Uzbekistan’s Presidential Elections: What is Uzbekistan’s Path to the Future?

By James Durso

Uzbeks headed to the polls on 24 October to elect a president. The incumbent, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was expected to win handily, and he did, with 80.1% of the ballots, down from 89.1% in 2016. (Voter participation was 80.4%.)

The voting proceeded smoothly and results were promptly reported by the Central Election Commission, but critics called the elections “choice-free,” “carefully choreographed,” and “not truly competitive.”

Most Uzbek citizens were focused on economic issues, while foreign observers bemoaned the lack of a political party opposed to the government of the day.

Since 1999, Uzbekistan has hosted election observation missions by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that have observed presidential and parliamentary elections. Uzbek officials prefer OSCE missions as opposed to missions sponsored by other friendly countries as they believe the OSCE will provide important feedback useful for improving future elections without the expectation of a quid quo pro.

This election was Uzbekistan’s second presidential election after the 26-year tenure of Islam Karimov, who was appointed leader of the then-Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989.

Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet period started not in 1991, but in 2016, with the election of then-Prime Minster Mirziyoyev as president. Islam Karimov was a Soviet apparatchik to the end, risk-averse and favoring incremental improvements, so the country suffered an extended Era of Stagnation, as in the Brezhnev years in the late-period Soviet Union.

When Mirziyoyev was elected president in 2016, he was the natural candidate after 13 years as the country’s Prime Minister and #2. 2021 was the first election where the voters could pass judgement on the performance of the government and its reform policies, or as former New York City mayor Ed Koch used to say, “How’m I doing?”

As to how it’s doing, the OSCE reported that, while “The Central Election Commission (CEC) conducted its work professionally and efficiently in line with the legal deadlines” and “Election preparations were handled efficiently and professionally” and “demonstrated that recent reforms, which have gradually introduced welcome improvements,” the process fell short of observers’ expectations as “recent reforms, which have gradually introduced welcome improvements, have not yet resulted in a genuinely pluralistic environment.”

Though the observers’ comments may color the policies of foreign powers, President Mirziyoyev’s first consideration is the needs of Uzbeks and, for now, those needs are primarily economic. These needs may change over time, and it’s the responsibility of the country’s leaders to anticipate and satisfy those shifts but for now pocketbook predominate.

The country’s proximity to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan means the government will prioritize regional cooperation, stability, and prosperity, as it continues its reform program. A prosperous Uzbekistan will be better able to withstand pressures from Russia and China, and Islamists who feel the wind at their back after the Taliban victory over NATO. The policies of the U.S. and the West should avoid making perfect the enemy of real progress.

Uzbekistan hosted U.S. forces from 2001 to 2005, when they were ejected after Washington criticized the government’s response to the violent uprising in the city of Andijan. A 2021 Uzbekistan with a stronger economy won’t be any more compliant and will have not neglect economic relations with China, what Uzbek Senator (and former Foreign Minister) Sodiq Safoyev calls a “huge opportunity.”

There are foreign concerns the government is attuned to and they are in the realm of business and investments. The government’s reform policies have attracted investors and the proof is the country’s rise as it climbed “from ranking 141st in the World Bank’s index on ease of doing business in 2015 to 69th last year [2020]”. (The priorities of foreign investors – competent officials, honest courts, and transparent government policies – are also the wants of foreign and domestics political activists, so economic reform will give the activists what they want – but with less drama – while it increases local economic opportunity: a win-win.)

Though economic progress has been undeniable, many speakers at the recent Uzbekistan Economic Forum noted there are limits to privatization and that the economy must diversify away from agriculture and business must become more competitive in order to help meet the state’s goals of halving poverty by 2026 and becoming an upper-middle income country by 2030.

Politically-engaged Uzbeks of a certain age will remember “party building” (партииное штроитель’ство) and it may make a comeback but in a different form.

Regular elections are a good thing, but Iran and North Korea also have regular elections. Real elections are the surface manifestation of a healthy political culture and the next step for the country is encouraging healthy political parties, instead of a future of small opposition parties versus “the party of the leader.”

Developing political parties will attract outside attention and money, so this may be a point of friction if it appears foreign interests want to groom favorites, especially if they espouse policies more in line with Western interests than the country’s conservative, family-oriented culture. Given the NATO’s recent failure at social transformation in a country not too far from Uzbekistan, that should give pause to putative reformers…but it may not.

The Uzbeks have already been through a project of social transformation, courtesy of the Bolsheviks, that got them revolution, forced collectivization, famine, purges, and over a half-million dead during World War II (over 8% of the population)…just the kind of thing to make you wary of ideas that come out of reading rooms in Europe. The difference between then and now  is that, according to Melki Kaylan, “For the first time, they [Uzbeks] were living in a country that was improving.”

Aside from friction over political party development, there is a concern that President Mirziyoyev may engineer a third presidential term via “constitutional reform.” That he may, and if the constitution is legally amended, and a third term is in tune with public sentiment, it may frustrate interests who want to see a successor more in tune with Europe and North America than Central Asia. (Every politician thinks he’s immortal and they don’t make ‘em any different in Tashkent.)

But President Mirziyoyev’s resounding win may create more public pressure for him to deliver what he promised on the campaign trail, in addition to the uncompleted tasks from his first term. His success, or failure, at satisfying the rising expectation of Uzbek citizens, will color their support for any efforts to change the constitution to ensure his continued tenure.

The outside world must stay focused on the real priorities in Central Asia: regional cooperation, growing economies that offer more opportunity to citizens and enable the governments to avoid the ominous embraces of Russia and China, ensuring stability in a region that hosts East-West transport links, and resisting extremism that may bleed over from Afghanistan.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. He was an official observer of the 2021 Presidential election in Uzbekistan.

Featured photo: Uzbek Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters.