A Referendum and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's Promise of a New Uzbekistan

The new draft constitution seeks to increase the Presidential term from the existing 5 years to 7 years.

5 min read
Hindi Female

"Faqat Mashinang Emas Konstitutsiya Ham Seniki." - “Not only is your car yours, but the constitution is also yours.” 

This is a WhatsApp message sent to a certain Mr Muhammad by his friend who reminds the latter about the polling on 30 April and the need to go together with their classmates.  This imagined WhatsApp conversation is splashed across billboards on the streets and metros in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Uzbeks are passionate about their four-wheelers, a sentiment that is tapped into in this government advertisement drawing the attention of citizens to a crucial constitutional referendum on Sunday. 

"Befarq b'lmang", or 'Don’t be Indifferent' reads another hoarding. 

Tashkent wears a festive mood as people head to the voting booths. The country that cradles the ancient historic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva that flourished along the Great Silk Road is looking towards the future. The referendum is a promise of a 'New Uzbekistan' by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President looked upon by the West as a reformer shaping up a new strategic future for Central Asia.  
  • 01/02

    A polling booth in Bukhara. 

    (Photo: Smita Sharma)

  • 02/02

    A draft guide of the new constitution. 

    (Photo: Smita Sharma)


Can Mirziyoyev Deliver Democracy and Human Rights?

Mirziyoyev the former Prime Minister and protege of the late autocrat Islam Karimov, took over the mantle of Presidency in 2016 following Karimov’s death.  But unlike Karimov’s repressive regime, Mirziyoyev has pushed for a liberal economic and social agenda in the past six years. The referendum is his promise of a democratised Uzbekistan - which is driving the new foreign policy vision of the post-Soviet Central Asian neighbours today.

The new draft constitution seeks to increase the Presidential term from the existing 5 years to 7 years. If the referendum throws up a favourable outcome along expected lines, the new constitution once implemented with immediate effect would also allow Mirziyoyev to ‘zero out’ his current presidential terms and seek two additional terms. Currently, no President can remain in office for more than two consecutive terms.

The renewed constitution seeks to expand the human rights and freedom of citizens of Uzbekistan, the media and transform it into a social and welfare state. It proposes to abolish the death penalty as well as ban the extradition of Uzbek citizens to foreign countries for trial. An attempt to redraw the autonomy of the Karakalpakstan province though in the country’s north-west was dropped by Mirziyoyev after rare mass protests broke out and at least 18 lives were lost in the riots in July last year. 

Following months of consultations, the document has included nearly one-fourth of the 220,000 suggestions sent by citizens from all 14 regions in the country. The revised draft takes into account proposals from the public, and modern international standards and also draws from the experience of many foreign countries including democracies in France, the US to India.


Central Asia and the World’s Largest Democracy

“In order to increase our country’s influence in the world community, many examples have been drawn from the constitutions of foreign countries, from their laws and social life in many areas,” says Kalonov M Bakhritdinivoch, Vice Rector of Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE). Citing the example of India Bakhritdinivoch who is also the Director of Scientific Research Centre at the TSUE adds further, “In the 75 years of independence, the Republic of India has progressed in many legal and social fields and in many other areas like film industry,  IT, information technologies, medicine and pharmaceuticals. We are also taking these areas as a study in our legislation. We value India as a close friend and strategic partner and we will always value these relations.”

His thoughts find resonance with Ulugbeck Khasanov, a Professor at the University of Work Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent. “What makes India’s experience for Centra Asia significant, is the role of the society in India in determining, developing, forcing and backing important elements of Indian social and political development issues and priorities,” he says. “That is a good thing for Central Asians including my country to get and understand and apply it in the process of legal, political and social climate here,” Ulugbeck adds.  
  • 01/02

    Kalonov M Bakhritdinivoch, Vice Rector of Tashkent State University of Economics (TSUE)

    (Photo: Smita Sharma)

  • 02/02

    Ulugbeck Khasanov, Professor at the University of Work Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent. 

    (Photo: Smita Sharma)

Khasanov stresses the new approach is a bottoms-up one with a greater focus on citizens’ welfare and guaranteed legal rights. From India’s perspective, stronger democratic roots are a welcome step given the strategic importance of Uzbekistan in the landlocked Central Asian region. The region is vulnerable to pulls and pressures with the Soviet era ties with Russia and increasing Turkish and Chines investments. Within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation too a power play is ongoing with the Central Asian countries looking to India for providing an alternate option to Russia and China. India needs to be a partner in the process. 

“In the ongoing process of reforms in Uzbekistan, the referendum is becoming one of the most important landmark steps which would bring a new Constitution to Uzbekistan if the people of Uzbekistan exercise their option for adopting the new Constitution,” says Manish Prabhat, Indian Ambassador to Tashkent. “Without the progress of the region it is not possible to have peace and stability,” he adds.


Vision for Women Empowerment

Stability is a key priority for Mirziyoyev given the border it shares with Afghanistan along with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in the region. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban is concerning for Uzbekistan which practices liberal Islam. And does not want the extremist ideology that bans girls and women from education and jobs to infiltrate the country.

In a country where 70% of the population is less than 30 years of age, Mirziyoyev has focused on women's empowerment these past years. In the new constitution, women pursuing their master’s degree will be funded by the state and women dropping out of the workforce because of childbirth will be provided financial and moral support. 

18-year-old Alina is from the south-eastern Qashqadaryo region. She is studying International Economy and Development in Tashkent. She is excited about exercising her vote which she says will be of great importance. 

“As a result of the changes in the constitution young girls and women are being supported in every way, with financial and legal resources. Uzbekistan is on the threshold of great changes which are aimed at ensuring that all citizens feel completely free and have equal rights. Reforms are being implemented to make them active in social life. Women and children are guaranteed full safety and legal protection by the state,” says Alina. 

Dilfuza Oilmava who teaches at Bukhara University is participating for the first time in a referendum. She says it will give more power to women. She welcomes the changes in the law to prosecute men found guilty of domestic abuse and who can be sentenced to up to 12 years.

“Overall there is a package which enhances the prospect of common citizens to seek more from their state while at the same time doing his or her duty for the country. We will know after the successful holding of the referendum what is the result. At this moment we wish the people of Uzbekistan very well in the successful conduct of the referendum,” says Ambassador Manish Prabhat. 

(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Uzbekistan 

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