The international community, human rights advocates, and Uzbeks themselves were agreeably surprised when, after a quarter century of then-Uzbek president Islam Karimov's iron-fisted rule, his successor launched the nation in 2016 on a series of often bold reforms.
Today, approaching the fourth anniversary of the new president's ascent to power, many of those same analysts are giving Shavkat Mirziyoyev a mixed report card and calling for him to follow through on the reforms he put in motion.
Many Uzbeks tell VOA that Mirziyoyev won his citizens' hearts and minds by saying what they had longed to hear — that the system needed transformation. His plain-spoken acknowledgment of problems ushered in a new era of high hopes and higher expectations.
And he received solid support from the international community. Daniel Rosenblum, the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, says Mirziyoyev is changing the framework of internal governance with a philosophy that the state exists for its citizens, not the other way around.
"This has not always been realized in practice," said Rosenblum, "but it establishes an expectation and a standard that should begin to change things for the better."
Still, with those reforms have come heightened expectations, and in too many areas, critics say, positive steps have been counterbalanced by inertia or steps backward.
In announcing his reforms, Mirziyoyev promised rule of law, transparency and greater engagement with the world. What he has delivered is a hybrid that combines reforms with elements of the old system, leaving many to question whether Uzbekistan has escaped its authoritarian past. Fears and doubts persist amid the steps forward.
Rosenblum sees Mirziyoyev's biggest achievement as opening Uzbekistan to trade and investment, allowing the free flow of people, ideas and technology.
"I credit President Mirziyoyev with dramatically changing the tenor of relations in the region from mutual suspicion to mutual cooperation," he said in an interview.
"There is resistance," he added, because "changing established habits and ways of thinking is hard and takes time; there are people and institutions with vested interests in old ways of doing business. The public believes their quality of life should improve if reforms are 'working'—but how long will their patience last?"
Mirziyoyev's biggest test has been in dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Rosenblum says Tashkent acted decisively to adopt lock-down measures. A midsummer surge in infections created some chaos, but Rosenblum credits the leadership for collaborating with the international community and for welcoming assistance and advice.
'Stopping far short'
Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and associate professor at the University of Southern California, says that progress on the most systemic issues is faltering and requires a reboot.
"Whether on freedom of expression, political pluralism, the registration of NGOs, justice for past abuses, forced evictions, or the outsize influence of the security services, Tashkent is stopping far short of what it must do and, in some areas, backsliding on rights," he said.
"Early in his presidency, Mirziyoyev promised accountability and opened up the internet and media space. But he has largely stood by as security services use the old tactics of intimidation against critical and independent voices."
In recent months, he notes, some journalists who reported on corruption or the COVID-19 response have been harassed or detained. "Instead, they should be invited to press conferences where it is possible to pose direct questions to Mirziyoyev."
Swerdlow laments that no opposition party has been allowed to enter the political scene. And despite the release of dozens of political prisoners, authorities have taken no meaningful steps to investigate the human rights violations that led to their arrests.
Helena Fraser, the U.N. coordinator in Uzbekistan, values Tashkent's championing of multilateralism, increased transparency of data and statistics, and engagement with U.N. human rights mechanisms.
"The first big challenge is the long-term culture shift to enable sustained ambitious reform," said Fraser. But the second is to match rhetoric and the promise of clear dividends to society and economy with results for the most vulnerable.
"It's about doing so in a way that shores up reforms and ensures that progress to date – whether on anti-corruption, women's empowerment, diversifying energy sources, fiscal policy, or child labor – is not halted or reversed, but accelerated and deeply anchored."
Fraser says recovery from the pandemic requires a culture shift and bold policy choices, including tackling inequalities, supporting civil society, and creating an enabling environment for human rights.
How fast Uzbekistan emerges from this crisis will depend not only on solidarity within society, but also on solidarity and partnerships across government, academia, civil society, businesses, the media and, of course, parliament, Fraser told VOA.
Jennifer Murtazashvili, director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees that Mirziyoyev's biggest successes have been economic —"eliminating archaic restrictions on foreign currency and trade"—and in foreign policy.
"For decades, Uzbekistan only saw Afghanistan as a threat. Seeing Afghanistan as a friendly neighbor opens many possibilities. If reforms continue, Uzbekistan can emerge as a very serious regional hub for economies in Central and South Asia."
Murtazashvili is disappointed with the lack of public sector reform.
"The challenges with this old system of public finance, budgeting, and service delivery were on display during the second lockdown when the state tried to deliver cash directly through the community-based 'mahalla' system," she said.
"Many people reported corruption and being treated unfairly. This undermines trust in the state, as citizens experience it the same way as the past."
Mirziyoyev has called for the election of governors and mayors to ensure greater accountability. But most of this accountability still emanates from his top-down imprimatur, rather than bottom up, says Murtazashvili.
"The president has been remarkably popular. He would do well to embark on more reforms sooner rather than later. Making changes is hard in any country and requires strong public buy-in."