything. Investors see this and are not in a hurry to invest their money in Uzbekistan.
Also take, for example, the loud noise that was made about the introduction of currency exchange. Under Karimov this was not officially allowed, but the entire population was quietly changing money with street currency traders. At any moment it was possible to buy and sell any currency from traders, while banks did not buy currency. Under Mirziyoyev, the police dispersed all street currency traders, and banks were ordered to buy dollars. But banks do not sell dollars, and there are no currency exchange points. So where do we buy dollars now? No one knows. So the reform made things worse than before. But the press loyal to the authorities screams that currency reform has taken place in Uzbekistan, and now the authorities are moving away from discussing the topic. There are many such reforms that have begun but have not been brought to a logical conclusion. They touch upon the most basic moments of life in Uzbekistan.
It should be emphasised that Karimov created a tough authoritarian system for our new authorities, which they consider to be convenient for themselves. All changes and reforms are going to be carried out strictly within its framework, without affecting its foundations. There is no question of complete freedom of speech, fair elections and an independent judiciary. At the same time, representatives of the new government have redistributed beneficial ownership in their favour, taking control, for example, over the vast majority of imports entering the country, wholesale trade and, of course, the sphere of exports and construction.
There is still no question of protecting basic civil liberties. There is no one to protect them. Often, even such thoughts do not arise. The population is apathetic, uneducated and cowardly. There is practically no one to rely on. For the people to mature, you need at least a few decades. And then it will be possible to speak only about the next generations.
2. What have been the driving forces and motivations behind the limited changes you have seen so far?
What changes there have been have come about partly as a result of internet publications, social networks and people’s exposure to examples of life in developed countries. When everyone reads, for example, that in some underdeveloped countries the average salary has become higher than in Uzbekistan, people begin to resent it. And representatives of government and their relatives are also constantly on the internet and discuss all this. They feel the growth of dissatisfaction in some directions, and, if this does not contradict their own careers and selfish interests, try to somehow reduce discontent and solve some problems. In this respect, Mirziyoyev is much better than Karimov, who did not use the internet and, accordingly, did not care.
The influence of the media and social networks is great, and therefore they are an important catalyst for change. But it must be understood that at the same time, Islamist fanatics are creating their own information field, and its strength and influence also grows. There is a tension because Uzbekistan is religiously and culturally part of the Islamic world, but is also secular, and has many supporters of European values and the European way of development.
3. How have changes affected civil society so far?
It has become easier to work with the media, which has become bolder and begun to issue a whole stream of news. Over the last two years this is a major move. But still they dare not criticise the president, prime minister and their entourage. If they do, they may be deregistered or closed, or staff may be fired.
There are only two independent sites that provide critical commentary on Uzbekistan: my site, AsiaTerra.info, and Uzmetronom.com, which belongs to another journalist. Otherwise, there is little analysis of the type that would be considered normal elsewhere.
Fuller freedom is appearing in social networks. Just two years ago the authors of anti-government statements, or simply those that were critical, would have been summoned to the police and threatened with a criminal case. And now many people write what they want, and nobody pursues them. But this is not because the laws have changed. The laws are still the same. It's just that the new president has allowed people to express their opinions more freely. However, if he leaves his post and another person takes it, everything can immediately become as it was, because no irreversible changes have occurred. But while the trend is positive, gradually people can get used to greater freedom of expression, and this is important in itself.
But there is almost no independent civil society in Uzbekistan. There are only a few hundred people who are active on Facebook, and about a third of them live abroad. Any attempt to hold a protest on an important occasion will attract at best a handful of people. Compare this to when the authorities in the autumn of 2017 promised to distribute free plov - Uzbekistan’s national dish - in the centre of the capital, Tashkent: tens of thousands of people gathered with bowls.
There are also many religious fanatics who, due to the fact that Karimov pursued them for many years, prefer to sit quietly and not show themselves. But when a prominent Islamic figure died a couple of years ago, about 80,000 people turned out for his funeral. The authorities did not expect such an influx and were very frightened, although everything ended peacefully.
If voters were given the opportunity to vote in absolutely honest elections, there is a danger that a populist using religious slogans would come to power. Uzbekistan, over the long term, needs an enlightened and adequate leader who can lead the country along the path of progress, even if a large part of the population does not want it.
4. What are the key challenges for civil society in the current context, and how might they be addressed?
For those few hundred socially active people, perhaps the most basic difficulty at the moment is that the authorities do not notice them and do not seek to make any contact. Officials are afraid of being accused of disloyalty, so they are afraid to talk with civil society activists, and even mention their names. There is no interaction with the authorities, through the fault of the officials.
The world outlook of people needs to change. In Soviet times, despite all the excesses, there was some general progress. Women gained rights. The power of the Islamic clergy was limited. All children were sent to schools, taught to read and write, and given some knowledge about the world. Particularly rapid development took place during the last decades of the Soviet Union. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was powerful pullback. Perhaps the ubiquitous spread of the internet will help spread knowledge and information, and enlightenment in general. But, given the current speed of these changes, I think it would take 200 years. Most of the population does not read anything and does not want to read, except for simple correspondence in social networks.
5. What can the international community and international civil society do to support favourable conditions for civil society in Uzbekistan?
There are three key things. The first is to give financial support to independent media and active human rights groups. The second is to prosecute thoroughly the criminal representatives of the regime who are in the West, bring criminal cases against them, demand that their bank accounts be blocked and their property confiscated - in general, not to leave them alone for a minute. And third, in no way to demonstrate their loyalty to Uzbek religious extremists entrenched in the West. These are the main enemies of democracy and human rights.
Support of the media and active human rights groups is important. If some outside agencies have the opportunity to give financial support to independent media in Uzbekistan and similar countries, it would be desirable to do so. A free media in attitudes and expose torture, the exploitation of people and corruption. Both those and others, as a rule, stand for democracy and liberal values. But getting this support because of bureaucratic obstacles, including from donors, is very difficult.
Civic space in Uzbekistan is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.