Uzbekistan: Ailing Dictatorship or Fledgling Democracy

by Martin Duffy

Uzbekistan, a central Asian nation and former Soviet republic, recently went to the polls. There were no surprises. In fact, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s acceptance speech could have been written a whole month or even a year earlier. Putting the matter bluntly, nothing much has changed. Let us then immediately consider what observers, Mirziyoyev himself and his fellow strongmen have had to say. The first thing is that none of his allies addressed the big fall in his majority, despite facing effectively zero opposition. Naturally the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party celebrated in Tashkent, taking comfort from the supportive tones of the Central Election Committee press conference. This allowed Mirziyoyev to appear confident as he recalled his achievements and said the election reflected “a spirit of democracy, openly and publicly” ( But is Mirziyoyev’s apparent victory a dictatorship consolidation or another step in a fledgling democracy? This observer certainly suggests the latter for whatever the economic progress brought by Mirziyovev, there has also been plenty of evidence of his tight fist. Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev is not a fledgling democracy, but merely a resurrected former-communist state cosmeticalized into a limited pseudo-democracy. Its democratic credentials are at the whim of foreign donor assets and conceal a resolutely centrist command approach to state control.

International Reactions to the Election

Further evidence of this dictatorial drift can be gleaned from the reports of international observation teams. OSCE observed that Uzbekistan’s “election legislation still has deficiencies and does not yet fully comply with international standards for democratic elections. While fundamental human rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the constitution, they continue to be restricted by other legislation and are frequently not implemented in practice.”( As anticipated, Mirziyovev could take more comfort from his camp-followers in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Sergei Lebedev, head of the CIS monitoring mission, said: “The mission of observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States have made the conclusion that the election on 24 October was held in full compliance with the Constitution and the Electoral Code of Uzbekistan, was competitive, free, open and transparent, and met the generally recognized principles of democratic elections.” ( Even before the official winner of the election was declared, the state leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan had already congratulated Mirziyoyev on his victory ( Putin sent his support. To many there was a strong whiff of communist nostalgia to the event. President Alexander Lukashenko, the disputed authoritarian leader of Belarus, thought “Uzbekistan would continue its growth steadily, bolstering its economic potential and positions in the international arena” (Ibid.) President Xi Jinping congratulated Mirziyoyev upon being re-elected, commenting that the election results had once again demonstrated the broad support for the ongoing developments in Uzbekistan domestically and in foreign affairs ( India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated  and hoped “India-Uzbekistan strategic partnership will continue to strengthen….” ( His Kazakhstan neighbour: President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev congratulated Mirziyoyev in his re-election bid, pointing to the “strong popular support for his strategic course.” (Ibid.) Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov also congratulated Mirziyoyev (Ibid.) 

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted his congrats towards Mirziyoyev, calling it an “impressive victory” in which the people of Uzbekistan had reposed their trust in his leadership ( Russia’s President VladimirPutin said the results of the vote “fully confirmed high political authority, as well as support aimed at the socio-economic development of Uzbekistan” ( Tajikistan’s President EmomaliRahmon wasted no time in pledging co-operation, while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointed to, “broad support by the population of the country for the ongoing course of reforms in the new Uzbekistan.” ( Much the same came from Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (Ibid.) It was a little like a scene from the movie, The Death of Stalin (2017), except that fortunately no-one had died. The American Embassy was a blunter, pointing to  “the overall lack of genuine pluralism and procedural irregularities” and effectively telling Mirziyoyev to follow the findings of the international observers.

The Voice of the International Observers

It is certainly welcome, as the EU noted, “that voting took place in a calm and peaceful manner, with a high turnout and no evidence of serious tensions (and) that a full-fledged International Election Observation Mission was deployed” ( Preliminary reports from the International Election Observation Mission undertaken by OSCE/ODIHR are more detailed. This substantial mission included the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and a delegation from the European Parliament. The OSCE report underscores a “lack of genuine electoral competition in this election. Independent opposition parties were excluded from the registration process contrary to international standards and OSCE commitment (and) there were reported cases of intimidation” (

It was apparent that  democratization in Uzbekistan has far to go if elections aim to achieve full legitimacy (Ibid.) There was no genuine pluralism or meaningful engagement between candidates or with citizens.  As Reinhold Lopatka, of the OSCE observer mission, noted:“Full respect for basic freedoms and real competition among political forces, which were lacking here, will be essential to live up to the people’s democratic aspirations.” ( There was substantial adding to voter lists, ballot box stuffing in multiple polling stations, and widespread flaws in counting procedures.” (Ibid.) While Heidi Hautala, the head of the EP delegation, suggested recent reforms were “encouraging” she also explicitly said “substantial obstacles” remain for Uzbekistan’s democratization. Daniela De Ridder, Head of the OSCE PA delegation also noted “the continuance of negative practices observed in past decades.” (Ibid.) 

As for regime performance, preliminary results published by the CEC have shown incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev winning a second term with 80.1% of the vote,  the worst performance for an incumbent in terms of vote share since 1991. Maqsuda Vorisova from the People’s Democratic Party (XDP), the first woman in Uzbekistan’s history to be nominated for presidency, and Alisher Qodirov from the Uzbekistan National Revival Democratic Party, became the first opposing candidates to ever earn more than 5% of the vote. As polls closed at 8pm on 24th October 2021 the Uzbekistan CEC confidently reported  voter turnout at the country’s presidential elections had exceeded 80%. In the early presidential elections in 2016, the voter turnout had been 87.83%. The CEC Chairman Zainiddin Nizamkhodzhayev promised final figures when he had collated voter turnout at foreign polling stations and added them to the count (CEC.) Five candidates, including incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, may have vied for the presidential office, but Mirziyoyev faced no genuine opposition. Now this victory  will let him extend his reform campaign and improve foreign trade and investment  while still protecting his centralized power base ( Although his total vote has dropped, the administration is unlikely to dwell on it. .

Uzbekistan’s Future Still Looks Mirziyoyev

Mirziyoyev had revamped his country’s ties with both Russia and the West which had become strained under his predecessor Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first post-independence president. Mirziyoyev has also lifted some restrictions on religious practices, encouraged a superficially “lighter touch” security service and political prisoner release of many of those who had suffered from Karimov’s zero-tolerance rule (Ibid.) These developments are encouraging. Still, this was an election without any real election. No genuine opposition parties were ever registered, relaxation on social media was limited, and criticism of the President remains all but constitutionally forbidden. Consequently,  the four candidates running against Mirziyoyev were nominated by parties which support the president. There is no credible Uzbekistan opposition. 

Mirziyoyev has pledged to cut poverty through rapid economic growth and gradually decentralize decision-making by devolving power to district councils (ibid.) In the extremely limited monitoring of public opinion discernible even in urban areas, the President was able to mobilize his party faithful, and from such opinion polls as were conducted he had retained lukewarm support even among younger voters. Press and civic observers certainly voiced in favour of state measures against financial hardship. This was a slogan the President could easily exploit, but it now remains to be seen if it can be delivered. Perhaps it simply does not matter as Uzbekistan has only a semblance of normal constitutional realpolitik and emerges from this election no more pluralistic than it had entered it. It is far more dictatorship than democracy.

International observers will be hesitant to see this as a mere “sham election” but at the least it is an election without genuine candidacy. It is, more accurately, an act of political acclamation orchestrated by the President and party. It also raises questions over Uzbekistan’s so-called new era of ‘openness’ which had been trumpeted in front of American and European audiences, and seemed to garner “willing listeners” (

Uzbekistan’s Harsher Side: Tashkent’s Gulag Archipelogo

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian scholar and political prisoner, helped raise global awareness of political repression in the Soviet Union (USSR)and the Gulag system. His Gulag Archipelogo (1973) so outraged the Soviet authorities that he was stripped of citizenship and forced into exile. Uzbekistan is waiting for its Solzhenitsyn, and when such a coherent, dissident, frank voice surfaces, Mirziyoyev may have more trouble in keeping his authoritarian grip. Regrettably, on this election day, as before, Uzbekistan remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes. This election answers unequivocally the hopeful narrative of some western observers that perceptibly Uzbekistan could be getting more democratic. (Ibid.) It isn’t. 

The Central Asian nation, infamous for systematic human rights abuses may have rebranded itself “New Uzbekistan – new elections” but there is barely a shred of evidence that anything has genuinely changed.  Uzbekistan has improved its relations with neighbouring states, some of which were previously considered “sworn enemies,” and its citizens could travel with a visa-free regime serving more than 50 countries (Ibid.) This is good for its citizens and means the sending of remittances home from Uzbekistan guest workers abroad. Symbolically the old security boss of Karimov’s regime was made redundant and high-profile political releasees included Muhammad Bekjan, one of the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists. It is also true that a lighter touch has been taken to press freedoms with independent media, including the BBC and Voice of America having fresh accreditation. However, there is little to support the Presidents’ assertion before the election that: “Nobody can put pressure on civil society and mass media.” 

As in 2019, the 2021 “race” further demonstrates that the core of the political system in Uzbekistan remains the same – no opposition allowed. All five parties participating in the election are regime loyalists. The oppositional Erk party and its exiled leader Muhammad Solih remain banned in Uzbekistan. Pre-election media and results coverage gave a mere veneer of live TV debates, the president and his family remaining untouchable. No-one can publicly criticize any personal aspect of the President or indeed any associate of Mirziyovev under the constitution. Mirziyovev has secured for himself an iron-clad regime.

Prior to these elections, the UN Committee against Torture expressed concerns over continued use of torture by Uzbek law enforcement and prison officials. Following his visit to Uzbekistan, the UN rights expert Diego Garcia-Sayan concluded that, “substantial threats against judicial independence and the rule of law remain” (  Human Rights Watch retained the classification of, “authoritarian country against the Mirziyovev regime, and as Steve Swerdlow, an independent human rights lawyer based in Tashkent has said, “releasing token political prisoners does not alter the repressive DNA of the system.” (

Denial of Basic Civil Society Freedoms

That no genuine Uzbek grass-root organization observed the voting process at its snap elections shows the government is still wary of civil society. Ostensibly there were NGO observers, but these were virtually all fronts for the President. On Karimov’s death Uzbekistan was so repressive it was endangered by protest. Mirziyoyev could only rescue legitimacy by some limited change. Even in authoritarian states, presidents require some measure of public approval and support, and today’s election suggests again that this pseudo-liberalism might have paid off ( Mirziyovev has managed to fool enough people that something has changed, and has been able to gag those who would most noisily protest against him. In the spinning of plates he has relaxed just enough to avoid public protests but retains power at the centre.

Freedom of speech has certainly been on the line in ‘New Uzbekistan’ and the Committee to Protect Journalists lamented, “a clear attempt to frighten the press away from covering sensitive issues as presidential elections grew near.” The tightening of control on new media outlets and bloggers in the immediate pre-election period demonstrates Mirziyoyev’s scant commitment to freedom ( The OSCE interim report noted, “an increased possibility to critically report on some social and political issues…many long-standing issues remain, including intimidation and harassment of journalists and bloggers, and a restrictive legal framework for the media ” ( The Associated Press was more direct. t “Uzbekistan has never held an election that was deemed fair or democratic by Western observers. “(

. The changes steamrolled through by President Mirziyoyev might have signaled economic change but not political progress. Proclaimed in 2017, the Mirziyoyev’s Development Strategy for 2017-2021, promised to “modernize and liberalize” Uzbek state and society (Malik, 2021.) According to state propaganda, a new Uzbekistan awaits. Nothing could be further from the truth. The old repressive Soviet-esque regime lies vaguely disguised by a thin veneer of show-case political candidates and fake elections.

The Mirziyoyev Regime in Context

Critics have described Mirziyoyev as “Karimov on heroin.” He has done so much more than Karimov and he says he has done it in the name of democracy. These bold moves certainly challenged Karimov’s conservative legacy and attracted the tacit support of European countries and the U.S. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken,meeting with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov), said that Uzbekistan has progressed on its reform agenda (Ibid.). However, he also pressed for “fundamental freedoms, including the need to have a free and competitive electoral process”, alluding to the country’s authoritarian political regime (Ibid.) The country’s authorities and ministries politely confirmed, “they get loads of [dismissible] recommendations every year from Western partners.” The reality ois that Mirziyoyev has pushed a development but hardly a genuine human rights agenda.

There is, however,  also a danger that over-insistence from the West could threaten the progress made so far in Uzbekistan’s slow journey towards democracy (Ibid.) The “Western agenda” with its espousal of judicial reforms, press freedoms, support of sexual minorities and gay marriages may prove to be “too much, too soon” unless Mirziyoyev can bring his power-brokers with him. He isn’t an ideologue so there is no reticence about change, provided  it does not threaten regime viability. Uzbekistan today seems schizophrenic- split between international aspirations and a conservatism still deeply embedded in the Uzbek mentality. Putting it crudely, Uzbekistan’s path for liberalization is dependent on Mirziyoyev ‘s direction while the outside soft power methods will have impact only when the local people are still given enough freedom to redesign the country’s moral compass(ibid.) 

The previous presidential election had been held in 2016, following Rarimov’s death. Acting President Mirziyoyev won the elections with 90% of a vote international observers and media dubbed a sham ( To be fair, Uzbeks were not used to political choice for indeed the last time a Uzbek president has faced a serious challenger in an election was in 1991, the year of the country’s independence. As for this year, Mirziyoyev was always widely expected to easily win. Two prominent opposition figures declared their intention to run against Mirziyoyev, but the authorities have repeatedly refused registration of their parties and one of these candidates, celebrity singer Jahongir Otajonov, withdrew, citing political intimidation (Ibid.) 

The road to Uzbek democracy is paved with broken promises. Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s political system has continued to be tightly controlled. Farkhod Tolipov, founder of the Uzbek non-governmental research organization (Caravan of Knowledge) finds, “no alternative to him” (Tolipov, 2021). While many parties ran in the 2019–20 parliamentary election, all of them were loyal to the government. In May 2020, the state announced reforms to ‘liberalize’ its media and electoral laws. In November 2020, a delegation led by Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited the US, “looking to strengthen” its strategic relationship. The meetings resulted in US$100 million being given to Uzbekistan for economic assistance, and the US pledging Uzbekistan’s UN Human Rights Council bid (Ibid.) Some reforms had been implemented; Parliament’s visibility had been “slightly increased”, and Parliamentary sessions were more often accessible to the public than in the Communist days (Ibid.)  However, MPs continued to vote unanimously on issues like the appointment of provincial governors, without attempts at debate or pluralistic decision-making (Ibid.) 

Conclusions: Dictatorship in Metamorphosis

Fledgling democracy or camelion dictator? In the atrophied state of Uzbek politics, how the future state handles opposition will be noted by observers and by Uzbek civic groups, many of whom have been accused of acting as Mirziyoyev stooges. Will challengers be allowed to freely express alternative views on Uzbekistan’s path forward?  Will they get even nominal press freedom or even a modest share of state airtime in the media? Will they be permitted genuine space to criticize the Mirziyoyev regime? (Ibid.) So much remains to be seen, but it would be a brave forecaster who poked fun, still less underestimated Mirziyoyev. In some respects, he has shown himself to be a shrewd manipulator of the political system, more adroit than any of his cold-war predecessors. Mirziyoyev is not a genuine reformer. He realizes that cold war dictatorships render him a dinosaur in a Jurassic park of authoritarian neighbours. He is unlikely to significantly regulate the degree of personal freedom currently at a low point in Uzbekistan and the continued reform path is likely to be cosmetic. He may tinker with showcase democracy and even throw a few concessions to allow a mild opposition to subsist, perhaps occasionally even questioning  Mirziyoyev’s “divine right” in a heavily censored press. During the continued Covid-19 pandemic, these strong men have excuses to keep a tight grip and Mirziyoyev has proven himself adept at making the best of a long health crisis. It may take a governance landslide which will threaten that entire generation of former Soviet leaders to begin the path of genuine democracy. Before that is likely to happen, “old survivors” of cold war days like Mirziyoyev are likely to metamorphose into a number of political species, but none of them will be genuinely democratic. Many Communist era apparatchiks have proven resilient to political change and as Mirziyovev celebrates another election victory he will think less of his declining majority and more of how he can frustrate any genuine opposition to his decision-making in the presidential term ahead.

Martin Duffy has observed several parliamentary and presidential elections in recent years in Uzbekistan. In the past thirty years he has been assigned on mission to virtually every OSCE member state. His service was as an attaché to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and as a nominee of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He observed the 2021 elections virtually, drawing on new integrated camera technology, one of the novel avenues for psephology being developed by international observer organizations. He is currently based at the University of Cambridge, Institute for Continuing Education (


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