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Curb Your Enthusiasm! Uzbekistan's Campaign To Extend Mirziyoev's Reign Goes Into Overdrive

Is it a constitutional referendum or election campaign?
Is it a constitutional referendum or election campaign?

TASHKENT -- Putting a positive spin on a constitutional referendum delayed first by fatal unrest and then by a winter of energy shortages is not easy, but officials in Uzbekistan are working hard on the task.

Some even say they are trying too hard.

The chances of voters not approving a new constitution on April 30 that could allow Shavkat Mirziyoev, Uzbekistan's 65-year-old president, to hold onto power until 2040 are as good as zero.

A noncompetitive political system allows no possibility for a "no" campaign and Mirziyoev's absolute domination of that system remains unchanged.

And yet the "yes" campaign is wall-to-wall, with public figures lining up to support the changes and seemingly choreographed shows of support for "our constitution" beamed into living rooms from locations across the country including state universities, stadiums, and auto plants.

The message being hash-tagged on social media is "I am not indifferent." But to what, exactly?

"Does anyone want to take away #Constitution from the Uzbek people?" asked well-known human rights activist Gulnoz Mamarasulova on Twitter earlier this month as the state campaign kicked into gear. "Why then are #campaigners screaming on TV [and at] events: the 'constitution is ours!' What kind of strange propaganda is this?" she asked. "Isn't it better to analyze and explain the changes in the constitution to the people before the referendum?"

Constitution, Constitution, Constitution!

There seems to be little chance of that happening.

For most observers, the authoritarian logic of the incoming constitution has not changed since it was first mooted in the first half of last year.

"To reset [Mirziyoev's] term count and allow [him] to run for two more terms," explained British-based Uzbek political analyst Alisher Ilkhamov in a recent interview with Current Time. The other changes, which authorities say affect 65 percent of the basic law, "don't alter the nature of the current regime," he said.

But while the planned extension of Mirziyoev's reign will inevitably dominate international press coverage of the referendum, state media and public figures are refusing to pore over those changes and have instead highlighted other perceived benefits of the draft.

Legendary gymnast Oksana Chusovitina wrote on her official Telegram site that changing the constitution "guarantees the creation of all conditions for the development of physical culture and sports and ensuring a healthy lifestyle in the country."

"That is why I am actively participating in the referendum that will be held on April 30," the veteran Olympic medalist said.

An Instagram account called Progress Leaders Club hailed the proposals as benefiting young people, who account for more than half of Uzbekistan's population of more than 35 million.

"It is written that creating conditions for education, social and medical protection, housing, and employment of young people is the constitutional obligation of the state," the club wrote. "The allocation of a separate chapter [in the constitution] for young people is a very important and historical fact. I am not indifferent to my fate! Don't be indifferent!"

Invariably, the placards held aloft by people at the mass events advertising the new constitution and reading "ours," "mine," and "yours" are identical in style, indicating top-down rather than grassroots organization of the campaign.

University students and school-age children have been in abundance at many of these gatherings.

Prior to one event at Ferghana State University that was billed online as a concert featuring film and TV stars from Tashkent, a video posted on Instagram showed concertgoers rehearsing chants before they entered the venue.

The propaganda onslaught has generated plenty of ironic commentary on social media, with comments under some of these posts indicating a trolling campaign targeting naysayers.

Blogger and journalist Alisher Abdumalikhon, who drew a comparison with the mostly unchanged constitution of the United States and Uzbekistan's much-tinkered with document, later deleted his social-media post.

"We don't need to change [the constitution] but strictly observe the current articles," he said in a video that was in any case reposted by other accounts.

Views like Abdumalikhon's are problematic precisely because observing the letter of the current articles would mean Mirziyoev stepping down when his current term ends in 2026.

Instead, as was the case under Mirziyoev's hard-line predecessor, Islam Karimov, in 2002, the authorities are arguing that the incumbent would have the right to run for two more consecutive terms under the "new" constitution approved at the ballot box.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev casts his ballot during the presidential election at a polling station in Tashkent on October 24, 2021.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev casts his ballot during the presidential election at a polling station in Tashkent on October 24, 2021.

And just as in that constitutional sleight of hand more than 20 years ago, the length of presidential terms will now increase from five to seven years, a change reversed in Karimov's old age, somewhat limiting the man who succeeded him upon his death in 2016.

Bumpy Roads

Beyond being labeled "provocateurs," those brave enough to speak out online against the referendum have been met with regular refrains to the effect of "look at the changes in recent years!"

To be sure, Uzbekistan has changed since the death of Karimov, whom Mirziyoev served under for more than a decade as prime minister.

From the International Labor Organization to Britain's Economist magazine, the new head of state won plaudits for ending systemic forced labor in the country's cotton fields, a scourge that once affected schoolchildren, teachers, medics, and civil servants en masse.

Political dissidents were released, and space for critical coverage from online media, including popular and widely read channels on Telegram, has opened up a bit, although red lines are still everywhere.

Economically, Tashkent has eschewed the isolation that Karimov favored, especially in the second half of his reign, while promoting a nascent tourism industry.

But arguments of inexorable progress are harder to make after events last year that almost certainly delayed the passage of the constitution.

Last July, an earlier draft that included amendments to the status of the autonomous, minority-inhabited region of Karakalpakstan caused protests to erupt there.

The authorities responded with the largest security crackdown of the Mirziyoev era, leaving 17 protesters and four servicemen dead according to an official toll that rights activists have cast doubt on as an undercount of the casualties.

The amendments concerning the territory were promptly withdrawn from the draft.

The government has also been leery of holding votes in the winter in recent years due to systemic energy shortages

This was widely believed to be the reason that the 2021 presidential election that secured Mirziyoev his present term was held in October rather than December, as scheduled.

As it happened, this last winter was colder than any for the last 15 years, causing power deficits on an even wider scale than normal and hammering the government's credibility with a hard-up population.

Mirziyoev is not hiding, though, and some are already likening his behavior prior to the April 30 vote to a presidential election campaign.

Last week the president was shown with his family watching the final of a youth soccer tournament at a stadium in Tashkent that saw Uzbekistan take a 1-0 win against Iraq.

After Uzbekistan scored, Mirziyoev embraced Ravshan Irmatov, a popular retired soccer referee who holds the all-time record for the most FIFA World Cup matches officiated and who was sitting beside the president.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev inspects roads with the governor of Surxondaryo Province.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev inspects roads with the governor of Surxondaryo Province.

The previous week, the president jumped behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Malibu to harangue his passenger, the sullen-faced governor of the southern Surxondaryo Province, over the condition of local roads.

"[Officials] will tell you everything is fine, they will cover things up," Mirziyoev complained to the camera affixed to the windshield as the car bounced over the deeply rutted track.

"But we can see for ourselves that it's impossible to travel along this road. It is in poor condition."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service relies on innovation and a wide network of local sources and platforms to uncover news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.

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    Current Time

    Current Time is the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

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