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Spotlight on Uzbekistan: Foreign Policy Centre's Adam Hug

The Foreign Policy Centre, a London-based think tank founded in 1998 by then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, has published a comprehensive, special edition on Uzbekistan, analyzing various aspects of the reform process led by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

"Spotlight on Uzbekistan finds that the much talked about reform process in Uzbekistan is real yet faces significant obstacles and challenges. Notably, a lot of work must still be done to create an open economy, pluralist politics and free society," writes Adam Hug, the FPC’s Director, who also edited the publication.

Hug offers a challenge to Tashkent, assessing that it still remains unclear if President Mirziyoyev’s plans are "simply for the authoritarian modernisation" seen so far or whether something more ambitious is planned.

"Since 2016, there has been appreciable economic progress, a reduction in state interference in everyday life, and a notable increase in some freedoms, particularly for activists and experts who choose in some way to engage with the Government’s reform project," Hug writes.

"This genuine progress has garnered Uzbekistan much international goodwill as it has returned to the world stage."

VOA Uzbek talked to Hug about why FPC published Spotlight on Uzbekistan and his assessment of some of its topline conclusions and recommendations.

VOA Uzbek: Why focus on Uzbekistan and do a special edition now?

Adam Hug, FPC: Uzbekistan is a country I always wanted to look at in detail. It was perhaps the country in Central Asia that first drew me to work on the region as a young researcher, but it's taken a long time to find the right opportunity. So today, when there aren't a lot of good international news stories, what was being said about progress in Uzbekistan since 2016 stood out as something worth looking at in detail. I wanted to find out what was real, what was spinned by the regime, and where the issues that were still contested were.

VOA Uzbek: How did the Foreign Policy Centre choose the topics for this edition?

Adam Hug, FPC: Spotlight on Uzbekistan tries to cover a lot of ground and provide a platform for a diverse range of voices. We spoke to a lot of experts, both internationally and on the ground in Uzbekistan to try and get a sense of what the major issues were and who were some of the best people to write about them.

And it tries as much as possible to give a comprehensive overview of where things in Uzbekistan stand today, but I'm conscious there's so much more we could have ended up writing about. So firstly, the report looks at the progress of the reforms to the economy, government, and also local administration.

It looks at the progress or lack thereof in terms of democracy. It looks at the efforts taken so far in the rule of law, the fight against torture, the important issue of NGO registration, women's and minority rights as part of a wider package of human rights the report takes a closer look at.

The report takes stock of the progress so far in tackling forced labor, which has been a major achievement, while looking at what still needs to be done in order for the boycott of Uzbek cotton to be lifted. It looks at issues around transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption across the economy and society. But particularly when it comes to the building boom in Uzbekistan and the impact that that has had on communities being displaced and not always properly compensated. It looks at the way in which Mirziyoyev has reformed Uzbekistan's diplomacy, building relationships at a regional level and repairing ties to Moscow, Beijing, and the West.

Spotlight on Uzbekistan, special publication by the Foreign Policy Centre, London
Spotlight on Uzbekistan, special publication by the Foreign Policy Centre, London

VOA Uzbek: What's the gist of the reform process in Uzbekistan so far?

Adam Hug, FPC: While different asset contributors bring different perspectives, my overall take is that the reform process in Uzbekistan is real, but there are still a lot of problems that need to be addressed. So despite recent progress, there's a lot of work still needing to be done to create an open economy, pluralist politics, and free society in Uzbekistan, that President Mirziyoyev has talked about, and it's still unclear how far beyond the type of authoritarian modernization seen so far that he's actually willing to go.

To date, the reforms have created a type of managed freedom, where there is space for constructive criticism, and there has been a reduction in state interference in everyday life, but some more sensitive topics still remain firmly off limits. This progress has seen Uzbekistan get a lot of international praise. However, there are growing concerns about cronyism and corruption as Mirziyoyev tries to build this new, more business friendly Uzbekistan.

The response to COVID-19 has highlighted both the successes and failings of new system with swift and quite transparent action initially to control the virus, but a number of cases of local abuses of power, and there are now growing concerns about the potential for unrest. Ultimately, the reforms will be incomplete, however, if the suffering of those who are victims under Karimov of don't get addressed. There needs to be a new national conversation to help deliver transitional justice for the victims and new support put in place to help rehabilitate those who have suffered so much.