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What Do Uzbekistan’s Snap Elections Mean For Central Asia?

  • President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced snap presidential elections in Uzbekistan, following a constitutional referendum that permits his potential re-election and extends presidential terms to seven years.
  • The decision has significant implications for both domestic politics and regional dynamics in Central Asia.
  • While there are concerns about the consolidation of power and potential threat to political liberalization, Mirziyoyev's potential re-election is largely seen positively by Uzbekistan's neighbors and other international partners.
Uzbekistan

via Jamestown Foundation

On May 8, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced snap presidential elections, which are now set to take place on July 9—more than three years ahead of the originally scheduled date in 2026 (Gazeta.uz, May 8). Mirziyoyev provided four reasons for this decision: changes in the balance of power among the branches of government, new goals for governance, increased expectations and accountability from the general public, as well as challenging domestic and international situations. He concluded that holding snap presidential elections “will be the most correct and fair decision” given these circumstances (Kun.uz, May 8).

The announcement came a week after Uzbekistan’s constitutional referendum, which recorded 85-percent voter turnout, though some reports indicate that these numbers may have been inflated (see EDM, May 22). More than 90 percent voted in favor of adopting a new constitution and annulling Mirziyoyev’s previous two terms, thus opening the door for his re-election (Gazeta.uz, May 1). There is little doubt that Mirziyoyev will cruise to a landslide victory in the upcoming elections, which would extend his rule at least until 2030. As such, these political changes have far-reaching consequences and raise questions over their implications for domestic politics in Uzbekistan and regional dynamics in Central Asia.

The renewed contours of Uzbekistan’s long-term political landscape first appeared in the fall of 2021, after Mirziyoyev won the presidential elections and entered the second and final term, under the previous constitution, of his reign. At the time, he announced plans for the constitutional referendum, which the Uzbekistani president claimed was designed to create a legal basis for continuing reforms necessary to build a “New Uzbekistan” (President.uz, November 6, 2021). In June 2022, the government presented a draft of the new constitution with plans to hold a referendum at the end of the year.

However, the first attempt to hold the vote resulted in a major disaster. The draft constitution stripped the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan of its right to secede from the mainland through a referendum. In July 2022, the Karakalpaks, an ethnic and cultural minority in Uzbekistan, protested against these proposed changes, resulting in the deaths of 21 people (Gazeta.uz, July 29, 2022). Tashkent reacted by postponing the referendum and keeping Karakalpakstan’s right to seek independence in the constitution.

Overall, the constitutional referendum and snap presidential elections are poised to have a profound effect on Uzbekistan’s future trajectory. Domestically, these changes signal two key developments. First, the outcomes of the referendum provide the current regime an opportunity to continue the ongoing reforms. Ever since coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoyev has differentiated himself from his heavy-handed predecessor, Islam Karimov, by implementing limited yet palpable reforms, such as liberalizing the economy and ending the practice of forced labor in cotton fields. Serving as an umbrella for the new political and economic course of the country is the concept of “New Uzbekistan,” which, in Mirziyoyev’s words, “is an open and fair society that cares about every citizen” (Gazeta.uz, August 31, 2022). In his election campaign, the Uzbekistani president has promised to spend the next seven years implementing further reforms in medicine, education, the economy and the environment (Kursiv Media, June 22).

Second, these developments will further tether Uzbekistan’s future to the Mirziyoyev regime. The new constitution increased the length of presidential terms from five to seven years, with the possibility to run for two terms (Gazeta.uz, March 15). As such, Mirziyoyev can now remain in power until 2037 and thus rule for over 20 years in total. The longer he remains in power, the more pressure he will face from the public to deliver on his promises of democratization. His personal agenda to consolidate power stands in the way of genuine political liberalization. Thus, if he is re-elected, the most probable scenario is the continuation of cosmetic reforms that address the public demand for change without introducing radical systemic changes.

Regionally and internationally, Mirziyoyev’s looming re-election is more cause for celebration than concern. Karimov did not always work well with Uzbekistan’s neighbors, especially from the second half of the 2000s until his death in 2016. Thus, Mirziyoyev inherited an isolated Uzbekistan with soured regional relations.

Since then, Tashkent has embarked on an effort to improve bilateral relations with its neighbors. In January 2023, Uzbekistan reached a historic border deal with Kyrgyzstan, ostensibly putting an end to more than 30 years of border skirmishes between the two countries (24.kg, January 27). Moreover, Mirziyoyev’s government has sought to end the long era of Uzbekistan’s rocky relationship with Tajikistan by boosting economic cooperation and trade (Anhor.uz, October 25, 2020). As a result, Uzbekistan’s regional neighbors see a reliable and open partner in Mirziyoyev.

Other countries beyond the region also view Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev in this way. The current government has opened up the country much more to the outside world. Under Karimov, Tashkent kept itself distanced from Russia, China, Turkey, the United States and Europe, abstaining from close political cooperation and limiting foreign investments into its economy. Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has become an important partner for international institutions and foreign countries looking to make inroads in the region.

Case and point here has been the return of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which held its annual summit in Samarkand in May 2023, after a 20-year absence in the country. Speaking at the event, Mirzioyev stated: “Today we are pleased to welcome you to New Uzbekistan, which is widely open to the world and ready for cooperation in all areas” (Radio Azattyq, May 19). Earlier, at the beginning of May, the Uzbekistani president traveled to Germany on an official visit, during which the two sides signed trade and investment agreements worth 9 billion euros ($9.8 billion) and created the “Germany–Central Asia” cooperation platform (Gazeta.uz, May 3).

Uzbekistan’s democratization and human rights records lag behind its readiness for economic cooperation. Nevertheless, some of its foreign partners, such as Russia and China, have yet to take any categorical stances on these issues. The West’s criticism of Karimov’s repression of the anti-government protests in Andijan in 2005 was one of the main reasons Uzbekistan cut ties with the US and Europe (Al Jazeera, May 12, 2015). Thus, even as relations seem to be thawing, officials on both sides are proceeding with caution. As it is almost a certainty that Mirziyoyev will continue to rule for the foreseeable future, Uzbekistan’s population and its foreign partners are waiting to see if his extended rule will yield more prosperity and development or lead the country down a more authoritarian path.

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By Nurbek Bekmurzaev 

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