Uzbekistan was forced to put plans for a rejig of the constitution on ice following an explosion of public unrest in the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic in July.
Officials are now primed to have another go.
The amendments that the authorities are likely to shine most light upon concern such matters as property rights and taxation. Many suspect the real intention of the reform, though, is to enable President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to extend the amount of time he is permitted to remain in office.
This agenda was formally revived in November, when the legislation, which had by then been shorn of provisions designed to weaken Karakalpakstan’s threadbare autonomy, was punted back to lawmakers for further consideration. On February 24, a pair of parliamentary committees – the anti-corruption and justice committee and the democratic institutions, NGO, and self-governance institutions committee – convened for a fresh round of discussion on the constitution.
According to the parliamentary press service, proposed novelties to the constitution include a requirement that the state shield citizens from unemployment and poverty. Under this amendment, the government is obliged to organize and encourage vocational training.
The timing on this is a little curious. Only last month, local media reported on how the government is pushing through a major cost-cutting initiative, at President Mirziyoyev’s behest, that will see ministries and other branches of government trimmed of almost 17,500 employees.
In another crowd-pleasing amendment, it could become unconstitutional for anybody to be denied a place to live without a valid court ruling. Any person deprived of property in which they reside could be entitled to compensation in line with the market value of that home.
Other provisions pertain to earning and spending power. It will not be permitted for the authorities to impose unfair taxes – defining what those will be is presumably the purview of the courts – and recipients of financial benefits must expect to receive sufficient amounts to allow for the purchase of basic necessities.
A political detail slightly circumscribes the powers of local officials. A hokim, or governor, will not be able to also serve as a chairman of the council of deputies in the territory over which they rule.
As occurred the last time around, much is being made of how these amendments are purportedly being put to the public for debate. Groups of academics, legal experts and youth group representatives will gather to volunteer their input.
Mirziyoyev first spoke about the need to amend the constitution in December 2021. The emphasis, he said at the time, should be on fashioning a document that would have welfare at its core.
“We must change the current principle of state-society-person to a new one of person-society-state, and this must be enshrined in national legislation and in legal practice,” he said. “During the process of implementing economic reforms, the main criterion should be ensuring the interests of the person.”
Cynics have noted that the interests of one person in particular seem to have been considered when drawing up these amendments. Among the changes envisioned is one that will see presidential terms reset back to seven years, from the current five years. The expectation is that this will permit Mirziyoyev to maintain his grip on power beyond his second permitted five-year term, which began in 2021.
Mirziyoyev had expressed hope the amendments could be adopted by the end of 2022, but that plan was derailed by Karakalpak anger over sly attempts to strip their claims to autonomy.
Analyst and citizen journalist Otabek Bakirov has warned that Mirziyoyev will be taking a risk if the true purpose of his constitutional reforms is to retain power, though.
“If constitutional changes lead to the independence of parliament and the judiciary, the emergence of the institution of free elections, the limitation of the power of local executive bodies [and] the election of city mayors by the people, this will certainly be a profound change. But if the constitutional changes are connected to the ‘resetting’ of the presidential term, as happened [under the late President Islam Karimov] in 2002 and 2011, then we will have to brace ourselves for a new Bronze Age, and not deep changes,” Bakirov wrote on his Telegram channel.
Either way, the amendments will be put to a referendum for ultimate approval. Precedent indicates, however, that this will be a formality and that voters will readily comply with the will of the authorities.