As Uzbekistan speeds forward with constitutional reform, a clear winner and loser are emerging from the draft document.
The winner, unsurprisingly, is President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The loser is the Republic of Karakalpakstan, a legally autonomous entity inside the country, where rare protests against the draft were gaining momentum on July 1.
All signs at present suggest the path is being paved for Mirziyoyev to run for office again at the end of his current term. Presidential terms are set to be changed back to seven years from five according to the draft amendments published earlier this week.
But under the new basic law, Karakalpakstan, a large swath of western Uzbekistan, will be stripped of its constitutional right to hold a referendum on secession.
Three decades of independence have underscored that Tashkent would never entertain such an idea in practice. Yet other changes to the chapter on Karakalpakstan suggest central grip is to grow tighter over a territory where ethnic minorities make up the bulk of the population.
The draft changes published this week are theoretically subject to public discussion until July 4, after which authorities will set a referendum date.
Since the document emerged online, internet connections in Karakalpakstan have been suffering, with residents of Tashkent reporting problems calling the province using messenger apps.
The Turkmen.News outlet known for covering impenetrable next-door Turkmenistan on June 30 reported that Tashkent had expanded the presence of its National Guard there after protests in at least two towns.
That is backed up by videos on Telegram of what appear to be vocal gatherings after blogger Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov was reportedly arrested.
The press appear to be coming under pressure as well.
Private media outlet Gazeta.uz published and within 24 hours deleted a June 26 news article entitled, “It is proposed to change the status of Karakalpakstan.”
That article quoted experts involved in the constitutional draft as saying that the proposals “to define Karakalpakstan as an indivisible part of Uzbekistan" had come from the residents of the republic themselves via a government feedback portal.
A website called Hook.report reprinted the piece and a critical op-ed on the constitution that the Gazeta.uz had earlier published and deleted.
Perhaps mindful of this fallout, Uzbekistan’s president hailed unity between Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan and praised his government’s investment into the republic.
“We two peoples have become one whole. […] Do you remember [the towns] of Muynak and Botazau five years ago? Botazau has now become a cultural center,” Mirziyoyev boasted in a June 30 speech in Tashkent.
“I respect the Karakalpak people with all my heart and can say that I am a son not only of the Uzbek people but the Karakalpak people!”
Karakalpakstan, where ethnic Uzbeks are outnumbered by a combination of Karakalpaks and Kazakhs, was formed in 1925 as an autonomous entity inside Soviet Kazakhstan. From 1930 to 1936, though still autonomous, it was administered directly from Moscow, before being transferred to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
The republic’s constitutional right to call and hold its own referendum on independence was the result of a push for greater separation from Uzbekistan by the republic’s leadership amid the fall of the Soviet Union.
Karakalpakstan is also recognized in Uzbekistan’s present constitution as “sovereign,” a word that has disappeared in the new draft. Moreover, a sentence that read that “the Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan cannot contradict the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan” now includes the words “and laws” in the new draft, pointing to tighter alignment with Tashkent.
A scan of other changes being introduced to the constitution – 170 in total – show most to be vague, aspirational additions.
It was widely believed that the entire reason for reforming the basic law was to justify a “reset” of Mirziyoyev’s presidential term count, and thus allow him to continue ruling indefinitely like his predecessor, Islam Karimov, did.
A senior lawmaker has already signaled Mirziyoyev can run for the presidency again under the new constitution if he so wishes, even though he is currently serving his second term.
All this has undermined Mirziyoyev’s “New Uzbekistan” brand, but does not come as a shock.
Whatever motivated the changes to Karakalpakstan’s status is not clear, but territorial integrity is on the mind of many post-Soviet countries since Russia again invaded Ukraine in February.
Uzbekistan has also seen its impressive economic progress undone by external shocks – pandemic-related, drought-related and war-related – that have fueled dissatisfaction. Environmentally devastated Karakalpakstan is the country’s poorest region.
Across the border in Kazakhstan’s Almaty, where there is slightly more space for freedom of speech than in Uzbekistan, the Karakalpak diaspora held an animated discussion earlier this week on the changes.
One speaker, Rustem Matekov, said that the day of the referendum will be remembered as “the day of the funeral of the people of the Republic of Karakalpakstan” unless the changes are removed from the draft document.
“So [Mirziyoyev] will rule until he dies, as the respected Islam Karimov did. Fine, we let it go. This article will be passed anyway. But [the articles] that concern me and the Karakalpak people, this is where I am opposed,” Matekov fumed.