Uzbekistan opens up after years of isolation

Shavkat Mirziyoyev addresses supporters after assuming the presidency. Photo: Bahtiyar Abdukerimov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan — Uzbekistan was until recently one of the world's most isolated countries, with institutionalized forced labor on its vast cotton fields, a torture record and restricted individual freedoms. Now, it's opening up. 

What's happening: Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took power in December 2016, following the death of Islam Karimov, who ruled the country since independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been on the reform path. The reforms have encompassed all spheres of social and political life from freeing the country's currency to normalizing relations with its neighbors. The scope of change has come as a surprise to everyone, not least Uzbeks themselves. 

The latest: With the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the UN Development Program, the Supreme Court launched a new website that, among other features, allows the public to view court trials across the country in real time online. The pilot project will gradually extend to the rest of the country. 

Faced with a collapsing economy, international isolation and a growing number of unemployed youth following years of Karimov's misrule, the country had little choice but to open up. 

  • In a country with no democratic experience, where until recently citizens had few rights and fear prevailed, people finally feel they can discuss their problems openly. Social media has become a vibrant platform for activists, bloggers, journalists and citizens alike to discuss the country's most pressing issues. 
  • "There is a new confidence in politics, which was not there before. People used to say that nothing changes because no one thinks about us and we can say and do nothing, so let's live our simple life and forget about politics," Akhmed Rahmanov, an Uzbek business consultant told Al Jazeera.

Much has changed. The government took 17,000 people off an infamous blacklist, at least five officials have been prosecuted for the use of torture during the Karimov years, and forced cotton picking — obligatory for all public administration workers, medical and educational staff, students and schoolchildren — has been abolished. 

But the most important change is also yet to come. Years of authoritarian rule wiped out all opposition, political ideas and democratic movements in the country. Today, despite all the changes, Uzbeks still find it hard to organize themselves politically, not least because they fear possible repercussions. 

  • "For the moment, a competitive, pluralistic democracy, or competitive elections even, remain distant dreams," says Steve Swerdlow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch Central Asia.

Go deeper: Read the full Al Jazeera report.