Uzbekistan is preparing to conduct a national referendum on April 30 that will ask voters to approve changes to some 65% of the country’s constitution. It will be the first referendum in Uzbekistan in more than 21 years.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev says the changes to the constitution are necessary to create a “new Uzbekistan”, but some see the vote as a means for Mirziyoyev to stay in power for nearly two more decades.
Ample historical precedent
The president signalled in his inauguration speech in November 2021 that an overhaul of the country’s 30-year-old constitution was coming. Mirziyoyev was being sworn in for his second, and constitutionally last, term in office and there were already doubts as to whether he would step down in 2026, and speculation on how he might find a way to stay in office for longer.
Mirziyoyev’s predecessor Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first president, provided ample precedent.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Karimov was elected president of newly-independent Uzbekistan in December of that year.
A March 1995 referendum allowed Karimov to bypass the election scheduled for 1996 and remain in office until 2000.
He won his second, and according to the constitution, last five-year term in the 2000 presidential election (his lone opponent exited the voting booth and announced to the press he had cast his ballot for Karimov).
In January 2002, another referendum added two years onto Karimov’s presidential term and changed the term in office from five to seven years.
The Central Election Commission would later rule that the change in presidential term nullified Karimov’s first two elections, allowing him to run again in 2007.
In December 2011, another change was approved by parliament, shortening the presidential term back to five years, though the next presidential election, which Karimov won, was held in 2015.
There is nothing new about Mirziyoyev remaining president through a constitutional change of the term in office.
The two-term limit remains in effect and in a departure from previous legislation, the two-term limit also applies to the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament, the prosecutor general, head of the Central Election Commission, chairman and deputy chairman of the Supreme Court, and other provincial officials and mayors.
The upcoming referendum should have taken place last year, but proposed changes to the status of the Karakalpakstan Republic in western Uzbekistan sparked protests there at the start of July.
The draft originally produced in late June 2022 by the constitution committee overseeing amendments to the constitution stripped Karakalpakstan of its nominal status as a sovereign republic and right to hold a referendum to secede from Uzbekistan. Demonstrations against the proposed changes turned deadly when security forces moved in to disperse crowds in the Karakalpak capital Nukus on July 1.
Officially, 21 people were killed though some organisations said the death toll was more than twice that.
In the wake of the violence, the referendum was postponed.
Mirziyoyev announced quickly after the violence started that the proposed Karakalpakstan changes would be dropped. The new proposed constitution preserves the original articles on Karakalpakstan.
‘Society is the initiator of reforms’
The public campaign for approving the constitutional amendments has stressed that the changes will benefit the individual citizen.
Former presidential candidate and current deputy chairman of the lower house of Uzbekistan’s parliament Akmal Saidov heads the constitutional commission that drafted the new constitution. Saidov said in May 2022 when the commission started its work that the group was operating on the basis that “society is the initiator of reforms.”
In June, the commission said it had received 20,148 proposals from the public, some 70% of which were sent by citizens who were 18 to 30 years old.
The recent campaign authorities launched to encourage voters to cast ballots on April 30 tells the electorate it is “My constitution, your constitution, our constitution.” And there are changes that address some of Uzbek society’s biggest grievances.
For instance, controversial home demolitions have been occurring in Uzbekistan for decades. Often those whose homes are destroyed receive little if any compensation for their losses and demolitions sometimes occur without proper legal approval.
Article 47 of the new constitution states, “No one may be deprived of his home except by a court decision” and an “owner, deprived of his or her home, is provided with preliminary and equivalent compensation for the cost of housing and the losses incurred...”
The new constitution also takes a small step in protecting women’s rights in the workplace.
Women’s rights organizations such as NeMolchi.uz have been lobbying for equal rights for years and Article 42 says, “It is prohibited to refuse to hire women, dismiss them from work, or reduce their wages for reasons related to pregnancy or the presence of a child.”
New amendments to the constitution, moreover, give a nod to teachers who in Uzbekistan are generally underappreciated and poorly paid.
Article 52 says teachers are “recognised as the basis for the development of society and the state” and determines that the “state takes care of protecting the honour and dignity of teachers, their social and material well-being, and professional growth.”
The calls of organisations such as nongovernmental organisation Sharoit Plus (Condition Plus) that advocate greater rights for persons with a disability are acknowledged in Article 50, which says, “For children with special educational needs, educational institutions provide inclusive education and upbringing.”
Since his first term in office, one of Mirziyoyev’s frequent targets when speaking of reforms has been the prosecutor general’s office. In August 2017, Mirziyoyev called the office the “biggest thieves” in Uzbekistan, and three months later issued a decree making evidence obtained under torture inadmissible in the courts.
Article 27 deals with habeas corpus, specifying a person can only be detained for 48 hours without a court order.
Article 28 provides suspects with the right to remain silent and the right to refuse to testify against themselves or close relatives, and states that, “A person cannot be found guilty or punished if his or her confession of guilt is the only evidence against them.”
Other matters dealt with by the new text of the constitution include personal rights and freedoms, with the formal prohibition of the death penalty (Article 25).
A section on personal rights and freedoms (Article 31) speaks of the right of privacy in correspondence, telephone conversations and mail, and adds the right to privacy for “electronic and other communications”; however Article 33 says “the state creates conditions for providing access to the worldwide information network Internet.”
The main reason for amending the constitution is surely Mirziyoyev’s desire to stay in office past the end of his second five-year term due in 2026. But Uzbek authorities have taken the opportunity to update the constitution with some notable improvements (at least on paper).
The problem with the constitution has always been whether the authorities choose to pay any attention to it. Mirziyoyev’s many promises on reforms will now in part be measured by his adherence to the rights this new document enshrines.