It is a measure of how repressive Uzbekistan was under its first post-Soviet president, Islam Karimov, that the first, tentative steps by his successor to curb the secret police are raising high hopes of an Uzbek Spring in the making. Yet with democracy in retreat across much of the former Soviet empire and elsewhere in the world, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s efforts bear watching and deserve support.
Little was expected of Mr. Mirziyoyev when he ascended — unconstitutionally — to the presidency on Mr. Karimov’s death 19 months ago. He had long served the dictator as prime minister and was widely expected to maintain his despotic system. Yet he has unexpectedly taken a very different, and so far positive, path.
Most notable have been his steps to curb the huge powers and reach of the feared security apparatus. Mr. Mirziyoyev fired its long-serving chief and his deputy and signed a law that made protecting human rights one of the security service’s missions. He has released some political prisoners, including journalists; he has removed about 18,000 people from the security services’ notorious “black list” that made it impossible for them to travel or get work; he has curbed the use of forced labor in cotton fields; he has loosened controls on news media a bit; he has worked to mend fences with Uzbekistan’s neighbors.
Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, took note of Uzbekistan’s “significant break with its past” as the “first, meager, shoots of spring” in its latest Nations in Transit report, though like others who have commented on the changes, it stressed that hard work lies ahead. The security apparatus is still largely intact, Mr. Mirziyoyev still exercises authoritarian powers, and, as Human Rights Watch recently reported, censorship is still in force and journalists are still being arrested.
Yet with contempt for rule of law and independent institutions spreading around the world, even Mr. Mirziyoyev’s modest attempts to buck the trend are significant, especially as the Stalinist system prevalent across Central Asia (with the exception of little Kyrgyzstan), with its arbitrary arrests and widespread torture, is far more pernicious than anything happening in Europe.
After seven decades of Soviet rule and 27 years under Mr. Karimov’s iron hand, fear, self-censorship and timidity run deep among Uzbekistan’s citizens. Even if Mr. Mirziyoyev succeeds in bringing the security apparatus under control, there is no certainty that he is prepared to cede his own powers, put an end to arbitrary detentions and torture, or address past abuses. Despotism as deep as Uzbekistan’s is not quickly excised.
But Mr. Mirziyoyev has made a beginning, and it is critical that the United States and the European Union link whatever engagement they have with Uzbekistan, whether investment or development programs, to continued improvements in human rights. That is critical not only insure that Mr. Mirziyoyev stays the course, but also as an example to Uzbekistan’s neighbors, and to any leader who sees benefits in authoritarian and illiberal rule.