TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN - In his first major international speech at the 2017 U.N. General Assembly, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev promised systemic reforms in every sector.
“We are deeply convinced that people must not serve government, but government must serve the people,” Mirziyoyev said.
But four years later and as presidential elections loom, human rights defenders call those pledges a chimera.
“The good news is that fundamental problems have been diagnosed,” said Abdurakhmon Tashanov, head of the Ezgulik Human Rights Society in Tashkent. “Mirziyoyev and his administration admit to and claim to be tackling them. But it’s time for real steps and solutions.”
Ezgulik, an independent grassroots organization with more than 200 rights advocates across Uzbekistan, is mainly funded by Swedish and other Western donors. For three decades, it has monitored prisons and spearheaded the fight to win the release of political prisoners.
The state, suspicious of its foreign support, closely watched its activities. But Tashanov now sits in several councils, engaging governmental and nongovernmental actors alike, and the group’s activities are covered by the Uzbek media.
Rights now discussed openly
Despite some changes since the death of Islam Karimov in 2016, Tashanov sees vestiges of the authoritarian leader’s system, including paranoia. The main advance, he says, is that the public openly discusses human rights.
“You want solutions?” he asks rhetorically. "Well, take care of your people’s rights, and follow international and local recommendations. ‘Liberalization’ means trusting civil society. You need to create a human rights system that is not just governmental. We want to help.”
Activists never expected a linear progression, adds Tashanov.
“The government definitely fears losing control and is trying to find a balance. But it hasn’t so far, especially on media freedom, freedom of expression and political freedoms.”
Tashanov observes that the government is closely watching upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Ukraine and “worries that those could happen in Uzbekistan.”
For Ezgulik, the defense of human rights in Uzbekistan should not just be about protesting, naming, shaming and decrying state policy. “For citizens to become a force for positive change, the system needs to foster strong civic institutions,” Tashanov says.
Asking the state to respect rights does not mean that activists are in opposition, he argues. Organizing for the protection of freedom and advocating for justice are not, in themselves, against the interests of the country or government.
“Uzbekistan must have space for pluralism. The government has international obligations to provide those freedoms guaranteed, too, by the constitution,” Tashanov told VOA.
The Justice Ministry recently denied registration to a new group, the Truth and Development Social Democratic Party, stating that it faked thousands of signatures from supporters. The party pledges to reapply and complains that law enforcement and the security services have interfered in the process.
Tashanov does not believe that the five official parties with seats in the Uzbek Parliament are credible. “They are puppets,” he says, “clearly lacking a strong commitment to justice.”
Party accused of suppression
“We disagree,” says Alisher Kadirov, leader of the Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) Democratic Party and deputy speaker of the Uzbek Legislative Chamber.
Kadirov’s party and its allies have been heavily criticized by international human rights groups for changing the criminal and administrative codes to suppress public protests.
“We expected this kind of response, especially from the West,” Kadirov said. “Our citizens are guaranteed the right to protest, criticize and petition government. All we did recently is enact laws that ensure freedom to protest doesn’t foment public unrest.”
When reminded of Uzbekistan’s human rights record of the past three decades, which made it impossible for citizens to complain about policies, much less the leadership, he responded with a question.
“So, because of that, we cannot now put any restrictions on anything that could lead to public unrest?”
Why not expand instead of contract freedoms?
“We don’t have to shed blood to become a free and democratic society,” Kadirov answers. “Citizens who protest should not commit violence. They should not threaten the peace.”
Aren’t the necessary mechanisms already in place to prevent such things? Isn’t Uzbekistan ultimately a police state where public protests are almost never allowed?
“We should not be such a system,” Kadirov said. “We want a system where citizens can express dissatisfaction with policies and the leadership without violating others’ rights and freedoms.”
Tashanov said the legal changes could be used to punish anyone whom the system sees as threatening, even if he or she merely claims a right to free speech and peaceful assembly. Uzbek central and local administrations have long been accused of manipulating laws to silence critical voices.
But to Kadirov, “there is no freedom without security.”
He is widely expected to run for president and insists the elections won’t have puppet candidates.
“My party will field a real competitor; we welcome competition. We will offer a choice,” Kadirov said.
He urges the international community to support Uzbekistan rather than criticize it. “If you want us to succeed, then help us, work with us.”
Most recently, though, Kadirov’s signature issue has been to speak out against LGBT rights. “We … will not and should not tolerate these people,” he said.
“Some of them,” he said, “are just sick, and we should treat them. Others are criminals, and we must punish them.”
Like many anti-LGBT people in Uzbekistan, he flatly claims that the laws should not apply.
But Uzbekistan this year joined the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a long record of defending LGBT rights. Kadirov said Uzbekistan, like other countries, can opt out of some commitments.
“Let’s not do business with those who make this a condition of engagement,” he said, urging Tashkent to say an absolute “no” to anyone who pushes for LGBT rights.
In Uzbekistan, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal. Gay men can be arrested at any time and face prosecution, imprisonment and homophobic threats. International human rights organizations have called for decriminalization, but Uzbekistan will have to face down Kadirov and his supporters if it chooses to do so.