Same iron fist, new foreign policy for Uzbekistan

On Dec. 4, citizens of Uzbekistan went to the polls for the first time in 25 years, electing Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This was the first presidential election that does not have Islam Karimov on the ballot, after his death in September 2016.

The upcoming election pitted interim president and former Prime Minister Mirziyoyev against Khatamjan Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov, and Sarvar Otamuratov. In an unsurprising result, Mirziyoyev won the election and will be Uzbekistan’s second president in a country ripe with autocracy.

Mirziyoyev shows no signs of relinquishing much power as president. The election has been called a “show” of democracy, a veiled attempt to pull Uzbekistan from its place as one of the most corrupt and autocratic states in Central Asia. Mirziyoyev and his fellow nominees were willing to allow international election observers, in a change from Mr. Karimov’s policies; about 500 election monitors watched to ensure that the election was held in a legal and democratic spirit. However, with no real challenger to Karimov’s, and now Mirziyoyev‘s policies, the OSCE criticized the election in their interim report, claiming it did not allow for any genuine political discourse and competition. The three other candidates were merely part of the facade of real political opposition in Uzbekistan.

Given Mirziyoyev ‘s victory, what exactly will change in Uzbekistan in the coming years? While Mirziyoyev has promised domestic economic improvement, he has an unprecedented opportunity to improve Uzbekistan’s foreign relations after years of Karimov’s policies.
Mirziyoyev is well known for his sympathies towards Russia, and alleged close ties to the Russian network of oligarchs. Bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Russia stand to improve under his presidency, since Mr. Karimov was never a predictable and loyal ally to Russia. Despite Karimov’s long history of wariness of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO), two regional groups which emulate the EU and NATO for Eurasian and Central Asian countries, Mirziyoyev has expressed a willingness to work with Russia, though it is unlikely that Mirziyoyev will go as far as joining the CSTO. In a friendlier turn of Uzbek-Russian relations, Mirziyoyev’s Defense Minister stated earlier this week that Uzbekistan is looking to increase its military cooperation with Russia in response to Russia’s successes in Syria, since the two countries share an interest in ensuring stability in neighboring Afghanistan.
Mirziyoyev will also continue to tackle the issue of migrants in Russia, an issue of great personal significance for many Uzbeks. Russia officially reports that 2.3 million Uzbek migrants currently reside in its borders, though many more live there unreported, and the monetary flow between migrants and their families back in Uzbekistan exceeds 12% of Uzbekistan's GDP. Warmer relations between Uzbekistan and Russia could lead to less political tension over the migrant flow and more favorable work laws for Uzbeks and other Central Asian migrants living in Russia.
Russia has also expressed an interest in more direct investment in Uzbekistan after Karimov’s death, particularly in the energy sector. Exports from Russia to Uzbekistan dropped in 2015 and 2016, but Russian oil company Lukoil has signified it may be interested in an energy deal with Uzbekistan, despite its closed and notoriously corrupt economy.
Uzbekistan also stands to change its role in regional politics. Mr. Mirziyoyev has pledged to work closely with Uzbekistan’s regional neighbors. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been embroiled in conflict since the 1991. The two countries have no shortage or border disputes, and during past elections, Karimov shut down Uzbekistan’s borders in order to control any potential spillovers of violence on election day. However, in a sign of good will, for the first time in 24 years, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will start direct flights, and Uzbekistan's borders did not close for election day. Mirziyoyev is also hoping to improve relations with Kyrgyzstan, and move towards discussions on water and energy issues in the region.
In his short interim tenure, Mr. Mirziyoyev has not made significant progress towards forging his path as a distinct leader of Uzbekistan and crafting a legacy separate from Karimov. The election however shows a glimmer of hope that Uzbekistan may be coming out of its self-imposed years of isolation and economic decline as a result of weak foreign relations, particularly with Russia. While we can’t feasibly predict a drastic improvement  of domestic stability and life in Uzbekistan, the election of Mirziyoyev could set the stage for opportunities towards gradual improvement in Uzbekistan’s foreign relations.

Mari Dugas is a graduate of Wellelsey College, and studies Russian and Eurasian politics. Follow her at @marilisdugas

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.