After market reforms, EU engagement with Central Asia shifts to democratisation and human rights

In meeting with Kazakhstan’s justice minister Marat Beketayev in Brussels on Wednesday and confirming he would travel to the country’s economic capital of Almaty for the Central Asia-European Union Civil Forum next week, EU Special representative for human rights Eamon Gilmore kicked off the latest chapter of European engagement with the government in Nur-Sultan over its rights record and commitment to social and political reforms. Beketayev discussed the Kazakhstani justice ministry’s role in those reforms with Gilmore and other representatives from the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Since taking power in 2019 as his country’s second president since independence, Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has pushed forward with a reform programme whose scope stretches from direct local elections to the abolition of the death penalty and relaxed rules surrounding political parties. These political reforms build on Kazakhstan’s success in pursuing economic reforms and exploiting its hydrocarbon reserves in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the country ranking 25th globally in terms of the ease of doing business – just behind Gilmore’s native Ireland.

Central Asia’s other major centre of economic gravity, Uzbekistan, has been following a similar path since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, aggressively liberalising the country’s once tightly-controlled economy and currency market, rewriting the tax code, and undertaking projects with international institutions such as the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank. While foreign investors have lauded Mirziyoyev’s economic reforms over the past five years, Uzbekistan’s leader acknowledged in his first-ever media interview in August that the country’s leaders “still have a long and thorny way to go” as he runs for (and is almost assured to win) re-election next month.

While both countries have enjoyed success in implementing market reforms and weathering the economic impact of the pandemic, securing further gains in sensitive areas such as democratisation and human rights will require sustained engagement from the European Union and connected Western institutions.

Kazakhstan’s exchanges with the European Parliament and the Council of Europe

Already maintaining a delicate balance between Vladimir Putin’s Russia to their north, Xi Jinping’s resurgent China to the east, and a new Taliban regime in Afghanistan to the south, Nur-Sultan and Tashkent face the difficult task of undertaking political liberalisation without provoking dangerous new instability within their own borders. In visiting Brussels this week and meeting with European officials such as Special representative Gilmore and Polish MEP Róża Thun, Kazakhstan’s justice minister presented both his government’s plans for reform and the obstacles in the country’s way.

The status of Nur-Sultan’s political liberalisation and changes to the Kazakhstani state’s handling of human rights has been a hotly contested topic in the European Parliament, where MEPs have responded to the promulgation of decrees such as last June’s “further measures of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the field of human rights” by insisting the European Commission adopt a position of “healthy scepticism.”

Top officials in Kazakhstan, for their part, have been straightforward about the pace of reform in their country in discussions with their European counterparts, and have solicited feedback from European human rights bodies. Just last week, for example, Kazakhstan’s deputy speaker of the Senate Askar Shakirov asked the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (the “Venice Commission”) to issue an opinion regarding a draft bill on Kazakhstan’s Commissioner for Human Rights. The country’s current human rights commissioner, Elvira Azimova, herself visited Brussels and met with Gilmore this past July.

Uzbekistan’s lagging human rights reforms draw scrutiny

In Tashkent, the end of Mirziyoyev’s current term as president has generated renewed international attention to the state of Uzbekistan’s reforms, with even top officials under the late president Islam Karimov acknowledging how authoritarian the country’s political system was before Miziyoyev came to power in 2016.

In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this month, deputy prime minister Jamshid Kuchkarov acknowledged that “in 2015, I wouldn’t [have been] talking to [the Financial Times]… people, society, mentality, behaviour have all changed… Mirziyoyev removed fear in people.” Kuchkarov went on to insist that Uzbekistan “will never go back to the past” and that a new sense of accountability to the public among the country’s governing institutions was there to stay.

While the new government might have removed fear, Uzbekistan is still a long way from being able to claim the status of an open and democratic society. According to some dissidents, human rights reforms have “ground to a halt” after a number of major early successes, such as the abolition of forced labour and child labour in the pivotal cotton industry and release of dozens of political prisoners. Human rights advocates such as Umida Niyazova have urged the EU to leverage its growing economic relationships with Uzbekistan to pressure Miziyoyev’s government on “effective implementation” of international human rights conventions before extending new benefits, naming in particular the special trade status Uzbekistan hopes to enjoy under the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP+).

For Uzbekistan, the continued success of its market liberalisation and its capacity to attract foreign investment are largely tied up with its ability to cement social and political reforms. The country’s economic opening has been steered by a class of civil servants who returned to the country from abroad after Mirziyoyev came to power, bringing with them experience in global norms of business and governance and reassuring international firms that they would be dealing with competent and effective interlocuters in Uzbekistan.

Absent concrete progress on human rights and democratisation, however, many of those investors would have reason to question the depth and durability of Uzbekistan’s reforms. That gives Tashkent, much like its neighbour to the north, considerable incentives to cooperate with Europe in taking its political reform plans from rhetoric to reality.


Photo: Snowscat/Unsplash

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