A Resistance to Reform in Uzbekistan

4 MINS READJan 18, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
A Resistance to Reform in Uzbekistan
Since succeeding longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has undertaken several economic and political reform measures.

A month into his first official term, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has found his efforts to change some of the country's policies thwarted by rivalries among powerful clans and political factions. Pressure from Uzbekistan's security services, headed by clan rival Rustam Inoyatov, has already forced the new president to reverse a visa liberalization policy announced on Jan. 9. The extent to which Mirziyoyev, who has served as president since longtime leader Islam Karimov died in September, can implement reforms will depend on his ability to balance the country's more conservative power bases.

Mirziyoyev, who was elected to a five-year term on Dec. 4 with 89 percent of the vote, was named president in the wake of Karimov's death after a deal was struck among the leaders of the country's clans and political factions. Chief among them was Inoyatov, whose Tashkent clan serves as a major counterweight to Mirziyoyev's Samarkand clan.

Mirziyoyev had served as Karimov's prime minister since 2003. During the succession discussions, he commended the late leader's domestic policies and hinted that he would maintain them when he assumed office. Mirziyoyev also pledged to preserve the country's strategy of nonalignment with foreign powers and the balance in its relationships with regional giants China and Russia.

Nevertheless, Mirziyoyev began to make some changes once he took over, including a diplomatic outreach to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which had squabbled with Uzbekistan in the Karimov era over borders and water rights. Mirziyoyev sent delegations to both countries and received them in return; work is now underway to delimit sections of the disputed border zones.

Though this initiative seems to have gained considerable support from Uzbekistan's ruling elite, other policy changes Mirziyoyev has pursued have not been as widely accepted, including a plan his administration unveiled in early December that would liberalize Uzbekistan's visa policy for 27 countries. (The United States and several European states are among them.) The plan was initially supposed to take effect in April this year, but the government announced on Jan. 9 that the visa-free regime would not start until January 2021. Pushback from Inoyatov and the security services likely prompted the abrupt change.

When it was introduced, the visa plan was hailed as a means to boost tourism and attract foreign investment. Officially, the almost four-year delay in its implementation was chalked up to the need to further develop the country's infrastructure to support an influx of tourists. But concerns among more conservative political factions about the extent and speed of Uzbekistan's opening likely played a part in the decision. After the plan was introduced, for instance, Inoyatov reportedly voiced concerns that members of the Islamic State could penetrate Uzbekistan "under the guise of travelers."

The recent about-face on visas is not the only sign of tension between Mirziyoyev and Inoyatov. The new Uzbek president has named his allies to fill several regional governorships and security services posts, moves seen as a challenge to Inoyatov's influence. Mirziyoyev is also said to have dismissed hundreds of officers in the Presidential Security Service, an organization subordinate to Inoyatov. The two have reportedly clashed over the use of security services to raid local businesses as well.

The latest policy reversal shows that Mirziyoyev does not have complete authority over decision-making in Uzbekistan and is willing, at times, to bend to Inoyatov's will. Given the security chief's considerable power, Mirziyoyev will probably pick his battles with Inoyatov carefully, lest he compromise his own influence. And considering Inoyatov is 72 years old, Mirziyoyev may choose to bide his time, waiting until Inoyatov is replaced to make a serious bid to consolidate power.

Despite the resistance he has encountered, Mirziyoyev will likely continue forging ahead in adjusting Uzbekistan's policies. On Jan. 12, he signed a decree to establish free economic zones in four regions of the country as a way of attracting foreign and local direct investment in areas such as manufacturing. Then, in a Jan. 14 speech, Mirziyoyev said Uzbekistan must set up its own military-industrial complex to re-equip its army and modernize its defense sector. The extent to which such projects have the backing of Inoyatov's faction — and whether they will actually materialize — is unclear, but the relationship between the two leaders will continue to shape Mirziyoyev's reforms and the country's power structure.

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