By Reid Standish
For the first time in 25 years, Uzbekistan has a new president, after Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister, won an overwhelming victory with 88.6 percent of the vote held on Sunday. Mirziyoyev, who served as acting president since the death of longtime ruler Islam Karimov on September 2, faces a bevy of political, economic, and geopolitical challenges as he seeks to fill Karimov’s very big shoes.
The election, at least, showed signs of continuity with the previous regime: The 59-year-old Mirziyoyev ran against three other candidates, all from pro-government parties, and the election was criticized by the the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which said the vote was “devoid of genuine competition.” And Mirziyoyev, who has a reputation for brutality, said that he intends to ape Karimov’s blueprint for governing, which was characterized by endemic corruption and brutal human rights abuses.
But in his time as interim president, Mirziyoyev has also hinted at the possibility of reform in Uzbekistan. That’s because of the very real threats posed by mass migration and Islamist extremism, and especially Uzbekistan’s economic stagnation. Mirziyoyev is taking steps to loosen constraints on the country’s currency, and cutting red tape that has hindered businesses and scared off foreign investment.
“[Mirziyoyev] is trying to firm up his support and show he is a legitimate president,” Paul Stronski, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, told Foreign Policy.
The issue of legitimacy looms over Uzbekistan’s new presidency. Karimov’s demise sparked fears of a power battle among the elites, but the country’s regional clans quickly grouped around Mirziyoyev, bypassing the constitution, which mandated that Uzbekistan’s Senate leader should have taken over the interim position ahead of elections.
Moreover, Mirziyoyev now has the difficult task of replacing Karimov, Uzbekistan’s larger-than-life founding father who ruled the country since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
“Karimov was a mythological figure. There was respect for him regardless of the policies,” Bakhti Nishanov, deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute, told FP. “People would blame other officials for problems, but never the president.”
Mirziyoyev will find out soon if such treatment comes with the office. As president, he will inherit the most populous country in a Central Asia battered by economic headwinds from two of its biggest financial partners: Russia and China. Cheap oil and Western sanctions drove Russia into recession which in turn has cut into remittances from the 2 million Uzbek migrants working there. China’s economic slowdown, meanwhile, has cooled investment in the region.
Without action to boost economic growth at home and attract foreign investors, Mirziyoyev risks being left with a national economy increasingly reliant on shrinking remittances. The Central Bank of Russia has reported only $952 million worth of remittance transfers in the first half of 2016, down from $6.63 billion in 2013, prior to the fall in oil prices and Western sanctions against the Kremlin.
Amid the bleak economic picture, Mirziyoyev has sought to repair relations with neighbors in Central Asia. On December 2, Uzbekistan resumed flights to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, after a 24-year break. In November, Mirziyoyev’s interim government indicated a willingness to resolve longstanding border disputes with Kyrgyzstan, which have existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mirziyoyev has been cagier in dealing with larger powers in the region, including Washington. Shortly after Karimov died, Mirziyoyev said he would follow his predecessor’s more recent example and not join any international military alliances or host any foreign military bases. Karimov became an unsavoury U.S. ally during Washington’s “war on terror,” hosting a U.S. air base on Uzbek soil for the war in Afghanistan. But after U.S. criticism of a brutal government massacre of civilians, Karimov closed the base in 2005. Relations warmed slightly under in the Obama administration and Uzbekistan played a role on so-called Northern Distribution Network, serving as a transit hub for NATO material to and from the Afghan front.
Uzbekistan’s new president looks set to retain its independence and balance external powers, but with a struggling economy, Mirziyoyev may be more willing to accommodate Moscow or Washington to attract foreign investment.
“Youth unemployment is very high and the young people are coming back from Russia,” said Nishanov. “They have to try to fix the economy to keep things stable.”