Uzbekistan Seeks to Enshrine Pragmatic Foreign Policy With Wider Constitutional Reforms
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 108
On 20 June, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev chaired a meeting dedicated to changes and amendments to the national constitution. After dwelling on the reforms related to strengthening the protection of human rights and improving state administrative functions, President Mirziyoyev went on to propose that several principles related to Uzbekistan’s foreign policy should be enshrined in the new constitution. In Mirziyoyev’s view, these principles include generally building peaceful and friendly relations across the world and primarily with neighboring countries, upholding the respect for human rights and freedom in international relations and conducting interstate relations by strictly adhering to the principle of territorial integrity.
Moreover, Mirziyoyev expressed a view that, as the world is experiencing major changes and upheavals, it is necessary to renew and improve the conceptual and legal foundations of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. He underlined that the country’s current National Security Concept, adopted in 1997, and Law on the Main Principles of Foreign Relations, adopted in 2012, “evidently do not fully meet the requirements of the fast-changing circumstances in the world, and therefore, new editions of these two important documents need to be adopted together with the new constitution of the country.” The Uzbekistani president also proposed “to elevate the importance of these extremely important two documents to the status of constitutional laws” (YouTube, June 20, 2022).
As local pundits and international observers started pondering what changes President Mirziyoyev could be contemplating, a self-inflicted crisis unfolded within Uzbekistan. Not long after the special meeting on June 20, all amendments to the constitution were presented for public discussion (Meningkonstitutsiyam.uz, accessed July 19). However, to Uzbekistani authorities’ grave embarrassment, some proposed amendments caused a major domestic political crisis that led to violent riots on July 1–3 in Nukus, the capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in northwest Uzbekistan. The riots resulted in the death of at least 18 people, while another few hundred people were reportedly injured. The reason for the imbroglio was a number of unexpected amendments related to changing the nominal sovereign status of Karakalpakstan, which were not mentioned by Mirziyoyev during the special meeting on June 20 but mysteriously appeared on the final list (see EDM, July 5).
Notably, Mirziyoyev admitted that the spectacular mismanaged, but well-intentioned, constitutional reforms were meant, first and foremost, to “to improve the lot of the ordinary people,” and he ordered for the cancellation of all controversial amendments that “caused the anger of the Karakalpak people.” Moreover, the Uzbekistani president also accused some unhealthy forces abroad of orchestrating the riots in Nukus and exploiting the misunderstandings related to the change in Karakalpakstan’s status. Speculations are galore about the “outside forces,” which, according to government authorities, wanted to undermine Uzbekistan’s stability and territorial integrity (Gazeta.uz, July 2).
As of July 13, the situation in Karakalpakstan had stabilized and life is reportedly returning to “business as usual,” as reflected in President Mirziyoyev’s decision to relax the restrictions imposed on the region through the state of emergency laws announced on July 2 (Gazeta.uz, July 13).
Uzbekistani authorities take pride in the success of their pragmatic foreign policy under President Mirziyoyev, who indeed has managed to establish cordial and respectful relations with most major global and regional powers. As a result, Uzbekistan has managed, so far, to steer clear of heightened global geopolitical tensions by maintaining a delicate balance that does not stop it from pursuing greater cooperation with all powers, especially with both Russia and the Western countries supporting Ukraine in the face of the Kremlin’s brutal re-invasion. To their credit, Western nations—though cautioning Tashkent to remain truly neutral and respect the crippling anti-Russian sanctions particularly those intended to undermine and weaken Russia’s military-industrial complex—understand well that Uzbekistan cannot be punished for maintaining normalized relations with Russia (Amerikaovozi.com, April 12). As one Western diplomat based in Uzbekistan sagaciously told this author, “Uzbekistan has nothing to do with Russia’s aggressive behavior.”
President Mirziyoyev is also widely credited for creating a completely new peaceful and amicable atmosphere among Central Asian countries. The revival of the regional leaders’ annual consultative summits is the direct result of this newly discovered spirit of regional comradery and solidarity. Unresolved issues do remain among the regional countries that still carry the potential for violence, especially those related to difficult border demarcation issue. Even so, in light of global geopolitical instability and increasing challenges surrounding the region, Central Asian leaders share the growing realization that greater cooperation and consultations among their nations is critical. And so, the fourth summit of the regional leaders is scheduled to take place on July 21 in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan. During the summit, it is expected that the attending parties will sign an Agreement on Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the XXI Century (Newscentralasia.net, July 4).
Uzbekistan’s unique success in conducting measured foreign policy in these challenging times is primarily the result of sound political judgement and prudence from the country’s leadership. Foreign policy triumphs also rest on existing carefully devised laws, which among others, prohibit Uzbekistan from joining any military-political blocks or hosting any foreign military bases in its territory; importantly, these statues also reject any ideologization of foreign policy. Therefore, it is imperative that government authorities are extremely cautious when “improving” these foreign policy and national security laws, lest changes send wrong and unintended signals to international partners—similar to the recent self-inflicted damage caused by the government’s unsuccessful attempt to deprive Karakalpakstan of its sovereign status. As Uzbekistan’s own recent history shows, even simple reiteration of its well-known foreign policy stances regarding some international conflicts could cause unwarranted anger and irritation in some close foreign partners (see EDM, May 3).
Furthermore, Uzbekistani authorities should understand that hurling claims without presenting any convincing proof that some abstract foreign force (i.e., another country) instigated the recent Karakalpak riots contradicts their own declarations of trouble-free and friendly relations with Tashkent’s foreign partners.