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Unrest in Central Asia: The Trouble in Karakalpakstan

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Unrest in Central Asia: The Trouble in Karakalpakstan

Although protests this year in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan took place in different contexts, with different triggers, there are some similarities worth highlighting.

Unrest in Central Asia: The Trouble in Karakalpakstan
Credit: Depositphotos

Less than a week after proposing a vast array of constitutional reforms, the Uzbek government backtracked on a select few amendments that had set off large protests in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, on July 1. Among the suggested constitutional changes was the rewriting of Karakalpakstan’s political position within Uzbekistan, stripping the region of its sovereignty and right to hold a secession referendum.

The flash of unrest shocked Tashkent, which quickly shut off internet communications to the region and moved in to suppress the protests. On July 2, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev flew to Nukus and announced the scrapping of the offending proposals. 

Specific details are difficult to verify about what happened in Nukus. According to the government, 516 people were detained during clashes between protesters and government forces, 243 people were injured, and 18 were killed. Eurasianet’s Joanna Lillis was briefly detained by police as she interviewed people in a crowd outside the main police building in Nukus. The police reportedly deleted the footage on her phone and warned her against reporting on the situation. A month-long state of emergency was declared for Karakalpakstan.

Karakalpakstan is a sparsely populated autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. The region is mostly desert now, thanks in large part to the environmental catastrophe that is the Aral Sea. Karakalpakstan constitutes around 40 percent of Uzbekistan’s territory, though its population of 2 million is less than 6 percent of the country’s total population of 34 million. (For more, check out Bruce Pannier’s excellent review of the region’s history for bne Intellinews). 

Neglected under the administration of Islam Karimov, Karakalpakstan received greater attention in some ways under the rule of Mirziyoyev since 2016. In particular, Tashkent’s efforts in the region have been targeted at the Aral Sea, including an electronic music festival in Moynaq billed as both a music festival and an effort to further publicize the region’s plight, and energy projects in the same desolate town once beside the sea and now surrounded by dust. These efforts aside, the region has suffered from decades of neglect, especially the lack of attention paid to the lasting impacts of the Aral Sea’s death, in particular tuberculosis

The protests in Karakalpakstan come after massive protests in January in Kazakhstan and protests last month in Tajikistan’s GBAO. It’s a tumultuous time across Central Asia, which has been battered by an array of global storms, such as the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ripples of the war in Ukraine, and the calling cards of climate change, droughts, and excessive heat. The Central Asian region faces its own unique difficulties as well, such as the impact of the war in Ukraine specifically on migrant laborers and food prices, and efforts by the region’s authoritarian governments to maintain stability and stay in power.

The protests in Karakalpakstan were an “unforced error on the part of the government,” Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Governance and Markets and current president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), told The Diplomat.

Although the protests this year in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan took place in different contexts, with different triggers, there are some similarities worth highlighting, particularly with regard to government sensitivity to public opinion and government responses to protests.

During a Twitter Spaces conversation hosted by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, Uzbek journalist Nikita Makarenko said that people in Karakalpakstan were “really offended that nobody consulted with them, nobody asked their opinion [about the proposed constitutional changes].” He added that the same was true of the rest of Uzbekistan, noting that the proposed constitutional changes only became public after the parliament had approved them. 

Murtazashvili said that “the fact that the president moved to capitulate so quickly is a positive sign. But it is also a sign that the leadership appears to be out of touch with society and undermines future constitutional reforms in the country.” She pointed to an Uzbek blogger, Saodat Abduzakirova, who posted a Facebook video tearfully calling “idiotic” the way the parliament proposed the constitutional changes. 

This is one thread, I’d argue, that ties these disparate protests together: Governments unable (or unwilling) to truly gauge the pulse of the populace and carefully craft and introduce difficult policy changes. 

Steve Swerdlow, an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California, told The Diplomat that this “gets to the heart of the problem with Uzbekistan’s reforms. Despite some positive steps in various areas — from releasing political prisoners to allowing media to register and operate to a centralized campaign against forced labor — none of that has included a consultative democratic process.”

Kazakhstan’s January protests started as an outcry in the face of sudden fuel price hikes and the latest round of unrest in GBAO followed a sham of an “investigation” into the killing of a local man last year. More careful policymaking and deeper discussions with the public may have gone some way toward preventing the outbreak of both protests and violence in all three countries.

There is an unwillingness, Swerdlow argued, on the part of the Uzbek government to engage in more direct conversation with the public. Mirziyoyev, he noted, hasn’t held a single “truly accessible press conference where he answers questions in real time from critical reporters in six years.”

“The ‘one-way street’ approach is failing the government, it’s putting the wider reforms at risk,” he said.

Another thread tying the three incidents of protest together is the government response and the second-order effects of the initial response. For example, cutting off the internet has become an immediate first step in response to larger protests and unrest — it happened in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Karakalpakstan. On the one hand, cutting off the internet makes it difficult for protest organizers (in so far as there are any organizers) to communicate internally and externally, but it also makes it difficult for journalists to verify details. “Fake news” thrives in such an information vacuum. 

Central Asian governments in these cases usually publish their own narratives about what happened, but they lack the public’s trust. In Kazakhstan, for example, government claims of 20,000 terrorists being behind the violence and terrorists absconding with the bodies of their fallen fellows from city morgues were met with ridicule by many. Without trust in the government’s word, and absent independent verification from sources people do trust (a dwindling cadre, too), the truth becomes elusive. Worse, it becomes malleable. 

When lines of communication are shut down, Swerdlow told The Diplomat, “It guts the capacity of the political system — of society at large — to deal with problems.” Of particular concern is time, too: Karakalpakstan’s state of emergency is set to last a month and it’s unclear when full internet access will be restored or if independent observers will be allowed to enter the region to investigate. Evidence of what actually happened, in the meantime, may slip away forever.

At present, it seems the unrest in Karakalpakstan has been contained. The government in Tashkent walked back the proposed constitutional changes that affected the region, specifically, but the broader constitutional reform push is still in play. Undergirding the flashes of unrest across Central Asia this year are a few common threads that illustrate a consequential disconnect between Central Asian publics and their governments.