On March 18, 2014, the Legislative Chamber (lower house) of the parliament of Uzbekistan adopted a law introducing amendments to the Constitution of Uzbekistan. Out of six articles to be amended (Articles 32, 78, 93, 98, 103, 117), the major change that will come as a result is a partial transfer of presidential power and duties to the position of the prime minister. As parliamentarian elections at the end of 2014 and presidential elections in the first quarter of 2015 are nearing, the natural inclination is to look for linkages between the constitutional amendments and President Islam Karimov’s (age 76, and in office since 1990) desire to name his successor. Nevertheless, the evolution of events since 2005, which are described below, strongly indicates that the recent constitutional changes in Uzbekistan are not related to the succession issue at all, and may prove of little help in predicting the outcomes of the upcoming elections.
The process leading up to the recent constitutional changes started in 2005, when Uzbekistan’s parliament (Oliy Majlis) was established as a bicameral legislature with a lower Legislative Chamber and upper Senate. Since then, the parliament has been steadily gaining more responsibilities and control (http://parliament.gov.uz/ru/history/). Two year later, Article 89 of the constitution was amended from saying the president of Uzbekistan is the head of the executive branch and the head of the Cabinet of Ministers, to instead defining the president as the head of the state (http://www.lex.uz/Pages/GetAct.aspx?lact_id=35869)—although the functions of the head of the executive branch have, until now, continued to be performed by President Karimov. Then came the Constitutional amendments of 2011, which allow the majority party in the parliament to nominate the prime minister, a function previously performed by the president. These amendments also mandated that the candidacy of a prime minister had to be approved by a vote of more than half of the delegates in the Legislative Chamber (http://www.12uz.com/#ru/news/show/official/16694/).
In a speech he delivered in December 2013, on the occasion of Uzbekistan’s Constitution Day, Karimov declared, “It is pressing to further expand the role of the Legislative Chamber and Senate of the Oliy Majlis […] to reinforce their functions in order to scrutinize the activities of the Cabinet of Ministers and executive bodies, along with their entitlements and powers in addressing strategic objectives of internal and foreign policies…” (http://press-service.uz/#ru/news/show/dokladi/securing_uzbekistans_prosperity_through_/). Indeed, the recent law adopted on March 18 was prepared based on that December speech, according to delegates. Although the law did not specify exactly what constitutional changes will soon be introduced, the official news sources said that the Cabinet of Ministers, led by the prime minister, will be given full control over economic and social issues in the country (http://parliament.gov.uz/ru/events/chamber/11478.)
The stated intent of the amendments to the Constitution is, therefore, to strengthen the role of political parties—Uzbekistan officially has five—in setting priorities for the country’s economic and social spheres. The parliamentary delegates say that, as a result of this fostered inter-party competition, the role of the legislature will be strengthened, and parliamentarians will now be at the forefront of defining Uzbekistan’s reforms and modernization laws (http://parliament.gov.uz/ru/events/chamber/11478.)
These newest amendments will also provide added legitimacy to the upcoming parliamentarian elections scheduled for the end of December 2014. The expectation is that domestic and international observers will now be scrutinizing the activities of Uzbekistan’s political parties. Whereas, inside the parliament, the Legislative Chamber delegates will theoretically be more incentivized to forge collegial relationships across party lines. Meanwhile, the decentralized control of the government may bring more openness to political decision making in Uzbekistan, but will likely make it more difficult to predict a future political course for the country. At a minimum, the new roles for the parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers may finally instill a culture of debate and exchange of opinions within this Central Asian republic.
Therefore, the introduced changes to the Constitution appear to be more than just window dressing to please the international community. Commenting on the recent constitutional changes, Tashkent-based political science expert Dr. Guli Yuldasheva, in an interview with Jamestown (March 25) said, “The authors of the Uzbek model of development were aware that the continuation of centralized governance in a dynamically changing society nowadays is akin to death, and the developments in the Middle East, CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], and Central Asia are evidence of it. The introduced new law will promote the development of civil society and eliminate the concentration of power in one hand. But we should remember that the mindset of the population and the capacity of personnel have not pivoted since the creation of the bicameral parliament in 2005 due to 1) Soviet stereotypes of governance, political decision-making and bureaucracy; 2) low levels of political culture and political knowledge; 3) a brain drain of the skilled workforce [moving] abroad; 4) political apathy due to harsh executive power and weak political parties; and 5) an unstable environment (radical ideology, extremism). The fact that 50 percent of the population of Uzbekistan lives in rural areas and 88 percent are Muslims means that the implementation of liberal-democratic reforms does not come easily and does not answer Western requirements. Therefore, at least at this stage, neither the constitutional system, nor the electoral system is efficient.”
Returning to the presidential succession issue, one plausible scenario is that the Liberal-Democratic Party, which nominated Islam Karimov in the last presidential elections and which currently holds one third of the seats in the Legislative Chamber (http://uza.uz/ru/politics/9055/), could nominate him to the role of prime minister. His party will likely defend this nomination by suggesting that Karimov is the most experienced person in the history of independent Uzbekistan and best poised to know and understand the socio-economic issues that a prime minister will now have to deal with. This might even lead to something similar to the “Vladimir Putin–Dmitry Medvedev” scenario in Uzbekistan, whereby Shavkat Mirziyayev, a trusted prime minister since 2003, could possibly switch roles with President Karimov.
In summary, according to the government, the latest constitutional changes that Uzbekistan will seek to adopt are an indicator of the country’s attempts to gradually democratize. Furthermore, these changes are unrelated to the issue of the presidential succession. After all, if President Karimov was preoccupied solely with laying the ground for his successor, he could have just named a successor and transferred full power to him without increasing the powers of the legislature or transferring any executive authority to the prime minister.