Slow progress for Uzbek democracy

The Croatian presidential contest wasn’t the only election held on Sunday. It was also the second round of legislative elections in Uzbekistan, the most populous country in central Asia.

A few years ago, anyone trying to drum up interest in an Uzbek election would have been laughed at, and rightly so. Under president Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country since before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan was a tightly controlled dictatorship with virtually no political dissent permitted.

But Karimov died in 2016, and since then there have been changes. His successor, former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has pursued a cautious policy of liberalisation, freeing political prisoners, relaxing censorship, liberalising the economy and adopting the rhetoric of reform.

So the legislative election was a good test of how much substance there was to the notion of an “Uzbek Spring”. And at first you might think it looks promising: official results (unfortunately only in Uzbek so far, although some parts of the website have an English version) show five parties winning seats, and Mirziyoyev’s party, the unfortunately-named Liberal Democratic Party, short of a majority with just 53 seats out of 150.

But this diversity is an illusion. The five parties are the same as won seats last time (and in much the same proportions), in the 2014-15 election – which no-one thinks was democratic. They are in fact the only parties legally permitted, and despite their superficial differences they are all supportive of the regime.

That said, all reports indicate that there was a great deal more open debate surrounding the election, and for the first time an OSCE mission was sent to observe polling. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that parties are created as stooges doesn’t mean they will always stay that way – recall, for example, how the tame minor parties of Communist Poland started behaving like independent agents when the regime weakened.

So while Uzbekistan is not a democracy, progress is being made; it’s a much freer country than it was four years ago. It would be a good thing if some of that progress could rub off on its neighbors.


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