An estimated 50,000 stateless people in Uzbekistan are set to acquire citizenship following the passing of a new law in the country. There are currently 97,346 documented stateless people in Uzbekistan, many are ethnic Uzbeks who fled Tajikistan’s civil war in the early 1990s. Statelessness in the country and across the wider region is largely a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the formation of new States, which left hundreds of thousands throughout Central Asia stateless.
In a statement, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that in granting nationality to those who previously had none, Uzbekistan is “profoundly bettering” the lives of a too-often invisible and vulnerable population.
“The Secretary-General commends this achievement as an important contribution to global efforts to end statelessness worldwide by 2024,” the statement continued.
A provision in the Citizenship Law, signed by the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev on 20 March 2020, will come into effect on 1 April, conferring citizenship to registered stateless people who were granted permanent residence in Uzbekistan before 1 January 1995.
The new law also includes other important provisions to prevent statelessness and introduces, for the first-time, simplified naturalization procedures. The simplified naturalization procedures will come into effect in September this year and will also benefit registered stateless people who acquired permanent residence permits after 1 January 1995.
UNHCR, which provided recommendations to Uzbekistan during the drafting process, said authorities estimate that around half of the country’s stateless population – some 49,228 people – will benefit from the new provision and be recognised as citizens. Their children will also be eligible for citizenship through the same process.
“Uzbekistan has made significant progress in resolving and preventing statelessness in recent years and this development is a huge leap forward in ending known cases of statelessness. Tens of thousands of people now have the opportunity to belong,” said Yasuko Oda, UNHCR Representative for Central Asia.
Almost three decades have passed since the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent proclamation of independence by fifteen states. Soviet nationality ceased to exist and most former Soviet Republics adopted their own nationality laws yet the collapse of the USSR is one of the events in recent history that has resulted in mass statelessness.
Because former Soviet states took different approaches to the gain or loss of citizenship, and because of multiple defects and contradictions in the laws of these states, certain individuals and entire groups of people who never exchanged their Soviet passports for the passports of a newly formed state for one reason or another became vulnerable and, ultimately, stateless.
Since Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power in September 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, he has taken some steps to improve the country’s abysmal human rights record, such as releasing some political prisoners, relaxing certain restrictions on free expression, removing citizens from the security services’ notorious “black list,” and increasing accountability of government institutions to the citizenry. These moves, coupled with Tashkent’s efforts to improve ties with its Central Asian neighbors have contributed to a sense of hope in Uzbekistan about the possibility for change.
Last year, The Economist declared Uzbekistan its “country of the year”, arguing that “no other country travelled as far” as the Central Asian nation in 2019 in terms of economic and other reforms.
But as The Economist also notes, the country “still has a long way to go” and it remains “far from (being) a democracy.” It remains to be seen if Uzbekistan’s still authoritarian government will follow up the modest steps it has taken with institutional change and sustainable human rights improvements.