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Karakalpakstan – a Popular Uprising or Elites at War?

First Published in Eurasia Observation 20/07/2022


The Crisis in Karakalpakstan


A region of personality politics where four of the five nations are effectively dictatorships and the other lurches from clan-based revolution to revolution, from the intra-elite conflict in Kazakhstan to the ongoing troubles in the GBAO of Tajikistan, 2022 has been a turbulent year for Central Asia. Now, in the latest episode, in response to a constitutional change removing its autonomous status, on July 1st violence erupted in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. For two days pitched battles raged outside parliament, with protesters claiming the security forces - many of whom were shipped in from other regions - used water cannons, stun grenades and fired tear gas into the crowd. Videos circulated on Telegram channels even contained footage of the shells from live rounds, whilst a local activist Tweeted a video of the ‘body of a young Karakalpak torn in half,’ commenting that ‘the punishers used a live grenade or something very powerful against peaceful demonstrators.’

By the time order was restored on July 3rd, a state of emergency declared and the internet shut down, at least 18 lay dead, 243 were injured - locals claim many more - and 516 had been arrested, including prominent local journalists Lolagul Kallykhanova and Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov. ‘Even today’ (the 9th) a local told Eurasia Observation on condition of anonymity, ‘the situation is tense. The security forces are on the streets and asking passers-by to show their phones, and if there are videos or photos, they demand they delete everything.’ So what was behind the protests, and does President Mirziyoyev’s vision for a ‘New Uzbekistan’ in which ‘society’ will become the ‘initiator of reform,’ putting human dignity ‘at the forefront of transformations in all areas’ lay in tatters?


A Forgotten Wasteland?


Following the collapse of the USSR, Karakalpakstan was incorporated into Uzbekistan, but the Nukus elite were promised wide-ranging powers and the ability to organise an independence referendum to succeed from the union. This “autonomy” may have never amounted to much in practice, but it remained symbolically important in an ethnically diverse region where Uzbeks account for only 32% of the population, and the majority are Karakalpaks and Kazakhs.

Popular logic dictates that the underlying reason behind the recent turmoil was President Mirziyoyev’s decision to amend the Uzbek constitution, stripping away Karakalpakstan’s autonomous status whilst extending the presidential term from 5 to 7 years and likely allowing himself to seek a third term in office, but there are long-standing grievances. Although it constitutes approximately 40% of Uzbekistan, with a poverty rate of 32% underpopulated Karakalpakstan has long felt forgotten by Tashkent.

Most of the problems in Karakalpakstan stem from the disappearance of the Aral Sea, the demise of which dates back to the US Civil War, when, finding his supply of American cotton under threat, the Russian tsar decided to use the sea’s tributaries to irrigate Central Asia and create his own cotton bowl. With 1.8 million litres of water required for every bale of cotton, the water began to run out. 

Up until the 1970s, much of Karakalpakstan was still cotton fields, but today it’s an expanse of salinized grey emptiness, and one of the sickest places on Earth. Respiratory illness, typhoid, tuberculosis and cancers are rife, and the region has the highest infant mortality rate in the former Soviet Union. The desiccation of the landscape has led to vast toxic dust-storms which ravage around 1.5 million square kilometres. Spreading nitrates and carcinogens, these storms - visible from space - used to occur once every five years, but now hit ten times a year.

At its peak, the Aral Sea coastal town of Moynaq was home to 60,000 people, mostly fishermen and their extended families, the sea producing up to 30% of the Soviet catch and saving Russia from widespread famine in the 1920s. Accessible only by air and ferry well into the 70s, the town also served as a popular beach resort for bureaucrats, its airport hosting 50 flights a day at its peak. By the 80s, though, tourism had dried up. Digging channels through the sand in pursuit of the sea, Moynaq’s fishermen discarded their ships where they became grounded. The sea’s major source, the Amu Darya River no longer reaching its historic terminus, a local saying goes: ‘When God loved us, he gave us the Amu Darya, when he ceased to love us, he sent us Russian engineers.’ By 2007, the Aral had shrunk to one-tenth its original size. Unable to overcome endemic corruption, a spate of NGOs which pledged to save the Large Aral have long since left, and today Moynaq’s population number less than 2,000, with the remnants of the sea almost 200 kilometres away.

With the Aral gone, Karakalpakstan is subject to searing summers and freezing winters, 500 species of bird, 200 mammals, a hundred types of fish and countless insects unique to the region all now extinct.

The popular Western narrative as to why neglected Karakalpakstan has many reasons to feel resentful, and that the diktat removing the regions’ autonomous status proved to be the final straw seems easy to comprehend. However, there is another unreported perspective.


Discord and the Ties that Bind

To find out more, Eurasia Observation talked to an Uzbek with close ties to both the new and old elites, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ‘I previously employed a lot of Karakalpak people who worked in my office in Tashkent for many years,’ they told Eurasia Observation, ‘and even if you can say they weren’t happy with the way the Uzbek Government treated Karakalpakstan, there was no thirst for succession. There has always been a fringe independence movement, but it’s never been the prevailing mood, so what occurred probably came as quite a shock to the government.

‘If we rewind to the Karimov era, there were no new buildings, no new airport, hospitals or schools; it was a forgotten place. There was no clean water, and there was only one hotel, and it was very bad. The government just took mineral resources from the region, such as natural gas. But Mirziyoyev has done the complete opposite over the last five years. He invested a lot of money in Karakalpakstan, as noted by the World Bank. Nukus is now a proper city with several three-star hotels, a new airport, schools, and hospitals.

‘I think what has happened has been 90% artificially created for certain purposes; that what we’re witnessing is a political game within the elite. That’s’ why on July 9th, Mirziyoyev fired the head of his presidential administration, Zainilobiddin Nizomiddinov. There’s still a lot of opposition to Mirziyoyev from the previous regime. It’s no secret they don't like him - he still has hundreds of people in jail, the richest people in Uzbekistan under Karimov: the former head of the State Security Service, two prosecutor generals, 45 generals, and a lot of former ministers. We're talking about at least 200 of the elite under Karimov, and they have a lot of influence, relatives, and money. People are still planning their revenge.

‘In a way, it’s similar to what happened in Kazakhstan in January, but in this case all the news about events in Karakalpakstan was released in Kazakhstan - 99.9% of the videos we’ve seen of these events were released in Kazakhstan. If you look at blogs there, Telegram, etc. the chatter is about how Karakalpaks are brother Kazakhs who need to be protected and brought back home, because officially Karakalpaks are one of the Kazakh tribes and are eligible to resettle in Kazakhstan. There are actually a similar number of Karakalpaks living in Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, around 300,000. Yet despite all this nationalist fervour, no one was arrested. It's strange, because the government has vast resources to stop the distribution of this media, but they did nothing. Instead, they’re allowing Mirziyoyev to be shown in a negative light, saying, “You see what Mirziyoyev is doing? He's creating enemies.” Whilst the Kazakh government officially supports Uzbekistan, well… they sent a lot of military to the border with Karakalpakstan, officially to protect the border.

‘Mirziyoyev is still very fragile, because 90% of the people around him were born, raised and brainwashed during the Karimov era. There are a still people who are very loyal to the Karimov ideology. I'm not saying Karimov was loved by the majority, but you don't need a majority, you just need to 2-3 million. It’s like in Syria - a strong minority can stay in power. Also, it seems the protests were quite organised - they attacked the ministries and the parliament. Again, the idea wasn’t to strive for independence, it was to show that Mirziyoyev is weak and his neighbours are not with him. He's not stable.

‘From Russia’s point of view, in May Mirziyoyev was supposed to attend the Eurasian Union president’s meeting and join the Eurasian Economic Union [EEU], but he pulled out at the last minute; Putin was furious as he wanted to show the world the union was expanding. So, from Putin’s perspective, these events were a chance to say, “Revolutions can start anywhere.” When Mirziyoyev previously backed away from joining the EEU in January, President Lukashenko of Belarus warned Uzbekistan that it faced a “colour revolution,” and I don’t think he would have attacked and offended Mirziyoyev without asking permission from Putin first.’


What Lies Ahead?

The logic behind revoking Karakalpakstan’s autonomous status in the first place remains a matter of conjecture, with some surmising that, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the right to secession in Karakalpakstan was seen by Tashkent as a potential political liability. The crisis, however, the like of which has not been seen since the Andijan massacre of 2005, saw a backlash which forced the Uzbek president to fly into the regional capital of Nukus to manage matters himself and backtrack on changes removing Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty and right to succeed. Despite remaining one of the poorest regions in the country, $1 billion has been invested in Karakalpakstan since 2017, but some, such as Uzbek blogger Hamid Sodiq argue this has helped kindle the unrest, noting that: ‘Well-fed people want to be part of political processes.’

Whilst Mirziyoyev may have promised to investigate the actions of the security forces and punish anyone found to have acted illegally, the Helsinki Committee has been quick to characterise the authorities actions as a ‘brutal crackdown’ redolent of the dark days of former President Karimov, whose opponents were reportedly ‘boiled to death.’ In a move mirroring a Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement which blamed unrest there in January on ‘terrorist groups trained outside of the country,’ without offering any proof, on July 6th Mirziyoyev claimed the troubles had been fomented 'for years by foreign forces.’

Since coming to power, Mirziyoyev has sought to legitimise his rule through economic growth and improved living standards. Social and political rights have been expanded somewhat; forced cotton-picking has ended, the level of repression has eased, and the country has re-engaged internationally, seeing foreign investment in turn. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have hampered growth, however, whilst the collapse of the Sardoba Dam in May 2020 served to highlight the ubiquitous nature of corruption in Uzbekistan, where no opposition is permitted and journalists are regularly intimidated and detained.

Taking the decision to reverse tack on ending Karakalpakstan's autonomy may have averted the crisis for Mirziyoyev for now, but problems clearly remain. Despite Mirziyoyev’s reconciliatory tone, hawkish elements within the establishment appear to favour violent repression of any dissent and view the president’s U-turn as a sign of weakness. Certainly, the peaceful relationship between the different ethnicities of Karakalpakstan is under threat.

In the power vacuum caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, external actors have also sought to take advantage of the unrest. In the case of Kazakhstan, the nationalist rhetoric regarding events in Karakalpakstan has served as a welcome distraction to problems at home, whilst Russia has taken the opportunity to punish Mirziyoyev for failing to join the EEU. China, meanwhile - which tripled its investment in Uzbek companies between 2016 and 2019 - will always grasp at any opportunity to tighten its economic and political grip on the region, especially now with Russian influence waning. Indeed, it appears that those with a vested interest in a stable Uzbekistan are thin on the ground.

As to what the future holds, with Karakalpaks constituting an ethic minority within Karakalpakstan, succession is practically impossible, but as the fallout from the protests rumbles on following the sacking of Nizomiddinov, more heads are likely to roll as Mirziyoyev looks to consolidate his grip on power. Whether the protests constitute a bump on the road to a more inclusive and open society or a graver threat remains to be seen. Certainly, if the old elite intend to use the region as a staging post towards the goal of regime change, events in the coming weeks are critical if we are not to see another post-Soviet ethnic conflict which could destabilise both Uzbekistan and the region as a whole.

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