The Bloody Beginnings of the “New Uzbekistan”: what is happening in Karakalpakstan?6 min read
On 27 June, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev released 170 proposed constitutional amendments to be voted on in a nationwide referendum. Many of the proposed reforms were rather positive and unconventional. However, sandwiched between them were more contentious proposals including amendments 70-75, which would strip the Karakalpakstan region of its right to seek independence. This controversy bubbled over into mass protests in the region’s capital Nukus on 1 July leaving 18 dead and hundreds wounded.
While those in the region are unable to share their stories due to the government’s shutdown of the Internet, Mirizoyev has gone on a publicity tour justifying the government’s response and affirming his mission to build a “New Uzbekistan” through these constitutional reforms, creating a better country for the new generation. However, the violent beginning to his new campaign has left many concerned over what is to come.
The series of articles that sparked the civil rest in July started with the statement: “The Republic of Karakalpakstan is part of the Republic Uzbekistan”. While the original version of this article describes the republic as sovereign, a keyword was left out in the amendment. The most shocking of the changes was to Article 74, which originally stated that the region would be able to vote to leave the country. The newly proposed version completely removes this right and instead states that the republic would exercise “legislative, executive and judicial power in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Constitution, and laws of the Republic of Karakalpakstan”.
A state within a state
The inclusion of the article in the Constitution of Karakalpakstan is partly due to the relatively short relationship between the two entities. The region was originally an autonomous area in Soviet Kyrgyzstan and Soviet Kazakhstan before it became a part of Uzbek territory in 1936 when the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was integrated into the Uzbek SSR. Though, the region did retain its status as an autonomous region after the redrawing of borders. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, amid a flurry of different independence movements, the region agreed to remain part of the country for 20 years but would retain the right to secede through a referendum. The region also maintained its right to its own flag, anthem, and Constitution.
Since then officials have shown no sign of ever planning to hold such a referendum, in fact, for much of the country’s history Tashkent has paid little attention to the territory. This has left many puzzled as to why the government is pushing this proposal now. It is important to note that the region accounts for almost 40 percent of the country’s landmass, so the desire to avoid a potential loss of this magnitude is understandable. The large reserves of natural gas could also provide great motivation. Amid widespread civil unrest in neighboring countries, Miriziyoev might have also wanted to tighten his grasp on the region. Experts have also suggested that officials did not expect any pushback on this issue since there has not been any signs of a separatist movement in the region and believe that functionally the region is only independent on paper. This leads to the next question of why the protests started in the first place.
In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has significantly deteriorated environmentally, affecting the health of its residents. 80 precent of Karakalpakstan is desert; it also borders the Aral Sea which today only holds 10 percent of its original water. The shrinking of the sea began during the Soviet period when water was redirected to nearby cotton fields. Given the inhospitable climate, the amount of water required to maintain cotton production was astronomical. The departing water also left a new desert, Aralkum, which generates thousands of tons of toxic dust, contributing to higher rates of cancer, birth and genetic defects, and other ailments in the region.
The Aral Sea disaster has had devastating effects on the region’s fishing industry, which supported much of the local economy. In recent years, there has been improvement due to interest in Karakalpakstan’s vast natural resources. Among them is a reported 1.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 1.7 million tons of liquid hydrocarbon resources. However, COVID-19 and the impact of the war in Ukraine have had a noticeable impact. Food and oil prices have begun to sky-rocket, while remittances from migrant workers, which account for almost 11 percent of the country’s GDP continue to shrink.
In the last few decades, two separatist groups have been established, Free Karakalpakstan National Revival Party and Alga Karakalpakstan, which have advocated for an independent Karakalpakstan. However, neither of these groups were able to gain much traction. Despite this, there has been general unrest building in the region for years. The amendments to the Constitution seem to have pushed residents to their breaking point.
A deadly misunderstanding
As during the protests in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the Uzbek government shut down the Internet during and following the demonstrations. This has left a rather one-sided narrative of the actual events. However, some residents of Karakalpakstan were able to share videos of the violence on Telegram. The images are harrowing; men covered in blood being dragged down the street, the police beating unarmed protestors with batons. There are reports of stun grenades, rubber bullets, and a water cannon being used against civilians. Yet, the state-run media has instead focused on protestors burning cars.
The protests ended with 18 casualties (officially), hundreds wounded, and hundreds more in detention. The government claims this to be a big misunderstanding. In an official statement by regional and state officials, they assert that “On July 1, from approximately 3:00 p.m, some citizens in Nukus organized street marches, misinterpreting the ongoing constitutional reforms” and that “a group of criminals disguised populist slogans and manipulated the minds and trust of the people”. Officials have argued that these changes were still up for public debate and would be decided on through a referendum, however in a country with a penchant for opaque elections, a referendum seems like more of a formality.
Miriziyoyev’s search for credibility
On 2 July, Mirziyoyev made a trip to the region and announced that the proposal to change these articles would be scrapped. While he was there, Miriziyoyev met with local residents and community councils for photo-ops and to reiterate his desire to build a “New Uzbekistan”. On the same day, the region was placed in a state-of-emergency until 2 August, during which a curfew would be in place and travel outside the region was extremely limited.
In what appeared to be an effort to provide more legitimacy to the actions taken to quell the protests, Miriziyoyev made calls to the Presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and the European Council. Both President Sadir Japarov and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev expressed their support for the government’s response, though the call with Charles Michel was unsurprisingly less fruitful. On 4 July, the European Union issued a statement calling for an investigation into the events that took place in Karakalpakstan.
While an investigation has yet to take place, it is clear that the government would like to quickly put this incident behind them. This is unlikely to happen, however, as the fallout from these protests will drag on for years given the number of those in prison awaiting trial. The decision to place such harsh restrictions on the territory could also result in increased resentment towards the Mirziyoyev regime. As the government continues its push to pass the remaining proposed Constitutional amendments, fears are probable to mount over what the new Uzbekistan will look like.