Why 2021 Presidential election in Uzbekistan matters for Europe ?
The presidential elections in Uzbekistan will take place on the 24th of October this year 2021.
Why is it important for Europe ?
Uzbekistan is located both at the centre of Central Asia and at the intersection of the zones of influence of the Eurasian great powers. This is why it would be more appropriate to name it « Central Eurasia » than « Central Asia » if we look at a map, as Uzbekistan and its so called Central Asian neighbours are located at the centre of the Eurasian continent.
The preservation of a strong political system based on stability is not only a national issue for Uzbekistan, but also an international issue. The stability of Eurasia depends also on the stability of Central Eurasia, and the stability of Central Eurasia depends largely on the stability of Uzbekistan, a pivot state in the middle of this geographical area. Let’s stress again that the Eurasian continent constitutes the centre of geopolitical manoeuvres in the context of Great Powers rivalry because of its size, demography, minerals resources and geopolitical constellation.
There is a risk of geopolitical vacuum with the departure of the United States and NATO member states from Afghanistan, potentially increasing rivalry between Eurasian regional powers. The stability of front-line states bordering the zone of instability like Uzbekistan becomes even more important and they can be directly affected by any spread of instability. The whole area of Central Eurasia bordering Afghanistan constitutes a line of defence of continental importance.
Therefore, Uzbekistan is an essential lock against instabilities arising from any revival of conflict in Afghanistan after the Taliban takover. It is therefore essential that Uzbekistan stays on track to become a security and stability provider in Afghanistan and Central Eurasia, a central objective of the Uzbek foreign policy that was reinforced since the election of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The stability of the Uzbek political system
The Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has introduced the very ambitious concept of « New Uzbekistan », to promote a revival of the country and insert Uzbekistan in a cycle of a New Renaissance, comparable Uzbekistan’s First Renaissance in the 9th-12th centuries, (Eastern Renaissance), and The Second Renaissance in the 14th-16th centuries (“Renaissance of the Timurids.”)[i] The « New Uzbekistan » vision is above all a process of constant and irreversible reforms in all sectors, from internal and national to external and geopolitical challenges[ii].
The Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stressed that » If we briefly describe the true essence and idea of the Action Strategy adopted by us five years ago, then in this unique document we have set ourselves the strategic goal of building a New Uzbekistan and laying the foundations for the Third Renaissance. »
The next presidential elections have to be understood in this context.
During the last parliamentary elections in December 2019, citizens of Uzbekistan participated in the first legislative elections since President Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev launched a policy of reforms and openness of Uzbekistan after his election in September 2016.
Since the political party of the President Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev won these parliamentary elections in 2019, we could conclude that voters expressed a preference for political stability. It was also a sign of popular support for gradual reforms. From the start of his mandate, President Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev had announced that his priority was to pursue reforms in a resolute and consistent manner. This approach is popular because Uzbekistan has steadily modernized in a balanced, constant and gradual process, without any shock therapy, and this is what satisfies a large part of the population. These reforms gradually cover all spheres of society and there will be no turning back in the face of increasing demands of the citizens. Uzbek citizens are also keen to have a political system that is preserving peace and stability in a challenging regional environment.
Uzbekistan’s political system, however, should not be only assessed through the eyes of Western European-style democracy. The Uzbek model of democracy is currently being developed from its historical and cultural specificities and its geography but also adapted to the geopolitical challenges at regional level.
Along with the gradual transformation of Uzbek society, contradictory political programs and criticism of the political programs will also inevitably emerge with time with the transformation of the democratic system. Today the differences between competing political parties are relatively smaller compared to European models of democracy. The statement of the Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued by the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on 23 December concluded that the elections “took place under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not yet demonstrate genuine competition and full respect of election day procedures. The elections showed that the ongoing reforms need to continue and be accompanied by more opportunities for grass-root civic initiatives. The contesting parties presented their political platforms and the media hosted debates, many aired live, but campaign rules are still restrictive, and the range of political options remained limited. There is more acceptance of free expression, but few independent associations exist »[iii].
This criticism in the statement made by the OSCE needs to be examined in a different way than through an exclusive « Western » narrative and point of view. The current Uzbek « non conflictual » democracy » will certainly move with time towards a more « debating democracy » but contradictory debates are still not at the same level of Western democratic levels. This is the next challenge of the Uzbek democratic model in progress. However, we can understand the need for Uzbek political leaders in charge of the country to maintain their strategic priority for stability and maintain the course on a gradual transformation of the country so as not to squander the progress through societal fragmentation as it has been observed in countries that have tested shock therapies.
Uzbekistan is also a an Asian country, where the concept of group and its cohesion is considered as important as individual development. Western individualism is therefore not the alpha and the omega of politics in Uzbekistan. That is the reason why all the political parties in Uzbekistan support the president’s reform program intended to gradually transform the country.
Each country must have the right to defend its own model of democracy. The Western political regimes from countries regarding themselves as universal models are also different from each other. The political system of Uzbekistan will never be a copy of the democratic model of a Western country, in the same way as the presidential regime of the French Republic will never be a copy of the German parliamentary system in a federal state.
Regarding the 2021 presidential elections, a new law for the improvement of electoral process has been voted. Recommendations included in the OSCE/ODHIR final report on 2019 elections have been examined and a part of them introduced in Uzbek electoral laws. For example no prior approval is required anymore for holding electoral public meetings with citizens (no less than three days). Dr. Gulnoza Ismailova[iv], member of the Central Election Commission of Uzbekistan, and the Ambassador of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the Kingdom of Belgium, H.E Mr Dilyor Khakimov underlined the will of Uzbek State to make step by step progress towards a new Uzbek model of democracy during a briefing seminar at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS). For the list of different issues discussed during this seminar regarding the next Uzbek elections in 2021, the EIAS report offers a detailed record [v].
Before 2019 parliamentary elections, Uzbekistan had already taken into account the OSCE recommendations, demonstrating, the Uzbek democratic model is an evolving process. » The Election Code adopted by the parliament in June 2019 incorporates several previous ODIHR recommendations and brings the legal framework closer in line with OSCE commitments and other international obligations and standards for democratic elections. Improvements include: abolishment of reserved seats; the introduction of a maximum deviation of 10 per cent from the average size of constituencies’ voting populations; the establishment of a nationwide voter register; the removal of the blanket restriction on voting by persons sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and allowing citizens to sign in support of more than one political party. »[vi]
Uzbekistan as a stability provider in Central Eurasia
In this geopolitical context, Uzbekistan is promoting a strengthening role for international organizations and its objective is to gain more influence through multilateral negotiations.
The objective of Uzbekistan is today to transform Central Asia into a zone of close cooperation to overcome the geopolitical fractures in the new Great Power rivalry context on the Eurasian continent. This is why Uzbekistan is keen to combine all different geopolitical strategies of Great Powers like the « One Belt one Road initiative » promoted by China, « Greater Eurasia partnership » promoted by Russia, India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy”, European Union’s Central Asian strategy, United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: « Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity »
Uzbekistan will hold the chairmanship of the Shanghaï Cooperation Organization (SCO)[vii], in 2022. Uzbekistan is keen to promote SCO for cooperation against terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, weapon trafficking, but also economic and cultural ties[viii].
In the context of the withdrawal of NATO in Afghanistan, it will be interesting to observe if SCO will going up in power to provide stability in Afghanistan and in Central Eurasia. Bilateral relations and variable coalitions will also be crucial in this respect. Power vacuum is the most dangerous scenario and regional actors will try to avoid it. Russia will be again an important military partner for Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan. From the Russian point of view, stability, like other countries in Eurasia, Western Europe included, has a vital interest to stability. The Russian minister of defence Sergueï Shoigu stressed that “It’s very important for us that the armed forces of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be ready to fend off potential threats, even though the Taliban leaders say they will not make any incursions across the border and attacks on neighbors,”[ix] Joint military drills between Uzbek and Russian forces and is a separate exercise, troops from Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan took place in August 2021 to prevent any destabilisation, and infiltration of Djihadists militants at the Afghan border. [x]
Another aspect is the potential strengthening of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-led regional security alliance whose other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is not member of this organization since they exited from CSTO in 2012, but the Uzbek President Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev agreed to reinforce his country’s cooperation with the CSTO member states regarding regional security issues in the context of the developments in Afghanistan.[xi] If CSTO will raise its profile in the region, Uzbekistan is maintaining its multivector diplomacy and it is unlikely it will join again CSTO, although bilateral relations with Moscow will be strengthened[xii].
Regarding international commercial issues, significant developments could also be observed to understand the Uzbek positioning.
Uzbekistan obtained in 2020 a new observer status in the Eurasian economic Union (EAEU). Its full member states are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Uzbekistan’s participation as an observer to the EAEU facilitates the government objective to obtain new markets for Uzbek products since the majority of its trade partners are EAEU members
On the 9th of April 2021, Uzbekistan became also a beneficiary Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+) of the European Union (EU). The benefit of GSP+ is the removal of tariffs on 2/3 of all goods present in the EU’s official product list. The consolidation of trade relations with Europe is important for Uzbek prosperity, in times of uncertainty and new developments in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan also promoted more cooperation within the Economic Cooperation organization (ECO)[xiii].
Regarding the priority projects, Uzbekistan as a double land-locked country is keen to develop new infrastructure to diversify transport routes East-West and North-South. The future corridor China-Kyrgystan-Uzbekistan railway in the East and the new railway Baku-Tbilisi-Kars in the West would reduce the route from East Asia to Europe from 900km.
Uzbekistan is also promoting a new corridor Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, to reach the ports of Gwadar and Karachi and have access to the Indian Ocean, and facilitate connections between Central Eurasia, South Asia, CIS countries and Europe.[xiv] The objective to connect Uzbekistan and Central Eurasia to Afghanistan is not only justified for commercial reasons, but also for geopolitical goals, as a prosperous Afghanistan will be more stable. It is a way for Uzbekistan to project stability on its southern flank. In this regard, a Central Asia- South Asia Connectivity Summit was organized in Tashkent in July 15-16 2021.
Since the election of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Central Asia has also become the core priority of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, and the new regional foreign policy doctrine is about creating stability, security and cooperation with a belt of Central Asian states around Uzbekistan[xv]. The main objective is to transform Central Asia into a geopolitical hub[xvi]. In this respect the Consultative meetings of the Heads of the Central Asian States has become regular. The first common document is being currently under preparation to reinforce cooperation in Central Asia in XXI century[xvii].
Perspectives for Europe
These different international commitments made by the Uzbek State is fully in line with the Uzbek foreign policy doctrine based on a multivector foreign-policy and is eager to maintain geopolitical balance between regional and global powers.
The main question from the European point of view is the following : How to achieve geopolitical stability on the Eurasian continent ? The answer is to promote more geopolitical synergy and not rivalry ! The European Union, has finally recognized the strategic value of Central Asia, especially since the election of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and most recently, Uzbekistan benefited from the GSP+ status.
However, the deepening of relations between EU member states and Uzbekistan should take in the future a more geopolitical character.
With the rapid transformation of global geopolitics, especially on the Eurasian continent, with the simultaneous American and Russian pivot to Asia, the European Union should size the opportunity to gain more strategic autonomy for its members states, with its own pivot to Eurasia, both towards Central Eurasia but also to Russia. The main objective would be to avoid to be marginalized in the context of increasing geopolitical competition between the United-States and China. European nations embarked in the European project have to position themselves according to their geography and work for a better geopolitical balance between the Euro-Atlantic, the Euro-Mediterranean and African and Eurasian spaces. EU member states cannot cut themselves from their Eurasian Hinterland. They should reconnect themselves to States on the Eurasian continent to overcome the remaining Cold War fractures, a result from the division of Europe and Eurasia in two rival alliances, the Atlantic alliance against the Warsaw pact. The pivot of Europe to Eurasia would also be a way to try to circumvent the New Cold War between United States, Russia and China, with Western Europe and Central Asia as playgrounds of these increasing geopolitical rivalries.
It would be therefore wise for EU to reinforce its cooperation with Central Asia as a whole and support the emergence of a new regional economic and political entity composed of the five Central Asian states with a strong regional common market. It would be also appropriate to engage in a close cooperation with the international organizations in Eurasia like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but also the Eurasian Economic Union, and CSTO, in order to promote a synergy between international organizations with EU, OSCE, NATO to avoid geopolitical fractures in Eurasia and Europe. On a longer term basis, the strengthening of the Shanghaï Cooperation Organization (SCO) is also a major factor for improving global security with its focus on the Eurasian continent in the context of a emerging multipolar world. The strengthening of SCO should not be perceived in the EU as a geopolitical rival, but a future partner to manage multipolarity. It is in the long-term interest of Euro-Atlantic structures to be complemented by other international organizations like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to stabilize the Eurasian continent.
To conclude, the multivector foreign policy of Uzbekistan could be a source of inspiration for European nations. This is also why presidential elections in Uzbekistan matters for Europe, as stability and new geopolitical synergy should prevail over increasing global and Eurasian geopolitical challenges. European interest in Uzbekistan should also not be solely energy, or security, as a territory useful for their own security, even if it is important. From the perspective of a multipolar world, Europeans should have an interest in deepening relations with Uzbekistan because both value also culture and their civilizational heritage. The Eurasian continent, to which Europe and Central Eurasia belong, came from the Old World, the origin of civilisations, and that is why they could work together for a new Renaissance
[iv] For an exhaustive list of the new changes introduced in Uzbek electoral laws, read the interview of Dr. Gulnoza Ismailova : https://www.eureporter.co/world/uzbekistan/2021/09/13/electoral-process-transformation-in-uzbekistan-achievements-and-challenges-during-30-years-of-independence/
[vii] SCO was created in 2001 by China, Russia and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan ,Tadjikistan. India and Pakistan in 2017, and Iran in 2021.
[viii] H;E . Gayrat Fazilov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Uzbekistan, « Our main goal is to transform Central Asia into a region of security, stability and sustainable development »,3 0 years of independence of Uzbekistan, Diplomatic World, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/65841880/diplomatic-world-uzbekistan
[xiii] Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
[xiv] Eldor Aripov, Director, Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of Uzbekistan, The new foreign policy course of President Miziyoyev is manifested in the intensification of interaction and strengthening of Uzbekistan’s position in regional and international organizations, 30 years of independence of Uzbekistan, Diplomatic World, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/65841880/diplomatic-world-uzbekistan
[xv] Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann, » Uzbekistan and Central Asia : New Geopolitical Laboratory for Stability and Peace in Eurasia », December 2017,
[xvi] Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann » Uzbekistan as Anchor of Stability in Central Eurasia », September 2020, http://www.eurocontinent.eu/2020/09/uzbekistan-as-anchor-of-stability-in-central-eurasia/
[xvii] Eldor Aripov, Director, Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of Uzbekistan, The new foreign policy course of President Miziyoyev is manifested in the intensification of interaction and strengthening of Uzbekistan’s position in regional and international organizations, 30 years of independence of Uzbekistan, Diplomatic World, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/65841880/diplomatic-world-uzbekistan