These comments may appear to be just rhetoric, with little tangible prospect of follow-up, and that may well end up being the case. But that they are speaking so openly is remarkable. No media have had such access or straightforward conversations with Uzbek officials in recent history. Under Karimov, the system was shuttered, full stop. Official interviews were rare and tightly controlled.
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What is driving this change? How did Uzbekistan get here? Uzbeks themselves struggle to answer these questions. It could be the promise of greater foreign investment in a country with a more dependable legal system. Or the desire to no longer be seen as an international pariah. One thing is clear: Mirziyoyev is driving the shift.
I often ask Uzbeks, including government officials, why they should trust Mirziyoyev, who is, after all, the product of Karimov’s own system. They tell me that Mirziyoyev actually knew the extent of the problems in the Uzbek economy, of the damage to the country’s image, of the lack of credibility it held, and of the extensive abuse in the system. Merely by raising these issues, Mirziyoyev owns them. And if he’s doing that, officials and ordinary citizens that I speak to ask rhetorically, why not support and trust him?
That’s a world away from Karimov’s Uzbekistan. Still, after nearly three years of halting or partial reforms, Mirziyoyev now has a choice to make. He has consolidated his hold on the state and could now satisfy himself as the country’s second authoritarian president, albeit one who undertook some reforms after achieving power. Or he could push further, to conquer bureaucratic and institutional inertia, to move toward a more competitive, open, and democratic country.
Karimov helped to foster Uzbek nationhood from the ashes of the Soviet empire. But his security state depended on the control of news, information, and movement. I began my career at Uzbek state media, but left the country to be a professional journalist. When I returned to Tashkent as an accredited reporter, I challenged the authorities to show me what had changed under Mirziyoyev—specifically, whether a VOA journalist, whose content the authorities had followed but blocked from the Uzbek public, could be allowed to dig deeply into what was happening.
A year into my reporting from Uzbekistan, it feels to me like something is changing. But as with many authoritarian regimes that begin to open up, there are still limits in practice. Though it is remarkable in itself that uncomfortable topics can be discussed at work, in homes, on the streets, in public, and online, stasis nevertheless persists.
Take, for example, the media sector itself. Not only are private Uzbek-language media outlets tolerated—the mere thought of this would have been anathema under Karimov—but they are dynamic, with reports on the litany of problems in Uzbekistan, from the lack of transparency to poor human rights and an unfair justice system. Fear and self-censorship remain problems, but even bloggers now have sufficient confidence to offer multimedia exposés of sensitive topics. Professional journalists, meanwhile, are building networks to help one another cover rights issues, the first time Uzbek media have focused on the topic at all.