The past three years, a monumental shift has been rapidly happening in Uzbekistan. A shift that has today touched upon every single aspect of life in country and every single person in it. An economic opening under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, after years of economic stagnation, coupled with a generational shift, which is now shaping the future of possibly the entire Central Asian region. The opportunities for co-operation, investments and trade are now there for the taking.
Parliamentary elections that took place in December 2019 returned a new parliament that is younger, fresher and more gender-balanced than ever before. For the first time, women-members reached the 30 percent quota of seats that had long been constitutionally promised them. The upshot is an energised policymaking sphere in Uzbekistan that reflects younger generations’ hunger for change. Over 65% of Uzbekistan’s 34 million-strong population today, is under 30 years of age. The average-aged member in our newly elected parliament was just a teenager when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Their fading memories of the past have helped to sweep away old orthodoxies and build a new consensus for managing the economy and our social relations: one that is more tolerant and open to the entire world.
Young people growing up in Uzbekistan’s cities today have more opportunities to succeed than ever before, through education, jobs in industries that did not even exist in the country only a few years ago and most importantly, the freedom to express themselves. Access to the internet, extensive interactions on social media and exposure to modern globalised culture have made young people in the country feel more connected to the world. The recent surge in international tourism into Uzbekistan shows that the world is also interested in Uzbekistan. The cities of Bukhara, Samarkand & Khiva, jewels of the ancient Silk Road trading routes, are welcoming global travellers in numbers never seen in the past. Today, the visa-free entry regime is extended to nationals of 85 counties with additional citizens of 77 benefiting from a simplified e-visa procedure.
When President Mirziyoyev came to power in December 2016, he pledged to create an inclusive and diversified economy, by liberalising the country’s social, political and economic make-up. Reforms to tackle gender inequality and boost women’s participation in the economy were a key priority area for unlocking future growth. Today the chairperson of Uzbekistan’s upper chamber of Parliament is a woman. In 2019, even before the parliamentary election, we saw some impressive legislative achievements to address gender discrimination & ensure equal rights in the workplace as well as a separate law to tackle gender-based violence and domestic abuse against women.
In just over three short years, media and political freedoms have seen a previously unprecedented expansion. An ecosystem of domestic Uzbek and Russian-language media outlets is flourishing, and foreign media organisations that previously had trouble getting licences to operate in the country, are now welcomed. International calls for the release of political prisoners and the closure of prisons of the past have been met, while recent improvements to religious protections have been commended by the USCIRF. The International Labour Organization has also confirmed that Uzbekistan has totally eradicated systemic child labour in its cotton industry.
Although much more remains to be done in coming years, significant progress towards greater freedom and transparency is crystal clear. Uzbekistan’s direction of travel is firmly established and relentlessly led forward by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Economic reforms, meanwhile, have sparked a rush of business activity in the country. The scaling back of regulations, simplification of taxation and the break-up of state monopolies have incentivised a wave of business creation. Young entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, are leading the charge.
While working closely with all key IFI’s on economic & structural reforms in the country, we are strongly focused on securing international investment to help modernise Uzbekistan’s key industries, especially agriculture & textile production, which remain key growth objectives for the economy. With a youthful population and an abundance of arable land as well as high-quality added value potential, they have all the ingredients for rapid & long-term growth.
The lifting of capital and currency controls, and wider market reforms, have piqued the interest of international investors. Efforts to strengthen the rule of law and provide legal guarantees for foreign investors, led by a British-educated justice minister, have sent a clear signal to the West that Uzbekistan means business.
As Uzbekistan expands its horizons, building platforms and networks between Uzbek companies and international partners is essential. The establishment of the Europe-Uzbekistan Association for Economic Cooperation (EUROUZ) in Brussels – an organisation I co-chair on the Uzbekistan side – is one such initiative that aims to build closer economic relationships & mutual understanding between Europe and Uzbekistan. The message from organisations like EUROUZ is clear: the country is open and attractive for business.
For the time being, in the face of the coronavirus, the health and wellbeing of Uzbekistan’s people takes precedence over all economic concerns. Lockdown measures enacted as soon as first COVID-19 cases emerged, have helped to quickly curtail its spread. But while the pandemic may have tested Uzbekistan’s growth, it has not dampened our desire for change. As economic activity rebounds in the third and fourth quarters of this year, the case for accelerating political and economic reforms will only have grown stronger. What is clear to see is that young people in Uzbekistan, men and women, are connected to bring our country to its future. Europe should seize the moment and look eastward. Together with Uzbekistan it can lead the way to a more prosperous and stable future for Eurasia and beyond.