On Sunday, October 24, presidential elections will be held in Uzbekistan. Although they are being held for the seventh time, the current President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev is only the second head of state in the entire 30-year history of independence. Before him, Islam Karimov was in power for 27 years in Uzbekistan – an authoritarian leader who is deservedly called one of the most brutal dictators of our time.
What was Uzbekistan like under Karimov, who remained at the helm until his death, and what was the presidential power in the country under him? Present Tense recalls how the first head of Uzbekistan was remembered and tries to find out which way his successor is going.
Islam Karimov was in power in Uzbekistan for 27 years and is remembered, first of all, for his despotic style of government. The almighty president stifled all dissent in the country, brutally suppressed religion, and repeatedly extended and reset his presidential terms long before Vladimir Putin did.
The worst situation in Uzbekistan in those years was the situation with the observance of human rights. People who disagreed with Karimov’s policies or the processes taking place in the country were silenced by the authorities, most often in a harsh manner. Many oppositionists were detained without reason by the security forces, kept in prisons for months and tortured to extort confessions from them. Many arrest orders were issued by Karimov personally: former intelligence officers and human rights activists testify to this.
According to the International Human Rights Society “Memorial”, the number of political prisoners in Uzbekistan under Karimov was noticeably higher than in all other post-Soviet countries combined.
We should also note Karimov’s attitude to religion. Fearing the seizure of power by the Islamists, since the beginning of the 2000s, Karimov began to tightly control the spiritual life in the country. He banned the study of Islam at home and the distribution of religious literature, and also unofficially banned the wearing of a beard. Women at the same time were banned from wearing hijabs in public places.
One of the bloodiest milestones in the history of Uzbekistan is the events in Andijan in May 2005, when the military shot an anti-government demonstration. According to official data, 187 people were killed during the clashes, according to unofficial data, up to several hundred.
Karimov argued that an attempt at an Islamist uprising had taken place in Andijan, and no one allegedly gave the order to shoot the security forces. In the months following the Andijan massacre, representatives of dozens of international organizations and journalists were expelled from Uzbekistan.
Under Karimov, censorship flourished in Uzbekistan. The media were officially assigned curators from the special services, who controlled both the content and even the personal lives of the journalists themselves. With the development of the Internet, the Uzbek authorities also began to block news sites and social networks.
In the economic sphere, Uzbekistan under Karimov did not exist very well. Many large Soviet enterprises stopped working, gas and electricity were supplied with interruptions, and the national currency, the sum, secured its status as unstable. Inflation reached such proportions that one hundred dollars in soums weighed about half a kilogram.
President Karimov was compromised by his eldest daughter Gulnara, who in the mid-2000s was one of the most influential women in Central Asia. The president’s daughter owned a big business, sang, was a fashion designer and, as it turned out, was engaged in raiding, helping to seize enterprises, including foreign ones. After Western countries accused Karimova of money laundering, Gulnara was in custody while her father was still alive, and after Karimov’s death she was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.
The era of Karimov ended in the fall of 2016, when the first president of Uzbekistan died after a stroke. His place was soon taken by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, an associate of Karimov, who at that time had already served as prime minister for 13 years.
During the 5 years of Mirziyoyev’s rule, Uzbekistan, according to reviews both “from the inside” and “from the outside,” has significantly changed in appearance. The new president has forged relations with neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, ties with which were practically frozen during the Karimov era. The merits of Mirziyoyev also include the liberalization of the economy, the attraction of large volumes of investment and the weakening of the authoritarian system of government.
But experts note that it is too early to talk about the victory of freedom of speech in Uzbekistan. In the 2021 Press Freedom Index, compiled by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders, Uzbekistan remains at the very bottom of the list, at 157th place out of 180.
Despite the fact that Mirziyoyev held a large amnesty for prisoners, according to the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, many critics of the authorities and people convicted of “religious extremism” are still in prison. A 2020 HRW report notes that torture in prisons continues in Uzbekistan, and that journalists and activists continue to face harassment.
Experts emphasize that power in Uzbekistan is still concentrated in one hand. Political parties do not engage in political struggle, and society is limited in freedom.
When Shavkat Mirziyoyev just came to power in Uzbekistan, both the residents of the country and the world community hoped for large-scale positive changes. Some of their hopes were justified. But in fact, the same authoritarian regime continues to live in Uzbekistan, where there is no place for pluralism of opinions and political freedom.