Keen observers may have noticed the citizens of several Central Asian nations participating in referenda over recent years.
If one takes a long-term view of the region and its history, then these developments are not so surprising.
In most instances, countries’ constitutions were devised more than 30 years ago, following the end of the Soviet Union. Their leaders had to work quickly, to consolidate the creation of new, independent states.
As time has moved on, countries decided, for a variety of reasons, that their initial constitutions required changes.
On 30 April, 2023 it will be the turn of Uzbekistan’s citizens to decide whether or not to renew their country’s constitution.
But this will be a different sort of referendum. Those which have taken place in neighbouring countries have tended to focus predominantly on political and judicial issues.
While these elements do form part of the proposed constitutional reforms in Uzbekistan, there is a major difference – a far greater emphasis on enhancing the rights of citizens, from cradle to grave.
This unique aspect of Uzbekistan’s reform programme has been a consistent theme during the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
For instance, when the prospect of amending Uzbekistan’s constitution was first raised in 2021, President Mirziyoyev said that any reforms should have citizens’ welfare at their heart.
“We must change the current principle of state-society-person to a new one of person-society-state, and this must be enshrined in national legislation and in legal practice,” he said. “During the process of implementing economic reforms, the main criterion should be ensuring the interests of the person.”
These initial thoughts were further developed within the Development Strategy of New Uzbekistan for 2022-2026, which was published last year. The strategy’s seven priority areas included building a people’s state by elevating human dignity and the furtherance of a free civil society, as well as pursuing fair public policies and human capital development.
In June 2022, during a speech delivered to members of the Constitutional Commission, President Mirziyoyev provided another update by explaining the four main themes underpinning the newly proposed constitutional reforms. Two of these themes focused on the nation’s people: the elevation of human dignity and the concept of Uzbekistan as a “social state”.
This consistent commitment towards strengthening and expanding citizens’ rights reached a conclusion in the final version of the constitutional reforms. If approved in the referendum, 65% of the constitution will be updated, containing three times as many human rights provisions as its predecessor.
The new articles are wide-reaching, covering all age ranges as the state promises to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens from birth. Uzbekistanis will also receive greater accountability from the state, which has been made responsible for delivering sustainable economic growth, implementing measures to reduce poverty, creating decent living conditions for the population and providing food security.
Specific provisions include all citizens gaining the right to housing and free medical care prescribed by law.
Under the renewed constitution, people will be guaranteed fairly remunerated employment, under safe working conditions. Child labour and forced labour will be banned. The state will also protect people from the effects of unemployment.
The state would guarantee access to a continuous education system, including an expansion of nursery and pre-school facilities; free, compulsory secondary education; and easier access to free higher education and vocational training courses.
The state will also be compelled to protect the rights of the elderly, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. For instance, it will ensure that people with disabilities will have full access to employment and educational opportunities, as well as social, economic and cultural services.
Citizens will have greater control over local urban planning procedures in order to protect their environmental rights, while sustainable development principles are prioritised on a national basis in order to improve, restore and protect the environment.
Taken as a whole, the proposed constitutional amendments can transform the country. In the early days of independence, the state’s needs came first. This year, if Uzbekistan’s citizens agree, the constitution will prioritise their needs and rights instead.
Erkin Mukhitdinov is Deputy Minister of Employment and Poverty Reduction, Uzbekistan