Svante E. Cornell, ed.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
How does political change happen? This question, which has occupied the minds of scholars and analysts for many decades, has been especially vexing for the broad lands that include the Middle East and Central Asia. Samuel P. Huntington identified a “third wave” of democratization between the mid-1970s and 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to confirm that democracy would now spread unhindered across the world. But in the Middle East and Central Asia, this did not happen. Quite to the contrary, in spite of some liberalizing efforts in the 1990s, what occurred in this region was more akin to what Huntington, who passed away in 2008, would have called a “reverse wave” – with authoritarian governments proving not only resilient but able to consolidate control over societies.
The political stagnation of the broader region led to considerable frustration among foreign well-wishers of these regions – and more importantly, among large strata of people in these regions that experienced heavy-handed government, mismanagement, and systematic corruption. Between 2003 and 2011, popular revolts overthrew a series of governments – first in the post-Soviet space, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, and subsequently in the Middle East and North Africa. These upheavals were met with great enthusiasm in western circles, who were convinced that democracy had finally come to the Middle East and North Africa.
Except it did not work out that way. The “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and the Arab upheavals largely failed, as no country that experienced these upheavals has progressed in a sustainable way toward democracy. Most are worse off than before these upheavals. Libya, Syria and Yemen have descended into civil war. Georgia and Ukraine were invaded by Russia, in part because of their political changes, and Kyrgyzstan descended into instability, with two additional upheavals as well as ethnic rioting. Egypt almost saw state capture by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was only undone through a military intervention that proved lasting. For some time, Georgia and Tunisia appeared to go against the grain, and make sustained progress – but in recent years, those two have backtracked significantly. While many of these societies underwent change that increased the level of pluralism in the political system, mostly they did not succeed in addressing underlying causes of public frustration, such as mismanagement and corruption. All in all, it seems clear that revolution did not prove a sustainable model to liberalize societies.
In the past several years, however, an alternative model of political change has been on display in the region – an evolutionary model of political development. Following the political and economic upheavals of the past decade, the leadership in some countries appear to have concluded that “business as usual” is no longer feasible; they must answer to popular demands for change, while seeking to manage the political process to maintain stability and avoid upheavals. As a result, they have implemented reforms from the top down, seeking to improve the efficiency of government and in a controlled and gradual manner expand political rights. This is happening in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Jordan, Kazakhstan and Morocco. But Uzbekistan plays a particular role because of the sheer rate of change in the country.
Nowhere is the contrast between the “before” and the “after” as dramatic as in Uzbekistan following the accession to power of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. While paying respects to his predecessor Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev departed dramatically from Karimov’s approach to both foreign and domestic policy, unleashing a torrent of reform initiatives that have changed Uzbek society for the better.
Of course, it should be understood that the evolutionary process of reform will not turn Uzbekistan, or any other country engaging in it, into a model democracy in the short term. That is not the purpose of these reforms. That does not mean these reforms are “cosmetic,” as they are frequently called: they are highly ambitious in scope, because they aim to fundamentally change the relationship between state and society. It should be recalled that in the Soviet system, the individual was subordinated to the all-powerful state. This in turn bred impunity and corruption, as documented already in 1982 by Soviet exile Konstantin Simis in his book USSR: the Corrupt Society. This Soviet legacy is one that in some ways continues to this day – but is one that reformist leaders like President Mirziyoyev are now trying to reckon with. In the place of the old logic, they are seeking to turn the tables, and turn state institutions into bodies that exist to serve the citizens of the country rather than to control them or extract rents from them.
This is the background to the constitutional reform process in Uzbekistan, launched in the summer of 2022. As such, it is not an isolated event, but very much a step in the process of reforms that have been introduced since President Mirziyoyev acceded to the presidency in 2016.
This process is one that the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program documented in several entries in the Silk Road Papers series, and in the 2018 book, Uzbekistan’s New Face. This time, the Joint Center was pleased to have the opportunity to cooperate with the Center for Development Strategy in Tashkent to organize a Symposium on the constitutional reform process. This event, held in July 2022, provided an opportunity for Western and Uzbek researchers to exchange views on the reforms process. This publication is a collection of their presentations.
We are grateful to the authors of these papers and to the Center for Development Strategy, and particular its Director Eldor Tulyakov, for the opportunity to bring these papers to print.