One loose end that Uzbek authorities were looking to tie off turned out to be a powder keg fuse that they ignited.
The protests and violence that erupted on July 1 in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan came in response to a set of planned changes to the constitution that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev says will bring a “third rebirth” to his “new Uzbekistan”.
For some people in Karakalpakstan, the proposed amendments to their region’s status stripped them of their last honor and represented a final humiliation after years of neglect and repression.
For most of the 20th century, Karakalpakstan was a separate administrative entity that was always attached to a larger administrative entity. In 1924 Karakalpakstan became an autonomous region of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1932 its status was changed to the Autonomous Republic of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, and in 1936 it was transferred to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan.
At the end of 1990, the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Karakalpak adopted a declaration on state sovereignty which provided for the possibility of seceding from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan (or even from the Union Soviet) if the citizens of the region adopted the measure by referendum. .
After the collapse of the USSR, on January 9, 1992, Karakalpakstan became the Republic of Karakalpakstan and in April 1993 adopted a constitution which recognized the region as part of Uzbekistan but preserved the region’s right to make secession by organizing a referendum.
Self-governing republic status and the right to secede would have been lost under the proposed amendments to the constitution, and that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Karakalpakstan is the poorest region of Uzbekistan. Constituting nearly 40% of the territory of Uzbekistan, it is mainly desert.
Its inhabitants suffer from a series of health problems linked to the drying up of the Aral Sea, part of which is located in Karakalpakstan, and the alkaline dust that blows from its dry seabed.
The Uzbek government has been accused of forcibly sterilizing some women for years, and young Karakalpak women are particularly targeted.
Karakalpak activist Bakhtiyar Nietullaev spoke about the forced sterilization of women in Karakalpakstan at the 2019 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, saying thousands of women in the region had been victims.
The Karakalpaks are ethnically and linguistically closer to the Kazakhs than to the Uzbeks. The population of Karakalpak in Karakalpakstan is between 400,000 and 500,000 out of the region’s total population of almost 2 million.
Mirziyoyev paid more attention to the region than his predecessor, Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, but jobs are still hard to come by and social conditions and infrastructure continue to lag behind to the rest of Uzbekistan.
At the same time, the natural gas industry in Karakalpakstan is developing, and there have been estimates that there are about 1.7 trillion cubic meters of gas in Karakalpakstan, which, if true, is higher than the International Energy Agency’s figure of 1.3 trillion cubic meters for the Azerbaijan’s proven gas reserves.
Mirziyoyev flew to Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, on July 2 and announced that all proposed changes to Karakalpakstan’s status would be removed from the proposed amendments to the constitution.
Mirziyoyev also accused Karakalpakstan lawmakers of passing the proposed changes to the state commission working on amendments to the constitution.
Shifting the blame further to local officials, Mirziyoyev asked why he hadn’t been told earlier that the move would be unpopular with locals, despite the Uzbek security service appearing to have known there might be unrest as Internet connections in Karakalpakstan were cut in June. 27.
It seems that the Uzbek authorities were not comfortable with the idea that Karakalpakstan could legally declare its independence from Uzbekistan, although this was unlikely.
There were Karakalpak movements for independence during the years that Uzbekistan was independent, but none ever gained enough momentum to pose a serious threat of secession.
The Karakalpaks make up only about 25% of Karakalpakstan’s population.
The Karakalpaks of Karakalpakstan should be aware that the Uzbek authorities will not want to lose nearly 40% of the country’s territory or the natural gas reserves therein.
This did not stop Uzbek security forces from trying to suppress independence movements and many leaders of these Karakalpak liberation groups fled Uzbekistan years ago.
The plan to remove the privileges enjoyed by Karakalpakstan, though on paper, is probably only shelved for now, not entirely abandoned.
The Uzbek authorities have now shown that they would prefer Karakalpakstan to have no special status or rights, in particular the right to secede.
The security operation to restore order that left at least 18 dead and 243 injured in Karakalpakstan is a black mark for Mirziyoyev’s government ahead of another move that challenges the president’s claim to be a reformer.
One of the most controversial proposed changes to the constitution will allow Mirziyoyev to remain president after his current second term expires in 2026, by extending the presidential term from five to seven years.
Mirziyoyev has claimed since coming to power in late 2016 that his government is different from that of his predecessor Karimov, who earned the Uzbek government a reputation as a serial rights abuser.
But Karimov extended the presidential term from five to seven years in a referendum in January 2002, then remained in power until his death in 2016.
The violence in Karakalpakstan appears to be less severe than the violence in Andijon in May 2005 when Uzbek security forces and the military moved in to crush protests and 189 people, officially, were killed, although dozens of witnesses claim that the figure was several times higher.
But what happened in Karakalpakstan reminds some people of the Andijon massacre and raises more doubts about the reality of Mirziyoyev’s New Uzbekistan.