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Frederick Starr: Uzbekistan has a bright future

Frederick Starr, Director of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Frederick Starr, Director of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute

Odil Ruzaliev (VOA Uzbek): You are one of the very few experts on Central Asia and on Uzbekistan who has a very moderate view and a moderate position when it comes to analyzing the situation in Uzbekistan. Even during President Karimov tenure you were one of the few people who did not harshly criticize Uzbekistan and in particular President Karimov, but had a very moderate view. How can you explain that and did that position justify itself?

Frederick Starr: Uzbekistan has a bright future
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Frederick Starr (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute): Well, everyone has his pluses and minuses. Speaking of your first president, however it seems to me he was utterly clear what his priority was and that was in a postcolonial situation, it is very difficult to preserve sovereignty and to preserve self-government and self-determination. He achieved that. This was his priority. He was willing to make sacrifices and to be very unpopular in many areas as long as the sovereignty of the state was preserved and its independence. Because he succeeded at that in the end the reforms that we're seeing today are possible. Had he not succeeded at that, the reforms today would have been done from a position of weakness and not of strength.

Odil Ruzaliev: There was a tradition in the Soviet Union, in the Soviet Uzbekistan to criticize past leaders, to obliviate them.

Frederick Starr: That’s right. Mr Rashidov. He disappeared.

Odil Ruzaliev: But President Mirziyoyev chose a different path. He did not criticize, he does not criticize President Karimov personally, openly, but at the same time he criticizes the past policies and past practices and tries to reverse those policies.

Frederick Starr: Some of them. Not all of them.

Odil Ruzaliev: He also says Uzbekistan has been idle for 27 years. Can you comment on that?

Frederick Starr: What you say is certainly true. There's a lot of criticism of past habits as well as policies, not just policies but habits. Some of these habits date right back to Soviet times. A key element of what is going on today is the empowerment of citizens, not subjects, but citizens. And this idea of citizenship is absolute key to what's going on to the reform process. So Mr Mirziyoyev is not saying everything in the past was bad, it's because things were done as successfully as they were, that he's able today to talk about citizenship, about people stepping forward, taking responsibility, making initiatives themselves rather than just coming from the top. Is he critical? Yes, he is critical and he's in some sense critical of himself in that regard because he was for 13 years prime minister.

But on the other hand, these reforms are taking place from a position of really relative strength and they aren't entirely new. Many of these reforms were being discussed, actually planned during the lifetime of your first president. So it's just an evolutionary process. In terms of criticizing the past, not only has Mr Mirziyoyev has been very correctly positive about his predecessor, President Karimov, but he has also rehabilitated Mr Rashidov. He was a powerful figure and a very important figure and I look forward to a big book about him soon. I hope someone writes it.

This is very healthy, this process. We're not just negating everything that came before, we're building on it. That's a much better way to construct a house. You don't just tear it down.

Odil Ruzaliev: You and I last spoke in January of 2017 following your trip to Uzbekistan for the presidential elections. What has changed in Uzbekistan since then?

Frederick Starr: I'd ask the question differently. What hasn't changed? There's been so many initiatives in so many areas – legislative, orders from the president and so on. I think the biggest change is psychological. I sense that people are taking all of this seriously. They are welcoming them in their lives and I suspect even in discussions at dinner tables among families, there's a new spirit and it's not entirely positive, maybe there's some criticism along the way which is healthy, but I think what has happened since then is people understand there is a new openness and it's okay to discuss things and it's okay to even criticize some things that we didn't criticize before, but we knew there were problems. This is all in the psychological realm and I think it's all very positive.

Odil Ruzaliev: President Mirziyoyev was in Washington a few weeks ago and he met with President Trump. His reforms are getting a lot of praises here in Washington DC. You were involved in one of the events at the Atlantic Council. You've been talking to Uzbek officials. Who is the generator of these reforms? Is it the president himself or is there a group of like-minded people?

Frederick Starr: Both! Because he spent 13 years as prime minister, but I should say it's a very special kind of prime minister. He did not sit in his office. He was the person who was traveling constantly. He was knocking on the door. He was looking at things, as we would say in English “he was kicking the tires”. And as a result he arrived with a knowledge of reform-minded people all across the country. He also knew where the problems were.

So what happened with the election? I think this election symbolizes a generational change in Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, because this is happening, beginning to happen elsewhere. You are getting an entirely new generation of young men and women who have a different education, different experience and they know each other and they're appearing in dozens and dozens of different offices.

So I would not say this is a solo performance by Mr Mirziyoyev. On the contrary, I think it's an emergence of a generation. And you have to admit this generation was trained because President Karimov sent so many people abroad, he encouraged them to get training at best international institutions. They came back. And when he came to Washington 18 years ago, 17 years ago he said: They’ve come back more like you than like us. He actually said that in public. He said but they are ours. They are the ones who will bring about the change that you're seeking and that's actually happening.

Odil Ruzaliev: What's the current US policy on Uzbekistan and how might it change after Mirziyoyev’s visit to Washington?

Frederick Starr: I think it's been changing. It's positive. I think, there have been difficult times in the past, particularly after Andijan, but we've published two very important studies on that and I think it's very clear that not just Western but a world policy response to that was unfortunate. It was based on a caricature, not on facts. But we've moved beyond that now and I think you will see a general rise in interest, not just on the high diplomatic level, but we're really counts as a human level and in areas like the economy, investments and I think you'll see a big increase in that and also in education, culture, all those areas. I think this is a very positive time and it's not an accident that even in January before Mirziyoyev’s visit, even Mr Kamilov [Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister] said when he was here that Uzbek-American relations are at the highest point in 25 years.

Odil Ruzaliev: You must have been also talking to people here in Washington. How do they see President Mirziyoyev? What kind of impression did he leave?

Frederick Starr: Very positive. He is very well spoken, very direct. I would say even blunt. This is received very positively by Americans who are very direct themselves. I think also there was a clear understanding that the changes in Uzbekistan are creating openings on the economic front – which is extremely important to both countries – and I think there was a clear understanding that the diplomacy of the region has changed dramatically. And so American response and the Western response generally is positive because Uzbekistan really opened the door to the emergence of an entire region of Central Asia. Very positive.

Odil Ruzaliev: Some claim that Mr Mirziyoyev is Putin’s protégé. But at the same time we see a lot of policies directed at improving relations with basically everyone. Would you say that Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy is truly multi-vector?

Frederick Starr: Well, first of all, I think the idea of his being a protégé of Putin is absurd and it's insulting. I think whoever's saying that ought to stop, it's not so, it shouldn't be. He is deeply Uzbek. This is a deeply Uzbek policy and least of all does it resemble anything happening in Russia. Second, on the question of have balance, which is the key, yes, he has done the right thing in making contact with all the big neighbors. But remember his first trip abroad was to Turkmenistan. I talked with the president of Kyrgyzstan about their meeting. I know how these went. They were extremely positively received.

Before we talk about balance and multi-vectored you should talk about the relations in the region and they have never been better and this is a dramatic step forward. It opens the door to all sorts of positive developments? And what does that mean in terms of how the Chinese, the Europeans, the Indians, the Russians view it. Let them figure this out. In the end of the day, what you are seeing in Central Asia as a whole is a strengthening of self-determination. This is very important that the region define itself and not be defined by outside pressures. So are they pursuing a balanced foreign policy? Yes! But above all, they're pursuing an independent foreign policy.

Odil Ruzaliev: With so many changes in Uzbekistan, as an academician, can you say if there will be an increase in the interest in Uzbekistan by the US academia?

Frederick Starr: Oh yes, oh yes. Watch the businesses first. There've already been significant new investments. There'll be others. I think you'll see exports from Uzbekistan to the United States increasing. I have some specific items that I think ought to be exported. I think you're going to see many more Americans, many more people abroad in all countries learning the Uzbek language. It's absurd to be dealing with Uzbekistan through any language but Uzbek, that will change, you watch. So this is a very positive moment.

Odil Ruzaliev: So educational exchanges will also increase?

Frederick Starr: It's happening. People's curiosity level is rising. This is very good and for good reason. I believe that Uzbekistan is creating a new model of a different kind of society, state relationship in a predominantly Muslim country. It's a very open model. It is a tolerant model, it is a modern model, but one that allows and doesn't impede normal religious life. I think this has significance on a global scale and you watch people will start paying serious attention globally.

Odil Ruzaliev: A new book is coming out next month under your editorship. And one of the chapters of the book “Uzbekistan’s New Face” is called “What's ahead” which you wrote. So what lies ahead for Uzbekistan?

Frederick Starr: There is a famous incident in American baseball. In one instance, two generations ago, a very famous player stepped up to hit and sometimes you miss, sometimes you hit, but he very boldly pointed where he was going to hit the ball and he was going to hit it out of the baseball park. It was going to be such a long hit. He pointed. Everyone says what's going on, you don't do this. And then he hit it and it went out of the park. I think that these reforms are like that - they're hitting the ball out of the park and, however one has to acknowledge that these are only statements of intention there pointing to the wall.

There will be resistance. It might be domestic, it might be foreign. We don't know yet. That's normal in life. The question isn't – will there be resistance, will there be debate, discussion, arguments, opposition? Of course, there'll be. The question is – how does the system handle this? And I am not asking – how will Mr Mirziyoyev handle? I'm talking about the entire system. Will institutions respond? Will parliament activate itself and play a very responsible role? Will local governors do so? Will local councils do so. What will happen? What will happen in every village, every town, every city in the country when they have complicated challenges that arise from the reforms? Will citizens feel empowered to take the initiative to solve a problem?

I'm very optimistic about this, but it's not going to be one man response. And I think one of the interesting challenges even within Uzbekistan is to stop thinking of the government as one person and to understand it is institutions, it is laws, it is parliament, it is elections, it is the entire legal system to the extent that these initiatives strengthen the legal system. Uzbekistan's future is going to be very bright indeed.

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    Odil Ro'zaliyev

    Odil AQShning Tafts Universitetida (Tufts University) magistrlik darajasini olgan. Ungacha O'zbekistonda Jahon tillar universitetida tahsil qolgan, Nyu-Yorkdagi Peys universitetida bir yil almashinuv dasturi bo'yicha o'qigan. 

    Odil graduated from the Uzbekistan State World Languages University. Then he was an exchange student at Pace University in New York for one year (1993-1994). He got his Master's degree from Tufts University in Massachusetts in 2004.

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