Staunton, June 13 – The government of Uzbekistan has denied that there is any separatist movement in Karakalpakia, but despite those denials, Tashkent has tightened security measures in that autonomous republic in the western part of the country, moves that suggest move may be going on in Nukus than many had thought.
Two weeks ago, following reports about the appearance of a reconstituted independence movement in Karakalpakia, a hitherto unknown group, “Alga Karakalpakstan” (“Forward Karakalpakia!”) called on the World Bank to ensure that any money it gave to Tashkent would help Karakalpakia in the first instance (lenta.ru/articles/2014/06/10/karakalpakstan/).
The appeal said that otherwise, the Uzbekistan central government would use such funds to discriminate against the Karakalpak minority and Karakalpakia more generally. That autonomous republic, whose population numbers 1.5 million, makes up more than a third of Uzbekistan’s territory. Most of it is desert as a result of the desiccation of the Aral Sea.
According to an article in Lenta.ru, “practically the entire territory of the autonomous republic is in a zone of ecological catastrophe,” with inadequate drinking water, unemployment among women reaching 90 percent, and a standard of living significantly below that of the rest of Uzbekistan.
Conditions there have long been bad, the news agency notes, pointing out that “at the end of the 1980s,” Moscow, recognizing that the drying up of the Aral wasn’t going to be stopped, “even developed plans for saving the Karakalpaks” by resettling them to the Tver Oblast of the then-RSFSR. Those plans were never carried out.
Ethnically, Karakalpaks form a third of the population, Uzbeks a second, and Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians and Koreans another third. And the autonomy was shifted from Kazakh to Uzbek control during the Soviet period.
On December 14, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Karakalpak ASSR “(later than Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan but earlier than Kyrgyzstan),” adopted a declaration of state sovereignty which called for “a completely independent state” to be realized by “an all-republic referendum.”
At that time, there was widespread support for that idea, and pro-independence figures dominated the government. But subsequently, “using the carrot and stick method,” Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov was able to bring Nukus to heel. In 1993, Tashkent and Karakalpakia signed an agreement under which Karakalpakia would remain in Uzbekistan for 20 years.
That term ran out last year, but in the intervening period, the Uzbek authorities moved to suppress the Karakalpak movement, dismissing or arresting those who had backed independence for the autonomous republic and reducing to window dressing any symbols of sovereignty that the Karakalpaks had.
Uzbek repression together with ecological and economic collapse led to the outmigration of more than 250,000 people from Karakalpakia, most to Kazakhstan but some to the Russian Federation. Moreover, ccording to Alg Karakalpakistan, “more than 2,000 Karakalpaks are ‘rotting in Uzbek prisons’ for pursuing ‘freedom and independence.’”
The movement also asserts that Tashkent has forcibly sterilized Karakalpak women. According to Lenta.ru, there is evidence that the Uzbek authorities have done this across Uzbekistan but there is none available showing that Tashkent has used ethnicity as a basis for such a horrific action.
When the first reports about the new nationalist group appeared, Tashkent officials expressed doubts that it even existed. Some close to the security agencies said that if it exists at all, it would be the creation of outside forces interested in exploiting the oil and gas of the autonomous republic.
There have been earlier outbursts of Karakalpak activism, however. In 2008, some Karakalpaks cited the independence of Kosovo as a precedent for their own, and in 2010, there were strikes and demonstrations in Nukus and other Karakalpak cities against Tashkent’s control of the republic.
According to Lenta.ru, separatist sentiment in Karakalpakia is currently quite limited, but “in the future, especially after the change of power in Uzbekistan” with the departure or death of President Islam Karimov, “the situation could change.” It could also change if the Karakalpaks are subject to Islamization.
Despite such dismissals of Karakalpak nationalism, Roman Mamytov, an activist there, says that Tashkent has stepped up night patrols and launched new criminal prosecutions of those who were involved in the 2008 appeals. Moreover, although he does not say so, the 20 year agreement between Nukus and Tashkent has now expired.
“We, the people of Karakalpakia, know and believe that Karakalpakia will be free and independent from Uzbekistan and that, as full-fletched Central Asian state will occupy a worthy place in the contemporary world,” Mamytov said a year ago. At the very least, it appears that more people there share his hopes now.