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The ballot of Mirziyoyev In Uzbekistan, an old power play gives the president a new start

Source: Meduza

The ballot of Mirziyoyev In Uzbekistan, an old power play gives the president a new start

Source: Meduza

Story by Charlotte Delmas for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

“The Constitution: Mine, yours, ours!” proclaim the signs plastered all over Uzbek cities since March. Written in Uzbek (in both Latin and Cyrillic scripts) and in Russian, the slogan promoting the country’s recent constitutional referendum makes clear that the organizers wanted to popularize this step toward building what the authorities have dubbed a “New Uzbekistan.”

In the weeks before the vote, the public received daily text-message reminders that “the referendum in Uzbekistan is on April 30.” According to the official results, some 90 percent of voters approved the new constitution. Turnout, election officials claim, exceeded 84 percent — a triumph for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, whose plan to change the constitution dates back to 2021. 

In addition to resetting Mirziyoyev’s presidential term count and allowing him to stay in power potentially for two more seven-year terms, the new constitution also authorizes Uzbekistan’s head of state to trigger early presidential elections. This change to electoral law came into force on May 8 — that very day, Mirziyoyev called a snap vote for July 9.

A billboard promoting the constitutional referendum in southern Uzbekistan

* * *

Referendum fever even came to Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in western Uzbekistan, home to a remaining sliver of the former Aral Sea. Days before the vote, a huge campaign concert took place outside the city’s majestic Savitsky Art Museum. Under fluttering Uzbek and Karakalpak flags, a massive stage hosted star performers; in the crowd, a state-media correspondent asked locals about their (invariably enthusiastic) thoughts on the impending vote. 

“As a child of Moynaq, I call on everyone who is not indifferent to the fate of the Aral Sea to take an active part in the referendum,” one young woman said (once a fishing town, Moynaq is now home to a sandy “ship graveyard” that has become a disaster-tourism attraction). 

Abandoned fishing boats in the town of Moynaq, which was once a port on the Aral Sea. March 14, 2018.
Taylor Weidman / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Ten months earlier, however, a first attempt to launch a constitutional vote triggered demonstrations not only in Nukus but across Karakalpakstan. The government’s obviously rushed initial draft of the constitutional amendments sought to remove Karakalpakstan’s status as a sovereign republic (a point of pride for the Karakalpak people), as well as its right to secede on the basis of a referendum. 

Faced with massive but largely peaceful protests against the abolition of Karakalpakstan’s special status on July 1–2, 2022, the security forces violently suppressed the demonstrations; according to official figures, more than 270 people were injured in the ensuing clashes and at least 21 died. More than 500 people were detained. 

Trucks burnt during the protests in Karakalpakstan photographed during a government-organized press visit to Nukus. July 6, 2022.

President Mirziyoyev quickly called for postponing the referendum, blaming his aides for failing to warn him of the discontent. The parliamentary commission tasked with investigating the actions of the security forces has yet to release its findings. In a report published last November, Human Rights Watch concluded that security officers unjustifiably used “lethal and other forms of excessive force” to disperse the crowds. The rights group also expressed doubts that the inquiry commission, stacked with government officials and sympathetic politicians, would properly investigate the police abuses. 

The Nukus events tarnished Mirziyoyev’s reputation as a reformer, an image he’s cultivated to set himself apart from his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov, who ruled the country from 1991 until his death in 2016. “Mirziyoyev used to be a leader who gave the people hope that he would make Uzbekistan freer,” explains Uzbek political analyst Rafael Sattarov

Indeed, Mirziyoyev’s reforms marked a break from the Karimov era. Since 2016, Uzbekistan has cracked down on forced labor, liberalized its foreign-exchange market, and even released certain political prisoners. But when Mirziyoyev ran for a second term in October 2021, experts were quick to point out that there was no real competition. 

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visiting a polling station in Tashkent. April 30, 2023.

Karakalpaks still remember

In Karakalpakstan, the new constitution cannot erase the terror that lingers among the population. A Karakalpak activist living in exile told The Beet that, even on the phone, his family members cannot speak to him freely for fear of reprisals. “Fear has tied people up and they walk quietly and silently like shadows,” said another activist in Nukus. Uzbekistan’s president likely hopes the people of Karakalpakstan have forgotten last July’s violence, but The Beet’s sources say locals still mourn lost loved ones and remember being cut off from the Internet for several weeks and left unable to withdraw money or make credit-card payments

During a campaign visit to the republic on March 31, Mirziyoyev maintained an air of “everything is better now.” Appearing alongside Amanbai Orynbaev — an apparatchik close to Mirziyoyev who served as Karakalpakstan’s interior minister during the 2022 unrest and was then made head of the republic — the president espoused the progress made in the region. Without mentioning the victims of last year’s repressions, Mirziyoyev announced that each of the 452 Mahallas (community organizations) in the region would receive 500 million soms (approximately $44,000) to put toward resolving local issues. 

“It’s all lies and formal declarations,” says Nadejda Atayeva, an Uzbek human rights activist. In Karakalpakstan, the authorities in recent years have built new roads, houses, and avenues in the city center. Modern business offices cropped up on clean streets lined with flowerbeds, which municipal workers water almost daily. But outside the campaign period for the referendum, the region’s deeper problems don’t seem to be a concern for Tashkent. 

The disappearance of the Aral Sea (a once vast saline lake spanning the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which succumbed to inefficient Soviet-era irrigation practices) and the desiccation of the Amu Darya river have led to the salinization of the soil, extreme temperatures, and the spread of polluted salts, all of which negatively affect locals’ health. “In this ecological disaster zone, the percentage of people in need of permanent and qualified medical care remains high, and the medical infrastructure is not able to meet the population’s demand,” Atayeva says.

A pedestrian walks past an abandoned fish canning factory in Moynaq, Uzbekistan, on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. The drying up of the Aral Sea led to the economic demise of Moynaq, once a busy Soviet fishing port.

Though the subsoil is rich in raw materials, the wealth generated from resource extraction does not trickle down to the general public, whose per capita GDP is equivalent to $100 per month, several times lower than the country’s average. This has led to “a quiet tension in relations between Karakalpaks and Uzbeks [that] has existed for years,” explains Aqylbek Muratbai, a Karakalpak activist living in exile in Almaty. “And now it has intensified after the Nukus events,” he adds. 

According to Sattarov, the situation in Karakalpakstan resembles circumstances in Uzbekistan’s other provinces, where corruption remains the root of many socio-economic problems. Muratbai agrees: “The state personnel policy in Karakalpakstan is structured in such a way that only loyalty and devotion to the Uzbek authorities and Tashkent matters,” he says. 

Ahead of the referendum, more radical Karakalpak activists campaigned on social media for a boycott of the vote, albeit to no avail: the region had one of the highest voter turnouts, according to preliminary tallies. With so many Karakalpak activists either in prison or in exile, dissent has been all but extinguished. 

This past winter, dozens of people arrested in connection with the July 2022 protests stood trial in Bukhara — a city located some 550 kilometers (340 miles) from Nukus. Lawyer Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a prominent activist whom investigators accused of a litany of crimes, received the longest sentence: 16 years in prison. Other defendants were handed prison terms ranging from three to 11 years. 

Anti-government protesters listen to the court’s verdict during the trial in Bukhara over the July 2022 unrest in Nukus. January 31, 2023.

A ‘social state’

The trials and the withdrawal of the amendments eliminating Karakalpakstan’s autonomy are a sign that the “political crisis is finished now,” says political analyst Alisher Ilkhamov, the director of the think tank Central Asia Due Diligence. With Karakalpakstan brought to heel, the referendum gave the president an opportunity to close the chapter — and polish his reputation.

Ahead of the vote, state and pro-government media drummed up enthusiasm by underscoring that the amendments would overhaul 65 percent of the constitution and make the section on rights and freedoms 3.5 times longer. (These figures overlook the fact that the constitutional reforms simply split up and re-numbered some existing articles.) According to the authorities, the revised amendments were supposedly “citizen-driven” and informed by extensive public consultations.

The new constitution declares Uzbekistan a “legal, social, and secular” state, with increased welfare obligations, a prohibition on the death penalty, and gender-equality guarantees now enshrined in law. But experts who spoke to The Beet remain skeptical. “Some of the provisions have a positive meaning, but none of them fundamentally change the nature of the regime,” Ilkhamov notes. “It’s just paper,” adds Sattarov. “All of this — women’s rights, social issues — must be a process, no need to write it into the constitution.”

An independent Uzbek journalist (who asked to remain anonymous) expressed the same concerns: “I'm not sure that with the new constitution something will change and the rights of people and other norms from the document will be respected.”

A referendum campaign billboard in southern Uzbekistan

An autocratic turn?

For many, the “zeroing out” of Mirziyoyev’s presidential terms was what really set alarm bells ringing. Ilkhamov (who spoke to The Beet before the president called a snap election in July) argues that the reset is an undeniable move towards autocracy. “Authoritarian regimes try to find a balance between legitimizing their policies and maintaining their power,” he explained. “The new reform does both, by wrapping the possibility of a lifetime presidency for Mirziyoyev in a social package.”

In a recent report, Ilkhamov also underscores that the new constitution diminishes the role of the national parliament, which no longer “approves” but simply “endorses” the president’s proposed candidates for key government positions, such as the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and the attorney general. 

The fact that Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, also used referendums to amend the constitution and extend his time in power doesn’t help matters either. “We should expect less political reform and more repression, as happened with Karimov or Putin,” Ilkhamov concludes. 

Indeed, one cannot help but compare Uzbekistan today to Russia in 2020, when a nationwide plebiscite on constitutional reforms paved the way for Vladimir Putin to run for two more presidential terms — a campaign similarly drowned in a shower of social-spending pledges to make the pill easier to swallow. (As a result, Putin has the potential to remain in power until 2036. Mirziyoyev, meanwhile, could hold onto Uzbekistan’s presidency until 2037.)

Nevertheless, in Uzbekistan as in Russia, this method seems to have convinced many, if not the majority, of people to vote in favor of the constitutional changes — even without knowing what they all were. The independent Uzbek journalist who spoke to The Beet recalled interviewing local residents who couldn’t name a single one of the proposed amendments; others simply focused on specific changes that would directly impact their daily lives. 

Local residents sit in front of a sign promoting the constitutional referendum in southern Uzbekistan

“Of course, we’re going to vote,” a couple on their way to a polling station in Tashkent told The Beet’s correspondent. Judging by the tone of their response, they planned to vote “Yes.” That said, the preliminary results showed lower voter turnout in Tashkent than in other regions. “What’s the point of voting?” a political-science student in the capital countered when asked about the referendum.

This same question will likely plague some voters this coming July: international observers found that Uzbekistan’s last presidential election wasn’t truly competitive. 

When announcing the snap vote, Mirziyoyev himself raised the question of “the objective necessity” of calling an election at all. “Why am I voluntarily giving up the remaining three and a half years of my presidential term?” he asked rhetorically. The answer, though long-winded, led him to a simple conclusion: “In a system of renewed state power, [...] only the people will elect a leader they trust,” he said. “I believe that this is the most correct and just decision in the current circumstances.” 

Stay tuned, the Mirziyoyev era is just beginning.

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Story by Charlotte Delmas for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

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