Borders remain in dispute throughout Central Asia, with Moscow paying such close attention that governments in the region now feel the need to warn the Russian authorities not to become involved (Ritmeurasia.org, June 5). Often Moscow offers its services as a peacemaker in an effort to recover its dominant regional position (see EDM, May 29); but it also, albeit typically in covert fashion, backs one or another side so as to threaten governments that do not cooperate with Russia or to gain access to resources, especially oil and natural gas, found in the disputed territories. That makes a new article on Yandex Zen, which asks “What Country of Central Asia Could Lose Half of Its Territory?” (Yandex Zen, May 22), a matter of particular concern. The piece notably covers both of the aforementioned issues and develops themes that the Russian authorities have used on and off over the past decade.
The country in question is Uzbekistan, and the territory it might lose, according to the above-cited narrative, is the nominally autonomous western region of Karakalpakstan. The residents of Karakalpakstan (ethnically/linguistically more closely related to Kazakhs) are quite different from ethnic Uzbeks. Moreover, high levels of local poverty, predominantly the result of the drying up of the Aral Sea, has powered the rise of a small national movement that has long sought full independence or, failing that, for the region to join Kazakhstan or the Russian Federation (see EDM, August 12, 2014; The Qazaq Times, September 14, 2017; Idelreal.org, September 30, 2019; Ratel.kz, September 15, 2017).
The new Moscow article reprises issues Russian outlets and officials have raised before. It points out that Central Asia is a place where sedentary and nomadic civilizations came together, with the latter in most cases either forced to subordinate to the former or to outside forces, like the Russian Empire. One place where that divide remains important is Uzbekistan, whose population includes the Karakalpaks, a historically nomadic people, and the Uzbeks, who have long been sedentary. That distinction played a major role in the fate of Karakalpakstan during the last century, the article says, implying that such national differences may drive local developments in this century as well (Yandex Zen, May 22).
Initially, after the Bolshevik Revolution and reconquest of Central Asia, Karakalpakstan “was part of Kazakhstan. Then it became one of the autonomies of the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] and only then became part of the Uzbek SSR [Soviet Socialist Republic],” the article continues. Given Soviet declarations about the right of nations to self-determination, many Karakalpaks have long believed they should be entirely separate of Tashkent. In the 1990s, some Karakalpak nationalists adopted a declaration of independence; but no one recognized them, although Tashkent did agree to “a new union treaty” that said the Karakalpaks could eventually achieve independence via a referendum. When that deadline arrived in 2013, Tashkent conveniently “forgot” about its promise, leaving the Karakalpaks with little hope (Yandex Zen, May 22).
“But,” the Moscow article stresses in its key passage, “no one did away with the theoretical possibility of the appearance of a new state, although this is extremely improbable.” It argues that it would be difficult for Karakalpakstan to exist as an independent state, even though it is quite large, covering some 37 percent of the territory of Uzbekistan (Yandex Zen, May 22). What the article does not say, however—but what many in Tashkent, Moscow and the Karakalpak capital of Nukus certainly know—is that in recent months the situation has changed dramatically.
Oil has been discovered in Karakalpakstan, just to the south of where the Aral Sea used to be; and in April, analysts suggested that the field may rival in size those of Kazakhstan, thus triggering new international interest in that region. Importantly, the finding may additionally reignite the independence movement there, possibly with the support of outside powers, including the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan. The new oil wealth, if the region could retain it, might allow the autonomous republic to address its currently dire economic situation: its nearly two million residents have the lowest incomes of any region in Uzbekistan, half of the houses do not have potable water, 90 percent do not have indoor toilets, and only 15 percent of the housing stock has hot water (Hook Report, April 17).
Before the Aral Sea died, the Karakalpaks lived by fishing. Now, many are unemployed, although some work for a local chemical plant. The dead sea and the plant combine to drive up cancer rates among the population, making life even more difficult for them. But now, oil has been discovered on the bed of the former sea, and the reserves are estimated to “compete with those of Kazakhstan and make Karakalpakstan and more broadly Uzbekistan, the second-biggest oil producing country in the region,” the Hook Report says. That makes the nominally autonomous republic more important to its residents as well as to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Tashkent has run Karakalpakstan with an iron hand, appointing all officials there and arresting or forcing into exile the leaders of the national movement.
Until now, the Karakalpaks have not had many allies. After the death of Islam Karimov, the new Uzbekistani leadership has been more cooperative with Moscow, reducing Russian interest in playing up the issue; Kazakhstan, which remains in the throes of a slow transition to a new generation of leadership, has also shown little taste for becoming involved. But oil and the wealth it promises change all that, and Moscow seems set to stir the pot. This puts additional pressure on Uzbekistan to allow Russia to develop the oil fields in Karakalpakstan by calling attention to and even potentially providing support for that group and its aspirations. As a result, Tashkent will have to take new measures to ensure that its control of the western third of its country is not weakened.
One can already see signs that the Uzbekistani authorities are positioning themselves to defend what they see as theirs against any challenge: in recent days, the government named a new prosecutor for the autonomy, someone who can be counted on to do Tashkent’s bidding in that regard (UPL 24, June 8).