Staunton, May 2 – A group of Karakalpaks, members of an ethnic group living in the western portion of Uzbekistan, distributed leaflets in a market there this week asserting that “Karakalpakstan is not Uzbekistan” and demanding the independence of this autonomous region from Tashkent, the latest echo of the separatist explosions Vladimir Putin has set off in Ukraine.
The leaflets were issued in the name of the “Forward Karakalpakstan” Liberation Movement (“Alga Karakalpakstan Azatlyk Khareketi”), a group which operates under the umbrella of the Shyrak Information Center, formed earlier this year to coordinate work with dissidents in the republic and beyond its borders (chrono-tm.org/2014/04/v-karakalpakstane-rasprostranenyi-listovki-s-prizyivami-k-nezavisimosti/).
The authorities in Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic, were able to seize some of the leaflets, but according to reports over the last two days, they have not arrested any of those who were distributing them or issued a statement about the incident (turkist.org/2014/04/uzbekistan-karakalpakstan.html).
How widespread independence sentiments are in Karakalpakstan is uncertain as is the identity of those behind them. With the exception of the period from 1989 to 1993, the Karakalpaks have generally been rather passive, but the region’s 1.7 million people certainly have good reason to complain about Tashkent’s policies.
Karakalpakstan is the poorest region of Uzbekistan and has suffered more than anyone else from the drying up of the former Aral Sea, with frequent droughts, ever less potable water, a collapsing economy, extraordinarily high cancer rates from the mineral salts blown from the former seabed, and life expectancies that have fallen like a rock since the 1980s.
The republic’s 1.7 million people have good reason to complain: they are the poorest part of Uzbekistan and have suffered more than anyone else from the drying up of the former Aral Sea, with their economy collapsing and life expectancies falling like a rock.
But it is entirely possible that Moscow may be behind this in order to put pressure on Tashkent: Karakalpakistan was until 1936 part of Kazakhstan with which its people are closer linguistically and culturally. The Russian authorities may want to send a message to Tashkent that such a transfer could be engineered again if the Uzbeks don’t keep close to the Russian line.
It cannot be excluded that the distribution of these leaflets is the work of Kazakhstan, some of whose intellectuals at least have never fully accepted the 1936 transfer and who have argued in recent years that a greater Kazakhstan, including Karakalpakstan, could address the problems of the Aral basin more effectively than is being done now.
And it is of course not beyond the range of the possible that this action was an Uzbek provocation designed to ferret out and then punish anyone in Karakalpakstan who might show an interest in what from Tashkent’s point of view would be a secessionist movement.
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