Monday, April 20, 2020

Will New Oil Fields in Aral Sea Basin Reignite Karakalpak National Movement and International Interest in Their Region?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 18 – Karakalpakistan, an impoverished autonomous republic in western Uzbekistan just to the south of where the Aral Sea used to be, is now the site of the development of a new oil field on the floor that former body of water that could rival Kazakshtan’s, trigger international interest in it, and reignite the independence movement there.

            On the independent Uzbekistan news service Hook.Report, Vera Sukhina points out that “political events in Karakalpakistan are treated rarely possibly because there are so few media there” and they are under the control of Tashkent. The republic attracts attention only during discussions of the Aral Sea and the Nukus art gallery (

                But the reports that do surface in official sources, the journalist says, show that the situation in Karakalpakistan is dire: its residences have the lowest incomes of any region in Uzbekistan, half of the houses do not have potable water, 90 percent do not have indoor toilets, and only 15 percent of the housing stock has hot water.

            Before the Aral Sea died, people in Karakalpakistan lived by fishing. Now, while unemployment is high, they mostly work for a chemical plant. The dead sea and the plant combine to drive up cancer rates among the population and make life even more difficult for them.

            But now oil has been discovered on the bed of the former sea, and the reserves are estimated to “compete with those of Kazakhstan and make Karakalpakistan and more broadly Uzbekistan, the second-biggest oil producing country in the region,” Sukhina says. That makes the republic more important to its residents as well as to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

            Up to now, Tashkent has run the republic with an iron hand: there has not been any change in the autonomy’s leadership for 18 years. And it has suppressed any manifestation of independent political activity because Uzbek rulers are well aware of the complicated history of Karakalpakistan and why its people may want something other than Uzbek rule.

            “In 1924,” the journalist recounts, “the Karakalpak autonomous oblast occupied portions of the Turkestan ASSR and the Khorezm Socialilst Republic. Then, in 1925, it became part of the Kyrgyz ASSR which was later renamed the Kazakh ASSR. Five years later, the autonomous oblast became an ASSR and for four years was subordinate only to the RSFSR.”

                “But already in 1936, it was included within the Uzbek SSR and remained there until 1990. Then, at a session of the [autonomy’s] Supreme Council was signed a declaration of state sovereignty which presupposed the establishment of a fully independent state via a referendum. In 1992, it was transformed into the Republic of Karakalpakistan, and in 1993, it signed an intergovernmental treaty for 20 years” with Tashkent. That was supposed to end with a referendum, but none has happened.

            A decade ago, Aman Sagidullayev founded the Forward Karakalpakistan movement, but in 2014, he was forced to emigrate and now along with a handful of others promotes the national movement there via Facebook, YouTube and the Internet.  But his efforts have not attracted much support within the republic and almost none from Kazakhstan or Russia.
            The development of oil fields in the republic could change all that, energizing his movement and giving both Moscow and Nur-Sultan new reasons to be interested in Karakalpakistan – and prompting Tashkent to take additional measures to ensure its continued control.

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