Staunton, November 4 – Moscow officials and commentators as they have done on again off again are directing their attention to Karakalpakia, one of the poorest and most environmentally polluted places on the planet, as a possible lever against Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his pro-Western policies.
In a “Russkaya planeta” article, Petr Bologov says that “in Karakalpakia, demands for the exit of that republic from Uzbekistan and its rapprochement with Russia are sounding ever more loudly,” something that he clearly views as leverage against Karimov or a post-Karimov Uzbek government (rusplt.ru/world/mirnyiy-bunt-chernyih-shapok-13953.html).
Few people pay much attention to that autonomous republic in Western Uzbekistan except in the context of the drying up of the Aral Sea which has sent unemployment and emigration skyrocketing and contributed to a public health disaster among the 1.5 million people of the region, the Moscow commentator says.
But in fact, he continues, the Karakalpaks have a long and intriguing history, and what is more, they are increasingly politically active, unhappy with the way in which they have been treated by Tashkent and interested in achieving the status of an independent country, something they unsuccessfully sought in the early 1990s.
According to Bologov, the Karakalpaks took form as a nation within the Nogay horde in the 15th century and even set up a Karakalpak khanate in the 18th century, although that fell under the attacks of the Dzhungarians. Some of its members sought to become part of Russia in 1731, but the Kazakhs and the Khivan khanate blocked that until the 1850s.
Their administrative-territorial history has been even more complicated since 1917. In 1924, a Karakalpak autonomous oblast was formed with the Turkestan ASSR. From 1925 to 1930, it had that status within Kygyzstan. Then between 1930 and 1936, it was part of the RSFSR, being an autonomous republic there from 1932. In 1936, it was given to Uzbekistan.
As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Karakalpaks sought state independence and for several years had it de facto if not de jure, having declared their state sovereignty in December 1990 but later being re-subordinated to Tashkent within Uzbekistan.
At that time, Bologov says, the Karakalpaks were divided into three groups: one sought independence, a second wanted the republic to be reunified with Kazakhstan, and a third preferred autonomy within Uzbekistan.
In January 1993, Karakalpakia and Uzbekistan signed an inter-state agreement for 20 years specifying that the Karakalpaks had the right to a referendum on independence. But neither during the term of that accord or after ward has Tashkent been willing to live up to the terms it agreed to at that time.
As a result and in the face of its deteriorating economic, environmental and political situation, Karakalpak advocates of secession from Uzbekistan have gained in strength and organized the “Forward Karakalpakistan” movement. Its leaders, who include Roman Mamytov, say that they want to achieve their goals by the peaceful means of a referendum.
The Karakalpaks have issued a variety of declarations to the World Bank and most recently last month at the OSCE conference in Warsaw where Nasyratdin Nuratdinov, the president of the Aral Jaihun Society, called Karakalpakia “a colony of Uzbekistan” and asked for assistance from abroad in putting pressure on Tashkent to allow a referendum.
Mamytov say, Bologov reports, that support among the Karakalpaks for national self-determination is growing, something that could trigger a harsh Uzbek response. And the activist adds that he and his fellow believers in an independent Karakalpakia are now looking beyond Islam Karimov who, in his words, “is not eternal.”
If the Uzbeks ultimately support Karakalpakia’s right to a referendum, Mamytov says, “we will be grateful to them for our entire lives.” But if Uzbekistan continues to block such a referendum and the legitimate aspirations of the Karakalpaks, then “this will be another question” entirely.”
“The republic of Karakalpakistan and its people,” he says, “have the right to defend themselves,” words that suggests that some in Nukus, the capital of that republic, and in Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation, are already thinking about what they will do given the certainty of continued Uzbek opposition to Karakalpak independence.