On Friday, newly re-elected Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev delivered an inauguration speech titled on the presidential website: “We will resolutely continue the course of democratic reforms based on the development strategy of New Uzbekistan.”
Mirziyoyev began his second term on the back of an election that offered no new choices to Uzbek voters and a campaign that was barely noticeable. In discussing the results last week on The Diplomat’s podcast, I commented that the real question was never whether Mirziyoyev would be re-elected, but how the president will maneuver himself into a third term despite provisions in the Uzbek Constitution limiting presidents to two terms. Karimov always found a way.
In his inauguration speech, Mirziyoyev showed his cards in claiming that “representatives of the electorate” had put forward an “important” proposal: constitutional reform.
Karimov ruled Uzbekistan from before it was independent until his death in 2016, standing for election in 1991, 2000, 2007, and 2015; along the way his first term was extended by referendum, other laws shifted elections about, then the term limits were changed from five to seven years and then again back to five years. Constitutional tinkering paved the way for the argument that Karimov’s previous terms didn’t count toward the two-term limit. There were always technical reasons trotted out to obscure the truth: Karimov was never going to step down from power.
A report by Joanna Lillis in 2012 is worth revisiting. It references a law passed by the Uzbek Senate, which had the effect of extending Karimov’s term:
The new law stipulates that presidential elections will be held 90 days after the official results of parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2014, are published, meaning that voters won’t get to choose their president until spring 2015.
The Senate session heard that the law would “give a powerful impulse to further modernization of the state legal and political system and deepening of democratic reforms and the formation of civil society,” the official UzA news agency reported.
Nearly a decade later, in his second inauguration speech Mirziyoyev is sticking to a similar script:
As President, taking office for a new term, deeply aware of the responsibility for today and tomorrow of our Motherland, I want to assure you: we will continue the democratic reforms begun with our people even more firmly and decisively, and will never deviate from this path!
Together we will definitely build a New Uzbekistan!
Mirziyoyev pledged that to “deepen democratic transformations” it was important to ensure the freedom of speech and of the press. The president referenced officials bogged down by old ways, allergic to criticism, and the necessity for them to “learn to correctly perceive criticism.”
“In a word, all journalists and bloggers acting in accordance with the law will continue to be protected by the law and the President,” Mirziyoyev proclaimed (emphasis added). Conveniently, Uzbekistan passed laws earlier this year that criminalized online slander against the president. Several bloggers and journalists have faced various charges in Uzbekistan this year, disguising censorship beneath a veil of legality.
Observers of the region have struggled to balance reporting on the economic and diplomatic aspects of Mirziyoyev’s reform program, and the evident lack of democratic progress, including when it comes to the freedom of speech.
Further underscoring this point: On Sunday, Polish journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska (who has reported from Uzbekistan for The Diplomat) was stopped at the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. On Twitter, Pikulicka-Wilczewska said that she had been denied entry to Uzbekistan but could not return to Kazakhstan due to COVID-19 restrictions. Her tweets began after more than 24 hours stuck at the border, with authorities denying her the ability to return to her home in Tashkent and retrieve her belongings. According to Pikulicka-Wilczewska, the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs has allowed her to buy a ticket to fly out of Uzbekistan, but authorities are not allowing her to go home and pack.
For all the novelties of Mirziyoyev’s New Uzbekistan, the ways of old Uzbekistan are not far below the surface.