Staunton, March 16 – Many commentators have suggested that Moscow has its eyes on Moldova’s Transdniestria or even on the northern portion of Kazakhstan as its next move after absorbing Ukraine’s Crimea, but a more likely candidate may be Karakalpakistan, a terribly poor and ecologically compromised but strategically important land south of the Aral Sea.
A movement for re-unification with Russia has appeared in that 1.7 million-strong Uzbekistan autonomous republic, an echo of the events in Ukraine and one that bears watching as an indication of the kind of Russian “fifth column” in neighboring states that is likely to become ever more a feature of the former Soviet space.
As Igor Rotar reported on Rosbalt.ru yesterday, the Alga – Karakalpak for “Forward” movement has begun putting out proclamations on the Internet explicitly drawing comparisons between the state of the Karakalpaks under Tashkent’s rule to that of ethnic Russians and Crimean Tatars under Kyiv’s (rosbalt.ru/exussr/2014/03/15/1244363.html).
“The people of Karakalpakistan do not agree with the foreign and domestic policy of the Karimov regime. The people want unity with Russia. By culture and language, the Karakalpaks are closer to the Kazakhs” – their republic was part of Kazakhstan until 1936 – but are not sure whether Astana will support them now, one of the movement’s declarations says.
And it adds: “If a good signal will be heard from the Kremlin, then Karakalpakistan is ready to raise the flag of the Russian Federation.”
This could, of course, be a provocation, but supporters of the independence of Karakalpakistan have published their ideas on the Facebook page of the Birdamlik Movement, an indication, Rotar suggests, that they are more than that, even if some may try to use the group in that way.
Sergey Abashin, an ethnologist who specializes on the region, says that in his view, “the separatist movement in Karakalpakistan is very weak. There is certainly some dissatisfaction,” but there are no “strong anti-Uzbek attitudes.” But if the question is raised and if Kazakhstan gets involved, things could become explosive.
A party based on the Internet is not that serious a matter most of the time, Rotar continues, but the appearance of such a group “immediately after the beginning of the Crimean events” is both “symptomatic” of the times and of the calculations both local people and perhaps Moscow are making.
Uzbekistan faces other separatist challenges from the Tajik enclaves in Bukhara and Samarkand, even though Tashkent has suppressed them in the past. And one reason Moscow may be interested in raising these issues now is that the competition between the Russian Federation and the United States for influence in the region.
Rotar concludes his brief report by pointing to yet another region in Central Asia which could be infected with the Crimean disease: the Pamirs. Although the residents of that mountainous region are classified as Tajiks, they are very different by language and culture from the Tajiks of the rest of Tajikistan.
The Pamir, unlike much of what is now Tajikistan, “voluntarily joined the Russian Empire,” Rotar says, and today, relations between its population and that of the country as a whole are “more than tense: in 2012 a real war between local militants and the Tajiks army broke out.” That makes the appearance of a movement for joining Russia “also completely likely.”