Massive protests that began earlier this month in the Republic of Karakalpakstan in northwest Uzbekistan have now quieted down. In early July 2022, protestors took to the streets railing against Tashkent’s plan to remove provisions from the Constitution of Uzbekistan that allow Karakalpaks to declare independence unilaterally through a popular referendum. This comes following a massive crackdown on the tens of thousands of Karakalpak protestors and the imposition of martial law in Karakalpakstan, which is slated to continue until at least August 2022 (see EDM, July 5). Protest began to die down after Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s decision to reverse course and retain the provision that the Karakalpaks insisted be kept in the constitution (Rfi.fr, July 4). But the crisis is far from over for Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, the Russian Federation and Central Asia writ large. Instead, what happened in Nukus is likely to echo even more loudly for each area in the months ahead.
Despite the crackdown on July 1–2, which resulted in some 20 deaths, 250 injuries and 500 arrests, as well as Mirziyoyev’s subsequent concession, the Karakalpaks are not backing down from their broader demands. Instead, and immediately after the Uzbekistani president retreated, protest leaders sent Mirziyoyev an open letter demanding the initiation of talks on all outstanding issues, including an investigation of the violent crackdown, the release of political prisoners, permission to form Karakalpak political parties and free elections that would allow these parties to be represented in the republic’s parliament and in Tashkent. The letter’s demands also included increasing the use of the Karakalpak language in the republic’s school system, ending plans to shift written language from Cyrillic to Latin script and a concerted effort to address all the economic and social problems of Karakalpaks’ depressed but potentially rich republic. Although the authors of this appeal say they are encouraged by support from international human rights groups and Western governments, they recognize that Tashkent is unlikely to agree to all of these demands largely because the requests shine a light not just on Karakalpakstan but also on the increasingly repressive nature of the Mirziyoyev regime as a whole (Idel.Realities, July 11).
Unless talks are truly held and real progress is made on all issues, protest leaders and other Karakalpak activists warn that the situation in their republic is likely to deteriorate, as many people remain incensed following Tashkent’s crackdown. As a result, more protests, perhaps even larger than those from three weeks ago, are expected, especially given that the situation in Karakalpakstan is likely to become more desperate with a famine now projected to begin there later this year (Holod Magazine, July 6; Rfi.fr, July 4). Thus, any hopes that the Uzbekistani government successfully ended the crisis through aggressive repression alone have been soundly dashed. That, in turn, means that Mirziyoyev and his government could resort to more repressive acts, which would trigger more violence, or they could make concessions, which would encourage not only Karakalpaks but also Uzbeks to more directly voice their demands in the streets. Indeed, some analysts suggest that the consequences for Uzbekistan, or even Central Asia more generally, may be greater than for Karakalpakstan, regardless of what Tashkent does next (Idel.Realities, July 11).
But the Karakalpak crisis is not limited to Karakalpakstan or even Uzbekistan. When protests began in Nukus and other Karakalpak cities, ethnic Karakalpaks living in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, also took to the streets for the same reason and with similar demands (Rfi.fr, July 4). Approximately 150,000 Karakalpaks reside in Atyrau, and many more live in cities throughout Kazakhstan. The exact number of Karakalpaks in Kazakhstan is unknown because the authorities count them as Uzbeks, another irritant for Karakalpaks there and elsewhere (QMonitor, July 5). Fears are growing that, having been mobilized by the July 1–2 protests in Karakalpakstan, Karakalpaks outside Karakalpakstan may also begin organizing protest. Nur-Sultan is clearly worried about this reality and is trying to calm the situation, stressing that Kazakhstan wants stability and good relations with its neighbors, including the Karakalpaks (Stanradar.com, July 6). But the Kazakhstani government is far from the only one with such worries.
The Russian government is also anxious. Russia’s Karakalpak organizations have appealed to their memberships not to allow the conflicts in Karakalpakstan to spread to the Russian Federation, where the number of Karakalpaks is in the tens of thousands, even though Moscow, like Kazakhstan, counts them mostly as Uzbeks (Nazaccent.ru, July 5). Another reason for Moscow’s uneasiness is that activists in its non-Russian republics are following the events in Karakalpakstan closely, focusing not only on the fact that the Karakalpaks have rights the non-Russian regions do not enjoy—any move toward independence is banned in Russia—but also on the reality that, in the face of mass protests, Tashkent backed down. Some non-Russians are suggesting that they should attempt a similar approach with respect to the Kremlin (Region.expert, July 3; Reforum.io, July 6).
But the Russian government has a larger and more immediate concern, one that arises from its unwillingness to believe that any protest reflects popular views and its conviction that protests in any post-Soviet state are not only orchestrated by outsiders but are also directly aimed at Moscow. Kremlin commentators are already suggesting that Tashkent’s proposed changes in the constitution were used as a justification for the protests but not the real cause. Instead, analysts say, Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom all provoked the Karakalpaks to go into the streets to weaken Russian influence in Central Asia and hurt the Kremlin’s possibility of gaining access to oil and gas in Karakalpakstan. As a result, these pundits also suggest that the current calm in Karakalpakstan will prove illusory and short-lived because the West will not give up on its plans in the region (Sputnik.kg, July 7; Versia.ru, July 12).
In making such predictions, Moscow, as it often does, is projecting on Western nations without offering any details on the West’s allegedly well-devised and subversive strategy in Central Asia (see EDM, August 12, 2014 and June 9, 2020). But given that what Russian leaders think rather than the facts seem to guide Kremlin policies, these suggestions are yet another reason to conclude that the Karakalpakstan crisis is far from over. Instead, it may indeed intensify, quite possibly as a result of future Russian interference.