As Uzbekistan Presents A New Face To The West, One Name Is Rarely Spoken

TASHKENT -- If you happen to be in Uzbekistan's capital in the next few months, you're likely to hear the number three a lot.

Speak to officials or flip on the news, and you'll hear about how much the country has reformed over the past three years.

You'll hear about how, in a scene that would have been difficult to imagine three years ago, candidates engaged in lively televised debates in advance of the December 22 parliamentary elections. (What you're less likely to hear about is the lack of any genuine opposition candidates).

Or you'll hear about how over three years a regime of strict censorship has evolved into an atmosphere of somewhat greater press freedoms. (Though some outlets, including the Uzbek Service of RFE/RL, whose journalists cannot receive accreditation or open a news bureau, are still censored and their websites often blocked.)

But what you’re unlikely to hear is what exactly happened three years ago to precipitate these changes -- namely, the death of Islam Karimov, the authoritarian leader who ruled Uzbekistan with an iron first for 27 years.

Three years ago, Shavkat Mirziyoev, then the prime minister, led the funeral procession in a regal state service in Samarkand, Karimov's birthplace.

As he has cemented his own power as president and the unquestioned leader of the country, Mirziyoev has kept up appearances, visiting Karimov's memorial complex on the anniversary of his death and even bringing the leaders of four Central Asian states in November to lay a wreath in his honor.

But outside of the de rigueur -- and without saying it directly -- officials in Tashkent are attempting to trumpet what they portray as serious efforts at reform by creating a clear contrast with Karimov.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Mirziyoev's former press secretary and the head of the country's communication agency was as explicit as ever.

"Of course, there's a huge difference between that time and now," said Komil Allamjonov, who is thought to be close to Mirziyoev and whose deputy is the president's daughter, Saida Mirziyoeva. "But considering that we have a mentality against criticizing people who have been buried, and giving respect to those people, we don't openly talk about that. But that doesn't mean that we're not going to compare."

"[Karimov] had a certain method," he added. "During his time a lot of problems accumulated. Really a lot. And accordingly, these problems had to be solved by our president, Mirziyoev. And he's solving them now."

In his quarter century in power, Karimov oversaw a system that used arrests and torture to stamp out political dissent.

In 2005, the security services of the former Communist Party boss ruthlessly suppressed protests in the country's eastern city of Andijon, reportedly leading to hundreds of people being killed. And a system of forced labor -- including the use of children -- in Uzbekistan's cotton fields caused hundreds of Western companies to stop buying what was long one of the country's most-valued exports.

With Uzbekistan desperately seeking foreign investment, many of the reforms set in place since Karimov's death have pleased Western officials.

That includes the some 50 people widely considered to be political prisoners who have been released, and there have also been public efforts to reduce forced labor during the cotton harvests.

Meanwhile, in February, Mirziyoev established the communications agency that Allamjonov runs.

The campaign appears to be paying off.

In one week in December, The Economist named Uzbekistan the "country of the year," an honor granted to the state that has "improved the most" over the past year, and CNN featured the architecturally rich country as a Top Travel Destination For 2020.

But some rights groups have warned that the accolades have come too quickly.

In a letter written on the eve of the election, Umida Niazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum on Human Rights, called the reforms "window dressing" in a system that has continued to prevent real political opposition.

Despite a law banning the practice, there are continued reports of torture in Uzbek prisons and still an unknown number of political prisoners that may number in the thousands who remain locked away.

"Old habits die really hard and the security services seem to be holding on to a lot of influence and power and are not democratizing," said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert.

"The conventional wisdom of the 'reformer class' -- if you want to call them that in quotes -- is to only look forward and to refer to Karimov as 'thou who shall not be named,'" he said. "There's a lot of implicit hacking of his image or implicit dissing of what Karimov did but almost no willingness to speak openly about human rights abuses and who committed them."

Many of the people who make up Mirziyoev's administration -- including the president -- served for years under Karimov, and the same political parties that now profess support for the president were once also subservient to Karimov.

Narimon Umarov, the head of the Adolat party, who ran for president in 2015 while also at least implicitly supporting Karimov's candidacy, exhibited the dilemma in an interview with RFE/RL, in which he refused to criticize the former president but did say that "lots of problems" had accumulated.

Mirziyoev has sidelined some members of the former administration who were seen as presenting a challenge to his power, but others have been rehabilitated and few have been punished. He dismissed Rustam Inoyatov, the feared head of the National Security Service, but kept him on as an adviser in a move seen as a face-saving measure.

With a newly empowered National Guard, the true test of how much distance the new administration is willing to put between itself and Karimov in practice may be how it responds to public discontent.

Severe natural gas and electricity shortages led to rare protests in several parts of Uzbekistan in early December. Tashkent resisted cracking down and blamed local officials. But as utility prices rise, there are signs of discontent, particularly among the working class.

Some working-class residents in Tashkent and Samarkand, 300 kilometers to the south, have waxed nostalgic to RFE/RL about the Karimov era, saying that since his death prices have gone up but wages have stagnated.

"The problem that we have is that these reforms have not been tested," said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, who said a large-scale protest or a terrorist attack may provide a real indicator of the genuineness or the extent of Mirziyoev's break from the ways of the Karimov era.

"Something that would cause the government to be forced to react quickly, and then you would see whether they rely on old methods or whether they rely more on their new methods."