Uzbekistan: The Missing Piece in Uzbekistan’s Reform Puzzle

At the United Nations this past May, Uzbek Deputy Justice Minister Mahmud Istamov committed the authoritarian regime he serves to over 200 reforms proposed by the UN – except for one key provision that would have decriminalized homosexuality. As Istamov told reporters, “This is not on our agenda. We have not accepted this recommendation. This is not a topical subject for us.”

This opinion is a symptom of a broader disregard for LGBT rights. Uzbekistan’s notorious “Article 120” – the criminal ban on same-sex activity – has fueled government officials’ ridicule, extortion, and persecution of LGBT individuals for decades. In recent months, the international press has largely ignored this history, focusing instead on the government of Uzbekistan’s positive, yet often halting, progress on other reforms.

Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took control of Uzbekistan after the death of long-time dictator Islam Karimov in December 2016, there was little expectation of significant social and political change. However, since taking office, Mirziyoyev has agreed to a litany of UNDP and USAID demands for an end to child labor in cotton fields, the release of political prisoners, and a better environment for NGOs.

But LGBT rights is an issue that, more than many others, illuminates the potential for democratic change. On the surface, the Mirziyoyev regime, like the Karimov regime before it, has little interest in decriminalization of same-sex relations. Yet at the same time, the Uzbek regime wants to be seen as less authoritarian in order to reduce the country’s economic isolation from the West. Uzbekistan’s urgent need to achieve this economic rapprochement, combined with a smart deployment of U.S. and European aid, could tip the scales toward liberalization. Read more via the Diplomat