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Uzbek regime, despite recent reforms, bears watching, Central Asian scholar says

Monday, October 30, 2017

LAWRENCE — International media reports have focused on recent reforms in Uzbekistan as a potential opening and thaw of a once repressive regime.

Some international groups and activists have even referred to the developments as an "Uzbek Spring," though a University of Kansas scholar of Central Asian politics says that is an overstatement at this point.

Mariya Omelicheva, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, is available to discuss issues surrounding authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Her broad research focuses on international relations, security policy, state security and human rights, and Russian foreign policy. She has authored several recent articles and essays on politics in Central Asia.

"I think that characterizing developments in Uzbekistan as a 'spring' would be an overstatement because these are all top-down measures, which do not change the essence of regime in Uzbekistan," Omelicheva said. "While it is important for the international community to welcome every practical step taken by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to improve Uzbekistan's relations with its neighbors or to free political prisoners, it is equally important not to amplify the extent to what this regime is committed to genuine political and economic reforms."

She said potentially Mirziyoyev is seeking to develop his own governing "brand" as well, after the death of Islam Karimov, who held the office for 25 years.

"He does not want his rule to be overshadowed by the legacy Karimov, the long-term ruler of Uzbekistan, and is already building his own legacy and reputation. He also understands that the main challenge that Uzbekistan is currently facing is economic," Omelicheva said. "This most populous Central Asian republic is facing massive internal migration of young people from rural to urban areas. Mirziyoyev’s main concern is the creation of jobs for them, and he is seeking investments from abroad."

She said his behavior is also similar to autocrats in other parts of the world because he frees prisoners who pose no threat to the regime while keeping many others in jail.

"He undertakes cautious measures of economic liberalization that are necessary to strengthen the regime and his own grip on power," Omelicheva said. "My interviewees from Uzbek agencies on economic planning acknowledge that Uzbekistan was looking to the Asian 'tigers' and China as the models to emulate. This means that the country will be seeking to strengthen its economy but likely remain a politically closed and repressive state."