The outcome of Uzbekistan’s October 24 presidential election is not in doubt, but that doesn’t mean no one is paying attention.
U.S. officials will be closely watching for hints to the future of Afghanistan’s northern neighbor and key energy provider as President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stands for a second — and under the current constitution final — term, according to Carnegie Endowment analyst Paul Stronski.
Little more than token resistance is expected from four rival candidates — the National Revival Democratic Party’s Alisher Kadirov, the People’s Democratic Party’s Maqsuda Vorisova, the Justice Social Democratic Party’s Bahrom Abduhalimov, and the Ecological Party’s Narzullo Oblomurodov.
“Mirziyoyev will win, in large part because the opposition isn’t able to organize … and there is no credible alternative,” Stronski said.
But that has done little to dampen the interest in Washington, which has stepped up its diplomatic engagement with Tashkent, including a high-profile visit this month by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who focused on Afghanistan while calling for continued reforms, transparency, and accountability.
Just days earlier, Washington was visited by an Uzbek parliamentary delegation led by Senator Sodiq Safoyev, who told U.S policy makers, lawmakers, and experts that the elections will be free and fair.
Safoyev admitted there is no real opposition to Mirziyoyev’s re-election but argued the public is more critically minded than in the past and that voters are making their wishes known. “Just look at the posts and debates on Uzbek social media,” he said.
Dilorom Fayzieva, who chairs the Uzbek legislature’s International Affairs Committee, accompanied Safoyev to Washington. In an interview, she told VOA that the developed democracies should not expect faster progress from a former Soviet republic that is now emerging from decades of strict authoritarian rule, including 27 years under the late president, Islam Karimov.
“It took America over 200 years; we are at the beginning of a long, challenging road,” she said. “But we are confident about this path and system, and the people of Uzbekistan don’t want to reverse the course.”
Some Americans are also giving the cautiously reformist Mirziyoyev the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. Among them is John Herbst, America’s ambassador in Tashkent in the early 2000s and now with the Atlantic Council.
“Washington is encouraged by what's happened over the past five years. That’s a sensible way to look at things,” he said, adding that the election matters less than what happens next.
Stronski said a telltale indication will be whether Mirziyoyev stands down at the end of his second term, as the constitution requires, or tries to change the governing blueprint so he can seek a third term. “My hunch tells me the former is more likely. That will indicate whether his reforms represent authoritarian modernization or real opening,” he said.
Nevertheless, he added, “allegations of corruption remain troubling: the players have shifted but some of Uzbekistan’s deep governance problems have not.”
Both analysts agree that the recent exchange of visits reflects a growing U.S. interest in Uzbekistan as a potential ally in Central Asia following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Washington sees Uzbekistan as a leader to help manage issues in the region,” Herbst said.
Rich in natural gas, oil and coal, Uzbekistan is the key energy provider to Afghanistan, which is desperately strapped for cash and facing the prospect of electricity shortages over the coming winter. The main challenge for the West, the analysts say, is to leverage Tashkent’s influence to push the Taliban to establish an inclusive government and respect human rights.
As for the election itself, Herbst has modest expectations for a slightly freer and fairer contest than in the past. “There's a new, more open spirit reflected in this election,” he said. “But old institutions are used to old ways. So, we can take some satisfaction in greater openness, but this is a long road.”
The Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is sending a full observer mission to monitor voting through its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Its initial conclusion is that despite more vibrancy, there is no competition among the candidates.
Herbst said he believes Tashkent “will take their presence seriously, but whether the OSCE validates the elections as ‘free and fair’ is a separate question. Let's keep an open mind even amid doubts.”
Herbst used to define Uzbekistan under Karimov as a harsh authoritarian regime, but “I would not refer to it that way now. Harsh authoritarian regimes have institutions that don't disappear overnight. They change, but at a pace that leaves some people impatient.”
The analyst is open-minded about the Uzbek authorities’ claim that the main reason two political groups were refused the right to compete in the election was because they had not secured enough signatures from supporters to qualify to become full-fledged parties.
“I can understand why people are skeptical given the long authoritarian tradition in the country,” Herbst said, “but I don't rule out the possibility that they just didn't meet the requirement.”
But other observers see this failure as a missed opportunity for meaningful reform. Human Rights Watch’s Hugh Williamson urges Washington to set clear expectations for Mirziyoyev’s second term.
“Despite important reforms, including to human rights, Uzbekistan remains deeply authoritarian,” he told VOA. “The authorities’ refusal to allow opposition or independent candidates, along with recent backsliding in media freedom, are indications of this.”
Herbst acknowledged that the government might have done more to help the opposition parties get registered. “But,” he said, “then people would say, ‘Well, these guys must be in cahoots with the authorities.’"
Herbst sees more voices in Uzbekistan’s public space today and hopes the regime will continue to allow more of them. “I'm not saying there's zero repression, but by and large, they're not being repressed and that's a large step forward.”
He also urged patience. “Anyone who believes Uzbekistan is going to turn into a democracy overnight doesn't understand the country and the way the world works,” said Herbst.
But Williamson notes Uzbekistan’s own ambitious goals, including respect for international human rights norms and lifting living standards.
“To achieve these goals, Uzbekistan would need to step away decisively from its authoritarian past," said the rights advocate. "The U.S. should endorse these aims and calibrate its support based on Tashkent’s readiness to meaningfully improve human rights conditions for people in Uzbekistan.”
Will Washington continue supporting Mirziyoyev after his reelection?
To Herbst, that is a question of recognizing that Mirziyoyev has been reelected in a process as good as can be expected at this moment in Uzbekistan's history.
"Since he's not taking the country back to the dark ages, he's someone we should work with, and we have other issues of importance that argue for working with Tashkent," said the ambassador. “I just hope the Biden administration understands that even as we get out of Afghanistan, we have an interest in significant engagement with Uzbekistan and other countries of Central Asia.”
That is exactly what members of the Congressional Uzbekistan Caucus have pushed for. Recent visits to Tashkent by eight Republicans and Democrats are seen by Uzbekistan as strong indications of American support.