While ongoing reforms under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev have led to improvements on some issues, including a modest reduction in media repression and reforms that mandated more female legislative candidates, Uzbekistan remains an authoritarian regime with little movement toward democratization. No opposition parties operate legally. The legislature and judiciary effectively serve as instruments of the executive branch, which initiates reforms by decree, and the media remains tightly controlled by the state. Reports of torture and other ill-treatment remain common, although highly publicized cases of abuse continue to result in dismissals and prosecutions for some officials and small-scale corruption has been meaningfully reduced.
- The government introduced electoral reforms in February that allowed ex-felons to vote, allowed voters to add their names to multiple party rolls, and introduced a gender quota to guarantee female representation in the legislature.
- In September, a blogger was arrested and jailed after calling on Mirziyoyev to investigate corruption by local officials. A second journalist was forced into a psychiatric institution in October after documenting a protest, and was threatened with permanent institutionalization before she was released in December.
- Mirziyoyev continued purging prosecutors and the security service throughout the year. The prosecutor general was dismissed in June and put on trial in September over accusations of graft, while a former prosecutor was imprisoned over corruption charges in June. The security services chief was also handed a long prison sentence for bribery in September.
- Despite Mirziyoyev’s calls for international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to return to Uzbekistan, the American Councils for International Education was denied accreditation in 2019 and remained unregistered.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president, who holds most executive power, is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. Longtime prime minister Mirziyoyev was named acting president through an irregular parliamentary process in 2016, after Islam Karimov, who had held the presidency since Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, suffered a stroke and died. The constitution called for the Senate chairman to serve as acting president, but the chairman declined the post. Mirziyoyev won a special presidential election at the end of 2016, taking a reported 88.6 percent of the vote and defeating nominal challengers whose parties in some cases openly campaigned for the incumbent. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that “the dominant position of state actors and limits on fundamental freedoms undermine political pluralism and led to a campaign devoid of genuine competition.”
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Uzbekistan has a bicameral legislature. The lower house is comprised of 150 seats, with its members directly elected in single-member constituencies. The 100-member upper house, or Senate, has 84 members elected by regional councils and 16 appointed by the president. All members of the parliament serve five-year terms.
The December 2019 lower house election again offered voters no meaningful choice, as all participating parties supported the government. Initial results closely mirrored the previous lower house election and indicated that the president’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (UzLiDeP), took the largest share with 43 of 150 seats. Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) won 35, the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party won 21, and the People’s Democratic Party (UXDP) won 18. The Ecological Party of Uzbekistan, which directly competed for the first time after previously having its seats automatically allocated, lost 3 seats and returned with 11. Runoff elections were scheduled for early 2020 to resolve 22 races where no candidates secured a majority.
OSCE election monitors noted numerous irregularities during the December 2019 election, including procedural violations, the use of multiple ballots by voters, and ballot box stuffing.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The electoral laws and framework are implemented in ways that offer no opportunities for independent political actors or parties to participate in elections at any level. Election management bodies are closely controlled by the government, though Mirziyoyev has shepherded some reforms to the country’s electoral framework during his tenure as president. In 2017, he signed legislation allowing the election of 11 district councils within Tashkent, in addition to the existing council for the city as a whole; Tashkent has the status of a region, and districts in the country’s other regions already had elected councils.
In February 2019, the government enacted another set of electoral reforms that ended indirect representation for the Ecological Party, removed voting restrictions on ex-felons, and allowed voters to add their names to more than one party roll; these lists are required for political parties to participate in elections.
Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because December’s legislative election was conducted under new electoral laws that introduced modest reforms.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Only five political parties are registered—UzLiDep, the UXDP, Adolat, Milliy Tiklanish, and the Ecological Party. They indulge in mild criticism of one another and occasionally of government ministers, but all are effectively progovernment.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
No genuine opposition parties operate legally. Unregistered opposition groups function primarily in exile. Domestic supporters or family members of exiled opposition figures have been persecuted, and they are barred from participating in elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Regional alliances of political elites hold the levers of government at all levels, creating economic oligarchies and patronage networks that stifle political competition. There is some intra-elite competition, but without the patronage of the established networks, political and economic advancement is all but impossible.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
No registered party represents the specific interests of ethnic or religious minority groups, and no other parties or actors have the opportunity to achieve political representation. Women formally enjoy equal political rights, but they are unable to organize independently to advance their political interests in practice, and they remain underrepresented in leadership positions.
However, a gender quota was introduced as part of an electoral reform package enacted in 2019; 30 percent of legislative candidates must be women. Women now hold 32 percent of the seats in lower house, which was elected after these reforms were enacted. Women held 17 percent of the seats in the Senate in 2019, which was last elected before these reforms took effect. No women ran for president in 2016.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
The country’s leadership is not freely elected, and the legislature serves as a rubber stamp for the executive branch.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption is pervasive. Graft and bribery among low– and mid-level officials remain common and are at times conducted overtly and without subterfuge. Low-level and everyday corruption among traffic police and officials granting identification documents and registrations has been notably reduced by pilot programs to introduce video surveillance and traffic cameras, however.
In 2019, President Mirziyoyev continued purging the notoriously corrupt security and law enforcement services. In June, prosecutor general Otabek Murodov was dismissed over accusations of graft and was detained in September; his case was still in progress at the end of 2019. One of Murodov’s predecessors as prosecutor general, Rashid Kadirov, was also sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of corruption in June. Ikhtiyor Abdullayev, who directly preceded Murodov as prosecutor general before becoming head of the powerful State Security Service (SSS), was removed from his security post in February and was charged with bribery in June. In September, Abdullayev was sentenced to 18 years in prison for crimes including bribery, extortion, and for the use of illegal wiretaps to gain political influence.
Analysts contend that the purge is largely intended to neutralize security officials from the Karimov era and shift power to the president’s personal security service and to the reformed National Guard, both of which are overseen by Mirziyoyev’s in-laws.
Media discussion of corrupt practices has cautiously expanded since Karimov’s death, but in some cases the journalists and commentators involved—rather than the corrupt officials—have come under pressure.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Government operations remain mostly opaque, but one of Mirziyoyev’s first acts as president in late 2016 was the creation of new online mechanisms that offered citizens the opportunity to file complaints, report problems, and request services. The initial program was overwhelmingly popular and was quickly expanded to all ministries and local government offices, requiring local officials to interact with citizens and demonstrate responsiveness. The innovations contributed to a cultural change in governance, though they frequently encountered resistance at the local level.
|Are there free and independent media?
Despite constitutional guarantees, press freedom remains severely restricted. The state controls major media outlets and related facilities, and independent outlets were mostly shuttered or blocked under Karimov. Domestic media, including news websites and live television programs, now cautiously discuss social problems and criticize local officials, reflecting a slight reduction in media repression since Mirziyoyev took power. However, even privately-owned media outlets still avoid openly criticizing Mirziyoyev and the government.
While the presence of independent international outlets is limited, several foreign reporters have been granted press passes since 2017. This trend continued in 2019, when a journalist working for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Uzbek Service was given accreditation. However, a radio journalist working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was denied entry into the country in June, after the state information agency accused the news outlet of violating journalistic ethics.
The government reduced its reliance on internet blackouts against media outlets in 2019; the websites of 11 news organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the BBC and Eurasianet, were made accessible in May. Access to popular social media sites like YouTube and Facebook became more reliable in early 2019, after the government stopped blocking those sites at the end of 2018.
Under Mirziyoyev, a number of journalists have been released from prison, and 2018 marked the first year in two decades that no journalists were imprisoned. However, one blogger received a jail sentence in 2019. In September, police in eastern Uzbekistan arrested Nodirbek Hojimatov and sentenced him to 10 days’ imprisonment after he posted an open letter calling on the president to investigate local officials for corruption. The state also used the Soviet-era practice of forced psychiatric hospitalization against journalist Nafosat Olloshukurova in October 2019, after she covered a protest held by another journalist the month before. Olloshukurova claimed she was forced into a psychiatric facility after refusing to lie about an opposition lawyer’s involvement in the protest and engaging in a hunger strike; she was threatened with rape and permanent institutionalization before her release at the end of 2019.
In November 2019, an audio recording that captured powerful Tashkent mayor Jahongir Ortikhhojaev threatening a journalist with physical harm was distributed, prompting an investigation by the General Prosecutor’s office. While prosecutors noted that the mayor’s statements violated ethics rules for civil servants, they cleared Ortikhhojaev and instead warned news outlet Kun.uz that recording public officials without their permission was illegal.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
The government permits the existence of approved Muslim, Jewish, and Christian denominations, but treats unregistered religious activity as a criminal offense. Suspected members of banned Muslim organizations and their relatives have faced arrest, interrogation, and torture. Arrested believers are frequently accused of founding previously unknown religious organizations, a charge that carries high penalties. In most cases, little evidence of the existence of such organizations is presented at the closed trials. In 2017, Mirziyoyev announced that some 16,000 individuals had been removed from a blacklist of roughly 17,000 people who had been suspected or previously convicted of religious extremism. Individuals who were placed on the blacklist were kept under close surveillance or on probation.
In 2019, Islamic activists and bloggers faced fewer arrests; many of the country’s most prominent activists were already arrested or jailed on administrative charges in 2018 after criticizing a state decision to effectively ban the hijab in schools and universities.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
The government has long limited academic freedom, in part by controlling contacts between universities or scholars and foreign entities. Universities in Uzbekistan expanded their cooperation with foreign counterparts in 2019, but the government also denied accreditation to staff for the American Councils for International Education, an academic exchange organization based in the United States. The staff members were originally encouraged to return to Uzbekistan during Mirziyoyev’s first state visit to the United States.
Presidential monographs that glorify the late former president Karimov are no longer required reading at universities.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
The freedom of private discussion has long been limited by mahalla committees, traditional neighborhood organizations that the government has transformed into an official system for public surveillance and control. The government also engages in extensive surveillance of electronic communications. However, through its various reforms since 2016, the Mirziyoyev administration has signaled a greater tolerance for public criticism, modestly improving the climate for expression of personal views on sensitive topics.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of assembly, authorities severely restrict this right in practice, breaking up virtually all unsanctioned gatherings and detaining participants.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Unregistered NGOs face severe repression and harassment. A new organization designed to oversee the activities of registered NGOs, the Center for the Development of Civil Society (CDCS), was formed in 2019. As the year ended, the government drafted legislation that would mandate NGOs to cooperate with the CDCS and other agencies to facilitate government work, as opposed to their own programs.
The government remained unwilling to register local or international NGOs that address human rights issues in 2019. Huquqiy Tayanch (Legal Support), which works to address the rights of prisoners, saw its application rejected in March. Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been active in Uzbekistan since 2017, also remained unregistered.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The Federation of Trade Unions is controlled by the state, and no genuinely independent union structures exist. Organized strikes are extremely rare.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judiciary is subservient to the president. In 2017, however, a number of judicial reforms were enacted through constitutional and legislative amendments, establishing specific terms in office for judges and creating a Supreme Judicial Council (OSK) to oversee appointments and disciplinary action, among other changes. The council, whose chairperson is approved by the Senate on the president’s recommendation, replaced a commission that was directly subordinate to the president.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Due process guarantees remain extremely weak. Law enforcement authorities have routinely justified the arrest of suspected religious extremists or political opponents by planting contraband, filing dubious charges of financial wrongdoing, or inventing witness testimony. The Lawyers’ Chamber, a regulatory body with compulsory membership, serves as a vehicle for state control over the legal profession. The judicial reforms adopted in 2017 gave judges rather than prosecutors the authority to approve certain investigative steps, such as exhumations and some forms of surveillance.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
A 2016 law on police prohibits torture, and a 2017 presidential decree that bars courts from using evidence obtained through torture took effect in 2018. Despite the reforms, reports of physical abuse against detainees remained continued to appear on social media in 2019.
HRW also documented one case of psychological torture during the year. Former diplomat Kadyr Yusupov was arrested in late 2018 and was held on trial for treason throughout 2019. According to HRW, Yusupov was regularly threatened with his rape, the rape of his wife and daughter, and the arrest of family members by security personnel for a period spanning from December 2018 to March 2019.
Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. As with detained suspects, prison inmates—particularly those sentenced for their religious beliefs—are often subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Jaslyk (Youth) prison, a correctional facility where torture was especially widespread, was ordered closed by President Mirziyoyev in August 2019.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Although racial and ethnic discrimination are prohibited by law, the belief that senior positions in government and business are reserved for ethnic Uzbeks is widespread. Women’s educational and professional prospects are limited by discriminatory cultural and religious norms. Women are also barred from certain jobs under the labor code.
Sex between men is punishable with up to three years in prison. The law does not protect LGBT+ people from discrimination, and social taboos deter the discussion of LGBT+ issues.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Permission is required to move to a new city, and bribes are commonly paid to obtain the necessary documents. Bribes are also frequently required to gain entrance to and advance in exclusive universities. The government took steps to ease travel within the country and to neighboring states beginning in 2017, when it removed police checkpoints at internal borders, resumed direct flights to Tajikistan, and opened border crossings as part of an agreement with Kyrgyzstan. The Mirziyoyev administration abolished exit visas in January 2019, ending a system that was used to proscribe travel beyond other member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Widespread corruption and extensive state control over the economy limit private business opportunities and make property rights tenuous in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Victims of domestic violence are discouraged from pressing charges against perpetrators, who rarely face prosecution. Rape is also seldom reported or prosecuted, and spousal rape is not explicitly criminalized. Extralegal child marriage is reportedly practiced in some areas.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Economic exploitation remains a serious problem, as does the trafficking of women abroad for prostitution. A 2009 law imposed stronger penalties for child labor, and in 2012, Mirziyoyev, then the prime minister, pledged to end the practice completely. In 2017, the president issued a decree to formally ban forced agricultural labor by students, health workers, and teachers. During the subsequent cotton harvests, the government increased incentives for voluntary labor and granted access to international observers. In 2018, the International Labor Organization (ILO) noted that 93 percent of cotton workers were voluntarily employed for that year’s harvest, while child labor was not an issue. Nevertheless, local officials still faced pressure to meet government quotas, and reports of adult forced labor and abuse of workers persisted. Some local officials who employed forced labor were prosecuted and fined during 2019.
In October 2019, President Mirziyoyev dismissed Deputy Prime Minister Zoyyir Mirzayev after photographs of cotton farmers being forced to stand in cold irrigation ditches as punishment for a poor harvest were widely condemned on social media. Mirzayev was present during the incident, and reportedly insulted the farmers as they stood in the knee-deep water.
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Global Freedom Score12 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score25 100 not free