Staunton, September 1 – Most commentaries on the future of Uzbekistan after the departure of Islam Karimov have focused on questions like: Will his kind of dictatorship continue? Will it be replaced by an Islamist regime? And will Tashkent change its geopolitical orientation?
But there is one aspect of the situation that has so far received less attention but that might matter even more: Will the current borders of Uzbekistan be maintained? Or will Uzbekistan’s neighbors move in small ways or large to seize portions of that country or encourage regions now within its borders to leave?
And even if such possibilities remain unrealized, they are likely to play a major role in the political infighting in the Uzbekistan leadership and in the way in which major outside powers as Russia, the European Union and the United States respond, especially given the commitments of the latter two to the stability of existing borders.
Already this week, two challenges to Uzbekistan’s current borders have emerged, one small and one large, which merit attention both in terms of what they say about the possibilities of border changes and how they are likely to be read in Tashkent and used as part of the political struggle there.
The smaller of these two challenges, one that may be replicated elsewhere along Uzbekistan’s borders, comes from Kyrgystan where government officials said yesterday that the Uzbek authorities were violating their own agreements about the border between the two countries by acting as if Tashkent owns a particular reservoir (kg.akipress.org/news:1326741).
Kyrgyz officials said that these “illegal actions by the Uzbek side toward the Orto-Tokoy reservoir are inflicting serious harm to the friendly and good-neighborly relations between the fraternal peoples of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” diplomatic language for what could emerge as a serious controversy given confusion in Tashkent.
But the greater, indeed far greater, threat to the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan is in Karakalpakia, an increasingly impoverished autonomous republic within Uzbekistan whose population is roughly divided among Karakalpaks, Uzbeks and Kazakhs and a place where at least some activists are interested in having their land become part of Kazakhstan or Russia.
The reasons for that lie in history. Until 1924, Karakalpak lands lay within the boundaries of historically Kazakh areas. Only in 1925 did they become part of the Kyrgyz ASSR, and only in 1936 was their region shifted to become part of the Uzbek SSR (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/06/karakalpak-separatists-in-uzbekistan.html).
In Soviet times, activists says, the standard of living in Uzbekistan and consequently of Karakalpakia was higher than that in Kazakhstan and so the Karakalpaks were happy to live under Tashkent. There was almost no interest in separatism, but the disappearance of the Aral Sea and the collapse of the standard of living in Karakalpakia has changed that.
In 1992, Karakalpakia, which covers roughly a third of Uzbekistan’s land area, declared its independence “within Uzbekistan,” an act that had few concrete consequences at the time but that did enshrine as constitutional the right of the Karakalpaks to secede, something that the union republics had had in Soviet times from the USSR.
Over the last two decades, the Kazakh writer says, the standard of living in Kazakhstan rose while that in Karakalpakia fell; and consequently, some Karakalpaks began to talk about having their republic return to Kazakhstan. But Uzbek President Islam Karimov used force to crack down on any expressions of such desires.
In 1993, Tashkent and Nukus signed an inter-governmental agreement which specified that Karakalkapstan would remain in Uzbekistan for 20 years. That term ran out in 2013, but Tashkent ignored calls of activists for a referendum. The activists said they had growing support and that only Karimov’s dictatorship was keeping them from realizing their rights.
Some in Karakalpakstan were encouraged by Russia’s Anschluss of Crimea as a possible future for themselves, and both they and others may have been pushing this idea given Moscow’s long tradition of using Karakalpak separatism against Tashkent for its pro-Western positions (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/11/window-on-eurasia-moscow-again-focusing.html).
Now, with the passing of Karimov, one blogger, Lidiya Gaydar argues, “none of the factors restraining Karkalpakstan remain,” and that opens the way for a new upsurge of independence activity among its population, something that will prompt other regions in Uzbekistan to think about autonomy as well (dialog.ua/news/95789_1472548767).
Any real or perceived challenge from that direction will lead Tashkent to crack down or even become the occasion for political fights within the elite, given that the Uzbek authorities have a long history of oppressing Karakalpak activism even while insisting that it doesn’t exist (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/06/window-on-eurasia-tashkent-cracks-down.html).
Moreover, any upsurge in Karakalpak activism could create problems for Tashkent with either Kazakhstan or Russia and increase the level of nationalism within the post-Karimov Uzbekistan elite, something that in turn would cause new problems with other minorities there, including Russians, Kazakhs and Uyghurs (openrussia.org/post/view/17254/).