For more than three years, Saodat Mananova, a 63-year-old schoolteacher from ex-Soviet Uzbekistan, could not get her late husband’s savings from a state-run bank.
The sum was modest, $1,400, the will was in her name, but bank officials kept coming up with new documents she had to submit, or invented excuses to delay the payment, the frail, gray-haired woman said.
The situation was typical for Uzbekistan, which ranked 153 on the list of 168 nations in the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, a Berlin-based graft monitor.
Then a miracle happened. In late October, Mananova followed her niece’s advice and sent an email to the nascent “online reception” of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s prime minister since 2003 and acting president.
Within days, bank officials delivered the money in cash, apologised profusely, and begged her to sign a document saying she was happy with their performance.
“They used to look at me like I was an insect,” Mananova told Al Jazeera. “After the letter, they looked like somebody gave them a good beating.”
The “online reception” has received more than 200,000 complaints from average Uzbeks who wanted to solve their problems with corrupt officials, unjust judges, and abusive police officers, Mirziyoyev said on Wednesday. It opened shortly after the September 2 death of Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov, whose generation-long rule began before the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The reception has become the most outspoken novelty introduced by Mirziyoyev in stagnant Uzbekistan – along with other changes such as an upcoming liberation of currency exchange or abolition of visas for tourists from 17 countries. It also became a perfect propaganda tool to boost Mirziyoyev’s appeal ahead of the Sunday’s presidential election.
“Of course I voted for him,” Mananova said.
Mirziyoyev won 88.6 percent of the vote, becoming the second president of the most populous, authoritarian, and strategically located Muslim nation of ex-Soviet Central Asia. The vote was predictable as Mirziyoyev’s campaign mimicked six election triumphs of Karimov that Western observers never called free or fair.
One observer, the European Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said there were signs of vote-rigging, no “genuine competition” with three other presidential hopefuls, and a need “for comprehensive reforms” in Uzbekistan.
Reforms are on many people’s minds in the nation of 31 million dogged by unsolved problems.
“Shavkat Mirziyoyev loudly praises his predecessor, at the same time emphasising the necessity of changes,” Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based Central Asia expert whose website is blocked in Uzbekistan, told Al Jazeera.
Uzbekistan is high on the list of the world’s most repressive societies.
At least one million university students and government employees are forced to pick cotton each authumn for weeks or even months, and farmers are coerced to grow the fibre and sell it to the government at low, fixed prices. The government has kept a Soviet-era monopoly on the cotton industry exports despite chronic droughts that threaten to turn Central Asia into a desert.
Dozens of political activists and thousands of peaceful Muslims have been jailed for their alleged anti-government sentiments and membership of “terrorist” groups, rights groups say. Corruption, complicated laws and blatant expropriations have driven many foreign investors out, and local businessmen deal with unbearable bribes – or face jail.
Millions of Uzbeks became labour migrants working menial jobs mostly in Russia and neighbouring Kazakhstan despite corruption, rights abuses and hate attacks. Uzbekistan nearly sealed borders with two of its impoverished neighbours, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and its relations with other ex-Soviet neighbours and Afghanistan are far from cordial.
Memberships of Moscow-led economic and military blocs have been suspended or terminated, and trade with China is tightly regulated. Ties with the West have been severed after the 2005 bloodbath in the eastern city of Andijan, where government troops mowed down a crowd of mostly peaceful protesters, killing hundreds.
After Western demands to conduct an independent investigation into the Andijan massacre, Karimov kicked out a US military base from the Afghan border, but kept a NATO outpost in exchange for a portion of used Western weapons withdrawn from Afghanistan.
Independent media have been shut down or driven out of Uzbekistan, and an internet firewall keeps most Uzbeks away from independent news sources. State-run television networks and newspapers resemble Soviet-era propaganda with a sprinkle of medieval verbosity.
Even Karimov’s death was shrouded in rumours and controversy. He died on September 2, officials said, but independent sources claimed the death occurred days earlier.
Defying the Uzbek constitution that puts a Senate speaker in charge in case of a president’s death, Mirziyoyev assumed the title of interim president and headed a lavish funeral ceremony for Karimov in his ancient Silk Road home city of Samarkand – a Soviet-era indicator of who’s going to be in charge.
“There was a double violation of the constitution – by Mirziyoyev and the Senate that submitted to his will,” Muhammad Solih, an opposition leader who challenged Karimov during the 1991 presidential vote and now lives in exile in Turkey, told Al Jazeera.
“Hence, the presidential election that got Mirziyoyev ‘elected’ is illegitimate.”
So is he qualified to change Karimov’s policies and bring about the much-anticipated reforms?
As his resume suggests – not really.
“As prime minister, Mirziyoyev did not succeed, because corruption in all segments of economy and in law enforcement agencies has reached unprecedented levels. It resulted in a lack of conditions for development of nationwide mechanisms for human rights protection,” Nadejda Atayeva, head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, who fled Uzbekistan and lives in France, told Al Jazeera.
Mirziyoyev also appears to have been one of the architects of the cotton industry with its forced labour and fixed, low prices for cotton growers. He served as prime minister since 2003 and governed two key cotton-growing regions before, an expert claims.
“He is the chief organiser of forced mobilisation of students and government employees for cotton harvesting,” Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights, a non-profit organisation that monitors forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, told Al Jazeera.
Uzbekistan is also not going to resume its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led economic bloc, deputy trade and economy minister Shavkat Tulyaganov said in early December.
The bloc includes five ex-Soviet republics and is widely seen as the Kremlin’s attempt to revive the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan’s inclusion could significantly mitigate the bureaucratic hurdles Uzbek labour migrants face in Russia.
Mirziyoyev, 59, an irrigation engineer by education, was a mid-level communist official before Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union. He is part of the Samarkand clan Karimov belonged to, and his dogged loyalty to the late boss guaranteed his survival through the political purges of Karimov’s iron-fisted rule.
This background also suggests Mirziyoyev is hardly going to be a groundbreaking reformer.
“Don’t expect him to liberalise political life,” Kislov said. “Mirziyoyev is Islam Karimov’s flesh and blood, and he is interested in keeping, not destroying, the system of authoritarian rule.”