TASHKENT (AFP) – Uzbekistan leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev accepted on Thursday (Sept 9) a widely expected nomination to run for re-election as critics say the country’s reform drive lost steam amid a crackdown on dissent.
President Mirziyoyev, who was put forward as a candidate by a pro-government party at a conference in the capital Tashkent, called the nomination “a huge responsibility (that) I feel with my heart”.
“Today our state has opened up for the individual, for the people,” said Mirziyoyev, who will face off against four people widely viewed as token candidates on October 24.
“We have created a completely new system of direct dialogue with the people, a positive solution to their needs and problems,” he said.
Mirziyoyev was nominated to run by the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, which also backed his predecessor Islam Karimov – the country’s first post-Soviet leader – to run effectively uncontested in 2007 and 2015.
Mirziyoyev, 64, previously served as Karimov’s prime minister for 13 years.
Authorities have shown no sign of allowing a formal opposition to emerge. Uzbekistan, a majority-Muslim but secular country that is rich in commodities and shares a border with Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan’s population of around 34 million accounts for close to half of former Soviet Central Asia’s total population.
Its leadership enjoys close ties with both Russia and China, while relations with smaller Central Asian neighbours such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have improved in recent times.
Mirziyoyev’s almost inevitable second term will test the durability of a reform drive launched after his hardline predecessor Karimov died in 2016, as rights groups complain about the authorities’ growing intolerance of criticism.
The new leadership has been credited with rooting out systematic forced labour in Uzbekistan’s lucrative cotton sector, where even schoolchildren toiled under Karimov, and opening up the country to foreign tourists and investment.
But recent years have seen independent bloggers jailed or detained and an emerging independent media complain of pressure following a thaw that saw prominent Karimov-era political prisoners released.
An economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic trimmed growth to 1.6 per cent last year from 5.8 per cent in 2019, fuelling public dissatisfaction in the republic.