By Yarolav Trofimov
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan—Step after tentative step, Uzbekistan—one of the world’s most closed societies—is beginning to open up.
The most-populous post-Soviet nation in Central Asia had become increasingly repressive during the quarter-century rule of former President Islam Karimov, who died a year ago. Freedom House, which ranks countries by political rights and civil liberties, has consistently put Uzbekistan among the planet’s five worst offenders, alongside North Korea.
Yet, in the year since the country’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, took office, a thaw of sorts has begun in Uzbekistan, a regional heavyweight that now says it seeks to improve ties with the U.S. and help Washington in neighboring Afghanistan.
On the economic front, Uzbekistan this month floated its currency, among other changes. In a personnel purge, a cadre of young technocrats—many educated in the West—have pushed out Soviet holdovers in key ministries.
In foreign policy, too, Uzbekistan has moved to repair hostile relations with its Central Asian neighbors, opening borders that had been closed for more than a decade and urging closer regional cooperation and trade.
“After the first year of the new presidency, you are visiting what is to some degree a different country. Uzbekistan has a new face,” Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said. “We are discussing our problems today, and that makes us stronger.”
Bakhtiyor Nishanov, deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute and the author of a recent Freedom House report on changes in Uzbekistan, took a similar view.
“There is no denying that there are good things happening in Uzbekistan,” he said. ”But it’s too early to talk about full-scale reform.”
So far, Uzbekistan is managing to reverse parts of Mr. Karimov’s legacy while erecting opulent monuments to the late president. Mr. Kamilov, the foreign minister, said the issue of respect for Mr. Karimov is kept separate from current state policies.
“It can’t be the case that when a leader is in power, everyone is worshiping him and after that they want…to disparage him, as if we hadn’t been next to him in the past and hadn’t participated in those failed reforms,” Mr. Kamilov said.
One of the hallmarks of Mr. Karimov’s Uzbekistan was harsh control over religious expression. The Muslim nation of about 30 million people faced a strong Islamist movement as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the bloody quelling of Islamist protests in 2005 led to a breakdown in ties with the West.
Over the past year, however, religious freedom has greatly expanded, said Usmonkhon Alimov, the mufti, or supreme Islamic religious authority, of Uzbekistan.
The winnowing of the “black list,” from 17,582 to 1,352 people, was by far the new government’s most important achievement, Mr. Alimov added: “The biggest thing that makes all Muslims happy is that the people on the black list have returned to their families and are no longer outside the society. This has united the people of Uzbekistan and has increased their trust in government.”
Hamza Jumayev, a 37-year-old TV journalist, says he was taken off the list in July. He was arrested in 2009 for alleged membership in an Islamist group.
Even after he was freed in 2012, Mr. Jumayev was barred from steady jobs, and had to attend monthly interrogation sessions with local security authorities.
“My neighbors, even my relatives, would avoid me. I understand them: religious crime is a very grave offense, and if you got in touch with someone like me, police would become interested in why,” Mr. Jumayev said.
In July, after his application for rehabilitation was fast-tracked, Mr. Jumayev wrote Mr. Mirziyoyev through the so-called “virtual reception room” that has already processed about a million citizen complaints submitted online over the past year. Two weeks later, Mr. Jumayev says, he got a phone call from the state TV company where he worked before 2009, offering him his old job back.
Allowing the value of Uzbekistan’s currency to float has impacted even more people. Until last week, only a small number of companies and people dependent on political patronage could purchase foreign currency at the official rate. Others had to resort to the black market.
The change, pushed through by Mr. Mirziyoyev despite internal opposition, has brought the exchange rate in line with the black-market rate—instantly disempowering a caste of senior bureaucrats.
“Some were against because they had been making money off this system,” said the British-educated first deputy chairman of Uzbekistan’s central bank, Timur Ishmetov. “Others because they are so used to administrative control over the economy that they were afraid their skills won’t be required anymore in the market conditions that they just can’t understand.”
Still, not all the announced changes have gone through. The removal of one Soviet-era legacy, exit visas for Uzbek citizens who want to travel abroad, has been delayed until 2019.
Yet the new government—aware of the uprisings around the Arab world in 2011—understands the risks of perpetuating stagnation, said Sodiq Safoev, deputy head of the Uzbek Senate.
“There will be ups and downs, but you have to look at the trend,” he said. “The reforms have a cost, but delaying the reforms would be costlier.”