CONFERENCE CALL: New Uzbekistan: development, innovation and enlightenment

CONFERENCE CALL: New Uzbekistan: development, innovation and enlightenment
Uzbekistan is developing rapidly and its recently updated constitution will be a basis for the next stage of development, the government says. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Tashkent July 6, 2023

Uzbekistan is undergoing a rapid and profound transformation since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over in 2016, and those reforms are already starting to bear fruit. Incomes are rising, privatisation is underway and the economy is growing at an average of around 6% a year, despite the polycrisis that is sweeping the world. But the bulk of the hard work lies ahead. Senior government officials and international advisors and partners gathered in Tashkent on July 4-7 to review the progress so far and outline the challenges that are on the road ahead.

“We’re living in a challenging world today. Some scholars define it as the momentum of a polycrisis… The question is: what we can do to overcome this crisis? How will we overcome the challenges which humanity faces, and the normal response and natural response is dialogue an open discussion, which could create more trust, create confidence and create or bring consolidation of our efforts. And I think this event exactly aims this purpose, creating platform for broad dialogue between different nations, cultures, languages, countries,” Sodiq Safoyev, the first deputy chairman of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan, told delegates in a new conference centre in the capital of Tashkent that had been built in only 40 days by leading Uzbek construction company Enter Engineering – a symbol of Uzbekistan Rising, as followed by bne IntelliNews.

Mirziyoyev is in a rush to create a new modern country as a torrent of reforms emerges from the president’s office. And he is under pressure to work quickly, as Uzbekistan is one of the only countries in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) that is enjoying a fast growing population. The median age of the population is 28 years old and over 1mn young people are entering the workforce each year. The government needs to find them all jobs. Catering to the needs of society is at the heart of Mirziyoyev's reform programme.

Several themes came out of the conference. Uzbekistan is reaching out to partners around the world to take advantage of “leap-frog” reforms, skipping over decades of development and adopting best practices familiar to other countries from day one.

Youth and education also emerged as a crucial element in the transformation. While the neighbours of this ancient Central Asian country are rich in hydrocarbons and mineral resources, Uzbekistan’s biggest asset is its people. With a population of some 35mn and replacement rate of 2.3 children per woman, the government is investing heavily into education, as another aspect of the reforms is to add value to the existing industries, and a better trained workforce is a key plank of this goal.

Dozens of new universities have been opened and today the country boasts over 200 higher education facilities, of which 65 are privately run and 30 are foreign managed by partners such as the US’ MIT, University of Cambridge and the German-run New Uzbekistan University that is focused on providing workers for the transforming country.

The government has also thrown itself into the reform of the healthcare system – again reaching out to international partners to build a state-of-the-art service that provides for the needs of its people.

A World Bank study in the 1990s found the best investment a country can make to improve its economic performance is to invest in its healthcare system; healthy workers work harder for longer and add more to the economy, whereas an unhealthy population not only produces less; they are a huge burden on the state in terms of the costs they generate.

Foreign policy has also been transformed. The previous president, Islam Karimov, closed the country off from the rest of the world and its poor human rights record made Uzbekistan a pariah. At the same time, interregional rivalries meant there was little co-operation amongst the five so-called ‘Stans. However, under the new Mirziyoyev administration the doors have been thrown open and foreign partners actively courted.

“Listening to our international friends, partners is very important, to get their assessment and their vision of the future of the reform process, and what that means for international context, including in Central Asia, South Caucasus, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, and beyond,” the senator said.

Many of the changes have been enshrined in a new constitution that was approved in a referendum in April and saw two thirds of the basic law updated.

The theme of the constitutional changes was “society initiates reform”, and work was begun on addressing the rights of workers and the first big steps were taken towards guaranteeing gender equality amongst other things, including ensuring women are entitled to equal pay and can’t be sacked if they get pregnant. The new constitution also introduced habeas corpus, the right to remain silent if prosecuted, and nixed the death penalty. Mirziyoyev also launched judicial reforms to ensure the courts are independent and enhanced the rule of law starting in 2017, with more additions to improve the independence and transparency of the judiciary included in a beefed-up chapter in the new constitution.

When taking over in 2016, Mirziyoyev said: “It’s time that the people stopped working for the government and the government starts working for the people,” which has been a constant leitmotif ever since.

“The new constitution transformed the main paradigm of reforms. When we embarked on political and economic modernisation seven years ago, we realised the most basic issues needed to be addressed: convertibility of currency, more democracy and human rights, upgrading the role of Parliament, more freedom for entrepreneurship,” said Safoyev.

“I think that the past seven years demonstrated that society successfully completed the first initial steps of the reforming process. However, society realises that now, we are on the edge of more serious, more challenging stage of reforms, and they clearly need a new legal basis for that, for instance, the land reform, private ownership, privatisation, more decentralisation of governance system, applying more than good governance principles and so on.”

Safoyev argues that the motive for the new constitution, to provide a legal basis of the New Uzbekistan project, is the “2.0 stage of reforms”, says Safoyev, that “will open up new horizons for Uzbekistan development.”

The New Uzbekistan is also about remaking Uzbekistan's place in the world, first of all with improving relations with the country’s neighbours in the region and then building new partnerships with countries further afield. Foreign policy has been completely overhauled.

“The most visible and tangible reform of the New Uzbekistan is foreign policy,” says Safoyev, who was also independent Uzbekistan’s first ambassador to the US. “Before we were shy to talk about things like human rights, but today we have an image as one of the most dynamically changing countries in the world.”

The senator, who is also a former foreign minister, admitted that while since independence Uzbekistan had diplomatic relations with countries in the West such as the US and Germany, for much of the last 25 years there was “almost zero contact” with Uzbekistan's immediate neighbours in Central Asia.

“When Central Asia countries started to consider themselves as a zone with shared economic and ecological problems, Uzbekistan emerged as a regional player, adapting to the new realities as well as starting to deal with global issues,” says Safoyev. “All in all, Uzbekistan is starting to consolidate its position as a regional power and beyond.”

Mirziyoyev is actively building up those new relations with a recent trip to Germany that raised billions in investment promises that was almost immediately followed by a trip to Xi’an as part of the “5+1” format meeting between China and leaders of the five ‘Stans.

Given the difficulties caused by the current geopolitical tensions between East and West, Mirziyoyev is trying to balance the various interests and build a multi-vector foreign policy based on his country’s national interest.