Déjà vu in Uzbekistan as referendum will keep strongman in power
Uzbekistan’s upcoming referendum, which will allow President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to stay in power for almost two decades more, is a familiar play from Karimov’s day.
The last time Uzbekistan held a constitutional referendum – January 27, 2002 – was a day like any other, as far as human rights defender Agzam Turgunov can recall.
Turnout was low amid wintery weather and the widespread perception that the result was preordained.
“It was visibly clear that nobody was going to the polls. Policemen and the chairmen of the mahallas [neighborhood committees] were going door to door with ballot boxes and asking people to vote,” said Turgunov.
Politically, there was a sense that the authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov, who ruled from independence in 1991 until his death in 2016, was adrift.
“Karimov did not have a specific program. The country was failing across all real economic and political indicators. Karimov, by hook or by crook, was using every opportunity to stay in power,” Turgunov said.
At least two parallels between the constitutional referendum that Uzbekistan is set to hold on April 30 under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the one it held back under Karimov over two decades ago are plain for all to see.
Then, as now, voters were being asked to endorse an extension of presidential term limits from five to seven years.
And both times officials argued that the very exercise of overhauling the constitution meant the incumbent should run for more than the two consecutive terms stated in the document.
Following the 9/11 attacks and Washington’s invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Central Asia was thrust into the international spotlight.
But the feeling among rights groups was that Central Asia’s newfound strategic value to the West gave governments with strong authoritarian credentials too much leeway.
Human Rights Watch complained that while Washington had criticized Karimov’s term extension plan, “top-level Pentagon, State Department and Treasury officials are scheduled to arrive in Uzbekistan on the very day of the referendum to meet with President Karimov and hammer out a series of deals on military and economic assistance.”
Karimov’s former rival, the exiled poet Muhammad Solih, was similarly exasperated in a New York Times op-ed in March 2002, as Karimov readied for a visit to Washington and the White House just weeks after the referendum.
“Twelve years have passed, but the undemocratic, human-rights-abusing, one-party states [of Central Asia] have not changed much at all, and neither has Western support for them,” he wrote.
“Something has always happened – worries over the security of ex-Soviet nuclear materials, a desire to avoid antagonizing Russia, China or another power – that somehow justifies this situation. Western politicians have always had convenient excuses for supporting these governments. The dictators of the independent states have been lucky. Their last case of luck came on September 11.”
Solih was the opposition candidate during Karimov’s first election in 1991 and he alleged fraud after official results showed Karimov winning with over 86 percent of the ballot. It would be the last remotely competitive election staged in Uzbekistan.
In 1995, Karimov held a referendum to extend his own term by five more years, going on to triumph in an election without any real opponents in 2000.
Solih, who fled in 1993, was later sentenced in absentia to over 15 years in jail for what Uzbek prosecutors said was his role in a spate of 1999 bombings motivated by Islamic extremists in Tashkent.
Uzbek authorities failed in its efforts to extradite him – he was arrested and later released by Czech authorities during a 2001 visit to Prague – but government opponents and other undesirables inside Uzbekistan were less fortunate.
“The authorities in Uzbekistan have essentially untied the [security services’] hands. If militiamen kill citizens, they can simply fill out documents claiming the victim was a terrorist, or even a follower of Osama bin Laden. No civilian has any ability to question this characterization,” Solih vented in the Times.
Mass arrests followed the 1999 bombings.
Yet in other ways, Uzbekistan was freer than it is today.
“There was some freedom of speech. People believed that cooperation with Western countries would lead to reforms. Civil society then was stronger and more progressive than it is now,” Anvar Nozirov, a Tashkent-based political analyst told Eurasianet in a recent interview.
Karimov had described the 2002 referendum as “a major step on the road toward democratization of the state and society” and cautioned outsiders not to rush the country’s progress.
In addition to lengthening presidential terms from five to seven years – which Tashkent would shift back again in 2011 – the new constitution paved the way for a bicameral parliament that would be just as unfailingly loyal as the unicameral one.
The changes passed with nearly 94 percent in favor, more modest than the 99.6 percent support declared in the 1995 referendum. Karimov’s term was thus stretched to 2007.
Then came a watershed.
In May 2005, security forces used lethal force to crush protests in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan. Although the official death toll was 187, rights groups estimated that the real number was far higher.
Amid bickering between Defense and State, the United States strongly criticized its partner and was duly evicted from the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) military base that had serviced its military operations in Afghanistan.
In Uzbekistan, repression ramped up and civil society groups were forced to close, or even flee.
Turgunov, the rights defender, was in 2008 jailed for a second time, this time for longer and without offers of amnesty. He endured torture and was not released until 2017, during Mirziyoyev’s first full year in office.
Umida Akhmedova, a photographer, also fell foul of the regime during this period. She was in 2010 convicted of insulting the Uzbek people with photos documenting poverty, although she did not go to jail.
She remembers the 2002 referendum as “a toy in the hands of the authorities.”
“I fear most Uzbeks simply didn't notice it, and if they did, they didn't take it seriously. The constitution in Uzbekistan means a public holiday once a year and nothing more,” Akhmedova said.
Third time’s a charm?
Uzbekistan has tried to show that the 2023 referendum it began preparing almost a year ago is more people-led, with a nationwide campaign to promote the changes seeing showbusiness stars performing before packed audiences full of posters celebrating the new draft.
After Uzbekistan’s Oliy Majlis parliament on March 14 voted to approve amendments to the basic law, the Constitutional Reform Commission and Oliy Majlis released a joint statement that claimed more than 220,000 proposals from the public were submitted and considered during the drafting process.
Jahongir Shirinov, chairman of the Legislative Chamber Committee responsible for the constitutional reforms, was quoted in the statement as saying that the amendments represented “a transformation of the new Uzbekistan.”
“Where once the state came first, now the citizen comes first – a profound shift from our recent history. We believe that every citizen of Uzbekistan will be able to say with pride and confidence: ‘This is my Constitution,’” Shirinov said.
But the fact remains that the current draft is a second attempt, after an earlier draft that included downgrades to the legal status of the Republic of Karakalpakstan sparked an uprising and violent government response in that nominally autonomous territory last July.
The bloodshed left 21 people dead, according to officials, and triggered a government crackdown on Karakalpak civil society, with more than 40 people sentenced to jail terms in two trials so far.
The unrest also gave the lie to the government’s claim of a thorough nationwide consultation and delayed the referendum, which was expected before the onset of a bitterly cold and angry winter that exposed vast deficits in the national energy supply.
Karakalpakstan’s status has been preserved in the constitution that will go to the vote next month.
At least one lawmaker argued that Mirziyoyev’s climbdown on the Karakalpakstan amendments was proof that Uzbekistan had moved on from the incorrigible Karimov, for whom reversals of course were anathema.
But there is still no space for a counter-campaign, and some bloggers that used their social media pages and Telegram channels to question the new constitution have suggested that authorities forced them to delete the subversive content. Critics like Nozirov, however, argue that the main problem with Uzbekistan’s constitution is that the rule of law is still as bendable as decision-makers want it to be, making the document inherently weak.
“What unites the  referendum and the upcoming one is that, unfortunately, the constitution has no real authority at all,” Nozirov told Eurasianet.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.