Uzbekistan’s Proposed Constitutional Overhaul: Charting a Course Toward Liberal Values in Central Asia
Uzbekistan’s upcoming referendum will focus on a draft embodying President Mirziyoyev's vision of a ‘New Uzbekistan’, emphasizing the rule of law, social guarantees, economic reform, political governance, and culture. The draft places citizens' rights at the forefront: a departure from conventional political priorities in the past where the state came first. With 65% of the existing constitution affected, this referendum marks a pivotal moment for Uzbekistan and Central Asia – writes Prof. Dr. Gulnoza Ismailova.
Central Asia may not be the first region that comes to mind when discussing the spread of liberal values around the world. However, times are changing, and when its new draft constitution is put to a referendum on April 30, Uzbekistan has the potential to advance such values in the region.
When Uzbekistan gained its independence in 1992, it also ratified its first Constitution: the main goal was to strengthen statehood and organize the activities of state bodies. The document, however, was pro-forma for an independent nation just emerging from decades under the Soviet yoke and was not able to provide and protect fundamental rights and freedoms in society, nor manage the affairs of society and the state in various fields. Nevertheless, the document lasted an entire generation without fundamental change. It was modified in the succeeding three decades only by occasional tinkering, with constitutional amendments related strictly to governmental and parliamentary matters, such as the formation of a bicameral parliament, democratization of state administration, formation of the government, and strengthening its responsibility, among others.
The winds of change, however, began to blow when Shavkat Mirziyoyev ascended to the presidency in 2016. Coming to power after 25 years under Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, President Mirziyoyev promised a bold agenda of reform. Soon after taking office he released political prisoners and continued with economic liberalization, including monetary reforms and visa-free entry for many foreigners. The ultimate goal of these reforms was to build a ‘New Uzbekistan’. To properly break with the outdated ways of the past, however, President Mirziyoyev emphasized — during his inauguration speech after re-election in October 2021 — that a reset was required.
Process of drafting the proposed amendments
The drafting of a new constitution for Uzbekistan has, from the start, been framed as a popular exercise. The process began over a year ago when a Constitutional Reform Commission — with 47 members (initially 46), of which the author was a participant — embarked upon a national dialogue process. After receiving input, feedback, and statements from tens of thousands of Uzbek citizens, the process culminated in a revised constitution, with an initial draft being published in June 2022. Then, a public consultation period ensued. Various parliamentary committees, overseen by the Commission, reviewed citizens’ feedback and incorporated necessary changes. Within the framework of the national discussion, more than 220,000 proposals were received, many of which were reflected in the new draft. Numerous channels were used to collect these contributions, some old and some novel. For example, citizens' gatherings, and district Kengashes (Councils) represent the more traditional way to solicit public input. But there was also a call center, various online platforms, and a special messaging bot (@meningkonstitutsiyam_bot) to enhance public participation.
In March 2023, this draft was considered in the lower house (Legislative Chamber) of the parliament (Oliy Majlis), which recommended that it be put to a referendum. Having reviewed the draft, the Constitutional Court of Uzbekistan ruled it was in constitutional compliance. Finally, the Senate confirmed this decision and officially approved the draft for submission to the referendum to take place on April 30.
The proposed reforms will represent the most significant overhaul of Uzbekistan’s Constitution in over three decades, affecting 65% of the existing document.
The proposed new constitution represents the bedrock of President Mirziyoyev’s stated vision of a ‘New Uzbekistan’ that is a sovereign, democratic, legal, social, and secular state with a republican form of government. If approved in the upcoming referendum, the proposed reforms will represent the most significant overhaul of Uzbekistan’s Constitution in over three decades, affecting 65% of the existing document. The proposed draft comprises 155 articles, compared to the current 128, and the number of provisions would increase to 434 from 275. The proposed increase in the number of provisions relating to human rights and freedoms is especially important, signifying a comprehensive update to Uzbekistan’s political culture.
Key provisions in the draft
The proposed constitution can be analyzed from five distinct perspectives: rule of law, social guarantees, economy, politics/government, and culture. Each of these comprises numerous articles that put the citizen first, a departure from conventional political priorities in the past where the state came first.
Probably the most impressive suite of changes concerns the rule of law, with the draft placing a high priority on protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens from birth.
Probably the most impressive suite of changes concerns the rule of law, with the draft placing a high priority on protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens from birth. In practice, this includes the protection of privacy (Art. 31), ensuring the presumption of innocence for those accused of crimes, enshrining the right to remain silent and right not to testify against oneself or close relatives (Art. 28), right not to be detained for more than 48 hours without a court order (Art. 27), and prohibition of any conviction based on a confession alone (Art. 28). The draft also enhances guarantees for advocates/lawyers in providing professional legal services (Chapter 24), which was not previously included.
Collective punishment and the death penalty would be abolished (Art. 25). There would no longer be extradition or expulsion for Uzbekistan’s citizens. Further, the draft expressly states that judges are inviolable and cannot be sued or penalized for their decisions in a particular case (Art. 136). These changes represent an outstanding assertion of personal rights and freedoms that would bring Uzbekistan in line with the world’s most developed democracies.
On social guarantees, the draft triples the number of obligations of the state to its citizens. For example, it outlines the right to housing and prohibits the confiscation of one’s home without a court decision and proper compensation (Art. 47). Everyone has the right to employment under safe working conditions and above minimum wage (Art. 42), and there is a special prohibition on discrimination against women in employment based on parental status (Art. 43). The draft further promises the right to а guaranteed level of medical care paid for by the state (Art. 48). Moreover, free secondary education and vocational education would be guaranteed (Art. 50), the former of which would be compulsory (Art. 50). People with disabilities would be guaranteed access to employment and educational opportunities, as well as social, economic and cultural services (Art. 57).
The draft also aims to revitalize Uzbekistan’s economy. The state is obligated to provide a favorable investment and business climate, enable entrepreneurs to undertake any legal business activities, and guarantee the free movement of goods, services, labor and financial resources across Uzbekistan (Art. 67). Sustainable development principles would be prioritized in order to improve, restore and protect the environment. The state would further take measures to protect and restore the ecological system of the Aral Sea region (Art. 49).
There are numerous provisions that provide for an overhaul of the functioning of government. Most importantly, Parliament gains powers, especially to check the power of the President. The Legislative Chamber’s exclusive powers would be strengthened to include consideration and approval of the candidature of the Prime Minister, the candidates to the Cabinet of Ministers, and to review reports on the most crucial issues of the social and economic life of the country (Art. 94). The Senate, which would be reduced from 100 to 65 members (56 elected from the 14 provinces and nine appointed by the President), gains new powers in relation to approving the President’s nominations for the prosecutor-general and the chair of the Accounts Chamber, and would elect the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Judicial Council, and the heads of the anti-corruption and anti-monopoly bodies (Art. 95).
The draft attempts to clarify and consolidate local government structures, including by addressing the role of regional and local bodies for the first time (Chapter 21) to strengthen the principle of checks and balances on the ground. The responsibilities of Kengashes (Councils) have been more clearly defined in regions, districts and cities to promote the economic, social, cultural and environmental development of individual areas.
There are also articles that reflect modern Uzbekistan’s approach to recognizing its own traditions and culture while engaging with the global community.
There are also articles that reflect modern Uzbekistan’s approach to recognizing its own traditions and culture while engaging with the global community. The draft asserts the equality of men and women (Art. 58), calls for favorable childhood conditions and nurturing of patriotic sentiments (Art. 78), and protects motherhood and fatherhood. It grants all religious organizations operating in accordance with Uzbekistan’s laws freedom of activity (Art. 75), which also applies to the mass media’s rights to seek, receive, use and disseminate information (Art. 81). In terms of foreign policy, Uzbekistan remains committed, as part of its peace-loving foreign policy, to the sovereign equality and territorial integrity of states, as well as the inviolability of their borders (Art. 17).
These changes were not developed in isolation: they were informed by other countries’ constitutions and amendment processes from around the world, which were used as guides to best practices. All of the amendments were developed and drafted in line with a range of international laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Some may question why Uzbekistan would engage in a constitutional reform process when plenty of other countries in similar circumstances rammed constitutional amendments through in the dark hours of night when nobody was watching. However, the answer is clear: because our people — in fact, all people — deserve better. They should benefit not only from a firmer affirmation of their rights but also from the opportunity to make their voices heard more clearly in the political process.
Like in any constitutional reform process, the key determinant of the document’s success will be in its implementation.
All things considered, with a new constitution Uzbekistan can move away from its recent history and prioritize the needs and rights of its people. While some critics have argued that previous constitutional rights and protections were not fully implemented, particularly with regard to human rights and political freedoms, drafting a new constitution based on popular feedback and putting it to referendum demonstrates the possibility of positive change. However, like in any constitutional reform process, the key determinant of the document’s success will be in its implementation. Then we can be proud to be leading the way for Central Asia and for other former Soviet Republics in embracing the principles of a free and prosperous society not just in words, but in deeds. The future is indeed bright for Uzbekistan and its people.
Prof. Dr. Gulnoza Ismailova is the Vice-Rector for Science and Innovation at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy. She is also a member of the Central Election Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan and Head of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence for European Studies in Tashkent. She was one of the recipients of the European International Women's Leadership Awards in 2021. Prof. Dr. Ismailova was also a member of Uzbekistan’s 2022 Constitutional Reform Commission.
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Suggested citation: Gulnoza Ismailova, ‘Uzbekistan’s Proposed Constitutional Overhaul: Charting a Course Toward Liberal Values in Central Asia’, ConstitutionNet, International IDEA, 29 April 2023, https://constitutionnet.org/news/uzbekistans-proposed-constitutional-overhaul