About the recent March 24 Presidential elections of Uzbekistan, depending on your perspective, you could pick out as much to praise as to criticize. I was there as an official observer along with scores of others, foreign journalists, OSCE members and others. More about that later. Trigger warning: my perspective is ultimately on the positive side for solid reasons to do with critical geostrategic considerations and equally to do with the future of Uzbekistan and the region. Nor am I alone. Here is a Wall Street Journal op-ed outlining why the US needs the country’s help to keep nearby Afghanistan stable by Kamran Bokhari, a top expert on conflicts in the region
I have written in this column on the pivotal role of Uzbekistan several times, even before the chaotic US withdrawal from Kabul to the south. But first let me say this – it is astonishing how much prejudice there is out there against the Uzbeks and not just politically. A perfectly civilized, educated, intellectual friend fully aware of the post-Soviet sphere, asked before I went why I would go to such a benighted place. I had to fill him in on the astonishing speed of change in the country and its strategic importance. Others, seeing my previous benign columns, leveled all manner of nefarious accusations against my motives for my attempts to keep a balanced picture in context. I was a US spy, a pan-Turkic spy, an Uzbek paid agent, an oligarch paid-agent, a paid investment shill, and much else. Take your pick.
This kind of thing does destroy reputations. One can only hope that dispassionate observers note my decades of filing from war zones, assailing despots and authoritarians, suffering persona non grata status in numerous countries for so doing and judge without prejudice. In three decades of global reporting for top news media I have looked sympathetically on two governments, only two – Georgia and Uzbekistan. Both needed Western support to emerge from Moscow’s shadow. We saw what happened to Georgia. Then the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbass followed soon after. And Europe is now vulnerable. The West needs a strategic friend in Central Asia, in the back yard of Moscow and Beijing and Tehran. Or a whole chunk of Asia will fall back into thrall to the West’s global rivals. That is a sufficient reason for my preliminary advocacy of support for Uzbekistan’s efforts – what I call the Uzbek Spring.
Now it’s certainly true that Uzbekistan was run for twenty-five years by an isolationist undemocratic authoritarian so to some extent the impression is hard to shake. But the improvements are so stark and so palpable that the amount of negative rancor is baffling. This is, after all, a country that over the decades and centuries has shown unique tolerance in the region toward Jews, Armenians, Islamic sects, Soviet political exiles, artistic exiles, WWII exiles, and much else – this despite having its dreams of independence summarily squashed by the Red Army in the 1920’s like so many other budding pre-Soviet states. The Soviets also destroyed a whole chunk of its environment by irrigating away the waters that fed the Aral Sea to feed cotton fields.
For a farflung landlocked country in mid-Silk Road desert Uzbekistan has lived through a lot of history as this BBC timeline shows especially in the post-Soviet era. The previous President Islam Karimov has a lot to answer for, including child labor for cotton and the massacre of hundreds of protesters in the infamous 2005 Andijan incidents, not to mention mass political imprisonments, squashing of independent media and political life. It’s not hard to improve on such a scoresheet and the new guy, Shavkat Mirziyoyev (former PM) did that instantly upon Karimov’s death in 2016. He loosened borders and went on incessant trips abroad, notably to nearby Silk Road ‘stans to end isolationism, spur investment and tourism and generally to reopen the country for business. He has done away with child labor. He has allowed a graduated increase of foreign news media, human rights observers and political activity. It has been five years and it’s not Switzerland yet but let’s get real – consider the region, consider the history, consider the potential pressures from Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and the like. Too much democracy too quickly is not tolerated by neighbors here (see again the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008). If you were President Mirziyoyev, how else would you approach it? That is why Tashkent is moving towards free speech, democracy, transparency and the like with very deliberate careful steps – but moving nonetheless constantly in the right direction.
The country is building at a massive rate as can be seen in any city. This Financial Times overview outlines the scenario – “from ranking 141st in the World Bank’s index on ease of doing business in 2015 to 69th last year”. What we’re witnessing is, thus far, an emergent Asian Tiger – if all goes well. And that’s a big if, considering the neighboring adversities. But let’s be under no illusions. The emphasis will be on stability and prosperity first. Even under direct US support consider the decades it took for, say, South Korea and Taiwan to achieve full free speech, democratic status, human rights and rule of law. There was a Cold War then, and there is one now. Prosperity came first. The US looked away from democratic shortcomings in client states as they evolved. No one does so now, except Moscow and Beijing. So who wins the geo-strategic struggle as a result? A brief assessment of the neighboring ‘Stans will show you that the Uzbeks offer the central hope for the region’s collective rise. A strong Central Asia forces Moscow and Beijing to look over their shoulders rather than push relentlessly outward against the West’s interests.
With all that in mind, we can say this about the Uzbek Presidential elections of last month. Imperfect but showing progress. Over a thousand observers came from around the world. The OSCE was invited to send observers too – they sent 366 and naturally found numerous problems. But, let’s face it, five years ago they would never have been invited. President Mirziyoyev was clearly going to win even in a wide open race. The country basically supports him hugely for everything he’s already done. He won some 80 percent of the vote. The opposition parties were small, emergent and needed approval even to register. He always had more exposure than any of them. On the other hand, as the OSCE report notes, the voters turned up in huge numbers, over 80 percent turn out, and as universally noted, were everywhere seen to be extremely enthusiastic – meaning not sullen and surly as would be in say Belarus or Iran. Uzbeks did not feel this was a fake election. This is something we all heard from voters themselves directly, from OSCE observers, from all the attendant foreign media. One should note, also, that CIS countries were also invited as observers and their reps gushed with praise – predictable and worrisome, as worrisome as Russian President Putin being first to congratulate Mirziyoyev… before the results were in. But more about that later.
So, a genuine paradox for Western eyes to comprehend. It’s worth explaining. Firstly, Uzbeks were delighted at the rate of participation compared to past decades. Voters turned out as families. They felt visibly joyous and festive. How to understand that, with all the apparent electoral shortcomings noted by OSCE and other Westerners? Unlike, the OSCE, citizens knew their own context and history. After all the observers and reporters went home westward to approval for making all the right noises to their own editors and audiences, the Uzbeks would continue to inhabit the country and region. Meaning they cared about stability first, ending poverty, avoiding conflict, staying independent, moving toward normalcy. For the first time, they were living in a country that was improving. Not least in the area of foreign direct investment and the economy. Here is a graph of the enormous spike in FDI in recent years from World Bank data. Meanwhile the country is creating institutions, think tanks, schools, colleges and independent legal structures at a massive pace, in order to establish a longterm system able to withstand different political bosses at the helm. Outside experts are invited in so that world standards can be met in commercial law, stock market regulation, transparent privatization and the like. The Commodities Exchange for example has been pushed to expand so that prices and trades can operate in transparently in full light of day away from shadowy insider cronyism. They citizens knew all this at the election. They understood the complexities of their situation better than any outsider, and they understood the priorities. Let us look at those priorities, as placed between aspirations and minefields, a very narrow isthmus.
Firstly, there was a lot of talk about incomplete human rights conditions, this against a background of universally acknowledged releases of religious and political prisoners on a large scale since the Karimov era. Foreign observers note the case of Otabek Sattoriy, the blogger who was imprisoned essentially for blackmail and extortion. Western skeptics say his guilt lay in being too outspoken a critic of crackdowns on free speech. On this and other topics, I interviewed Sodiq Safaev, a distinguished figure there (first deputy chair of Parlaiment, rector of the top University, former ambassador to the US and much else). He seemed genuinely upset over the case. “We act as overseers of such cases, and we take it very seriously because we’re gratified that such an avenue of appeal exists. We looked into it extensively and found that he was genuinely guilty of the charges” – that is of threatening negative coverage if not paid off, essentially a shake-down. “It’s not as if the trial or our review was conducted in secret – it was all highly transparent.”
Now this is in the particular context of numerous bloggers and youtube commentators pointing fingers at all manner of bureaucratic and government shortcomings. The country is unquestionably undergoing a massive opening up of free speech, discussion and criticism. It’s also in the context of a completely different culture of media economics. According to local journalists, the problem is not so much that media outlets don’t do investigations of corruption, they do. It’s just that such organs, broadcast or print, don’t have much advertizing yet and budgets are parlous. So journalists openly take funding from civilians to finance investigations into abuse. This is actually the way media often functions now, and as a result a lot does come out. But it also makes the job of outside observers rather difficult, since they can only evaluate things through their own confined self-regarding prism. They have no notion of different customs and traditions, different rates of evolution and aspiration.
Take for instance the rather insistent focus on judging countries by Western LGBT rights, a massively self-defeating modern tendency of liberal media. Here is an issue that is as much cultural as political, over which our our activist media is supremely blind and hypocritical abroad. You do not see them, for example, critiquing the sexual habits of Amazonian tribes from LGBT perspectives, because such groups constitute the ‘minority’ element of the liberal worldview. Meanwhile, our media or indeed State Department, show no sensitivity to their blundering forays into other societies on this and other such issues, alienating countries we need on our side in the grand geopolitical struggle for democracy. This is where our rivals win at every turn. The CIS election observer team included countries like Russia and Belarus, not noted for their democratic credentials. Yet they were gushing with praise over the fairness, transparency and efficiency of the polls. This in contrast to the sour, mealy-mouthed assessment of the OSCE and US State Department (however accurate). Guess which bloc Uzbeks appreciate more.
Vladimir Putin did congratulate Mirziyoyev prematurely, before the results were out, along with brutish Belarus president Lukashenko. In so doing, they were sending a quiet message – don’t think your election is any more real than ours, and that’s just fine with us. In fact, don’t even try to make it any more real in the future because we can undermine its credibility even this easily, by congratulating you prematurely and acting like your elections are as false as ours. We will stand by you if you keep faith, which the crazy West certainly won’t, criticizing you at every turn. They will offend the natural conservatism of your people and make it impossible for you to follow their path anyway.
Uzbekistan is at a crossroads. It needs to industrialize quickly because of dwindling water and shrinking agriculture. To do that, it must accelerate exports by quantum leaps. Yet as one of the world’s few totally landlocked countries it needs access to ports to scale up beyond exporting simply to immediate neighbors. The US has currently abandoned the region and is effectively unable to offer such access via aligned countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. So Russia becomes the default main trading partner where many Uzbek migrants go to work. Moscow is the main security guarantor, currently transferring Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopter gunships, BUK anti-aircraft missiles, armored personnel carriers, drones and much else.
Meanwhile, reportedly, Tashkent is negotiating with Tehran for use of an Iranian port. Such is the immediate cost to the US of abandoning the area strategically. The repercussions will grow and spread over time.