Scripting radical change in Uzbekistan

Radical change can sometimes come without revolution. In Uzbekistan, journalist Abu Ali Niyazmatov said that the changes are so dramatic every day that it is sometimes hard to keep up with reforms introduced by the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power just two years ago. “Changes are going on in all spheres: in the economy, government, judicial processes, and in the media,” he said. Four years ago, under the former President Islam Karimov, the “Agency of Press and Communication” had the local newspaper Noviy Vek (New Century), which Mr. Niyazmatov’s family had brought out since 1992, shut down by a court order. The charges ranged from “disturbing the peace” to “damaging the nation’s image” because of stories they had written on social problems and civic issues. “Today everyone is writing these kind of critical stories about governance and social change, without facing any penalties,” Mr. Niyazmatov said, as he prepared to file an appeal in a Tashkent court to restart the Noviy Vek . No ‘minders’ for journalists The change was hard to see for a first time visitor, but passengers on the high-speed bullet train from Samarkand to Tashkent indicated some of them, starting with the fact that there are no ‘minders’ for journalists anymore. Economic reforms have ushered in Western cars that can be seen waiting at railway crossings. In Tashkent’s metro, people use cameras to take pictures, which was banned until this summer. Language students Rayhon and Mallika, both 21, say that a push for tourism, which has freed visas up and made the local currency Som entirely convertible to foreign currency, will mean more jobs for them as travel guides and interpreters. Immediately after seizing power when Karimov died in September 2016, Mr. Mirziyoyev stepped out of the leader’s shadows. Within weeks, he released Uzbekistan’s longest serving political prisoner, Samandar Qoqonov, who had been behind bars for more than 23 years. He then ordered the release of nearly 3,000 other prisoners, including activists, politicians and journalists, and took 18,000 people off the country’s security services blacklist run by the all-powerful National Security Service (SNB). In January, when he sacked the SNB chief Rustam Inoyatov, the international human rights community began to sit up and take notice.

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