WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump will host a historic meeting: The first White House visit by a president of Uzbekistan since 2002.
Then, 16 years ago, hope for Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet prospects was already fading, as former president Islam Karimov cemented his control of a state responsible for widespread human rights violations. Karimov’s successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoev, arrives in Washington, D.C., at a moment of renewed optimism, with a clear vision for development and reform, and an international community largely yearning for a success story, as so many other countries have seen downward trends in the markers of democratic freedom.
During his first 20 months in office, Mirziyoev has set his sights on a market-driven economy instead of a state-controlled one. He has freed political prisoners — though many more remain imprisoned — and he has enacted reforms to tackle corruption and improve government services. In Washington, Mirziyoev will meet with Trump, as well as with officials at the World Bank, where the Central Asian country seeks the financing and expertise required to enact the new government’s vision.
“These reforms are really to be commended, and the international community should seize the chance to help ensure their sustainability by acting now, not waiting to see if they last,” Helena Fraser, United Nations resident coordinator and U.N. Development Programme resident representative for Uzbekistan, told Devex ahead of the visit.
Devex spoke to Fraser about Mirziyoev’s development vision, the type of foreign assistance his government is seeking, and what the development community should understand about this country of 30 million people, which could be poised to break out of decades of isolation.
Here is the interview, edited for clarity and length.
What is your advice to development organizations and donors who might be eager to regard Uzbekistan as the next big opportunity to enter a formerly closed country?
This is a country which has a very clear idea of where it wants to go, a very clear vision of the transformation that is required, not just on the economic front — which is probably what gets a lot of the headlines — but also on the legal, judicial, social, and political front. When I say political, I mean foreign policy, but also compacts between a government and its citizens. Nobody should come here thinking the government needs to be advised on the vision. The vision is clear. It’s articulated in the five-year action strategy. The action strategy, from our perspective at the U.N., is aligned fully with the Sustainable Development agenda. It’s a five-year action strategy, but it’s a pathway to the SDGs.
What are Uzbekistan’s biggest development priorities? Are these the same as those things the country needs to do to improve its human rights record?
President Mirziyoev has a slogan underpinning the reforms, which is now something that you hear on the lips of local governors in the districts of Uzbekistan, or in the Ministry of Interior … and that slogan is, “the government should serve the people, not the people the government.”
The president established a virtual reception center, which over the course of 2017 received over 1.5 million requests and concerns. These were triaged, analyzed, and, according to government statistics, the majority were positively addressed. So I would say there is also a transformation in how the government is approaching listening to its citizens and engaging with them to inform the reforms.
The five priorities under the government’s action strategy all have some element of human rights embedded within them, and that is extremely positive to see. The first priority under the action strategy is the reform of public administration. This is really about improving public service delivery and bringing services to citizens in a way that empowers and enables them to live their lives in a dignified way. This also links to challenges such as tackling corruption, so putting public services into a fit-for-purpose state where you remove [enablers of] corruption, including through digitalization, for example.
The second priority is rule of law and judicial reform, and here there are a lot of human rights angles, including on review of the criminal procedure, review of the independence of the judiciary, introduction of mechanisms for improving access to legal aid and upgrading the status of defense lawyers, and juvenile justice.
The third area is the liberalization of the economy. It’s about attracting foreign investment and creating an economy that meets the needs of a burgeoning and very young population and workforce. The demographic opportunity that Uzbekistan faces can be an engine for growth if it is seized, and this is something the government has clearly recognized. But this is also about putting in place a level playing field for business and reducing the role of the state in the economy, which is a stated priority, and which also has links to ensuring effective growth across the country.
The fourth area of the action strategy is what they call the development of the social sphere, and this is really around health, education, access to housing, access to basic services, and social protection. The social protection system requires modernization, and the health and education systems require significant investment. These are priorities the government has very strongly set, because they chime with a lot of the feedback from public consultations, which have been ongoing.
The final sphere, which I think is very interesting is around foreign policy: This is security, religious tolerance, ethnic harmony, and a balanced and mutually-advantageous foreign policy. What it means, which I think is very interesting, is that Uzbekistan has re-engaged at the heart of Central Asia, having spent much of the preceding decades in a rather isolationist and disengaged stance. It’s not just at the diplomatic level. When I travel to Fergana Valley and talk to local communities, the fact that they can trade and visit family members and cross borders that have been closed for decades is transformative.
Putting Afghanistan as part of Central Asia has also been a priority for the current government. For Afghanistan, I think it is simply a wonderful message. Your northern neighbors stand by you in solidarity, offer you a pathway to markets, which are growing and which are stable and calm, and also have long ties, centuries and centuries of historical and cultural ties with Afghanistan.
We often hear about how the indicators of democratic freedom are in decline all over the world. Do you have any sense of where this homegrown movement for both development and openness came from, and do you think that holds any lessons for organizations working in other parts of the world that are trying to foster those same things but finding it difficult?
As a U.N. official I would like to say that after 26 years of engagement — the U.N. was there through thick and thin, along with others, trying to promote the Millennium Development Goals, rule of law, good governance, and market reforms — we’re seeing many of the concepts and ideas that were discussed with counterparts, but were too sensitive at that time to take forward, are now being taken forward. In some cases, literally, they’re saying “please send us that tax system you worked on with us 10 years ago.” Or the World Trade Organization accession process — “we discussed this with you 15 years ago, can we revive some of those issues?” I would like to say this is a story of “engage.” The time was not auspicious because of factors that changed for promoting sustainable development concepts, and yet, a dialogue and an engagement has reaped fruit.
“Engagement works. I’m not saying this is thanks to the U.N. … But I’m saying, do keep at it, because it clearly helps, and those who kept at it have a trusted relationship.”— Helena Fraser, United Nations resident coordinator for Uzbekistan
I think many government counterparts had the opportunity to observe what was happening in neighboring countries, both in terms of the challenges and successes in post-Soviet transition periods. [Uzbekistan is] doing a fast track, condensed transformation, with much more learning under the belt than some other countries have. If you look at the action strategy, it embodies many of the issues that have been tabled in dialogue with the government of Uzbekistan by different governments, by the U.N., and by a whole set of actors and partners. So, engagement works. I’m not saying this is thanks to the U.N. and the donors keeping at it. But I’m saying, do keep at it, because it clearly helps, and those who kept at it have a trusted relationship.
I do think the government rightly reached the conclusion that with the demographic and economic issues that were apparent, it was no good looking to grow the economy without looking at all the other interlinked challenges around public administration, around rule of law, around judiciary, around human rights. It would be simplistic to try and open up the economy or grow the economy without looking at all those elements. Inspired, I believe and am told by some government counterparts, by things like the Sustainable Development agenda, and inspired also hopefully by some of the engagement many partners have had over many years, indeed they came up with this very energizing reform agenda. And kudos to them.
What do you see as the significance of President Mirziyoev’s meeting with Trump this week? Do you see this meeting as a recognition of the reforms that have happened to date, or is that a meeting that has the potential to have additional transformative impact for Uzbekistan into the future?
I hope that this is not only a recognition of positive change, but also a recognition of partnership potential and opportunity. My message is, these reforms are really to be commended, and the international community should seize the chance to help ensure their sustainability by acting now, not waiting to see if they last. The commitment is there. The vision is there. Help us embed and entrench these reforms, because that is not just a win for Uzbekistan and for the people of Uzbekistan, but it’s a win for the international community, as you say, in these times when there are not many positive stories to tell.
What do you think Uzbekistan’s political transition means for development opportunities in the Central Asian region?
Harnessing the potential of regional economic cooperation is critical for Central Asia to promote growth, generate trade, create jobs, and improve the quality of life of citizens.
I think it means an Uzbekistan that’s open to structured, subregional cooperation across a range of fields, including management of natural resources, which is a vital transboundary issue to be addressed … Uzbekistan re-engaging on transboundary resource management, or engaging on disaster risk reduction, for example — this is an earthquake-prone zone. Energy and connectivity agreements are being signed. Borders that have not been agreed for the past 26 years have been, in many cases, finalized and agreed. There’s something like 85 percent of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border [agreed] and the Tajik-Uzbek border is also going through a structured agreement with very positive spirit.
That lays the path for economic growth, and you can see it in the figures that are coming out in the increase in Kazakh-Uzbek trade or the increase in Kyrgyz-Uzbek trade. I think that’s a positive win for all the countries. Uzbekistan is the largest country [in Central Asia] population-wise, and clearly a potentially big market. It had a historic role in the Soviet period, of specialization in certain fields, so one could also foresee some cooperation around some of those areas. It used to be a center for expertise on irrigation. Those are the areas where subregional cooperation is really important.
On the human level, this is a wonderfully multiethnic, diverse country and region. I think it’s great that Uzbekistan re-engages itself so that those communities of different people can also resume their engagement, whether it’s Tajiks visiting Samarkand or Kyrgyz visiting neighbors in Fergana. This country has a history of close people-to-people engagement. Through the opening of the borders that is now back where we hope it would be, which can only be a good thing.
As you’ve pointed out, we’re talking about a country with massive human resources, some phenomenal natural resources, a fairly large economy overall. Is this a country that needs significant foreign assistance at this point, or is this a development story that can largely be financed through domestic resources, particularly considering that the vision and the groundwork has already been laid?
In my discussions with different ministries, and ministers, and the judiciary, etc., what’s really coming through is a thirst for ideas, knowledge, technical expertise. They’re not asking for vast amounts of money.
This is a country where [official development assistance] is a drop in the ocean in some respects. It’s an important drop, because it’s a drop that enables the international community to bring that technical expertise that otherwise it would be hard to provide. That’s what’s being asked for. In the past … the ask was for hardware, for big infrastructure projects, etc. Now, really, there’s a thirst for what can be done to leapfrog the introduction of technology to governance or public services.
So, yes there is a role for the international development community, but it’s a very specialized, technical role. I think it’s a critical, catalytic role, and it’s also a capacity building, capacity transfer role. Because as I said, one of the issues is that there’s an absolute vision, but ensuring that there is capacity to execute that will require some support.