This article by Umida Niyazova was first published by Asia Nikkei on 8 May, 2023

Law already guaranteed freedoms, no reason to expect implementation

Last week, Uzbekistan held a referendum on the adoption of a revised constitution, including some 200 changes affecting two-thirds of the original text.

According to the government, 90.2% of those who participated in the referendum voted in favor of the amendments.

This is not a surprising figure in a country where election interference is commonplace and brazen. In their preliminary report, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe election observers said the vote “took place in an environment short of genuine political pluralism and competition.”

Civil servants and university students were required to participate in the April 30 vote in no uncertain terms. Photos circulated on social media of messages sent to students at several Tashkent universities telling them that voting was mandatory, and that their participation would be checked by their university rector. They were instructed to confirm their vote by sharing a photo from their polling station with university officials.

Uzbek voters were only given a choice of approving all 200-some amendments or rejecting them completely. Thus, voting in favor of an amendment declaring Uzbekistan a secular and social state meant automatically being in favor of extending presidential terms from five to seven years.

The authorities have striven to convince the international community that the adoption of an updated constitution is necessary to strengthen democratic reforms, but most of the progressive changes incorporated in the amendments, such as the abolition of the death penalty and the guarantee of the right of habeas corpus, have long been enacted into law.

The Uzbek constitution already contained articles on the protection of human rights, freedom of speech and many other rights, and contained nothing that would hinder democratic development.

Rather, the constitution was simply often ignored and not implemented in practice. Sadly, there is nothing to suggest that under the revised constitution things will be any different.

The main purpose of the adoption of the revised constitution is to provide a pretext to legally justify the extension of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s tenure in office.

The constitution previously restricted presidents from serving more than two five-year terms. Under the constitution, Mirziyoyev’s second term is to end in 2026. But weeks before the referendum, the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan publicly declared that the adoption of the revised constitution would permit Mirziyoyev to serve two more terms, each of seven years.

The revamped constitution also further reinforces the authoritarian nature of governance in Uzbekistan.

Previously, the constitution granted parliament the power to approve presidential nominees for prime minister, cabinet ministers, the prosecutor general and the national security service chairman, among others.

Under the amendments, parliament can now only endorse the president’s choices. In other words, the president no longer needs a parliamentary vote to appoint powerful officials of his choice. The intention appears to be to reduce the role of the parliament to that of an advisory body.

Regional governors and mayors have historically been appointed by the president. The president and members of the legislature stand for election. The constitutional amendments will not change any of this.

By the early 2000s, Uzbekistan had been independent from the Soviet Union for about a decade and dozens of international organizations worked freely in the country. Civil society was developing and the country seemed to be on the road to liberalization.

But the “color revolutions” that took place in Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) were denounced by Uzbekistan’s security services, which alleged the unrest was financed by Western civic organizations.

The massacre of an estimated 500 mainly unarmed protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005 marked the death knell for civil society in Uzbekistan. Activists were arrested or fled into exile and almost all international organizations closed their offices.

Uzbekistan withdrew from the international stage and a long period of economic stagnation ensued. This only served to strengthen entrenched power structures and clans, effectively guaranteeing impunity for their crimes and corruption.

Mirziyoyev deserves a degree of praise for some of the reforms he has introduced since coming to power in late 2016. Contrary to expectations, late dictator Islam Karimov’s former prime minister has permitted greater freedom of expression to a limited degree, improved relations with neighboring countries and successfully eliminated state-imposed, systematic forced labor from Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

But deteriorating freedoms of speech and association, persecution of rights activists and journalists, and increased obstacles to the development of civil society have raised the overall level of autocracy in the country and sparked serious doubts about the leadership’s promise to continue democratic reforms.

Under these circumstances, scrutiny of the implementation of the revised constitution will inevitably be seriously undermined. Anchoring fundamental rights in the constitution alone will not guarantee that rights will be upheld.

Only the rule of law and a separation of powers among the branches of government can do that. The revamped constitution and the flawed referendum that ushered it in instead exemplify in full the Uzbek government’s disregard for the true rule of law.

Umida Niyazova is director and founder of the Berlin-based Uzbek Forum for Human Rights.