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Reforming the Constitution – a new chapter in Uzbekistan’s journey of modernisation

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The main event in the political life of Uzbekistan this year is undoubtedly the reform of the Constitution, announced during the inaugural speech of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev after his re-election last year. It is a highly symbolic year to adopt a revised Constitution as coming December marks the 30th anniversary of the adoption of Uzbekistan’s first Constitution as an independent nation - writes Alberto Turkstra

Plenty of media attention is being devoted to one of the proposed amendments – the extension of the presidential term from five to seven years – which would pave the way for President Mirziyoyev’s consolidation of power. Yet, President Mirziyoyev is widely seen as the right person to take forward the reform process he initiated. In the words of Deputy Speaker of the Senate, Sodiq Safoyev,“I am convinced that the person who started these reforms should have the opportunity to bring them to a close”. Similarly, Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Javlon Vakhabov,  speaking at a webinar organised by the Atlantic Council, said that “being completely honest to ourselves; currently there is no alternative political figure in Uzbekistan with the same level of credibility and trust; and the ability to achieve the aspirations of our people”.

The reality is that there are more than 200 proposed amendments on the table (affecting roughly half of the Uzbek Constitution’s 128 articles). On June 20, during a speech delivered to members of the Constitutional Commission, President Mirziyoyev outlined the four broad thematic areas of the reforms:

  • The elevation of human dignity, covering the whole spectrum of rights for all sectors of the population;
  • The idea of “Uzbekistan as a social / welfare state”;
  • The improvement of public administration;
  • Defining the status and role of mahallas and civil society institutions, such as political parties, movements, mass media, trade unions, foundations and other public associations.

For the readers unacquainted with the mahalla system, these are hybrid, local community-based organizations that have become an institutionalized feature of Uzbekistan’s public administration system. They operate partly on behalf of the state (as a sub-unit of the local government) and partly as components of a community-driven informal welfare and service provision structure. With proposed amendments, mahallas will be placed in their historically natural role, that is to say outside of the state structure, and enjoy greater autonomy. 

Many of the proposed constitutional changes in the social sphere are a reflection of what we can read in Development Strategy of New Uzbekistan for the period 2022-2026, a document where we see plenty of references to empowering of civil society institutions in particular and improving the activities of non-governmental organizations, etc.  It is not a secret that empowering civil society institutions into genuine forces for democratization can help better support the local implementation of Uzbekistan’s highly ambitious reform programme; raise the accountability and oversight of public officials; and amplify the voice of excluded and vulnerable groups of the population to generate more inclusive reform outcomes.

These proposed reforms are noticeable in a country where self-initiated, bottom-up NGOs were for a long time crowded out by so-called Government-Organised Non-Government Organisations (GONGOs), established by government decrees, directly funded by the state budget and have an extensive network of regional branches.  The constitutional consolidation of the role and status of civil society institutions should be translated in practice by a loosening the often burdensome legal, regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles which in the past restricted the formation of civil society and prevented independent NGOs and trade unions from registering and operating in Uzbekistan.

President Mirziyoyev also spoke about the need to transfer some powers of the President to the Oliy Majlis – Uzbekistan’s bicameral Parliament. Although Uzbekistan will in all likelihood remain a strong presidential system; some powers and functions will be delegated to the Upper House of the Parliament (the Senate), such as greater oversight on the formation and implementation of the state budget; the approval for the appointment the head of the Anti-Corruption Agency. It would certainly be helpful if such delegation of powers also extends to the Lower House of the Parliament (the Legislative Chamber), whose members are chosen by direct election.

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The greater participation of the Uzbek Parliament in the implementation of reforms, in identifying solving the most pressing socio-economic, political and legal problems is significant because the role and place of the legislative power in the structure of political institutions of society – and its ability to have a real impact on day-to-day political decision making – serves as a very good indicator for the degree of a country’s advancement along the path of political modernization.

Proposals for Constitutional reforms are not coming only from the President. This is an ongoing exercise where every citizen has the chance to have a say during an extended period of public consultation  (initially only ten days but since then expanded to one month, until August 1). The Constitutional Commission, formed on May 24 and comprised of “lawmakers, senators, representatives of all regions of Uzbekistan, representatives of civil society institutions, lawyers, political scientists and other experts”, is tasked with collecting proposals to amend the articles of the Constitution. A website, a Telegram channel and a call centre were set up through which citizens can submit their proposals. To date, tens of thousands of proposals have been received.

According to Odiljon Tojiev, Deputy Speaker of Uzbekistan’s parliament, while not all proposals received are “phrased in a constitutional language” or “belong in a constitution”, he gives a few clues as to what are the main proposals received from the citizens. These include calls for the direct election of regional governors and mayors (all currently appointed by the President); tougher penalties for corruption; greater transparency at all levels of government and the reduction in the number of government ministries.

It is important to note that the necessity for constitutional reforms does not derive from the fact that the current Constitution does not meet modern requirements, standards and democratic principles. It certainly does, which in turn can make it hard to justify the necessity to change it. But in the words of the chairman of the constitutional commission, Akmal Saidov: “The constitution is not a dogma, it should be a programme for action. It is not something frozen. We need to introduce new rules that correspond to the new Uzbekistan and its development.”

A good reflection that the updated Constitution intends to be a “living document” can be found on the proposed revisions to Article 27, which promises to put an end to the unauthorised seizure of land and housing, making the right to the inviolability of the home constitutional right of the people of Uzbekistan. This is highly relevant given the large number of house demolitions and forced eviction cases that Uzbekistan has witnessed in recent times.

One last point worth highlighting is that President Mirziyoyev did not necessarily have to call for a referendum in order to adopt constitutional reforms. Article 127 of the Uzbek Constitution reads as follows: “the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall be altered by law adopted by a majority, not less than two thirds of the total number accordingly of deputies of the Legislative Chamber and members of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, or by referendum of the Republic of Uzbekistan”.

In short, while the Uzbek Parliament has the powers to introduce and approve constitutional amendments, President Mirziyoyev chose to put them up to a public vote, effectively making the new Constitution one by the people and for the people. This will increase the legitimacy of the country’s Basic Law, evolving from a static, state-centric document to a living charter where the individual and its rights take centre stage.

By way of conclusion, the new contemporary political, legal and socio-economic reality of Uzbekistan calls for a thorough revision of the Constitution. The proposed constitutional reforms, to be put to a nation-wide referendum, are the culmination of a reform process started by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev when he took power in 2016. Later in the year, citizens of Uzbekistan will once again have the opportunity to actively have a say in shaping the future of their motherland.

The author, Alberto Turkstra, is Project Manager, Diplomatic World

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