ECMI Minorities Blog. Is Uzbekistan Not Ready to Let It Go? Unrest in Karakalpakstan
Since the beginning of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s presidency in 2016, Uzbekistan has mostly received praise for its reforms and innovations. Taking over from his predecessor, Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev seemed decisive in liberalising Uzbekistan. He lifted the visa-entry regime for many countries and also cancelled the requirement for Uzbek citizens leaving the country to have exit visas; he travelled around Central Asia to rejuvenate bilateral relations, and publicly committed to protecting human rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan.
The situation turned in June 2022, when proposed amendments to the Uzbek Constitution were published for public consultations. For example, it was proposed that presidential terms be prolonged from five years to seven. However, it appears that out of over 200 amendments, only a few seemed truly transformational, such as those meaning that the Uzbek Constitution would no longer guarantee the sovereignty and the right to secession of the Republic of Karakalpakstan. What exactly were these proposals that led the people of Karakalpakstan to mobilise swiftly and go out in the streets to demand that all constitutional changes concerning their homeland be revoked? To answer this question, we will need to look not only at the proposed amendments but also at the history of the Republic of Karakalpakstan.
The Karakalpak Republic – Background
The Karakalpak autonomous oblast was formed in 1924 and until 1930 it was part of the Kazakh ASSR. Since 1936, the oblast was included in the Uzbek SSR. In 1992, the Karakalpak Republic was established, and in 1993 an interstate treaty was signed for 20 years on its accession to Uzbekistan. The treaty provided that Karakalpakstan has the right to secede via public referendum, which was also reflected in the Constitution of Uzbekistan. In 2013-2014, after the 20-year term had passed, some activists drew attention to the expiry of the treaty. However, they faced persecution and oppression, and the status of Karakalpakstan did not change as it remained part of Uzbekistan.
The Karakalpak Republic occupies around 40% of the territory of Uzbekistan and is its biggest region. Karakalpaks are not the majority among the two million people living there. The latest available data (from 2007) shows the ethnic composition of Karakalpakstan as follows: Uzbeks – 32.8%, Kazakhs – 32.6%, and Karakalpaks 32.1%. Compared to the total population of Uzbekistan as of 2021, Karakalpaks make up 2.1% (or 752,700 people).
Karakalpak and Uzbek are the state languages of Karakalpakstan. The Republic has its own Constitution, flag, coat of arms, and anthem. The legislation of Karakalpakstan is modelled on the legal framework of Uzbekistan, and its Constitution cannot contradict the Uzbek Constitution. Karakalpakstan is governed by the Joqargi Kenes (Parliament) from the capital city of Nukus and has a permanent representative office in Tashkent. In line with the Karakalpak Constitution, citizens of Karakalpakstan are citizens of Uzbekistan.
Karakalpakstan is the poorest region of Uzbekistan. Most of Karakalpakstan’s territory is covered by deserts. Karakalpaks suffer from poor housing, lack of access to fresh water, and sandstorms which spread chemicals and salt from the dry seabed of the Aral Sea in the south of the republic. The drying-up of the Aral Sea, located in both the territory of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is one of the biggest ecological catastrophes in Central Asia. Once the fourth biggest lake in the world, the Aral Sea started to decrease in size when the rivers feeding it were diverted to irrigate cotton and rice fields. Increasing desertification caused by the drying-up of the Aral Sea limits the Karakalpak community’s prospects for agriculture and cattle breeding. The rate of oncological, lung diseases, and infant mortality is considerably higher compared to the rest of Uzbekistan, and the government’s unwillingness to resolve these issues only exacerbates the current situation.
Minority Rights in Karakalpakstan
Karakalpaks face various discriminatory policies. For example, to tackle population growth, evidence suggests that state-driven policies of sterilizing Karakalpak women were launched already in the 1990s, with cases reported as recently as in 2012 and 2019. This was particularly harmful to the size of the population of Karakalpaks, which is barely over 750,000.
Karakalpakstan’s gas and petroleum reserves were exploited once the interstate treaty with Uzbekistan was signed. However, it seems that the income from gas and oil production bypasses Nukus and goes directly to Tashkent.
The unemployment rate in Karakalpakstan in 2020 reached 11.1% and is the highest in Uzbekistan. Overall, more than 250,000 Karakalpaks emigrated to Kazakhstan, which remains one of the most popular destinations for relocation for Karakalpaks. Kazakhstan is seen by Karakalpaks as closer culturally than compared to Uzbekistan and local Karakalpak leaders used to call for greater integration with the neighbouring country.
With the approaching of the 20-year term of the interstate treaty, several Karakalpak activists started calling for a referendum to ensure Karakalpakstan’s independence from Uzbekistan. In response, the Uzbek state persecuted local leaders, including Aman Sagidullaev, the leader of the movement “Alga, Karakalpakstan” (Forward, Karakalpakstan), who was accused of separatism and embezzlement and had to flee Uzbekistan. Members of “Alga, Karakalpakstan” argued that the majority of local politicians and decision-makers are of Uzbek origin and that Karakalpaks do not have access to political tools.
Once Mirziyoyev became the President of Uzbekistan, Karakalpaks were hopeful for a better future. The president frequently visited the republic and launched several projects aimed at the development of Karakalpakstan. However, once the constitutional amendments were published for public consultation in June 2022, outrage and discontent among Karakalpaks became more visible.
Proposed Amendments and Reactions
In late June, Mirziyoyev suggested conducting a referendum on constitutional amendments, and around that time the list of proposed amendments was published online for consultation. An online platform was set up giving the public until 20 July to submit their suggestions concerning the proposed amendments or to introduce new amendments (the initial deadline was 5 July). In total, over 62,336 proposals were submitted through the portal; however, it remains unclear if and how these proposals will be incorporated into the list of proposed amendments.
The Constitution of Uzbekistan provides that “the sovereign Republic of Karakalpakstan is a part of the Republic of Uzbekistan” (article 70) and that it has the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan “based on a public referendum of the people of Karakalpakstan” (article 74). The proposed amendments concerning Karakalpakstan propose withdrawing the word “sovereign” as well as the right of Karakalpaks to separate from Uzbekistan.
The people of Karakalpakstan reacted quickly. Locals expressed their disagreement by leaving comments on social media and online messaging services, while Karakalpak opposition leaders called for the status of the republic not to change. The Commission set up for constitutional reforms stated that all changes concerning the Karakalpak Republic were developed by the Joqargi Kenes of Karakalpaks and no one else.
Once Karakalpaks learned about the potential revocation of their sovereignty and the right to secede, mass demonstrations were organized on 1 July. These took place in several cities with the biggest gatherings in Nukus. Videos started appearing online showing the central square of Nukus filled with thousands of people calling for the amendments to be removed – a very unusual activity for Uzbekistan, where mass protests practically never take place. The most previously well-known exception was the 2005 protests in the eastern city of Andijan, where hundreds of civilians were killed by security forces.
Tashkent sent armoured vehicles and military troops to suppress the demonstrations. Sources reported the death of 18 people (of whom 14 were civilians), 250 were injured and 500 detained. On 2 July, a month-long state of emergency along with a curfew was introduced. Communication was halted as the Internet was shut down, disrupting not only online messaging services but also ATMs and credit cards. The border crossing point with Kazakhstan was closed and the rail connection between Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan was stopped.
The popular activist and blogger Dauletmurat Tadjimuratov – who on 5 July called for peaceful demonstrations against the proposed amendments – was arrested, only to be released shortly after and then detained once again. Later, he was charged with attempting to seize power and overthrow the constitutional order. Overall, 14 persons were arrested for similar charges.
The Ministry of Interior blamed protestors for misunderstanding the proposed amendments. The Council of Ministers of Karakalpakstan stated that it was a group of criminals who had organised the unrest to seize power. The organisers of the demonstrations were “hiding behind populist slogans and manipulating the trust of citizens” and there were “external forces from abroad” trying to affect the situation, according to the version by Karakalpak officials. On 2 July, Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Nukus, where he met with local MPs and citizens. He promised that constitutional provisions concerning Karakalpakstan would not be altered. Additionally, the president said that “riots in Nukus were planned for years and conducted by foreign forces” in order to violate the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan and start an inter-ethnic conflict.
The developments in Karakalpakstan received some international attention, and the UN, the EU, Amnesty International, and the US called for a transparent investigation of the violence and for the Internet connection to be restored. Russia called the unrest in Karakalpakstan a matter of Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. China and Kazakhstanfollowed suit, expressing their support to the leadership of Uzbekistan and hoping for the conflict’s quick resolution.
Finally, on 4 July, the Uzbek Parliament voted to exclude all proposed amendments concerning the status of Karakalpakstan and the situation seemed to stabilise, although the curfew and the state of emergency remained.
The most discussed amendments, except for the change in status of the Karakalpak Republic, concerned the presidential term. Thus, in line with the proposed amendments, the term of the President would be extended from five years to seven. Moreover, as shared by the First Deputy Chairman of the Uzbek Parliament’s Senate Sadyk Safayev, Mirziyoyev, who is now in his second presidential term, would be able again to run in the next presidential elections. This has confirmed a hunch many people had: that the whole procedure to propose constitutional amendments serves only one purpose – to nullify Mirziyoyev’s current presidential term.
Amending the constitution to prolong and renew presidential terms is not a novelty. Similar practices were used in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and recently in Russia. However, there is one difference. The current undertaking to change the Constitution in Uzbekistan has been labelled as the “people’s project.” Mirziyoyev stated that, if adopted, it will be “a real people’s Constitution” as it would rely on the opinion and support of Uzbek citizens. According to the government-led Republican Centre for Public Option Research, over 83% of respondents agreed to embrace the proposed amendments to the Constitution.
There are some proposals that might bring real positive change as well. For example, amendments include a complete ban on the death penalty, consolidation of the right to the inviolability of the home, the right to freely use the Internet, as well as strengthening the rights of women and children. Nevertheless, some experts shared their concern that during the referendum, voters will have to vote either for or against all amendments as one single package, since there is no option to vote on each individual amendment.
The date of the referendum has not been announced yet. Although the proposed amendments concerning the status of Karakalpakstan have been revoked, the developments it has caused have indeed overshadowed the rest of the proposed amendments that did not change, including the extension of Mirziyoyev’s presidential term.
Central Asia has seen several cases of unrest since the beginning of 2022, including the events in Karakalpakstan. Other examples are the January events in Kazakhstan, which started as protests against increased gas prices and turned into mass demonstrations demanding political and economic reforms, as well as the events in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Oblast, where the killing of a local Pamiri man by security forces caused a series of mass demonstrations and governmental repression. All three events in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and now Karakalpakstan share several similarities. First, official versions explaining the cause of unrest in the three countries blamed criminal individuals who aimed to overthrow the constitutional order and were allegedly supported by “foreign forces.” Second, in all cases, the Internet connection was cut once the protests erupted, causing digital isolation. Third, Kazakh, Tajik, and Uzbek law enforcement bodies committed themselves to investigating the protests and charging all perpetrators, which is seen, however, as an excuse to get rid of popular informal leaders and activists.
On 15 July, a Special Commission was established and tasked to carry out an independent investigation of the events in Karakalpakstan. The Ombudsperson of Uzbekistan was appointed as the Chair of the Commission, while MPs and some NGO representatives are among its members. The Commission is expected to publish its findings and make these available inside and outside of Uzbekistan. President Mirziyoyev fired Zaynilobiddin Nizomiddinov, the head of the Presidential Apparatus, who was believed to have administered the constitutional amendments. The head of the Karakalpak Joqargi Kenes, Murat Kamalov, was also replaced, officially due to health issues. The curfew in Karakalpakstan was shortened, however, residents still faced Internet shutdowns, especially at night.
One can assume that since the sovereignty and the right for secession remained in the Uzbek constitution, the population of Karakalpaks managed to fight for their cause, albeit at the cost of several lives. However, in a scenario where a referendum took place, Karakalpakstan would still not become an independent state as it would be impossible to outvote the sizeable Uzbek and Kazakh populations living there. Most likely, it was rather the symbolic meaning of the secession clause in the Uzbek constitution which is important for Karakalpaks.
It seems that it was - almost exclusively - the amendments concerning the status of Karakalpakstan which received attention and coverage, and appear to have overshadowed discussions about the extension of the presidential term and other amendments. One can only assume that this is all too convenient for the Uzbek leadership.