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Prospect of Change and Reforms in a Post-Karimov Uzbekistan

06.09.2016
Citizens arrive to offer their condolences for Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, who died after suffering brain hemorrhage, in front of his giant picture, during a commemorative ceremony at the senate house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on September 04, 2016

It is really difficult to certainly talk about the outlook and future changes or reforms in Uzbekistan after Islam Karimov. However, it can be predicted that this Central Asian country will not be the same as Uzbekistan of Karimov era. Possible attempt of Islam Karimov’s successor for playing a different role in foreign and domestic policy is the central point of the future reforms in this country. The Experience of power transition in Turkmenistan and great efforts of Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow to make internal reforms and changes in foreign policy approach, from an absolute and almost isolationist impartiality to a positive, active, and dynamic impartiality, aimed at withdrawal from the shadow of Niyazov’s cult of personality and introduction and consolidation of himself as an independent and powerful leader.

Therefore, although there are important differences between social and political conditions in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, some parallels can be found between these two countries in terms of political transition process and efforts of the successor to the late leader for playing an independent and different role. Hence, due to the cult of personality and hegemony of Islam Karimov in the political arena of Uzbekistan during the past 25 years, his successor, at a very high possibility, will make reforms (though in a controlled manner) in domestic and foreign policy in order to both withdraw from the shadow of Islam Karimov and create a new image of the leader in public opinion of Uzbekistan, especially the younger generation, and also present a different appearance of Uzbekistan at regional and international levels.

Possible changes in the foreign policy of Uzbekistan is of special importance because Uzbekistan’s foreign policy approach during the long tenure of presidency of Islam Karimov experienced the most vicissitudinous and variable status in Central Asia, constantly swinging between proximity to and remoteness from the West and Russia. For the second time since 1999, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Russian-led Collective Security Organization and refused to join the Eurasian Economic Union in 2013. On the other hand, this country tried to once again get close to the West by making use of the situation in Afghanistan after 2014, an obvious example of which is hosting the 5+1 Summit in Samarkand in 2015 attended by the US Secretary of State and foreign ministers of five Central Asian countries. However, Uzbekistan has not managed to fully gain the trust of the West, NATO, and the European Union after the Andijan Massacre in 2005. Thus, it seems that defining and adopting a clear and stable approach to foreign policy is one of the serious challenges of the successor to Islam Karimov, and Russian, Chinese, and western parties will follow the process of changes in foreign policy of Uzbekistan with care and sensitivity.

It seems that if possible efforts of the successor to Islam Karimov for playing a different role in domestic and foreign policy of Uzbekistan lead to remarkable developments, as previously mentioned, it can be considered an opportunity to redefine relations between Iran and Uzbekistan which have not been in a desirable status during the past two decades. Over the past three years after Hassan Rouhani took office as the new president of Iran, Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country that its president has not met Iran’s president so far. In addition, in recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tashkent, the government of Uzbekistan did not express positive and supportive stances about Iran’s accession. Therefore, with adequate arrangements and planning, the current conditions can be used to the benefit of Iran-Uzbekistan proximity and improvement of bilateral relations.

Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iranian Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.