Uzbekistan, independent since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, is often consigned to the cluster of ‘stans’ in the shadow of the occasionally news worthy Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan should not be forgotten about however, as some important changes have been occurring in the past few years.

Bordered by Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan; Uzbekistan is a routinely forgotten land which, like the rest of the ex-soviet territory, has been ruled by an oppressively authoritarian regime for many years. Islam Karimov, the former president, ran the country with an iron fist for 25 years, but his death in 2016 from cardiac arrest appears to have changed the former police-state for the better.

Under Karimov, Uzbekistan had numerous crippling socio-economic policies which would not have seemed out of place in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. These included arbitrary detention, the use of torture in the questionable state-run criminal ‘justice’ system, and the use of forced labour in cotton fields. Karimov’s Uzbeks were also confined by exit visas making foreign travel extremely difficult, and the subservient media have never come close to being independent and free.

Under Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s successor as president, these huge problems seem to be changing. The arbitrary detention, forced labour and torture have all gone, with the exit visas being phased out and the media finally beginning to have the chance to argue against state policies. This has been achieved within Uzbekistan itself, without any of the ‘nation-building’ western intervention which has ruined so many other parts of the world.

That said, there remains numerous problems in the country. Thousands of Uzbeks remain in prison, un-tried, because of their religious or political views, and anti-government journalists seem to still have a habit of ending up behind bars. Additionally, Mirziyoyev shows no signs of implementing genuine democracy or even allowing any form of political opposition to himself.

While Uzbekistan has managed to take some steps forward out of its Soviet ashes in the last two years, it still has a long way to go. But as a country of 30 million people, it clearly has a big role to play once its transition from the past is complete.

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