Uzbekistan: A Model For Progress

Uzbekistan is a rare bright spot in a world that seems to be lurching towards right-wing authoritarianism.

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The headlines today are not an encouraging sight. Germany, Europe’s most populous country, has failed to form a functional government and Angela Merkel’s 12-year stand as the leader of Western ideals is being threatened. Donald Trump continues to promote his populist positions and Brexit slowly chugs along. Rodrigo Duterte continues a campaign of extrajudicial crime-fighting criminals in the Philippines. It seems the tide of right-wing populism will not cease soon.

But an unlikely region of the world, Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, is undergoing a stage of liberalization, a remarkable development given its geography and the global trend toward autocracy. By making both political and economic reforms, Uzbekistan is showing that liberalism still has a place in the world, even in countries that used to be brutally repressive.

From the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 to last year, Uzbeks had known only one leader, President Islam Karimov. A ruthless autocrat, Karimov quashed the independent media with an iron fist. Journalists who did not support the government were thrown in jail for extraordinary amounts of time. One of these journalists, Muhammad Bekjanov, served 18 years in prison for contributing to the newspaper of the main opposition party in Uzbekistan. Bekjanov endured grotesque torture and served time in prisons with names such as “Goodbye to Youth.” Karimov even imprisoned members of his own family on suspicion that they were plotting against him.

However, last year, Karimov died suddenly and his Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev replaced him. Given his long tenure in the Karimov government, one would expect Mirziyoyev to continue his predecessor's ways.

Instead, he has started to reform Uzbekistan economically and politically. He allowed banks and companies to exchange foreign currencies at the market rate instead of at artificial, government-set rates. Mirziyoyev also toured the neighboring countries of Russia and China to promote Uzbekistan’s new openness to foreign investment. With a population of 30 million, Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and investors regard it as a significant opportunity as the country is relatively undeveloped.

Even more remarkably, the country is liberalizing politically. Sixteen political prisoners have been released since Mirziyoyev took office and talk shows have more free expression. Uzbekistan’s notorious forced labor system, where college students and youth were forced to pick cotton, has been curtailed and the country has risen in the World Corruption Index.

Some say these actions are just a feint to open up Western sanctions on Uzbek cotton, which is not impossible. But even if minimal progress is made for the sake of growing the Uzbek economy, the world will be a better place. Central Asia has long been a black hole where democracy goes to die, but Uzbekistan is providing a welcome change from this narrative.

Mirziyoyev is not a saint, either. Some journalists have been arrested since he took power and the feared head of the Uzbek version of the KGB remains in power. However, progress cannot be made overnight.

Formerly, the U.S. State Department would promote such reforms around the world through peaceful means. However, under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the State Department has been undergoing an eight percent reduction in staff and faces a 31 percent budget cut from the Trump administration. This has been an obscene abdication of American leadership when the world perhaps needs it most. In an era when President Trump is championing “America First” along with rejecting leadership on the global stage, it is heartening to see American ideals taking root in formerly authoritarian countries.