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Uzbekistan a year later: On the eve of a big strategic leap
14 October 2017 | Sayfiddin Juraev

Significant changes began in Uzbekistan in all spheres of society from the beginning of September 2016. Real changes are taking place in the relationship between the state and - people. After all, 2017 is the Year of Dialogue and Human Interests…

New perspectives in the development of our society are emerging. According to the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a new era has begun in the country. Important changes are going on in the overall political space. This generates all other changes encouraged by the second President of Uzbekistan. Many people are asking today, how has Uzbekistan been able to change so much in such a short period of time? Is it just a temporary political slogan that will pass soon, or is it really the beginning of a new stable dynamics transforming the country? Did the new president have a ready-made recipe for starting such a large-scale transition with political talk and innovative approaches unheard and unseen in Uzbekistan so far? What are the results? What problems, questions have arisen? How can we assess the first year of only the second presidency in the 26 years of independent Uzbekistan in general?

Analyzing the direction, substance and possible future policies displayed by Uzbekistan's development as the new leader of the regional progress in Central Asia

We feel that today it is important to look at the current trends that determine the directions in internal transitions of the country – closely affecting the entire revival of Uzbek society. To reveal and evaluate that this process is aiming at long term progress and stability in its reform oriented policies, one has to look beyond daily headlines and political speeches. How stable or fragile is the current stage, or rather – is it strong enough to lead towards very concrete changes and implementation that would be perceived on the ground, way down to the grassroots levels.

Some facts from this early period

Indeed, the honest assessment of internal affairs shows that the country began to face very serious changes in the political, social and economic life of society, taken up with a parallel policy approach, and started from top down. People's attitude to the political life of the society, to the role of their engagement based on their own free will, their interest for the future of the state and to their own fate changed drastically. People suddenly became more active, especially young people, who so far were pushed aside and mostly left out of the public engagement. Lively public discussions, dealing with social and political events, spreading all around the country are becoming the generator of ideas really affecting the development of society. Entrepreneurs started to feel more independence from bureaucratic obstacles, so they began to be more efficient, feeling free from usual harassment of the state officials which used to strangle their innovative approaches and ideas. They are gaining self-confidence and started to operate also internationally, raising the country’s foreign trade indexes. Volumes of domestic and foreign private investments started to significantly increase. The reforms in the economic sphere were accelerated, currency reform was launched. Starting with September 5 this year, Uzbek currency (soms) became convertible. This is the most important event for paving the basis for a stable and livelier engagement of both Uzbek and international businesses. It symbolically happened on the one year’s anniversary of the presidential transition and on the days of 26th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence. Both domestic and international audience applauded this step.

This measure thus practically overnight erased the notorious black market of currencies and allowed both domestic and foreign businesses, as well as citizens to start functioning on a more transparent, people and state-friendly way.

Uzbek banking services have started establishing contacts with international payment systems in order to be able to conduct transactions in foreign currency. ATM machines started to appear all around the country, and credit cards are becoming accessible to ordinary citizens, not just so called “plastic cards” for domestic transactions, but also internationally operational credit cards.

The real transition process observed in the country’s international outreach

The work aimed to promote the country's political and economic interests beyond Uzbekistan also adapted new approaches. Over the period from September last year to the present, 14 top-level visits were initiated and held in Uzbekistan. The state visits of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, United States and to Saudi Arabia (during the summit of Islamic states) were indeed breakthroughs. As a result, 245 contracts and agreements worth about $ 39.9 billion were signed. 12 meetings of intergovernmental commissions on trade, economic, investment and technology cooperation, 130 visits of economic delegations of Uzbekistan to foreign countries, 267 visits of foreign business delegations to the republic were held – all this happened in just one year… Over the past nine months, over 320 trade and investment agreements and contracts for the amount of $ 44 billion have been concluded. In order to ensure their implementation, action plans ("road maps") have been signed with 13 countries.

The new face of Uzbekistan introduced to the regional and international community…

Under the leadership of the new president and his cabinet, a completely new breeze in relations in the Central Asia region started to unravel with unprecedented dynamics. Uzbekistan as the central and most populous country of Central Asia practically overnight resolved most of the conflicts with its neighboring countries and took the lead in shaping up the region as an important new global focus. Reducing potentials of internal regional conflicts Uzbekistan also initiated closer cooperation that can enable establishing of entirely new qualities supported by countries of the region – offering a positive new model for other fragile regions around the world.

The content and results of the ongoing reforms, the style and methods of taking active leadership in these processes of newly shaped international cooperation, initiated by Uzbekistan, were noticed in many global media - American, Russian, Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Afghan. In particular, positive reports on Uzbekistan, mostly negative in the past, started to appear in such influential news media as BBC, Forbes, WSJ, Bloomberg, "Russia 24", "First Channel The World Network", "MIR 24", "Regnum.ru".

The head of state understood perfectly well that representing the country that is one of the ancient cradles of Muslim culture demands a new foreign policy approach. While working with the clergy and religious thinkers of the country, he stressed the potential of enlightened Islam and its responsibility to take a more active global role. His meetings with representatives of the clergy have played a significant role in this. He also initiated more international open dialogue on the accumulated problems related to (mis)perceptions of religions and the search for viable solutions not just in internal domestic area but also internationally. He participated at the Summit of Arab-Muslim countries and the USA, on May 21 this year in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. This showed his intentions in this direction are sincere. Next, he took this message further to the international podium in New York at the UN summit in September. He argued that the strategic significance not only for the Muslim world, but for the world as a whole, is the call to the world community to understand the truly humanistic essence of Islam, which can be one of the focal points of basic and universal human values. He strongly condemned those who put Islam on a par with violence and bloodshed.

This was the first time that Uzbekistan took a more visible and outspoken role, through the message of its president, who spoke from the global podium on today’s main security and inter-civilizations challenges and initiated much needed international dialogue among global cultures, often in conflict based on differences in religious beliefs or their (mis)interpretations or mutual prejudices.

New Uzbek phenomena: social media

Active discussions exploded in the platforms of social networks like "Facebook", "Odnoklassniki", "Twitter" and "VK". President himself, and many of his cabinet members became active participants on social media. While dominated by Uzbek younger generations, this offers an excellent space for outreach to citizens, who in the past had not been part of transparent communication with their own government. This also means that Uzbekistan, its leadership and its citizens are forming closer ties with the global community, using the modern communication not really publically recognized or politically accepted as something normal even a year ago. This contributed to the revitalization of the public sphere – people have become braver and more active in social networks, local media have become a bit more courageous in expressing critical views. Journalists and editors began to pay attention to some previously ignored problems, such as corruption, bureaucracy, unemployment and Uzbek migrants. There is a new TV channel Uzbekistan 24, which - like some other outlets - began to broadcast live talk shows with the participation of ministers, khokims, and parliamentarians. In general, the press began to better inform the public, thus becoming a bridge between government and population. They are becoming more important in shaping public opinion, since they started to cover and respond to problems and issues occurring around the country.

The times have started to change indeed and Uzbekistan is catching up...

Reorganizing economy and abolishing state monopolies

In the regions of Uzbekistan, a network of business promotion centers will appear soon. New organizations are established in the structure of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in all regional centers, as well as Nukus and Tashkent with units in each district and city. They are opened in the premises together with the unified centers for rendering state services to business entities on the principle of "one window", created by the Ministry of Justice. The centers are designed to provide comprehensive support to business entities by creating the necessary conditions and providing the possibility of obtaining the entire range of services of state bodies in one place. These centers are set up to also coordinate close cooperation with banks, leasing, insurance, audit, valuation, and real estate companies. The number of bureaucratic documents required to start a new business is reduced from 6 to 1. Since April 2017, the opportunity to register your new business in 30 minutes online is another important step for revitalizing the economy.

The head of state ordered to attract strategic foreign partners that have the necessary capacity and resources for setting up high-tech and innovative productions. For this purpose, Techno Parks have been set up to be provided with a wide range of subsidized benefits and preferences.

Another good news for the reshaping of Uzbek economy is the development of the Innovation Center (a government supported incubator for start - ups), which is designed to grow into Uzbek “Silicon Valley”. The Inkha University in Tashkent is currently the site of the center's creation, as a pilot project. Gradually, the project should grow into a free economic zone, where high-tech production of various domestic IT companies would be concentrated. The emergence of the Innovation Center in the country is meant to lay the foundation for domestic and foreign inventors in creating more complex software products, aiming towards global market.

The President took measures on diversification in agriculture and cultivation of new crops that are export-oriented. Mainly the traditional apricots, cherries, sultana, grapes, beans, tomatoes, greens, peaches and persimmons are exported. The goal set was to increase the export of such products and reduce the dependence on cotton. Since last year, Uzbekistan has established export operations with 9 new countries, including dispatch of capers to Spain and Italy. Among new markets were Lebanon (export of nuts), Israel, Vietnam and the Czech Republic (export of raisins); Belgium and Netherlands, (importing Uzbek dried fruits); Switzerland (importing grapes and melons). New ideas in southern regions were launched with the cultivation of saffron. According to the presidential draft, plans to create plantations of this valuable plant in 23 districts of the country on an area of more than 50 hectares are being developed. Some of the products would be exported, and some used for the development of the local pharmaceutical industry.

Another major national project is the creation of cherry orchards across the country. The June presidential decree allowed farmers to directly sell fruits and vegetables abroad, which was the main breakthrough. The decree thus annulled the export monopoly of the specialized foreign trade company "Uzagroexport".

The President's action to eliminate manual labor was important not only in the economic sense, but had important political significance. In particular, government launched domestic production of up to 1,500 cotton harvesting machines, and by the end of 2017 more than 600 units of equipment will leave the assembly line. During his first month taking over the leadership of the country in September 2016, president signed a new version of the law "On labor protection", which was in line with the recommendations of the International Labor Organization. In addition, Mirziyoyev said that he is going to cut down cotton plantations in places where the land for them is not sufficiently fertile. Instead, vegetables and fruits should be grown there and gradually replace cotton with other crops during the period from 2017 to 2020.

Uzbekistan becoming a popular destination for tourists

Uzbekistan- rather closed and unknown to average global traveler so far -is also opening up to global tourism. It has become much more often mentioned in the leading global media and in professional tourist publications, as well as in different blogs, notes and photo albums of private travelers. With its remarkable historic venues, it is declared as an interesting new trend for tourism, for travelers. Tourism provides for direct exchanges and contacts on people to people levels. Tourism is becoming important industry and has started to lead to many entrepreneurial initiatives and small family businesses that directly empower citizens. Uzbek government is closely considering necessary backing to provide further improvements of conditions to enable easier implementation of policies - this includes new measures in subsidies and accessible bank loans to small businesses and the sector of economy (including building of proper infrastructure), providing further development of tourism.

Uzbekistan changing its ranking on global indexes

Different important states, including neighboring countries, as well as some international organizations, have positively assessed the unraveling processes in Uzbekistan. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan ranked second among the fastest growing economies in the world. It is expected that Uzbekistan's GDP growth this year will be 7.6%. The World Bank, following their visit to Uzbekistan, noted that the Uzbek economy can pleasantly surprise the whole world with such a pace of development. According to the results of the annual Gallup survey, one of the most prestigious public opinion research organizations, the Uzbeks were among the three most optimistic and positive people on the planet.

Leadership publicly announced a five year plan of policy priorities

The head of state, after analyzing the social, political and economic situation of the country, publicly announced a five year plan of policy priorities, entitled “The Strategy for Development of Uzbekistan”. This covers all main areas of state functions, provides policy directions, needed legal framework and steps outlined for the implementation. It also includes specific deadlines and mechanisms of controlling the progress.

Specific monitoring and priority evaluation role of the ongoing implementation processes is linked to citizens' appeals - that is, to pay special and priority attention to the opinions, judgments of ordinary people and to show special attention to the problems they face. Special structure has been set under the direct supervision of the president and his cabinet on addressing and resolving concrete problems of the population that citizens bring up and can report on directly to the president’s virtual cabinet (channels providing direct communication by citizens or businesses and other nongovernmental legal entities to the very top, without any intermediate steps).

The second indicator of the implementation of policy priorities is the assessment of the real state of affairs in the economic, social, humanitarian, and political spheres using another unusual method, also a novelty in Uzbek political communication, namely, in the form of a “dialogue with the people”.

These political approaches, when politicians and government officials of all three branches of government on all levels of the state, both national and local, are exposed to direct dialogue with citizens, are then used to shape new policies within the current export-oriented economy. It also changes mentality of both officials and citizens, encourages individual initiatives and creativity, enables wrapping them up into a solutions that bring much needed support of the population – and it is clear that no democratic politician can successfully function without broader support of people.

These methods, that president consistently used in this one year of his leadership, are now reflected and taken up on all levels. They were used also for the outreach to businesses, to entrepreneurship, to young people, to intellectuals, to clergy, as well as for public discussions on enlightened Islam.

Clearly, no president in the world can solve so many problems of the people, much less in a short period of time. Yet strong initiatives from top down go a long way….

The head of state was perfectly aware that the country was no longer the same as it was in the 1990s, new trends, conditions and factors began to form in the world, especially in the region, and a new generation appeared in Uzbek society, completely different in their interests from the previous one. At the same time, the country's population exceeded 30 million people; the average age in the country is now 27 years. The priority task is therefore to build a stable market economy, to reform and upgrade the education and provide jobs for this new generation of thousands and millions of young people, so that they can see concrete and prosperous perspective in their own country and not flee its homeland.

It should be noted that in order to solve existing problems in society, state institutions, including at the level of awareness of these problems by every member of society, it was necessary to act uncommonly, without threatening the development of the system. At the same time, it was necessary to act, not only by taking decisions, but also by determining future guidelines. Here, the new leader required the courage, the firmness of openly recognizing the real situation, and the adoption of decisions of a more updated political approach, primarily in solving the problems of the social and economic sphere. This actually happened the minute that Mirziyoyev took on the leadership of the country.

Thus, right after being appointed to the post of interim president, he said that the inaction of responsible employees of ministries and khokimiyats (= governors, as main presidential appointees for local governance) presents one of the main reasons for many unresolved social and economic problems, and for different violations of basic rights of the citizens. In his opinion, as he declared, the time for substantial changes had arrived. This was the kind of basic postulate of the new political dogma that “it was time for the State to work for citizens, not the citizens to work for the State”. This also meant that entirely new directions and framework was outlined for the rule of law, in which the state is primarily responsible for the well being and respect of liberties and rights of all its citizens.

Later, at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers (2016), widely publicized in most local media, he recognized that the bodies of state powers both on the national and local levels in Uzbek regions, do not work for people. In this regard, he demanded government officials not to sit in the offices, but to meet with people and listen to them, and follow up on their problems. This was a serious demand instructing concrete action from the very top of country’s leadership. He requested a realistic assessment of all problems, trying to obtain the real picture, problems, concerns that citizens perceive and face in their everyday life. He tasked his cabinet and all state officials in all three branches of government to start addressing and resolving these concrete problems, violations or concerns. In turn, the feedback principle as the main mechanism of building a stable democratic society and a pre-condition to building basic trust between people and their government has started to grow. Activating citizens was the most important step, providing them access to participate in policy-making processes was the main political mantra of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s leadership. So the second president of Uzbekistan really led the incredible political breakthrough that suddenly opened new horizons to Uzbekistan – to the State itself, and to its citizens. But it also opened entirely new chapter to the states of Central Asia and their people.

Addressing the role of law enforcement as government’s instruments to protect public safety or be misused as repressive tools

During one of his public addresses, the head of state explicitly stated that the policemen more often do not serve the public interest, but rather their own. He demanded that prosecutors and chiefs of the Internal Affairs Directorate regularly report on their activities at the live broadcasted local media programs.

And for the violations in their conduct and professional performance, not only ordinary employees would be punished, but their supervising officials as well, who have been appointed as personally responsible for improving the quality of performance of their subordinates.

In September last year, he signed a law regulating the activities of the police. As stated in the document, the security officials are not allowed to shoot at women, children, disabled people, nor at criminals mixed in crowds of people. To assure that police and investigating officers would no longer beat suspects, the systems of audio and video surveillance are to be introduced by the end of 2017 in all police examination rooms around the country. Also, departments for coordination and monitoring the inquiry stage are to be created, with judicial oversight by the courts, and employment of officers with higher legal education is to be added to all investigating departments around the country.

The country has established a wide network of telephone hotlines, where citizens can report about abuse of authority by one or another internal affairs officer. Equal telephone hotlines are also established at General Prosecutor’s offices around the country offering citizens reporting of cases of corruption demands by government officials at any level.

Another important novelty is announced prison reforms, among many important changes being introduced within extensive ongoing program of judicial reforms. Equally important is also special attention devoted to upgrading of basic and continuous judicial education in all sections of the government. Several decrees like April 2017 presidential decree on reforming the main law university in the country (Tashkent State University of Law) bringing it in line with international standards, is now also being followed by many other educating institutions.

Modernizing teaching methods and a strong focus on education and teaching staff was named as the most important investment into country’s future.

Direct dialogue: Initiative and strong will – the main recipe to continue the process for a different future

An important factor was his initiative and strong will. The leadership needed to convince the population, including foreign partners, that it intends not only to solve specific tasks and problems, but also is capable of leading the country along a new path of development, taking into account the interests of millions of citizens living in Uzbekistan.

He began to visit the regions of the republic, directly started to meet with country’s youth, entrepreneurs, pensioners, women, activists of public organizations, etc. He and his staff were able to learn first - hand about the problems of ordinary people. He was able to resolve some issues directly on the ground. He walked away from high-flown slogans and promises, but instead used a people -friendly approach when meeting with citizens. Visiting the regions, he discussed with people their proposals and opinions, as well as the potential for their further involvement in state and public affairs.

His working discipline and schedule must have been very hard throughout the whole year.

What complaints did citizens bring up in their appeals to the president?

According to some mass media, more than 93,000 complaints concerned the work of law enforcement agencies, about 56,000 – targeting judges and courts, over 50,000 –targeting prosecutors, 43,000–different judicial authorities, 6,200– tax and slightly more than 1,000 – customs services. The creation of the Virtual Reception or Virtual Cabinetallowed direct and continuous acceptance of complaints from citizens, bypassing numerous officials, and informing the President about them. The result turned out to be unexpected for many people, hence numerous personnel changes followed.

TO CONCLUDE:
In order to develop further this democratic instrument of “Open Dialogue with people”, three months later President Mirziyoyev expanded his powers by signing of a presidential decree, instructing the creation of people's reception rooms of the president in every city and region of the country. Removing all barriers between the President, his government and the people is supposed to create entirely new communication and entirely new political climate.

Today, citizens of Uzbekistan, wherever they are - in the country or abroad, using the opportunities of social networks and electronic technology, or personal outreach, can ask questions, talk about their personal problems or initiatives - directly to the President. That fact in itself has started to transform the state structures and mental picture of government officials all around the country on all levels with unprecedented dynamic.

The biggest novelty is also that president himself took this mantra of respectful and open dialogue beyond just internal and domestic affairs. He also courageously brought it to the Central Asia, and, it should not be ignored – to the very heart of Islamic cultures (to Saudi Arabia), and lastly, also to the global community at UN summit in New York.

And this is the main and biggest news that Uzbekistan has managed to achieve in the one year of the presidency of its second president in its 26 years of independence. The country with so many young people, whose role has now been properly encouraged and politically upgraded, has all the prospects to turn Uzbekistan into a fast growing economic tiger.

Many challenges remain, and much of hard work remains ahead, many internal problems to be properly attended and more international cooperation to be nurtured, hopefully with the same pace and energy as it has been started in this last year. But the first steps have been done; they are visible and should be recognized. They represent a political fresh breeze also internationally, and are welcome news in these challenging times we all live in.


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