Washington - When Shavkat Mirziyoyev replaced longtime strongman Islam Karimov as Uzbekistan's president in 2016, he promised democratic reforms, openness and accountability. But a key element of those reforms - a proposed rewrite of the country's 31-year-old constitution - has democracy advocates asking whether it is a step forward or back.
Uzbek lawmakers gave nearly unanimous approval to a draft of a new basic law that has 26 new articles that contain over 150 new clauses outlining principles, such as the commitment to democracy. The draft will now be sent forward for a referendum vote on April 30. The legislators argue that, among other advancements, it elevates the parliament and restricts conflicts of interest in the system.
Uzbekistan's Senate approved the draft of the new constitution and set the date of the referendum - April 30 this year - in its March 14th session, Tashkent, 2023. (Senate.uz)
Both Washington and the United Nations have expressed support for Mirziyoyev's agenda, boosting the government's confidence. But on social media in Uzbekistan, the debate is focused on a provision extending the presidential term from five years to seven and making it possible for the term-limited Mirziyoyev to seek two more terms, potentially extending his time in office until 2040.
"No one doubts that the administration will get what it wants," says Anora Sodiqova, chief editor of the Rost24.uz news site, which is halting its work due to continuous threats from political and business circles.
Sodiqova says she has come 'under so much pressure for investigating corruption and vested interests in the system' that her team decided to be idle for a while.
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Blogger and researcher Sardor Salim advocates "not participating in this charade." He and other independent voices argue that Mirziyoyev is following in the footsteps of his autocratic predecessor by seeking to negate term limits that would force him to step down in 2026.
Still, the changes are supported by people like Mubashshir Ahmad, founder of Azon TV, who urges his fellow citizens to campaign and vote for the new constitution. These advocates credit Mirziyoyev for allowing unprecedented religious freedom and economic liberalization and hope the new constitution will put both on firmer legal ground.
That argument rings hollow for Sodiqova, who asks, "If democracy is on a firm path forward, why have the authorities increased pressure on so many of us? Why silence any skeptic with a bit of influence ahead of the referendum?"
Uzbekistan, where no leader has ever stepped down according to the constitution, is a country of young people. More than 75% of its 36 million-plus population is under 45.
A man casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Oct. 24, 2021.
"When he came to power, Mirziyoyev energized us with audacious pledges, admitting systemic problems, vowing to fight them, boosting our spirits. Seven years later, we find ourselves again under old terms and conditions - fear and pressure," Sodiqova told VOA.
During recent visits to Uzbekistan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk praised the Uzbek leader but reminded him of his promises.
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Blinken said Washington "supports the full implementation of President Mirziyoyev's reform agenda," highlighting progress made on labor rights and pushing in other areas. "That includes delivering on commitments to defend religious freedom and press freedom and strengthen protections for vulnerable populations," he said.
The Biden administration has also called for "fully and transparently investigating allegations of human rights violations committed by law enforcement officers" during a deadly wave of protests in July 2022 in the western region of Karakalpakstan.
Sixty-one Karakalpaks have been convicted of illegal acts as a result of the protests, but no official has been held accountable. Authorities say they have three servicemen in detention, charged with crimes, but human rights advocates fear they could be tried in a closed military tribunal.
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Türk underscored the importance of fair trials at a March 15 press conference in Tashkent.
"As Uzbekistan maps out further reforms, my office is prepared to offer support in strengthening the social contract, based on inclusion, participation, and protection," he said.
Uzbekistan's Senate Chairperson Tanzila Narbaeva welcomes the UN High Commisioner for Human Rights Volker Türk in Tashkent, March 15, 2023. (Senate.uz)
The protests, which claimed at least 21 lives, were sparked by a provision in the new draft constitution that would have revoked the region's status as an autonomous territory within Uzbekistan. The provision, described as "the bloody chapter" of the reform process, has since been scrapped.
"Nothing will change without your consent and blessing," Mirziyoyev assured Karakalpaks. The latest draft reflects the president's promise, but Karakalpaks still want accountability for those who repressed the protesters and punishment for those who championed the amendments that sparked the unrest.
Campaigning elsewhere in Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev has been interacting with farmers and soldiers and opening up about the country's challenges, including the hard choices it must make as Russia wages war in Ukraine.
"They want us to pick a side," he said in Surkhandarya, a southern region bordering Afghanistan, following talks with American and Russian officials. "But I will choose Uzbekistan's national interests and am ready to die defending them."
Last month in the Kashkadarya region, a large military hub bordering Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Mirziyoyev acknowledged that many around him want to restrict freedom of media and expression. "But I like the breath of freedom and want our people to enjoy them, even though this makes my work difficult," he said, expressing appreciation for "fair and justified criticism."
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev attends the emergency summit of the Organization of Turkic States, Ankara, Turkey, March 16, 2023. (president.uz)
"When we were a closed country, not backing media, people had no voice. ... Now I'm online every day, a couple of hours when I can, personally following coverage. I write down issues they are raising, and nine out of 10 turn out to be true. Is this the right way to go? Of course, it is. Otherwise, we will not hear you," Mirziyoyev told the public.
Following these remarks, nearly 50 activists, journalists and bloggers appealed to Mirziyoyev to do everything in his power to stop censorship and repression.
"Media are not allowed to freely raise problems. Journalists can't cover the situation as they want. The state authorities relentlessly pressure news outlets as well as bloggers, controlling the tone and overall content to distort it or not publish and air it at all," their open letter said.
The group, which includes Salim, Ahmad and Sodiqova, argued that the government must not see critical voices as a threat to peace.
"Mr. President, in pushing for freedom of speech and opinion we are not interested in jeopardizing Uzbekistan's social and political stability," they wrote. "On the contrary, we see security as the foundation of these freedoms. But security without these freedoms is fragile and transient."
Uzbekistan's state-funded Association of Journalists, meanwhile, claims that the media "is enjoying more freedom than ever."
"Journalists or bloggers doing critical reports without enough basis or fairness must be held accountable," its chief, Kholmurod Salimov, has written. His organization sees professional education as a remedy.
Journalists like Sodiqova, trained at home and abroad, still hope that Mirziyoyev hears their grievances. They consider him the only person who can change the status quo.
"Right now, I see us going backward to where we were six years ago, when Mirziyoyev announced reforms. If this upcoming referendum is the continuation of that agenda, shouldn't we see the expansion of space for media and political freedoms?" said Sodiqova.