A national referendum on the law on the new Constitution will be held in Uzbekistan on April 30, 2023. The updated Basic Law is intended to consolidate the country’s strategic course for further reform of society and the state, which has had a positive impact on its foreign policy, primarily in the Central Asian region.
In this regard, it is obvious that the referendum will be the most important political event in the life of the citizens of Uzbekistan this year. This is evidenced, first of all, by the most active participation of society in the process of drafting a new Constitution.
The Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan recognized that it was initially envisaged to change 30% of the text of the Basic Law, but more than 220 thousand proposals were received, which is why the amendments now concern 65%. It is no coincidence that Uzbek expert and public circles already call the updated Constitution „people’s one“.
Reflection of the transformation of society and the state
In fact, the draft of the new Constitution reflects the serious changes that have taken place in Uzbekistan since the beginning of large-scale reforms announced by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the end of 2016. Then, for foreign experts, the political and economic opening of Uzbekistan came as a surprise. Most observers expected a few symbolic innovations, but mostly continuity. However, since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in 2016, Uzbekistan has undoubtedly been going through a phase of profound changes.
Serious amendments have been made to the draft of the new Constitution concerning human rights and freedoms, personal inviolability of citizens and their private life in criminal proceedings and conditions of detention. In the administration of justice, the use of evidence obtained in violation of the law is not allowed. Torture, violence, ill-treatment, and the death penalty are prohibited.
Unlike the current Basic Law, Uzbekistan is defined „as a legal, social, secular, democratic state.“ Articles affecting the social rights of citizens in such important areas as education and healthcare have been significantly expanded. The rights of youth, children and women will be protected by the State. Special attention is paid to the protection of the rights and interests of citizens with disabilities, as well as socially vulnerable segments of the population.
For the first time, a separate chapter dedicated to civil society institutions is included, guarantees of their activities are established. Thus, special attention is paid to improving the norms concerning the strengthening of not only civil society institutions, but also the mass media. In this context, it should be emphasized that in December 2022, the number of foreign TV channels allowed to be distributed on the territory of Uzbekistan increased from 50 to 192. Among them are BBC, Sky News, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Bloomberg and others.
In the part concerning the economic rights of citizens, a separate article in the draft Constitution prohibits forced labor, any form of child labor. In 2021, Uzbekistan eliminated forced and child labor from the production cycle in cotton growing.
According to the International Labor Organization, under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country embarked on the path of reforms, including the modernization of the former agrarian economic model and the rejection of the widely used practice of using child and forced labor in cotton harvesting.
In Tashkent in March 2023, US Secretary of State E. Blinken called this fact a „historic achievement“. According to him, „this is a model for countries around the world facing similar problems. […) We look forward to working with the (Uzbek) government to advance similar efforts in other sectors.“
The updated Constitution of Uzbekistan significantly strengthens the role of Parliament.
Thus, it is proposed to increase the number of exclusive powers of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis from 5 to 12, the Senate from 14 to 18. Part of the current powers of the president in the field of forming the system of executive and judicial power is transferred to parliament.
Thus, the renewal of the Constitution not only confirms the reformist course of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, but also defines clear guidelines for where Uzbekistan will move in its further development. There is still much to be done, the head of state himself has repeatedly noted, but reforms, renewal and modernization are irreversible.
According to the World Bank’s Regional Director for Central Asia, Tatiana Proskuryakova, „Uzbekistan remains committed to the most important reforms, despite the difficult situation around the world and in the region of Europe and Central Asia.“ President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev has launched a large-scale reform program, in which significant progress has been made, especially in the field of economic liberalization.
British experts were not mistaken when back in 2018 they noted that the economic modernization of Uzbekistan and its growing political openness could have huge consequences for economic growth and political stability throughout Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and its geographical center. These features make him a natural and historical trendsetter of political and economic fashion in the region.
Modernization of Uzbekistan’s economy and increased political openness will be of great importance for economic growth and political stability in Central Asia. If successful, his reforms could also make Uzbekistan a positive model for other Muslim-majority countries.
New adjustments in the regional policy of Uzbekistan
In 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared Central Asia the main priority of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. The Preamble of the draft new Constitution notes „Uzbekistan’s desire to strengthen and develop friendly relations with the world community, primarily with neighboring states, on the basis of cooperation, mutual support, peace and harmony.“
It is noteworthy that in June 2018, exactly five years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution „Strengthening regional and international cooperation to ensure peace, stability and sustainable development in the Central Asian region“. The initiative to adopt this document was put forward by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the international conference on Central Asia, held in November 2017 in the city of Samarkand.
As the President of Uzbekistan noted at the time: „Our main goal is to jointly transform Central Asia into a stable, economically developed and prosperous region.“ The regional policy of Shavkat Mirziyoyev has become a new stage in the history of interstate relations of the Central Asian countries and marked the beginning of their consolidation.
For the first time since gaining their independence, the Central Asian States have confirmed their ability not only to take joint actions to solve common regional problems, but also to ensure the well-being and prosperity of their citizens.
Today, the countries of the region are consistently solving the difficult tasks of ensuring security and stability and a sustainable socio-economic development of Central Asia. A lot of barriers have been eliminated in a short time, first of all, sensitive border problems. Сonditions have been created for the free movement of citizens and an active cultural and tourist exchanges between the countries of the region.
For the first time in recent decades, joint industrial cooperation projects have been launched and new value chains are being created. Thus, investment banks of Uzbekistan with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been established to finance promising projects in the fields of industry, the agricultural sector, energy, infrastructure, automotive and other areas.
Moreover, water energy, which was previously a „bone of contention“, has become the subject of partnership between the countries of Central Asia. So, in January 2023, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan signed a roadmap for the implementation of the Kambarata HPP-1 construction project.
A favorable environment has been formed in Central Asia, which contributes to the growth of mutual trade. Uzbekistan has started creating border trade and economic zones with almost all countries of the region. Thanks to this, intraregional trade has doubled over the past five years, and the total GDP of the countries of the region has increased by $75 billion to over $358 billion (in 1991, this figure was about $46 billion.).
All these changes have a positive impact on the daily life of the peoples of the Central Asian countries, improving their well-being and contributing to strengthening stability in the region. It is obvious that the reforms in Uzbekistan and its new regional policy have contributed to a serious acceleration of the economic development of the Central Asian countries.
Moreover, consolidation has allowed the countries of the region to increase their role as subjects of the system of international relations, as well as the ability to take responsibility for regional security. The international community recognizes that only a stable, dynamically developing and prosperous Central Asia can become an attractive, constructive and long-term partner.
As US Secretary of State E. Blinken noted in Tashkent, a more interconnected, cooperative Central Asia will be able to better determine its own future and meet the needs of its people.
Over the past five years, there has been a serious transformation of Central Asia, which has gone from a region of tension and conflict to a zone of mutual trust, cooperation and partnership. The agenda of the leaders of the Central Asian states has changed, in which issues of implementing common projects of interconnectedness in the spheres of trade, economy, investment, cultural and humanitarian ties already prevail today.
In short, in recent years, the dynamic trends of Uzbekistan’s cooperation with neighboring states have acquired a qualitatively new, systemic and dynamic character. In a short period of time, Uzbekistan’s bilateral relations with the countries of the region have been elevated to the level of strategic partnership (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan) and alliance (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan).
The mechanism of Consultative Meetings of the heads of Central Asian States initiated by Uzbekistan in 2017 has been successfully launched, contributing to the formation of common approaches and joint search for solutions to problems of regional security and sustainable development. An active, constructive political dialogue is becoming a key factor in strengthening mutual trust and the common responsibility of the Central Asian States for the present and future of the region.
A powerful impetus to the multifaceted regional partnership is given by cultural and humanitarian cooperation, in which various social groups of the population of Central Asian countries have been increasingly involved in recent years. Such dynamics, strengthening the perception of historical and civilizational community in the societies of the states of the region, creates conditions for strengthening regional identity.
The countries of the region are building balanced relations with the leading states within the framework of the dialogue format „Central Asia Plus“. This practice has acquired a steady, regular character, contributing to strengthening the image of Central Asia as a unified, consolidated and strategically important region in the system of international relations.
In general, the main result of the implementation of the new regional policy of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was not only the overcoming of previously seemingly unsolvable contradictions, but also the formation of a powerful foundation for further promotion of regional priorities in the field of security and sustainable development.
In this regard, the renewal of the Constitution, which defines the trajectory of Uzbekistan’s transformation into an open, democratic, dynamically developing stable state with a strong civil society, determines Tashkent’s more active regional policy in Central Asia. This trend meets the long-term interests not only of the Central Asian countries themselves, but also of the entire international community, which expresses its support for the processes taking place since 2016 in one of the strategically important regions of the world.
Text by Dr. Batir Tursunov
Deputy Director International Institute for Central Asia