Questions over Uzbekistan's new era of 'openness'
Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. But could it actually be getting more democratic?
The Central Asian nation is famous for systematic human rights abuses. But since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power following the death of the former leader Islam Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan has been experiencing some rather unexpected changes.
On Sunday, the country is holding its first parliamentary election under the new president and its slogan is "New Uzbekistan - new elections".
However, all may not be quite as transparent as it seems.
The new government has indeed introduced changes that were unimaginable until recently. Uzbekistan has improved its relations with neighbouring states, some of which were considered "sworn enemies". Over the past few years a visa-free regime has been established for more than 50 countries.
Mr Mirziyoyev sacked the long-serving head of the national security services, Rustam Inoyatov, who was regarded as the central figure in the Karimov regime.
Since 2017, the government has released about 50 high-profile political prisoners, including Muhammad Bekjan, one of the world's longest-imprisoned journalists.
The government liberalised the foreign currency market to attract investments. In February, Uzbekistan received its first sovereign credit rating.
There have been considerable improvements in the media landscape. Earlier this year, websites of many independent media, including the BBC, were unblocked and journalists from prominent outlets such as Fergana.ru, BBC Uzbek and Voice of America received accreditation to operate in the country.
"In order to strengthen openness and transparency, we must fully implement the constitutional rules on freedom of speech, receiving and spreading information," Mr Mirziyoyev said in December at a ceremony marking Constitution Day.
"Nobody can put pressure on civil society and mass media," he added.
This was a major change from the rhetoric of the previous leader who tolerated no dissent.
Are the elections credible?
As a reflection of these changes, the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) is sending a fully-fledged election observer mission to Uzbekistan for the first time.
"This is also the first time that new reforms are really being put to the test," said George Tsereteli, president of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in a statement.
But this election has already shown that the core of the political system in Uzbekistan remains the same - no real oppositional parties are allowed to run. All five parties participating in the election are viewed as loyal to the president and the regime. The oppositional Erk party and its exiled leader Muhammad Solih remain banned in Uzbekistan.
And although there is a growing discussion and even live TV debates between party representatives as part of the election campaign, the president and his family remain off limits for criticism.
Is a repressive regime still in place?
In its recent report, the UN Committee against Torture expressed concerns over continued use of widespread, routine torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement and prison officials. UN rights expert Diego Garcia-Sayan concluded following his visit to Uzbekistan that "substantial threats against judicial independence and the rule of law remain".
It is evident that the liberal rhetoric and reform initiatives do not affect the core of the system in the country. According to an assessment by Human Rights Watch, Uzbekistan remains an authoritarian country where security and law enforcement agencies still have enormous powers.
It's easy to release political prisoners, says Steve Swerdlow, an independent human rights lawyer based in Tashkent.
"When you get to the fundamental freedom of peaceful protests and when you get to the issue of political rehabilitation and the question of acknowledgement of the nature of the previous regime and when you get to the question of the conduct of the security system, there you are really approaching the DNA of the system."
The fact that no Uzbek grass-root organisations will observe the voting process on Sunday shows that the government is still wary of civil society.
So what was the point of the reforms?
When Islam Karimov died, the repressive nature of the Uzbek state and its crumbling economy was fuelling discontent among the population. So Mr Mirziyoyev had to relax things in order to gain legitimacy.
Even in authoritarian states, presidents need a measure of public approval and support. And frequent reshuffles in the cabinet suggest that the power struggle in the country is not over.
The opposition Erk party predicts that "Mirziyoyev will toughen his regime with regard to freedoms and close the door to the outside world after the elections".
However, some experts believe that Uzbekistan's future may not be so gloomy.
"I'm cautiously optimistic", says Mr Swerdlow. "There seems to be momentum and energy inside the system. There is a critical mass within the political elite that believe in the necessity of opening Uzbekistan up further and also high expectations among the larger population that reforms continue."