Author: Fabrizio Vielmini – 26/4/2023
On 30 April, the people of Uzbekistan will be called to approve substantial changes in their fundamental law. In facts, since the new provisions concern 65 % of the text, a new Constitution will enter into force. To understand why such a large overhaul is taking place, one has to consider the trajectory of the Central Asian country in the last six years.
In 2016, the disappearance of Islam Karimov, the autocrat who had ruled on the destines of Uzbekistan since 1991, revolutionized the country’s life. These were very difficult years. After the shock of the crumble of the Soviet Fatherland, Uzbekistani politics under Karimov reached paroxysmal levels. Everything was controlled by the State, every movement and transaction, concerning people as much as their ideas, money or communications, passed under the scrutiny of a power that sought to be omnipresent. As a result, the national economy, which Karimov had the initial merit to save from liberal deconstruction, ended up stagnating while the country became to a large extent isolated from regional processes taking place in Eurasia.
After the erratic tenure of Karimov, Uzbekistanis had the chance to find a new leader in the person of an enlighted politician, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The new President started to implement a complex overhaul of public and economic life, bringing to what can without exaggeration be defined an authentic national renaissance. The new power took concrete steps to restore fundamental freedoms and eliminate the plethora of repressive measures which were chocking national production. Longtime limited in their activities, 33 million Uzbekistanis got the possibility to move freely within their country as well as to cross its borders to reconnect with neighbors in the region. The thaw continued with the introduction of full convertibility of the national currency, the som, and then with the removal of the entry visa requirement for foreigners.
All these extended and important changes needed indeed to be reflected in the legislative system, starting from its fundamental law, that is the Constitution. Since its re-election at the end of 2021, Mirziyoyev expressed the need to change the constitutional architecture of the country. For the authorities, which portray the changes as another step of the “transformation of the new Uzbekistan”, at the bottom of the new Constitution there is the welfare ad the interests of the people.
At the same time, most of experts’ commentaries concentrate on the new arrangement of power of the reform. This will notably affect he highest charge of the Republic, the Presidency. According to the previous constitutional text, the length of a presidential term was fixed to five years, with the new one it will be extended to seven. Moreover, after the changes, President Mirziyoyev, who is currently serving his second term, will enjoy of a reset of the rules and be entitled to run for another two seven-year mandates. By this way, Mirziyoyev may theoretically stay in office until 2040.
Critics saw in these circumstances a Déjà vu of Islam Karimov’s times. Karimov almost 30 years-rule was rhythmed by similar constitutional arrangements, notably the one passed in 2002, which opened the way for extension of the presidential terms until his death in 2016.
At the same time, one cannot exactly compare the conditions of Uzbekistan in 2002 and 2023. Then, an already well-established Karimov was further buttressing its regime with the full support of the USA, for whom Uzbekistan had to become the pivot in spreading the Pax americana to Central Asia after the Anglo-American invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing “War on terror”. The foreign policy outlook of Shavkhat Mirziyoyev is radically different. Mirziyoyev’s approach has revolutionized Karimov’s legacy, pursuing a strategy of maximization of Uzbekistan connectivity potential. In doing this, Mirziyoyev has particularly cultivated the Russian and Chinese vectors of Tashkent’s diplomacy, so that to balance Western influences. A recent sign that Uzbekistan is slowly but firmly moving away of the Western orbit is the figure of the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Bakhtiyor Saidov, appointed by Mirziyoyev last December. At the difference of his predecessor, the new foreign office’s head made his career essentially in Asian countries, notably in China. In practical terms, the Western maritime powers have little leverage in Uzbekistan’s economy – only Germany maintains a substantial position as foreign trade partner.
Since the start of open war in Ukraine, the geopolitical position of the new Uzbekistan came in contradiction with American and EU efforts to isolate Russia and disturb the latter’s relations with China. Accordingly, Washington and Brussels have multiplied their demarches to put pressure on Tashkent exploiting Russia’s war fatigue. This was publicly acknowledged by the same Mirziyoyev, which has stated that “major countries” are pressing Uzbekistan to “take a side” in relation to the ongoing war.
Notably, Washington is interfering in the multiple economic partnerships born during Mirziyoyev terms between Russian and Uzbek firms. A new package of US sanctions targeting Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov will especially hurt Uzbekistani economy. The tycoon possesses several enterprises in Uzbekistan, in particular “Akhangarancement” one of the largest plants in the country, on whose activities rests the economy of Akhangaran town, now set to suffer from Western targeted sanctions. As observed by the director of the Research Centre “Ma’no”, Bakhtiyor Ergashev, the West’s decision equates to “a declaration of economic war by the United States against Uzbekistan.”
Even before, the path towards the constitutional referendum has been complicated. The first draft included provisions such to downgrade the legal status of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. When this content was revealed last summer, the news sparked an uprising of violence in that republic. The unrest prompted a heavy-handed crackdown from the republican authorities in the Karakalpak capital, Nukus, which caused the loss of at least 21 protesters. As a result, Mirziyoyev backtracked on the proposed amendments touching at Karakalpakstan’s status. Quite significantly, Mirziyoyev mentioned then that “harmful external forces” were at play in the trouble. At the same time, the President’s conciliatory reaction showed his stature as statist and the abyss separating current national politics from the times of Karimov, known for his harsh and pitiless reactions to issues of public order.
Even if the current leadership is well assessed and enjoys the support of the majority of Uzbekistani citizens, there is much a stake in the follow-up to this referendum. The new rules of the game should mark a clear path for the future, so that to meet a number of expectations’ which remain strong among Uzbekistani public. First of all, it is a matter to reinforce the position of the ordinary people towards the State machine. For this, measures should rise the officials’ respect towards citizens and the Law. Indeed, one of the new postulates to be enshrined in the Constitution plays: “all lasting contradictions and ambiguities to be found in the legislation in the relationship of a person with state bodies are to be interpreted in favor of the person.” A different model of governance based on such principles is essential to delineate a real new Uzbekistan the same as the strengthening of the institutional infrastructure so that to minimize practices of corruption. It is accordingly important to increase public participation to local government, so that to offset a bureaucracy often imposed by the centre. Also, systemic changes must be introduced to overcome the numerous duplications and inefficiencies of the public service, starting with transparent mechanisms for the selection and training of personnel on a meritocratic basis.
In conclusion, the challenges for the future of Uzbekistan are vast but such are also the determination of its citizens and will of its leadership so that this country will certainly occupy its deserved place in the construction of the new Eurasia.
 Déjà vu in Uzbekistan as referendum will keep strongman in power, “Eurasianet”, 12.04.2023, https://eurasianet.org/deja-vu-in-uzbekistan-as-referendum-will-keep-strongman-in-power