At the end of June, Uzbekistan’s central government published the draft of a new constitution that would strip the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan of the right to secede, which heretofore had been guaranteed in the existing basic law. As a result, on July 1, thousands of ethnic Karakalpaks (a Turkic group similar linguistically and culturally to Kazakhs) took to the streets in protest, prompting Tashkent first to send in more soldiers to the region, which has some two million people and occupies a third of Uzbekistan’s territory, and then to declare martial law in the autonomy for the next month. These actions were a clear sign that Karakalpak nationalism is growing in strength and that Tashkent is worried. How successful the authorities’ responses will be remains unclear. Indeed, such use of force may prove counterproductive. Moreover, because new oil fields have been discovered in Karakalpakstan and the region was once part of Kazakhstan, this new display of popular anger has the potential to become an international problem, with either Russia or Kazakhstan moving in to exploit it. Notably, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has already conceded as much, warning yesterday (July 4) of the danger of outside intervention in Karakalpakstan (Podrobno.uz, July 4).
The current crisis began on June 26, when Uzbekistani papers first published and then removed an article discussing the fact that the latest draft of the new national constitution drops the provision allowing Karakalpakstan to hold a referendum on secession (Meningkonstitutsiyam.uz, accessed July 5). Although the report was quickly scrubbed, Uzbek and Karakalpak sources found it in the web cache and republished it (Hook.report, Gazeta.uz, June 26, accessed July 5). That series of events sent dozens of Karakalpaks into the streets of cities and towns across the republic and encouraged calls for mass meetings in Nukus, the capital. At the end of June, Tashkent sought to forestall such demonstrations by beefing up its security presence there (Turkmen.news, June 30). Adding fuel to this fire was a statement on June 30 by Mirziyoyev that the Uzbeks and Karakalpaks were one people and that he considered himself the son of both, a position highly offensive to Karakalpaks (Uznews.uz, July 1).
On July 1, thousands if not tens of thousands of Karakalpaks assembled in Nukus to protest, alarming the Uzbekistani authorities, leading Tashkent-based media outlets to say that the demonstrators were armed and had tried to seize government buildings, and prompting soldiers deployed there for crowd control to beat and arrest numerous demonstrators (NSN, EurasiaNet, July 1). Despite this crackdown, at least some protests continued on July 2. The following day, Uzbekistani officials introduced what can only be described as martial law on the territory of Karakalpakstan, banning meetings, confiscating weapons in private hands, and restricting entrance and exit from the autonomous republic (Podrobno.uz, July 3).
The number of Karakalpak protesters in the streets has since declined. Indeed, the interior ministry of the autonomous republic claims it has restored order completely (Joqargikenes.uz, Fergana, July 2). But Karakalpak anger clearly has not evaporated. National activists speaking from neighboring Kazakhstan insist the protests will continue—they are calling for more in the coming days despite the declaration of martial law because if Tashkent amends the constitution so that their autonomy loses the right to secede, that will represent “the funeral of the Republic of Karakalpakstan” (Facebook.com/kibhr, June 28). More demonstrations are thus likely, albeit probably none as massive in the immediate future as the ones that occurred last week. In any case, Tashkent is worried; and yesterday, President Mirziyoyev said his government would do whatever was necessary to block outside agitators from coming into Karakalpakstan, using populist slogans and undermining the stability of Uzbekistan (Podrobno.uz, July 4).
For some, this explosion may seem to have come out of nowhere. But in fact, it has deep roots. Perhaps more than any other region in the former Soviet space, including Crimea, Karakalpakstan was passed back and forth among different union republics throughout Soviet times, feeding its sense of local distinctiveness and grievance. In 1925, it was created as an autonomy within Kazakhstan. Then, from 1930 to 1936, it was run directly from Moscow; and in the latter year, it was transferred to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) as an autonomous republic, reflecting the fact that its titular nationality is quite distinct linguistically and culturally from the Uzbeks. But in subsequent decades, when Karakalpakstan managed to attract attention at all, it tended to be as the chief victim of the drying up of the Aral Sea, which has created a healthcare disaster for its population.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Karakalpaks unsuccessfully sought independence from Uzbekistan but did manage to secure an agreement from Tashkent that they would have the right to vote on secession at some point in the future, a right that was enshrined in the Uzbekistani constitution. It was clear from the beginning that Tashkent had no intention of respecting that constitutional clause, and so Karakalpaks have organized and demonstrated over the past three decades to defend their rights, frequently appealing to Russia, Kazakhstan or international bodies for help. Those appeals long went without much response, at least in public, until new oil fields were discovered on Karakalpak territory and both Russia and Kazakhstan became more interested. Indeed, in the last ten years or so, there have been signs of Moscow actively encouraging the Karakalpaks to resist Tashkent, both so Russia can retain leverage over Uzbekistan and to gain access to the oil in Karakalpakstan (see EDM, August 12, 2014 and June 9, 2020).
But it would be a profound mistake to see Karakalpak activism as the product of actions by outsiders. Karakalpaks have their own reasons for protest. Last year, they took to the streets in the hundreds to object to Tashkent’s decision to accelerate the Latinization of all languages in Uzbekistan. Such an action, Karakalpaks were and are convinced, threatens their nation because the Cyrillic-based alphabet they now use keeps their language more distinct from Uzbek than the proposed Latin script would (Asiaterra.info, July 20, 2021; Memohrc.org, July 16, 2021; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, March 10, 2021).
Tashkent’s recent decision to deprive the Karakalpaks of the right of secession obviously is even more of a threat to their survival as a nation with its own political institutions. As a result, Karakalpak nationalism, long viewed by many as a curiosity, is likely to grow and assume a more important role in the politics of Uzbekistan and the geopolitics of Central Asia and Eurasia than anyone might have imagined.