“There is a Pakistan in Uzbekistan” my Central Asian friends would joke. Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in Uzbekistan became a part of it in 1936, when Soviet Russia ceded it. A once fertile land it is now arid, with resultant lower standards of living.
Karakalpakstan has been an autonomous region, with its relations with the Uzbek state regulated by agreements and treaties. Technically, it has the right to secede but which has to be ratified by a referendum. Yet this year has unleashed forces in the region raising the specter of secessionism and bringing issues of territorial sovereignty upfront.
The year began with unprecedented nationwide protests in Kazakhstan. Neighbouring Uzbekistan was naturally alarmed, especially with news of infiltration by radical external forces. But it was indignant when Russia-led CSTO forces were deployed there. Uzbek strategists, in fact, rooted for a regional security architecture, unwilling to allow Russia to expand its footprint in the region. Uzbekistan, with the largest military in the region, had withdrawn from the CSTO in 2012.
Next came the Russian special operations in Ukraine which are still on -going. Uzbekistan was one of the Central Asian states which refused to recognise the sovereignty of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Like neighbouring Kazakhstan, it was haunted by the spectre of similar secessionism on its own territory. The country has fought a long-drawn secessionist insurgency with Islamist radicals in its densely populated and conservative Ferghana Valley. It has had border issues with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan which were finally settled after lengthy negotiations. The regions of Samarkand and Bukhara have been contested by another neighbour Tajikistan, while the threat perception from neighbouring Afghanistan is always high. Recently, a barrage of missiles was fired into Uzbek territory from across the border in Afghanistan. Interestingly, while there were reports of similar firing earlier this year, the Uzbek authorities had denied it.
That is why it was not surprising when then Foreign Minister Abdullah Kamilov said: “Firstly, the military actions and violence must be stopped right away. The Republic of Uzbekistan recognizes Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We do not recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk republics…. Taking into account its national interests, Uzbekistan will continue mutual cooperation with both countries.” Uzbekistan has not recognised the accession of the Crimea to Russia either. There were even solidarity meetings held in Ukraine.
It is this fear that in part drove provisions for amending the status of Karakalpakstan in the new constitutional reforms that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is steering in. On June 20 he put forward an initiative to hold a nationwide consultation and referendum. The following day during discussions with representatives of Karakalpakstan, proposals to amend constitutional provisions concerning the region were put forward. One such provision is scrapping Karakalpakstan’s right to holding a referendum for secession, and bringing in more centralised rule from Tashkent. On June 24 Uzbek parliament the Oliy Majlis decided to submit the draft constitutional law to the national debate, which took place the next day.
As news filtered in that unrest broke out in Karakalpakstan against the proposed changes, protesters on July 1 tried to take over government buildings in the capital Nukus. Mass disturbances broke out, with damage to public property.
Uzbek authorities acted firmly and swiftly. And with reason. Just recently the Gorno Badakshan Autonomous (GBAO) region in neighbouring Tajikistan had seen similar protracted violence of a similar nature – regional leaders instigated local protests, even violently, based on some real and other perceived grievances against central authorities in Dushanbe. Like in Kazakhstan, so in Tajikistan there were reports of radicals, including from across the border from Afghanistan, infiltrating the GBAO protests. As now with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan had also faced a barrage of missiles shot into its territory from Afghanistan during the recent unrest in GBAO.
The violent protesters turned on Uzbek security forces too. Uzbek authorities say they have evidence that there has been a massive flow of messages from outside the country to instigate the “illegal activities” in Karakalpakstan, pointing to foreign interference. Alcohol, drugs, and money was made available to the rioters. Though the Uzbek president announced on July 2 that Karakalpakstan’s constitutional status would remain unchanged, the violence continued. There were attempts to storm the buildings of the Nukus police department and the National Guard Department in order to seize weapons from there. A state of emergency was declared in Karakalpakstan, and Mirziyoyev visited Nukus to assure the people. Life is slowly limping back to normal.
According to the government, 18 people died and 243 others were wounded as a result of clashes between security forces and protesters. More than 500 were detained. India has offered condolences to families of the deceased and extended sympathies to the injured. The Ministry of External Affairs’ spokesperson Mr. Arindam Bagchi said “We have seen the steps taken by the Government of Uzbekistan to restore law and order and prevent any further escalation. As a close and friendly partner of Uzbekistan, we hope for an early stabilization of the situation.”
Karakalpakstan, situated in the northwest of the country is an impoverished region of almost 2 million, who are roughly divided into three equal ethnic groups: Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks. It would be next to impossible for the region to survive on its own. Secession is, therefore, ruled out. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is a vibrant thriving country, which having embarked on a slew of reforms across sectors, is enthusiastically marching ahead into the future. Karakalpakstan’s very violent response to the proposed reforms, when a mechanism was already in place for feedback and to address concerns arising from the proposals, remains something of a mystery. But it falls into a pattern sweeping across the region — witnessed just this year in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and now Uzbekistan.
(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)