My Recent Visit To Uzbekistan – Some Take-Home Lessons Of Their Public Policies


Uzbekistan always fascinated me. I always wanted to visit this country for several reasons. This is the country from where Timur Lung, the ‘Emperor of three Continents’, the ancestor (great, great, great grand-father) of Emperor Babar, the founder of Mughal Empire in the Indian-sub-continent came from and ruled.

This is also the country where Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari who introduced in the 14th century Nakshbandiya school of Sufism that has had profound influence on the Indian Sub-continent’s Sufi Islam that preached and promoted the concept of oneness of human beings  and the ‘sublime way to reach Allah, the creator”, hailed from.

Another great Islamic scholar, Imam Muhammad Al-Bukhari who is revered as the author of “Sahih [correct] Hadith’ – Islamic Book of Code of Conduct – was also from this country.

Samarkand, the past capital of three continents and the spiritual city of current Uzbekistan was also once known for its great contributions to science, education, art, culture, music, literature and architecture and a city, that promoted the tolerant brand of Islam, Naksbandhiya Sufism.

Because of Babar’s connection with Uzbekistan mainly through his Timurid ancestry and  because of both of these dynasty’s Persian connections many of sub-continent’s art, literature, culture, music including cuisine reveal striking similarities between these two great societies.

The tide of history of Uzbekistan has since ebbed and flowed relentlessly and in many directions. Since its past glory days,many changes have occurred that have had profound effects on Uzbek lives, some positive, some not less positive.

More recently, the country went under Soviet Union rule for seventy years (1922-1991) and during the Soviet rule many of its monuments especially mosques and madrassas were destroyed, religion was banned, and the country was transformed from a very vibrant Sufi Islamic society to atheism.

After Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov (30 January 1938 – 2 September 2016), a leader of the Soviet era became the ruler of Uzbekistan, until his death in 2016.

Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with iron hand, as a ruthless dictator though elections were held in routine intervals and as some suggest, not without rigging. However, during his 25-year reign Karimov introduced several reforms with long-term implications and as a student of public policy these reforms caught my attention and this has been the main reason why I chose to write this paper, not just to highlight the significance and benefits of these policies but also to invite further debate and discussions on the contested issues of relationships between governance and public policy.

Place of religion

Since Uzbekistan’s separation and independence from Soviet Union in 1991, many old relics have been restored. Religion has also been revived but in a more regulated manner and one positive legacy of Soviet Union – empowerment, liberation and equality of women – has been sustained.

Islam is the religion of 93% of Uzbekistan’s population of 33.0 million where secularism is strictly enforced. For example, no religious expressions, displays and/or discussions are permitted in public space. For Muslim women Burkas are banned but hijabs are permitted. Prayer congregations are allowed only in designated places – for example for the Muslims, in registered mosques. Prayers in open spaces such as parks or in public places such as offices are prohibited.

There are both secular schools and madrassas but all schools including madrassas must follow secular curriculum up to grade 10 where madrassas teach Islamic studies as a compulsory subject.

After grade 10, those who wish to specialise in Islamic studies, may do so at designated Islamic Tertiary institutes where courses include both Islamic studies as well as secular subjects such as science and literature. Graduates of Islamic Institutes are free to choose any profession but most importantly, to be an Imam (Islamic prayer leader)in Uzbekistan one must have the degree from a government approved Tertiary Islamic Institute.Another interesting aspect of Uzbekistan’s Islamic educational institutions is that other than those provided by the government and local donations, no Madrassas nor any Islamic tertiary education institutions can receive any foreign funding. Furthermore, teachers of Madrassas and Islamic Tertiary Institutions must be Uzbek nationals, no foreign nationals are permitted to teach at any of the Islamic institutions.

Among Karimov’s anti-extremist Islamist policies that included, among other things, the purge of Muslim leaders, arbitrary arrests of ordinary practicing Muslims and sometime, jailing without trial and frequent use of torture and occasional “disappearances” were regularly denounced by the international human rights organizations but with little effect. Because of Karimov’s initial collaborating with US in their war-on-terror in Afghanistan US and West in general looked the other way. When Karimov realized that this partnership was causing more harm than good to his country, he withdrew from “war-on-terror” partnership and maintained safe distance from all the contesting parties.

After Karimov’sdeath in 2016, his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has abolished many of his extreme policies though strict regulation and control of religious extremism continues as before,and this applies to all religions.

Gender empowerment and sensitivity to motherhood

Gender sensitivity and recognition of importance of motherhood is taken seriously in Uzbekistan. For example, every working mother is entitled to 3 years of paid maternity leave. The principles that guide this policy are the following: (i) to facilitate cementing strong bondage between the mother and the child; (ii) through the child to the rest of the family; and finally, (ii) to ensure that the mother stays with the child until he/she learns to speak the mother tongue from no one but the mother herself.The mother also initiates and instills in the minds of the child the cultural norms, traditions and practices that characterize the Uzbek society.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the West that credits itself as the champion of women rights and through numerous feminist movements produced several gender empowering and liberating measures, allow between 6-9 months of paid maternity leave. But at the same time, they (at least in Australia where I live) do not encourage kids below 3-year age to separate from their mothers and are discouraged by law to be sent to any institutions such as child-care centres. This indeed is the right thing to do but when compared this restraining law against the 6-9-month maternity paid leave, there is an obvious disconnect between the two policies.

Uzbekistan’s maternity policy is certainly more consistent with mother-child nurturing and bonding enterprise.

Public Accountability

Internally in Uzbekistan, we travelled in government-run trains. Every train we boarded arrived and left stations with such punctuality that you could fix your watch by their arrivals and departures. All seats of all classes are pre-allocated and therefore, no scrambling and no fight for seats, a scenario that are so common in our parts of the world.

Train stations are orderly and exceptionally clean and MOST importantly, a brochure that we found in one of our train seat pockets mentioned among other things that, “By rule, trains are obligated to arrive and leave stations on time but if they are delayed by 10 minutes, 10% of the fair would be returned; if by 20 minutes 20% of the fair etc. etc. and if by an hour, entire fair would be returned.” Where do you get such great instance of public accountability where you not only get services as per declared provisions, but also get compensated by the state for their failure – this is public accountability at its best.

Housing, education and health

Everyone in Uzbekistan owns their houses and in accordance with income and affordability government provides 30% of deposit money to its home-buying citizens against purchase price of a house (mostly apartments) and the rest is borrowed by the applicant from the bank at the existing interest rate, payable over a 30-year period.

Every citizen has free access to health and education up to the university level. However, in those cases where schools require additional funding, parents (only those who have the financial capacity) contribute to fill the gap.

At the university level, meritorious students get scholarships and according to our tour guide, “It so happens that in Uzbekistan, rich kids are mostly dull and thus kids from poor families who are smarter end up getting these scholarships.” I am not sure whether there is a legitimate sociological explanation of this claim but let us leave that debate for another day. For the moment, let us take much heart from the fact that Uzbek’s education system gives free access to education to all and that there are scholarship provisions for all meritorious students, rich and poor and that according to this tour guide, poor are winning.

Digitisation and control of abuse and corruption

Uzbekistan seems to have also uniquely applied modern technology to avoid abuse and corruption. Here is an example from the electricity sector. I am citing this as an example to show how good intentions and clever use of digitization can abate abuse and corruption.

In many developing countries, people manipulate and/or abuse power distribution and supply system to obtain unauthorised electricity from the national power grid and frequently, bribe the meter readers to avoid paying due electricity bills.

In Uzbekistan however, every house is fitted with meter with Electronic Funds Transfer at point of Sale (EFTPOS )provision so that customers do not have to go anywhere but pay the bills at their own homes. If they fail to pay by the designated date, electricity stops automatically and resumes only after payment has been made through the home-fitted EFTPOS system. More interestingly, if someone tries to temper with the meter, there is a digitised provision that takes the photo of the abuser,the image is transmitted to the control room instantly, which is followed up with punitive actions.

These astute uses of modern technology have completely wiped out abuse and corruption at least in the electricity sector in Uzbekistan. It would be interesting to see whether similar digitised quality service delivery and abuse-free systems exist in other sectors of this country. This is important because some countries that make loud claims of digitization and even score high on UN Government Digital Index do not seem to correlate that strongly with efficiency in delivery of services nor in reduction of corruption and abuse that Uzbekistan has achieved – in some of these countries the opposite of it seems to be the case.

Take-home lessons and Issues to Debate

It is clear from this short snapshot of Uzbekistan’s public policies which admittedly has been obtained through only a very short visit and information were gathered through brief conversations, requires further investigation. But what is evident even from these snippets is that some of these policies and initiatives are real and are admiringly people-centric and furthermore, that these have been strengthened by strong provisions of accountability, sensitivity and stability in the country, those that have been brought through determined and aggressive separation of religion from public space, people-centric policies and provisions. It is also striking that these reforms have not been introduced through what we may call, “democracy” though Uzbekistan never fails to go through the rituals of holding regular elections. These are works of a quasi-democracy and of a governance arrangement of “hybrid regime.”

Does it mean that quasi-democracy or ‘hybrid regimes’ have the capacity to produce quality public policies? After all, we have seen in recent times and this includes both the developing as well as developed countries, how“democracy”, has morphed into populist majoritarian exercise and it has overtaken the rights of the minorities, promoted sectarianism, deepened social exclusion, fostered hatred, weakened public services, dented public accountability, increased corruption and promoted repression. Furthermore, all these are happening at least in some cases, with active enthusiasm and support of a large section of their people including the media and the so-called civil society, the supposed protectors of rights of all people.

So, what is the choice – committed people-centric leadership with less democracy or majoritarian democracy with a leadership that thrives on divisive populism?

Knowing that regardless of how benevolent they can be, dictatorial leaderships can easily degenerate into ruthless autocrats and can easily become corrupt, power hungry and abusive and thus dictatorship should never be the choice. At the same time, we have seen how democracy has become a number game, is easily manipulated to promote semi to fully authoritarian populist governments that can be as ruthless and as alienated as a dictatorship.

So, what can be done to ensure that neither of these options, certainly not the dictatorship nor a populist majoritarian democracy that have shown to possess the capacity to trample the rights of minority, the disadvantaged and the politically dispossessed groups is the way forward. If indeed, democracy is our choice what can be done to rescue the majoritarian democracy from its current state of decay?

While we must do everything to stop dictatorships, we must find ways to stop democracy morphing into virtual dictatorship. We must strive to make democracy work for all people and make it genuinely inclusive where regardless of who governs we must ensure that basic rights of all citizens are protected equally and are made inalienable. We must stand against abuse for if we fail, politicians would have no urge to change and more importantly, if we fail to bring change, as Imam Al-Bukhari, the Uzbek Sufi once reminded us all that “Angels would not enter the house of mercy where there are animals!”

Professor M. Adil Khan is a former senior policy manager of the UN Acknowledgements and methodology: Opportunity to visit Uzbekistan came when I got an invitation to visit Baku, Azerbaijan to attend the UN World Forum on Public Service in Baku, Azerbaijan during June 24-26, 2019.My wife, Yasmin Khan accompanied me and Uzbekistan being so close to Baku, she organized the trip. She also paid for my part of the cost of the trip as her “belated birthday gift to me.” Travelling through the historical sites of Uzbekistan such as Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand,we gathered information about this great country’spastas well present-day social issues, mainly through our extensive discussions that we have had with our personal tour guides who were all university graduates and the taxi drivers. We also watched people in the market and studied the manner of their interactions especially between male and female, in public places. My wife who worked for the UN for several years and specialised on women issues collected gender and other related information (housing etc.) through her conversations with our female guide in Samarkand. This article is the product of these brief interactions and observations.


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