No surprise in Uzbekistan

I didn’t bother to preview last Sunday’s presidential election in Uzbekistan, since there was never any doubt about the result – to the extent that Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated the winner, incumbent Shavkat Mirziyoyev, before the results were published.

During Mirziyoyev’s five years in office, Uzbekistan has moved from being an outright dictatorship to what one might call a merely authoritarian state: one in which opponents of the government are mostly just harassed and kept from power by a variety of dirty tricks rather than mass repression. That’s a step forward, and should be recognised as such, but there’s clearly a long way to go.

The official results, now published, show Mirziyoyev with 80.1% of the vote against four opponents, who shared the remainder fairly evenly: Maqsuda Vorisova placed second with 6.6%. That’s a distinct comedown from the 2016 election, when Mirziyoyev was declared elected with 90.3%, but it shares with it the further problem that none of his opponents were actual opposition figures. All are basically complicit in the existing regime; genuine critics of the president were prevented from competing.

Eurasianet’s report says that the other candidates “were present merely to make up the numbers and lend a democratic veneer to an essentially undemocratic vote,” and describes the “reduction in the president’s vote share as a choreographed concession to plurality.” Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe drew attention to a number of shortcomings, while also acknowledging that substantial progress has been made.

In other words, nothing much has changed since the legislative election almost two years ago, in which the ruling party won only just over a third of the seats, but the rest all went to its allies. It remains true, however, as I pointed out then, that in a climate of change, allied parties might not always stay that way.

Observers are understandably sceptical of Mirziyoyev’s liberalisation. The most recent edition of the Economist’s Democracy Index puts Uzbekistan at 2.12 on a ten-point scale – up 0.11 points on the previous year, but still in 155th place (up just two places). Freedom House gives it 11 points on a 100-point scale, up from just seven three years earlier. Both rate it higher than neighboring Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but not by much.

It’s not unlike the discussion that we had last week about the significance of recantations. Just as we might be tempted to regard News Corp’s change of front on climate change as nothing more than window dressing, we might easily say the same about the last few years of reform in Uzbekistan. But it seems to me that both would be a mistake. Change can be real and important even when it is much less than is called for.

Mirziyoyev now has another five years to pursue his reform program, such as it is. If it stalls, and the next election is another charade – and particularly if he evades term limits to run again – he will deserve the world’s condemnation. But for now, the jury is still out.

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