Challenges for Uzbekistan’s New President: Border Conflicts and the Islamist Underground

A new political era has begun in Uzbekistan. Despite predictions in some media outlets, the country entered it without popular unrest or provocations, literally in mournful silence. The situation in the republic remains stable, at least for now. Ivan Safranchuk, associate professor of the Department of Global Political Processes of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy told what awaits Uzbekistan in the near future.

On September 3, Islam Karimov, the first President of Uzbekistan, who assumed power 25 years ago, was buried in his hometown of Samarkand. Thousands of people visited his grave at the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis to pay their respects. According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, the new acting president is the Chairman of the Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashov. However, the question of interest to all is who will be the next president.

Among possible candidates, both the deputy head of government, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov and Karimov’s younger daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva have been named. According to Safranchuk, their chances are slim.

“Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva will only have socio-economic interests in Uzbekistan, as well as her close connections to the Uzbek political elite. However, I would not call these purely political interests. I don’t think she will try to enter mainstream politics, taking part in the struggle for power,” Safranchuk said.

“Shavkat Mirziyoyev has the greatest chance, I think he will be conducting the succession policy to the greatest extent,” he added.

Technocracy vs. Political Pluralism

Mirziyoyev has been Uzbekistan’s Prime Minister since 2003. His candidacy was proposed by Islam Karimov.

“In the past years, the role of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet as a whole has grown. After the latest [2014-2015] parliamentary elections, there was a trend toward the increased number of technocrats in the administrative-economic body, the cabinet of ministers and various government bodies,” Safranchuk said.

The current situation can be viewed both positively and negatively, depending on one’s worldview.

“If you lean toward the view that there can be no successful economic reforms without democratic liberties, then such a path will appear to be a dead end. If you believe that there are many examples, (first of all in the non-Christian world, Buddhist, Confucian and Islamic countries), of reforms being conducted without political pluralism, then it can be said that this is the path that numerous states took more or less successfully,” he added.

The future of social and economic policy

Uzbekistan is a country with great potential. "It is the most populated country in Central Asia. It is a country that is actively pursuing an industrial, commercial policy, - Safranchuk said. - But on the other hand - this is a country with a very much constrained social and economic policy. There are many constraints in agriculture, in industry. Therefore, no matter who comes to power, he will face the fact that his capacity will be limited. "

“And there are objective physical restraints. For example, in rural areas with constant high rate of population growth there is declining availability of agricultural land for a number of reasons. So the chances of employment in rural areas are reduced. To feed the growing population and get a high outturn from agriculture, it is necessary to introduce more efficient production methods, create jobs in the cities, develop industries. But then the next question arises - what to do with the produced products?

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country ocean. Accordingly, any export of industrial production is expensive. "There are two options - to explore neighboring markets (and here Uzbekistan strongly relies on the CIS free trade zone, to save almost tariff-free access to the neighboring markets of the former Soviet Union), or go to more distant markets, but in this case it is necessary to produce high value-added products," the expert explained.

Here the country cannot do without high-tech manufacturing, which requires investments and creation of appropriate conditions for investors. And since we are talking about an active agro-industrial policy, it is necessary to apply protective, protectionist measures, to carry out strict currency controls. "Of course, in this scenario, investors are not very interested in cooperation. For a successful result it is necessary to balance the situation in manual mode, and the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan traditionally does it," Safranchuk said.

According to the expert, the policy of balancing within the given limits will continue. "The moment when the cabinet is ready to change something radically has not yet arrived. And who knows when this time will come. Therefore, no matter who comes to power in the upcoming elections, he will most likely adhere to this socio-economic policy,” Safranchuk said. “And in order to do this, you need to maintain political stability, that is, to carry out the old domestic political line."

External threats and Islamist underground

Islam Karimov firmly and consistently fought against radicalism, and many called him "guarantor of the secular state", referring to the possible strengthening of radicals in case of changes on the political arena. There are also external threats - the republic, as we know, has a troubled neighborhood represented by Afghanistan. Moreover, many Uzbek nationals have been recruited and fight as ISIS militants, despite the fact that Uzbekistan has one of the best-equipped armies in the region and strong internal security service.

“The ISIS threat is real. But Uzbek security forces do not combat it efficiently enough,” Safranchuk believes.

According to the expert, provocations from within are much more probable in the near future. “The underground can carry out a ‘trial of strength’. Islamists can be expected to try and test how much the situation has changed as a result of the changes in domestic policy. But I think Uzbek authorities will easily cope with these attempts by Islamists to probe the situation,” Safranchuk said.

Trans-border tug-of-war

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s telegram to the Uzbek authorities reads, in particular, that “under the leadership of Mr. Karimov Uzbekistan pursued a peace-loving foreign policy which contributed to security and stability in Central Asia.”

Uzbekistan borders on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. “There are certain tensions, social if not political, on all of its borders. And in the coming months aggravation of relations is possible,” Safranchuk believes.

The highest risk of escalation is on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz and Uzbek-Tajik borders, with territorial disputes and transport corridors being the points of dispute respectively.

“Over the past ten years Karimov has demonstrated great restraint in all conflicts. He never overplayed his hand on territorial disputes, although some people in Uzbekistan said he should have acted in a tougher manner. There is a risk that after the change of power they will get an opportunity to act. Then escalation in the border regions will become possible,” the expert stressed.

Time will show if these forecasts will come true. Meanwhile, a three-day national mourning has been declared in Uzbekistan. “The first President of our country Islam Karimov is truly a great historical figure,” reads the message of the country’s parliament and cabinet. “Thanks to him, our republic gained independence, achieved a significant progress on the path of independent development and was able to avoid the horrors of war and destabilization in one of the hardest and most responsible periods in the life of our independent state.”

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