2022 has been a challenging year for the Central Asian autocracies. Apart from figuring out what to do with a Taliban-led government in neighboring Afghanistan or maintaining neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine war, the Central Asian republics have had to deal with increasingly messy domestic politics. After a wave of violence engulfed Kazakhstan in January 2022 as the result of an intra-elite conflict and Turkmenistan underwent a presidential transition, Uzbekistan’s proposed constitutional reform brought the attention of international media to the region once again. The proposed reforms caused a massive uproar in the region of Karakalpakstan, with protests and violence reaching unprecedented scales, at least for Uzbekistan. The crisis forced the Uzbek president to fly into the regional capital of Karakalpakstan to manage the crisis himself.
So, what is going on in Karakalpakstan and what could be the potential ramifications of this political crisis?
Karakalpakstan, which constitutes approximately 40 percent of Uzbekistani territory, is an ethnically diverse region populated largely by ethnic minorities – Karakalpaks and Kazakhs, who share a lot of cultural and linguistic similarities. Ethnic Uzbeks, according to the government, represent approximately 32 percent of Karakalpakstan’s population.
In the Soviet period, Karakalpakstan was merged with the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, though it still remained an autonomous republic. The current version of the Uzbek Constitution states that Karakalpakstan enjoys not just political autonomy, but even rights to sovereignty and secession. The latter can be exercised by means of an independent referendum, per the constitution. The current arrangement dates back to 1993, a compromise between the Uzbek and Karakalpak authorities in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Karakalpakstan considered whether it should proclaim its own independence or remain attached to Uzbekistan. The compromise was enshrined in a separate agreement between Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan, which also reportedly stresses the region’s special legal status, compared to other parts of Uzbekistan.
In subsequent years, Karakalpaks have been well integrated into the power structures of Uzbekistan, while systematic ethnic conflicts between Karakalpaks and Uzbeks have been almost non-existent. Interestingly, the de jure right to secession was quietly forgotten in the years of brutal authoritarian rule under Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, although it has always remained in the constitution.
The situation changed under Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has began consolidating power after taking office in 2016. Entering his second term in late 2021, Mirziyoyev decided to ensure that he will be able to stay in power beyond the current term limits by triggering the process of a constitutional reform very much like Vladimir Putin of Russia did in 2020. In May 2022, Mirziyoyev announced that constitutional reform would embody his vision of a “New Uzbekistan.” The reform proposal generated as the result of “public discussions” foresees almost 180 amendments. The most important, however, are those that would strengthen the president’s executive powers and theoretically allow Mirziyoyev to run again in 2026 as well as those amendments changing the political status of Karakalpakstan.
The latter, specifically, means that the current political and legal status of Karakalpakstan would be downgraded to that of a mere province. The proposed amendments would delete the word “sovereign” when mentioning Karakalpakstan, deprive Karakalpakstan of the right to secede, and require that the Karakalpak legal documents be in line not only with the Uzbek Constitution but also with the laws of Uzbekistan. By making such drastic and sweeping changes, the Uzbek government shot itself in the foot.
Protests across Karakalpakstan quickly grew over the course of two days. While the Uzbek authorities immediately backtracked, with Mirziyoyev promising to preserve the current articles on sovereignty and the right to secession on July 2, the damage has already been done. On the same day, a massive security crackdown against the protesters was launched, with Tashkent declaring a state of emergency in the province and shutting down internet and phone connections all across Karakalpakstan. Despite that, gruesome unconfirmed videos of extreme violence against protesters have been leaked by several Uzbek Telegram channels.
According to Rafael Sattarov, an independent Uzbekistani political scientist based in Washington and affiliated with the Carnegie Foundation and Bilig Brains project, the proposed amendments were likely pushed through by the more hawkish side of the Uzbek security apparatus. While it is hard to assess to what extent this could be true, issues related to territorial integrity have become subject of particular attention for many post-Soviet states in the aftermath of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thus, it might well be that the right to secession in Karakalpakstan was seen by Tashkent as a potential political liability, a point of future pressure or leverage against the government.
Of course, the ongoing protests have so far focused only on the symbolic status of Karakalpakstan. Protesters have not demanded Karakalpakstan’s actual independence, at least for now. Instead, they want a stronger commitment from Tashkent to respect the existing political arrangements and pay more attention to the region.
The protests have demonstrated the absolute lack of effective social barometers among Uzbek officials as well as the lack of understanding of the local context in Karakalpakstan. More importantly, however, the protests are indicative of deeper socioeconomic problems that plague Uzbekistan. Both Karakalpakstan and other remote Uzbek provinces have been economically deprived for a long time. The ecological problems related to the Aral Sea specific to Karakalpakstan have never been resolved. The investment levels in the region remain very low, hampering economic growth. All that combined with a rapidly growing population is a recipe for a political explosion.
So far, Karakalpaks do not necessarily feel the difference of living in Mirziyoyev’s “New Uzbekistan.” Had their lives improved significantly in the past few years, Karakalpaks might have been less hostile to the idea of Karakalpakstan being downgraded to a province. Instead, Tashkent evidently hoped that the Karakalpaks would just swallow the bitter pill and not make a big fuss.
The immediate consequence of these protests might be a growing politicization of the Karakalpak independence movement, which has remained dormant for almost 30 years. Previously good-natured relations between Karakalpaks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs in the region have also been poisoned by the discussions of Karakalpakstan’s future status and a violent crackdown ordered from Tashkent on July 2.
Unfortunately, despite Mirziyoyev’s reconciliatory tone, some members of the Uzbek security apparatus still seem to be leaning toward more violent methods. Sattarov also admits that Mirziyoyev’s current backtracking on the issue of the political and legal status of Karakalpakstan could be interpreted by the security apparatus as a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, if Mirziyoyev gives in to the temptation to diffuse the Karakalpak tensions by violent means, we could see the birth of yet another post-Soviet ethnic conflict. This does not bid well for the stability of Uzbekistan or the whole Central Asian region.