Uzbekistan, the Central Asian country which has had the most dynamic development during the last five years, will celebrate on Wednesday (1 September) the 30th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union.
Leaders say the anniversary is a milestone in Uzbekistan’s nation building, while the Central Asian country looks forward to the next stage of its development, what some are terming a “Third Renaissance.”
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took charge of Central Asia’s most populous country in 2016 in the wake of the death of his hard line predecessor and former patron Islam Karimov, signalling a shift in foreign policy during which the country opened to the world and engaged in regional cooperation.
Muslim-majority but staunchly secular Uzbekistan is home to 33 million people, 20 million of whom can vote. Mirziyoyev is expected to win presidential elections scheduled for 24 October, although opposition candidates are expected to be able to measure their influence.
Mirziyoyev recently told Yangi Uzbekiston newspaper that big preparations were underway for the 30th anniversary, mentioning that a “New Uzbekistan” park and a “Сomplex of Independence” were being built and expected to be the main venue of the celebrations.
Mirziyoyev enumerated the country’s achievements in nation-building over the last 30 years, also mentioning the mistakes of the past and touched on recent efforts aimed at abandoning the totalitarian regime and building a democratic society. He spoke of a “New Uzbekistan” and of the next stage of its development, which he called the “third Renaissance.”
Uzbekistan’s First Renaissance in the 9th-12th centuries, also called the Eastern Renaissance, produced hundreds of great scientists and famous thinkers, with the authorities creating the necessary conditions for the country’s development.
The Second Renaissance in the 14th-16th centuries was called the “Renaissance of the Timurids.” Military leader Amir Temur idolised enlightened people, saying: “Victory is not in strength, but in the mind.” The Emir has always encouraged and appointed highly intellectual experts to high positions.
Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan put emphasis on developing the tourism sector and preserving and developing world heritage sites such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
The president described “New Uzbekistan” as “a state developing in strict compliance with the universally recognised norms in the field of democracy, human rights and freedoms, on the basis of the principles of friendship and cooperation with the international community, the ultimate aim of which is to create a free, comfortable and prosperous life for our people”.
Although by Western standards Uzbekistan cannot be described as a full-fledged democracy, under Mirziyoyev democratic reforms have been introduced, which are akin to the “controlled democratisation” underway in its Central Asian neighbour, Kazakhstan.
“Actually, the fact that our democratic reforms have become irreversible is the most important result we have achieved today,” said Mirziyoyev, adding that the country’s leadership has admitted “the existence of problems in our lives with forced labor, especially among children, unemployment, poverty, corruption, housing, education and health, and we are addressing them along with our general public.”
Indeed, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has recognised that the systematic and systemic use of child labour and forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end, although some local vestiges still remain. Since Soviet times, school children took part in the harvesting of cotton, which was considered a normal practice.
“Today’s Uzbekistan is not Uzbekistan that we dream about. We still have a long and thorny way to go. Before, our path was not easy, and after it will not be easy, as well. However, we should not be afraid to move forward boldly, to make the unconventional unexpected decisions […] in the interests of our people,” Mirziyoyev said.
The president highlighted that the “New Uzbekistan” was primarily about the new economic relations, the new economic vision. “The economic system of our country is being completely restructured and even if it is difficult, we have begun to put into practice the market mechanisms,” he said.
Under Karimov, Uzbekistan had the most restrictive and bizarre foreign currency regime, which discouraged foreign investors. Mirziyoyev said that these were now “things of the past” and nothing was easier than cashing in of money from debit cards through the ATMs, or acquisition and registration of housing and property in any region of Uzbekistan.
International experts say that, pre-pandemic, Uzbekistan became the regional leader in the growth of the influx of foreign investment. In 2019, the amount of foreign investment increased by 2.3 times, amounting to $4.2 billion. The greatest interest was shown by China, Germany, the US and Russia.
In his interview, Mirziyoyev also touched upon regional cooperation, saying that the problems accumulated over the years in the country’s relations with neighbouring countries had been resolved.
“The borders were opened. The broken bonds between neighbours, brothers, relatives, father and son, were restored. The people began traveling freely from one country to another. The visa issues have been resolved. The trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian ties are developing at an accelerated pace,” he said.
Uzbekistan received praise by the global community, notably the EU, for having hosted a high-level conference on connectivity in Central Asia on 15-16 July.
On Afghanistan, the president also struck a constructive tone.
“Uzbekistan, as the closest neighbour of Afghanistan, is interested in the early establishment of peace and stability in this country”, the president said.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted fears in the region of a possible spill-over of tensions.
Uzbekistan has accepted about 400 more refugees from Afghanistan and put them up in temporary accommodation near the Afghan border, the Russian state news agency TASS reported last week.
It is unclear how many Afghans have crossed into Uzbekistan since Taliban insurgents overran Afghanistan.