Where Freedoms Are Expanding—Slowly

Uzbekistan has long been one of the world’s most repressive societies. But a new president appears to be loosening the state’s grip, little by little.

Donald Trump gestures as he meets with Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the White House.
Donald Trump meets with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the White House. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

A little more than a year ago, I stood among a crush of reporters shouting questions at President Donald Trump and his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in the Oval Office, and asked Mirziyoyev what his White House meeting would ultimately mean for the Uzbek people.

His reply was a standard one: The visit, he said, showed that Uzbekistan’s voice mattered in international affairs—but then, acknowledging my reporting as an Uzbek American journalist, he added wryly, “Come back to Uzbekistan.”

On the face of it, his offer was implausible. Mirziyoyev had ascended to power only two years prior, and under his predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan had been one of the most repressive societies on earth. Karimov had ruled the country for more than a quarter century until his death, in 2016, and brooked no dissent: The country had not simply jailed reporters, but in fact had held two longer than any journalists had been imprisoned anywhere else in the world.

That was why many actual or aspiring journalists simply left. I was born and grew up in rural Uzbekistan, not far from the capital, Tashkent. But educational and professional opportunities took me across deserts and oceans to India and the United States, where I now live and am a citizen. And for more than a decade, as I helped to grow and diversify the Uzbek-language service of Voice of America (VOA), the Washington-based network funded by the U.S. Congress, my native country was closed to Western media.

Still, I took Mirziyoyev up on his offer and, soon after that White House meeting, went to Uzbekistan as the first American journalist accredited to report from inside the country. In multiple trips over the past year, I have crisscrossed its regions and—this is my personal view, not that of VOA—seen a remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties.

China both oppresses domestic journalists and hounds foreign correspondents while exporting some of its practices abroad. Some Russian journalists have ended up dead. Even in democracies such as Turkey, reporters are arrested. And among Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors, media freedom has declined precipitously: Kyrgyzstan has seen libel suits used to suppress independent journalists, while Kazakhstan has jailed editors and imposed fines and brought lawsuits against news outlets.

Uzbekistan, to be clear, still has a long way to go—Reporters Without Borders pegged it 160th in the world for press freedoms, and Freedom House gives it dismal ratings in terms of liberties. Yet in both cases, those scores are, incredibly, improvements for a country that had long curtailed even limited notions of pluralism or dissent.

This shift began with Mirziyoyev’s rise to power in December 2016. The current president had a long career under Karimov, first as a mayor and then as a governor before eventually becoming prime minister, and had been blamed for a litany of ills, from enabling forced labor to failing to deliver economic results.

But since taking over the presidency, he has, at least publicly, made some positive moves. In particular, he has openly agreed that Uzbekistan’s government had not delivered returns for its people, nor had it served them well. He has spoken out about corruption and abuses of power, systemic violations of human rights, and even torture, child labor, and forced labor. He has pledged to tackle unemployment, poverty, and the factors that drive Uzbeks to migrate in search of work. In a country long ruled by a dictator, where people take their cues from the leader, even what could appear to be mere promises signaled a changed environment. Uzbek officials who once talked to me only furtively now clamored to talk to VOA (albeit not always on the record). And they did so with unprecedented candor and latitude.

Senator Sodiq Safayev spoke openly to me about the need for a new kind of parliament—a more effective rather than largely symbolic one. He admits that lawmakers in Uzbekistan’s current legislative setup are simply incapable of overseeing genuine reforms. Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov came to VOA’s studios in Washington to say Uzbekistan was engaging human-rights organizations and learning from American experience in building a rules-based system. Then, Labor Minister Sherzod Kudbiyev, a close Mirziyoyev adviser, invited VOA to his Tashkent office to discuss how to end forced labor, and touted expanded cooperation with the International Labour Organization and local human-rights defenders to prevent exploitation during the cotton harvest. Tanzila Narbayeva, now chairwoman of the Senate, described her time as deputy prime minister and spoke of how much work it will take to close Uzbekistan’s gender gap.

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.

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.

Yet state media still mostly tell the state’s story, and remain thoroughly unreformed. Authoritarian practices remain widespread, from the central government through to the regions. Corruption persists, as do entrenched economic interests, and the security services remain largely unchecked in the eyes of the public, despite Mirziyoyev’s pledges that they are indeed being reformed. Though VOA and the BBC are now accessible in Uzbekistan, Radio Liberty’s Uzbek Service remains blocked.

But perhaps the most pervasive form of inertia is the persistence of a highly personalized political system. Reforms—indeed, Uzbekistan’s entire decision-making system—remain heavily dependent on Mirziyoyev. Citizens widely view him as the embodiment of the Uzbek government, arguing that unless he says or wants something, nothing changes.

Yet at a time when we are deluged with stories about countries cracking down on media and reversing reforms, Uzbekistan has at least taken initial steps to buck the authoritarian tide. Much about its reform progress is messy. Some officials tell me they wish for an instruction manual to make change.

Perhaps that is why Mirziyoyev himself so often leavens his confident pledges with the caveat that reform is going to be “incredibly tough.” Moving forward is more challenging than simply avoiding a reversal—it will require painful decisions and disruptive action. Still, as the president himself has said, “there is no going back.”