Karakalpakstan – Violent Protests Rock Central Asia’s Least Known Republic
At least 18 people are reported to have died, and two hundred were wounded following serious protests in Karakalpakstan, after demonstrations in the capital, Nukus, on Friday, July 1. Violence flared as some protesters attempted to storm local government buildings, leading to over 500 arrests. At the heart of the protests are planned changes to Uzbekistan’s constitution, first proposed in very general terms back in May. Until recently, details of what the new constitution would involve had been largely kept under wraps, with the most controversial possibility being an opportunity for President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to stand for re-election for a third consecutive term. However, at the end of June, it later emerged that one of the proposals was to strip Karakalpakstan of its status as an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. This status technically gives Karakalpakstan the right to secede from Uzbekistan. While that would only happen in extreme circumstances and following a referendum, the status of “autonomous republic” is symbolically important to ethnic Karakalpak people, a Turkic ethnic group comprising around 1/3 of the republic’s population (roughly equal with Uzbeks and a little more than Kazakhs).
The degree of public anger caused by the proposal appears to have taken the Uzbek authorities by surprise. Although President Mirziyoyev blamed outside forces for stirring up trouble, he also decided on Saturday (July 2) to drop the proposals vis a vis Karakalpakstan’s republican status. Some commentators have expressed fears that the protests could stir up wider anti-Uzbek sentiment in the region, and a state of emergency has now been declared.
If you’ve never heard of Karakalpakstan, you’re probably not alone. Nonetheless, it covers a vast area: almost the entire semi-desert of the northwest section of Uzbekistan (except for the oasis area that encompasses Khiva and Urgench). Historically the Amu Darya delta, which forms the heart of today’s Karakalpakstan, was a significant agricultural region and formed the economic heartland of Khorazem – one of the more powerful entities of medieval Central Asia. As a distinct Turkic people, the origins of the Karakalpaks can be traced back to divisions of the Nogai Horde confederation in the 15th and 16th centuries. The second split, following a 1632 military defeat by the Kalmyks, led the Karakalpak group to head to northern Khorazem, where most had settled by the 18th century.
In 1932, Karakalpakstan was declared an ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), but unlike Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it was never promoted to full SSR status. By the somewhat arbitrary rules by which the USSR broke up, only SSRs were recognized as successor states to the Soviet Union, but that didn’t stop Karakalpakstan from declaring sovereignty in 1990. It was reincorporated into Uzbekistan in 1993, but on the condition of maintaining its own parliamentary chamber, the Zhoqargi Kenes and retaining that constitutional right to secede that was being threatened under the latest 2022 plans from Tashkent.
Life in Karakalpakstan is far from easy. In the Soviet era, the republic had been a major fisheries centre, with rich stocks harvested from the Aral Sea – at the time, one of the world’s biggest lakes. However, excessive use of the Amu Darya feedwaters to irrigate intensive cotton production led the sea to dry up almost entirely in one of the planet’s greatest man-made ecological disasters. Moynoq/Muynak, once a major trawler port, was left high and dry, miles from water and is now best known for its boat graveyard and hosting the “world’s most remote music festival,” Stihia. Meanwhile, the few visitors who venture to the Karakalpak capital Nukus are likely to have been attracted by the city’s unexpectedly impressive art gallery with its dazzling collection of Russian avant-garde art. It is filled with the work of painters ‘purged’ by Stalin and whose canvases were meant to be destroyed as anti-Soviet. In fact, they were hidden in Karakalpakstan by the museum’s first director Igor Savitsky, who saw Nukus as an “unlikely haven from Soviet censorship.” The collection has been at the heart of several controversies but has remained in Nukus ever since.