hug1_Presidency of Uzbekistan  HandoutAnadolu Agency via Getty Images_mirziyoyev Presidency of Uzbekistan/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Managing “Managed Freedom”

While Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s government has implemented some reforms, it has gone only as far as a system of “managed freedom.” There is room for some dissent, though how much is not always clear, and the state is still quick to revert to repressive measures. That is not good enough.

LONDON – On July 9, Uzbek blogger Miraziz Bazarov posted an open letter to the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank on Facebook, highlighting the likelihood that the government was misusing COVID-19 relief funds. Bazarov’s allegation proved to be justified, but he paid a price for making it: he was summoned to the State Security Service (SGB) office for questioning.

Bazarov addressed the IMF and the ADB, because they – along with the World Bank – had together issued nearly a billion dollars in loans for Uzbekistan’s battle against COVID-19. But Uzbekistan has a long record of official corruption. It ranks 153rd of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, not least because officials have often used their positions to enrich themselves and silence their critics.

That is why Bazarov urged the IMF and the ADB to refrain from issuing loans to Uzbekistan until the government devised a mechanism that would enable the public to track how the funds are spent. That way, the funds would be invested in Uzbekistan’s health-care system, which is on the brink of collapse, and would help the many citizens who, as Bazarov noted, had been left “without incomes and the means for survival.”

Thanks to a wave of public outrage, an anti-corruption investigation was conducted, finding that employees of the sanitary-epidemiological service, a department within the health ministry, had embezzled more than $171,000 since the COVID-19 crisis began.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev established the investigating agency for the stated purpose of preventing the misuse and misappropriation of COVID-19 funds. This is in line with the promise to uphold free speech and democracy that Mirziyoyev made four years ago, following the death of his despotic predecessor, Islam Karimov.

But the reality on the ground shows how difficult it is for the government to fulfill his promise. While Mirziyoyev has praised bloggers and their work, anti-defamation laws mean that they can still face prison or crushing fines for their work. And bloggers might have no idea what response they will get until after their work is published.

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In fact, Bazarov is just the latest in a long line of government critics to be targeted. Over the last year, at least six social media activists have been detained because of posts critical of the government. And they are the lucky ones: others have been kidnapped, beaten, and confined to psychiatric facilities. Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev was recently extradited from Kyrgyzstan over social-media posts critical of Mirziyoyev.

Now, bloggers and other social media users may be about to become even more vulnerable. The Agency of Information and Mass Communications recently proposed a bill that would hold website owners criminally liable for user comments on their platforms.

Civil-society activists are also on shaky ground. Independent non-government organizations may no longer be subject to the repression of the Karimov era, but they still have no official legal status. This failure to allow NGO registration makes it difficult for activists to carry out their work, raise money, or hire staff, and leaves them open to SGB harassment.

The truth is that, while Mirziyoyev’s government has implemented some reforms, it has gone only as far as a system of “managed freedom.” There is room for some dissent, though how much is not always clear, and the state is still quick to revert to repressive measures. That is the core finding of the London-based Foreign Policy Centre’s recent “Spotlight on Uzbekistan,” a report on which I worked with other experts.

To make real progress toward democracy, the report argues, Uzbekistan must move beyond permitting only “constructive” criticism – as defined by reformers within the ruling elite – and embrace full freedom of expression and association, with no threat of interrogation, prison, fines, or abuse. It must do so urgently, not least because of the COVID-19 crisis.

In Uzbekistan, as in many other countries, the pandemic has overwhelmed state institutions. But the crisis has also highlighted the impressive progress the country has made, especially in terms of the development of its civil society. During the second wave, when hospitals were overrun with patients, volunteers organized to purchase supplies for hospitals and create a system for delivering and setting up portable oxygen concentrators in infected people’s homes.

By publicizing these projects, bloggers and social-media activists helped to make them work, including by raising funds and finding volunteers. And yet they remain vulnerable to official retribution for the opinions and information they post. Protecting them is essential to keep Uzbekistan on the path of democratization.