The ‘New Uzbekistan’ budget battle: Democracy in action or a flawed system?

Photo of a boy holding out a sign that reads “vote and drink Pepsi.” Screenshot from O’zbekiston Yangiliklari YouTube channel.

While the outside world is focused on the upcoming constitutional referendum in Uzbekistan on April 30, people inside the country are occupied with a different election. They are choosing how to spend funds allocated to their district and municipal budgets within the Participatory Budget (PB) project. The voting is taking place on the Open Budget portal, where citizens can vote for 33,680 projects posted on it.

The PB program allows Uzbekistani citizens to campaign and vote for infrastructure projects that will benefit their local districts. The outcome of this battle will remind citizens of the importance of their votes and the impact that active participation in political processes can have on the future of the nation.

The Ministry of Finance launched the election process on February 6 and saw 55,970 projects uploaded to the portal by February 26, the deadline for sending initiatives. The second stage consisted of selecting projects eligible for voting. Between March 18 and April 7, people can vote for projects they want to be implemented in their makhallas (micro-districts).

The PB was introduced in 2021, allowing people to decide on what to allocate public funds in their neighbourhoods. Its supporters hail it as a step towards democracy capable of leading to bigger changes through cultivating participation in public life and political processes. Its critics highlight the shortcomings of the voting process, which includes buying votes and creating multiple fake accounts on the voting portal.

New president and new Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan is a Central Asian nation with a population of 34.8 million people. Between 1991 and 2016, it was ruled by the authoritarian president Islam Karimov. Twenty-five years of Karimov’s rule were characterised by human rights violation, political repression and economic isolation.

All of that changed when Karimov died in September 2016, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the current president, came to power. Uzbekistan embarked on major political, economic and social reforms. The ultimate goal of the reforms is to build a “New Uzbekistan,” described by the president as “an open and fair society that cares about every citizen.”

Mirziyoyev’s new course has been a blend of the old and new, neither completely dismantling the previous regime nor establishing an entirely new one. The reforms have gradually fostered the growth of civil society evidenced by the expansion of social networks, increased protests against abuses of power, and the emergence of independent journalism and bloggers.

However, they have been slow-moving, and the political system remains largely president-centric. Genuine debate and criticism of government policies remain restricted, limiting parliament’s role in governance. According to the Freedom House 2022 Report, Uzbekistan remains low on the Democracy Index, ranking 149th out of 167 countries.

Kickstarting public participation in budget allocation

The PB is part of the ongoing reforms, aiming to increase transparency in the allocation of funds. Previously, all budget related matters were managed by the omnipotent presidential apparatus and the president himself. This system allows people to submit their proposals and vote on those that reflect their needs through an online portal. Each citizen can cast one vote. Projects with the most votes are placed on a priority list to receive funds.

The history of participatory budgeting in Uzbekistan dates back to the 2018 presidential decree “On measures to ensure openness of budget data and active participation of citizens in the budget process.” It created a norm under which at least 10 percent of surplus revenues of districts’ budgets went to projects proposed by citizens.

The 2021 presidential decree “On additional measures to ensure the active participation of citizens in the budget process” guaranteed allocation of 5 percent of the approved expenditures and at least 30 percent of additional revenues of district and city budgets to citizens initiatives. That same year it was piloted in every region of Uzbekistan.

Starting from 2022, the government rolled out the practice of participatory budgeting to all districts. Proposals are submitted and voted on twice a year. In 2022, 1,418 projects received funds. Of these initiatives, 32 percent were related to internal road repair, 13 percent to school repair or equipping, 12 percent to repairing and installing streetlights, 8 percent to improving water supply and drainage systems, and 6 percent to renovating hospitals.

Here is a YouTube video containing news on the results of the Participatory Budget project in 2022.

For 2023, over UZS 2 trillion (USD 175 million), have been allocated. Each district and city will receive no less than UZS 6 billion (USD 527,000). The voting will close on April 7.

Good intentions meet poor implementation

Not everyone in Uzbekistan is a fan of the participatory budgeting system. Some argue that the government should have already undertaken infrastructure projects by default, as areas in urgent need of improvement may not receive the necessary votes. People’s questionable lobbying campaigns are exposing shortcomings in the voting process and the overall reform implementation.

Active citizens are employing various propaganda methods in neighbourhoods, public places, and social networks to collect votes for their proposals. Sums from UZS 10,000 to 15,000 (USD 1-1.5) are offered for one vote. The reported irregularities in the voting process include schools forcing teachers and hospitals forcing doctors to collect more votes for renovations, and public organisations pressuring employees to gather votes for the improvement of their facilities.

Here is the YouTube video containing examples of citizen campaigns to collect votes:

However, most criticism is directed at the implementation, rather than the concept of civic participation in budget distribution. People are requesting random passers-by on the streets to vote for their proposals. For example, someone is offering to top up people’s phone number balance in exchange for a vote on social networks, while others are distributing drinks and even 1 litre of cooking oil to those who voted.

Citizens have expressed concerns about the initiative’s flaws. Popular blogger Rasul Kusherbayev has shared the following on his Telegram channel:

Хуллас шунақа гаплар: давлат фуқаролари олдида ҳеч бир овоз ва сарсонгарчиликсиз қилиб бериши керак бўлган ишлар учун фуқаролар вилоятма-вилоят сарсон юришибди.

Масъулларимизнинг халқни сарсон қила оладиган истеъдоди сабаб ташаббусли бюджет-шармандали бюджетга айланмоқда.

People are wandering from place to place to collect more votes to support their area for the improvement that is supposed to be done by the government without any voice or wandering. The participatory budget is turning into a shameful budget due to the inefficiency of our officials.

Despite these issues, many see the initiative as a positive step toward improving political literacy in Uzbekistan. Prominent politician Kamoliddin Rabbimov said on his blog, “People are so amazed that they can get some small roads paved with asphalt by voting… What if they realise they could even change the governments by voting? Hard to imagine…”

Similarly, well-known Uzbek economist Botir Kobilov wrote:

Odamlarda ‘davlat byudjeti bu – hukumatniki emas, bizning pulimiz’ degan fikr paydo bo‘lmoqda… Endi ular qaror qabul qilishda ishtirok etishlari va o‘z hududidagi obodonlashtirish ishlarinini tezlashtirishlari mumkinligini tushunib yetishyapti… Eng muhimi, xalq saylovlarda o`z ovozining ahamiyatini tushunmoqda.

People are getting the idea that: this public budget is their money, not the government’s… They now understand they can participate in the decision-making and accelerate the improvement in their area… The most important thing is that the people are realising the importance of their votes in the election.

The Participatory Budget represents a unique experiment that has the potential to empower citizens and improve the overall quality of life in Uzbekistan. By refining the system, addressing concerns, and ensuring transparency, the government can demonstrate its commitment to fostering a more inclusive and democratic society.

In the meantime, citizens are learning valuable lessons about the power of their votes and the importance of staying informed and engaged in political processes. As Uzbekistan approaches a crucial constitutional referendum, it is essential that citizens understand the importance of their active participation, not only in addressing local neighbourhood concerns but also in determining the future of the nation.

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