As the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is all set to convene its summit of the heads of state virtually starting today 4 July, it is an exciting time for its member states. One, after its full inclusion as a member state into the organisation in 2017, India took over the reins of the organisation as its chairperson for this year, and the summit will be convened under its watch. Second, Iran is all set to join the organisation as a full-fledged member this time. Third, one of the founder-member and important states Uzbekistan will be holding snap presidential polls soon after on 9 July.
Located in the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is an important member of the SCO. Given its long and arduous battle with terrorism and radicalism, an important institution of the SCO – the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) – is based in Tashkent. Uzbekistan had chaired the SCO the preceding year which had culminated in a summit of heads of state of the organisation in the beautiful historical city of Samarkand last year, following which the chairmanship was passed on to India.
Uzbekistan’s Geo-Political and Strategic Impact
The region has been spotlighted for a while because of its abundance of natural resources and important geo-political space, bordering Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. In this context what happens in Uzbekistan is significant, especially given that it is an important partner of India in the region and both countries have been forging a close relationship.
Uzbekistan is the most populous country in the region with a population of 35.3 million, and the most powerful one in military terms. It is also the country which has been forging the most strategically autonomous path in the region. It is not part of any of the Moscow-led blocs, like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or the Eurasian Economic Union.
It was the last in the region to sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and has been trying to actively follow a multi-vector policy, pursuing relations with Russia, China, the USA, European Union, Turkey, Iran, and India. It was the country that first understood the significance of dialoguing with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it was in Uzbekistan that India convened the first India-Central Asia Dialogue at the level of foreign ministers in 2019. It was also in Uzbekistan that India signed the Memorandum of Obligation for the membership of the SCO in 2016.
Under the dynamic leadership of its current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took charge in 2016 on the death of the country’s first President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has undertaken a slew of large-scale reforms based on his “New Uzbekistan” policy meant to spur investments and trade, tourism, invigorate the education system, encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, develop civil society, promote transparency and the rule of law, foster local governance, gender equality, secularism, respect for human rights, and ensure the slow but sure democratisation of Uzbek polity and society.
Since Uzbekistan is a double landlocked country, the political leadership has doubled down on overcoming this tyranny of geography by actively pursuing and participating in connectivity projects and consistently improving the environment for trade and investment.
Ups in Economy and Policy
All of this has paid off. Today the Uzbek economy is one of the second fastest-growing in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the country’s GDP in 2022 was 80.39 billion US dollars in 2022, according to official data from the World Bank. Uzbekistan boasts a 97 % literacy rate. Over the past six years, the number of universities in Uzbekistan has increased from 77 to 210, enrollment has increased five times, the number of students has increased by 1 million, and enrollment in higher education has increased from 9% to 38%.
The number of government grants has also doubled to 40,000, of which grants for master's degrees have increased by five times. Many Indian Universities like Sharda University, and Amity University have opened campuses in Uzbekistan. Due to its fast-paced reforms, the number of business entities in the country has increased six times over the past six years and today has reached 2 million. The number of entrepreneurs whose income exceeded USD 1 million reached 26 thousand, and the income of 220 entrepreneurs reached USD 100 million.
In this context, the constitutional amendments that the country undertook this year is significant. Millions of Uzbek citizens actively participated in the nationwide discussions on the draft Constitution, culminating ultimately in the law that the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (parliament) adopted on 10 March this year, and which was voted in by a referendum held later on 30 April by more than 90 per cent endorsement.
According to the new edition of the Constitution, the number of articles increased from 128 to 155, and norms from 275 to 434. Conceptual changes were made to 91 of 128 articles. In other words, almost 65% of the constitution underwent changes, some of which included extending the presidential term from five to seven years, reducing the number of senators from 100 to 65, declaring Uzbekistan a social state, separating the powers of local Kengashes (councils) and governors, and others.
Some of the major features of the changes have been to offer strong social protection and caring for the needy and make Uzbekistan a welfare state while strengthening the guarantees of human rights and freedoms, promoting education, and so on.
Snap Presidential Polls and India Ties
The amended Constitution has laid down the political and legal foundations for implementing the new Development Strategy of Uzbekistan, defining the priorities for further strengthening of the state and society at a historically important stage for the country.
Considering that this also required radical reforms at all levels of power as specified in the Basic Law, on 8 May, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, proposed the holding of snap presidential elections, even though the legislation provide the opportunity to continue the current powers of the President until 2026. The elections will be held on 9 July this year.
Four parties will be participating in the elections - The People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, the Social Democratic Party of Uzbekistan "Adolat”, the Ecological Party of Uzbekistan, the Democratic Party Uzbekistan “MilliyTiklanish”. The candidates in the fray are Ulugbek Inoyatov of the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev of the Movement of Entrepreneurs and Businessmen – Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, Robakhon Makhmudova of the Social Democratic Party of Uzbekistan and Abdushukur Khamzaev of the Ecological Party of Uzbekistan as candidates for the post of the President of Uzbekistan.
The elections will be carefully watched and widely monitored. They come at a particularly crucial juncture – the Ukraine crisis has inevitably put the spotlight on Central Asia, and these polls will highlight the dynamic reforms being pursued by the region’s most important state.
It will also serve as an example for other states in the region while laying down a precedent. Such democratisation of society will also enable forging closer ties with India, the only democracy in the SCO. Therefore, irrespective of which candidate wins – one thing is sure – it will be a win for the Uzbek people.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)