After a first attempt to tinker with the constitution went horribly wrong last year, authorities in Uzbekistan realized they needed a different approach.
In anticipation of a referendum on amendments to the constitution due to take place on April 30, a largely top-down exercise was put into motion to create the impression of genuine public engagement.
The date for that vote was approved by lawmakers on March 10. Within days, slickly organized concerts and other mass events began to be held across the country in support of the changes. Celebrities, athletes, government officials and businessmen turned out in force in a show of support. Large numbers of regular citizens, including many children too young to vote, were likewise dragooned into taking part.
One slogan has become ubiquitous: “The Constitution: Mine, yours, ours! The Constitution belongs to all of us.” The misleading idea behind that message is that it is the Uzbek people who have authored this new-look constitution, the most notable aspect of which will be to enable President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to stay in office until at least 2040. Under current rules, Mirziyoyev is required to step aside in 2026.
“The updated constitution is in every sense a ‘people’s constitution.’ This document is important because it was created by all our compatriots, it reflects the desires, goals and interests of our people,” Erkin Komilov, a popular movie actor, told a crowd at a campaign concert.
Since mid-March, the local social media space has been flooded with countless posts with the hashtag #befarqemasman, which is Uzbek for “I am not indifferent.” Influencers enlisted in the pro-amendment push have made ample use of the hashtag.
Mobile phones ping daily with SMSs carrying such messages as “Your vote, your choice!”, “Don’t miss the referendum!”, and “The referendum is a manifestation of the people’s will.”
Billboards are dotted around the country. Some feature imagined light-hearted messaging app conversations between friends and relatives encouraging each other to vote. One shows a person writing a friend the message: “Azamat, dude, cancel your trip to Dubai. We can go after April 30.”
The government has not forgotten about its international audience either. A swanky London-based public relations firm, Sans Frontieres Associates, has been hired to deliver upbeat messages about the constitutional reforms to foreign journalists.
The campaign has at times been notably self-aware and knowingly ironic by the historically staid standards of state propaganda in Uzbekistan.
One video advertisement that circulated online shows the scene of teachers being forced by a principal to sweep the streets and pick cotton in the fields. In an implied contrast with earlier unenlightened times, one teacher fights back, reminding her superior of how the constitution now explicitly proscribes forced labor. Defeated by this retort, the principal slinks away. In a departing message, the clip informs the viewer that the “state takes care of the honor and dignity of teachers.”
The whole vignette is vividly familiar to all Uzbeks. For decades, teachers and many other classes of state employees have been unlawfully press-ganged into doing miserably compensated or free manual labor, typically by regional officials.
The suggestion is that the new constitution will inject in a bold spirit of humanism into how Uzbeks are ruled. Mirziyoyev made that argument himself when he initially raised the idea of pushing through the amendments in late 2021.
“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.”
The overall thrust of the expanded basic law – the number of articles in it will go from 128 to 155 – is that the well-being of the people is integral to Uzbekistan’s statehood. The right to dignified working conditions and free healthcare and education are enshrined.
Certain claims made for the constitutional amendments are somewhat disingenuous, however.
Mirziyoyev in March already approved changes to the law making it a crime to compel teachers to undertake labor other than their job. And critics have pointed out bitterly, albeit quietly, since denigration of this whole process is not welcome, that teachers were compelled to take part in pro-amendment events organized by government proxies.
“The sole purpose of this plebiscite is to lend legitimacy to President Mirziyoyev’s rule,” a Tashkent-based political analyst told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity out of fear of negative repercussions. “The government wants the vote to serve as a display of the public’s support for the president and his reforms.”
What the Uzbek government desperately wants to avoid is a repeat of the disaster that accompanied its first attempt to ram through changes to the constitution last summer. When the secretively composed proposed amendments were first aired in late June 2022, it provoked an immediate swell of indignation in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan.
One provision would have seen Karakalpakstan stripped of its constitutional right to hold a referendum on secession. The privilege was, in fact, wholly theoretical and few activists would ever have dared campaign for independence in earnest, but the high-handed way this particular amendment was introduced only served to fuel a general sense of discontent.
The anger culminated in a spontaneous mass rally in the Karakalpak capital, Nukus, in early July, to which law enforcement authorities responded with trademark aggressiveness. By the time the clashes were over, at least 21 people, most of them civilians, were dead.
That mooted change is now gone. As officials keep reminding the public, however, around 65 percent of the constitution is being overhauled.
Many of the amendments do address legitimate grievances.
A provision forbidding the expulsion of people from their homes without an existing court ruling, for example, is an implicit nod to the ways in which many homeowners have in recent years found themselves thrown onto the streets by ruthless developers trying to cash in on Uzbekistan’s construction boom. Language has also been included to provide more protections for women, disabled people, and criminal suspects.
An allusion to that last, often taboo, issue featured in pro-amendment campaigning. At a concert held in the Syrdaryo region, a popular actor called Matyoqub Matchonov recalled the time, back when the late President Islam Karimov was still in power, he spent around six weeks in a security services holding cell in Tashkent.
“We saw times when human dignity was violated. We have endured this,” Matchonov told the audience. “Thank God, our president released me in 2016… Real independence for me began in 2016.”
Source : Eurasianet