Uzbekistan and New Political Trends: By Muhammad Asif Noor, Farhat Akram


With the collapse of the Soviet Union, several Central Asian republics gained their independence, including the Republic of Uzbekistan. In addition to gaining independence, Uzbekistan also inherited a faltering command economy and an authoritarian political system. To improve economic and political conditions during the past ten years, the government of President Islam Karimov has instituted market reforms and permitted limited democratic participation. Furthermore, to support these reform efforts President Karimov has been arguing for the need to develop a western-style civil society. In this western style of civil society the role of NGOs has remained a significant paradigm to analyze the incumbent government’s position regarding contemporary trends in Uzbekistan. The trends that make the basis for creating civil society does not yet exist in Uzbekistan but expectation rose after the political and economic reform package put forward by incumbent President Karimov. Islam Karimov introduced the change in policy for political and economic liberalization but many experts believe that the country needs a step-by-step liberalization in order to ensure stability internally and across Central Eurasia.
Since the events of 9/11 there emerge an enhanced progress regarding deploying and broadening the non-profit sector in Uzbekistan. The strategic and economic significance of the country and the region call for efforts by the major world powers to promote the construction of civil society in Uzbekistan and beyond. The private sector development and the civil society in the country has benefited from the foreign policy of the Uzbek government in the war on terror and towards the region as a whole. U.S. reluctant initially later found the strategic partner in Uzbekistan ends up signing “Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework between the United States of America and the Republic of Uzbekistan”. This agreement opened the new avenues for the international, US based and local NGOs to work in collaboration with each other and on various issues of national nature.
Concept of a civil society dates back to the late seventeenth century. At that time it was defined as that “a civil society is a state or condition that exists when people are ruled by law, when freedoms of speech and association prevail, when a multitude of voluntary groups work freely to foster civic ends, and when people consider themselves to be citizens rather then a subjects”. German philosopher Hegel in the early nineteenth century was of the view that civil society is not the entire body politic but only that part of the society that organizes itself voluntarily to promote the common good.
John Lock and his British contemporaries, the Prussian philosopher Hegel juxtaposed state and society and confined the “civic’ element to the latter. Analysis by S. Frederick Starr suggests that “such an approach reflected and reinforced the tendency, widespread in authoritarian societies, to see social life as a struggle between “us” and “them”. In the guise of civil society entered the Marxism and the concept gained popularity around the world where nascent civic impulses came up against the stanch bureaucratic models of state. While President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov defined the civil society as “for us a civil society is a social space where the law commands but does not oppress, and contributes to the self-development of a person, to the realization of his interests, to the maximum implementation of his rights and freedoms. But the infringement of other people's rights and freedoms is outlawed”.
The renaissance of civil society continued to grow and it found a “receptive climate” in former Soviet Union. One of the first writers about the idea of civil society within Russia itself was an ethnic Armenian, A. Migranian. By 1989 Gorbachev used the term “Civil Society” interchangeably with “a law-governed state’ or a “ normal state”. Later with false policies of Gorbachov Soviet Union collapsed and new states of Central Asia emerged. After the emergence of the newly independent state in Central Asia, tide of civil society development movement in the west took these states into their fold. Various international NGOs and other public sector enterprises executed the project to foster the development of “civil society” in Central Asia. This was supported by billion of dollars of aid and manpower. The basic practice of voluntarism and autonomy that we may find under the Soviet rule provided the immediate seed-bed for the emergence of openness activity after independence, both in its positive and negative manifestation. It may be noted here that despite of its openness other factors have a strong impact on pluralism and social participation. Along with these factors one cannot ignore the national, cultural and religious customs and traditions. Relying on adopted models would not help as they would be devoid of local understanding.
Post-communist’ and economically developing states of Central Asian Republics share with each other many characteristics like weak parliaments, political parties, independent judiciaries and media restrictions. Within the realm of the region civil liberties are tightly restricted. But now since two decades, things began to take some interesting shape as there emerged a renewed discovery of concept of civil society by the activist and scholars alike, ongoing process of globalisation have caused it to shift from being a “ Western” concept to this region of Central Asian region. It is significant to note that the emergence of civil society was linked to the empowerment of “dissident opposition movements who launched a liberal political project to terminate their region’s socialist/communist experiment.” Civil society groups work for the provision of justice, freedom, human rights and democracy. Literature that exists to explain the civil society is often divided into two major types can be termed as ‘neo-liberal” and second “communal”. According to the neo-liberal definition, civil society can be best be associated with the values of 18th century Western Europe “modernity’ during the time of nation-states creation. Based on this understanding “to be a member of a civil society had the right to vote and serve in public office; participation in public affairs was institutionalised. It was also voluntary. Citizens were engaged in civil society of state, family and community bonds. Participation could not be “imposed either by birth or awesome ritual” Neo-Liberal civil society extends its spheres to the economic realm as well. It’s often been called the neo-liberal civil society has been described as “the realm of autonomous voluntary organisations, acting in the public sphere as an intermediary between the state and private life.
Second wave of development in the concept of civil society in this region emerged when the non-western and particularly scholars from Islamic World were at the forefront of re-conceptualization of the civil society as the communal one. The main aim of the communal civil society is that all members of the group have the necessary means for survival. It organised to offer the community services, infrastructure and other essentials. It is about inspiring “cohesion and trust in local communities”. It is the sphere of social interaction where people come together on a voluntary basis, along interest lines, to exchange information, deliberate about collective action and define public opinion.
It is viewed that various community based traditional institutions exists in Central Asian Republics often adopting new functions and forms of interaction with the state, in the emerging and new political environment. The traditional institutions that exist in the region are the nomadic hordes (Zhuz) of Kyrgyz and Kazakh. Mahallas are the institutions that functions at the level of urbanized and sedentary populations. While also throughout Central Asia traditional forms of community self-help termed Hashar (in Uzbekistan/Tajikistan) and Ashar (in Kyrgyzstan) still have empirical meaning today. In Georgia its council of elders (Temi).
There is also “Global Civil Society” which includes social movements and citizen’s networks that cross national boundaries and are concerned with the global issues such as implementation of international treaties, the fights against HIV/AIDS, climate change, banning landmines, etc. It is general believed by the scholars that global civil society has yet to make its mark in the region.
While analyzing the trends, we have observed a strong dichotomy divide between the state and civil society in Uzbekistan. This divide between the civil society, political society and state is detrimental to the process of democratization in Uzbekistan. It was observed that the between 1990s until 2003, Uzbekistan saw a decline in democratic rating systems. This resulted into the dichotomies of development and eventually led to decline at the level of independence of voices. It can also be analyzed that a policy dilemma has been created for the international organisations with an interest in supporting the development of civil and political society. The space to do so in the country is “limited’ while in the outside environment subject to the availability of the good offices, are often “discredited”. While at the official level there exist the consciousnesses of need to build the political institutions that may serve as the platforms sensitive to the needs of the population. This would also help to have the “plurality” of the policies. There also exists a need at almost all quarters of the state to formulate an improved governance thus to give voice to the grass roots to the authorities concerned. This would require a more coherent relationship between state, government, political and civil society.
NGO sector has flourished in Uzbekistan to create the difference in this newly emerged reformed mechanism. There exist various significant connections in this regard involving complex model of economic, social and political dimension. There is a need to identify the range of impediments and supporting factors for the promotion of civil society in Uzbekistan. It is found out that the positive steps towards the building the civil society and democracy appear to be stronger then the negative trends. In Uzbkehistan, the cultivation of the values and the construction of civil society will require ample time to find the ground for willingness and state of coexistence in the world politics. To scale up synergy at the national level and make “small successes” sustainable, the state should play a key role in reaching out to the civic sphere.

The writers publishes Pakistan’s first English/Arabic magazine, The Diplomatic Insight

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