Uzbekistan: When Economic Growth and Freedom Diverge

September 6, 2016 4:45 PM

The passing of Islam Karimov, the only president Uzbekistan ever had, has thrown the most-populous central Asian state into uncertainty. During his long, dictatorial reign, the Uzbek economy grew fivefold, from $13.7 billion in 1991 to $66.7 billion in 2015. Much of this growth was due to new capacity in the gas industry and energy exports to China. Life expectancy barely increased, however, from 66 to 68 years, below the average increase of 5 years experienced in other post-communist countries. Concerns over stability prevailed over economic and political freedoms, keeping Uzbekistan one of the least free countries in the world. This absence of basic freedoms is not likely to change once a successor is chosen.

Karimov was the longest-serving ruler in the post-communist world, selected as secretary general of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1988 and then elected the first president of independent Uzbekistan after the Soviet Union collapsed. A referendum in 1995 extended his first term of office until 2000, with 99.6 percent of the vote. He was reelected for a sixth term last year, with the only alternative candidate voting for the incumbent president. In short, political freedoms remain virtually nonexistent.

Several days of intense speculation preceded the official announcement of his passing. “The Uzbek government cannot confirm the President's death because it has no instruction from the President himself,” read an initial comment on social media. The world learned of the ruler’s passing when Turkey’s prime minister sent his condolences.

There is no expectation that a new president will usher in democracy and a market economy. 

Uzbekistan is celebrating 25 years of independence in 2016, but its citizens have not experienced freedom. The country has a score of 47 (out of 100) on the index of economic freedom in 2015, higher only than Turkmenistan’s, and only 20 percent of the economy, mostly services, is in private hands. Uzbekistan has the lowest political freedom score of any post-communist country. In 2005 government troops shot dead several hundred protesters in Andijan, over demands for better economic conditions in the southern regions of the country. The massacre led to the introduction of travel sanctions by the European Union, quietly lifted in 2009. Media freedom is lacking: The only nongovernment media covering news from Uzbekistan operates out of Moscow, Russia. Travel restrictions within the country apply to its own citizens: They need special permits to go from one region to another. Corruption has remained stubbornly high, with Uzbekistan ranked as the most corrupt in the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators.

There is no expectation that a new president will usher in democracy and a market economy. The two main contenders for the job are the head of the secret police and the current prime minister, known for his propensity for violence in his years as provincial governor. Freedom, unfortunately, will have to wait.