BACKGROUND: Karakalpakstan became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) during the national delimitation in the 1920s and 30s. It was initially declared an Autonomous region within the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). It was later transferred to the direct administration of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic (of which the Kazakh ASSR was part as well) and its status was upgraded to ASSR in 1932. However, after the declaration of the Kazakh SSR, Karakalpakstan was separated from the Russian federation and attached to the Uzbek SSR.
Hence, Karakalpakstan became part of contemporary Uzbekistan largely for administrative reasons. However, the republic was granted an autonomous status with its own Supreme Soviet, and as such the republic could develop its own culture and literature, and receive separate support from Moscow. On the other hand, in Tashkent’s perspective, Karakalpakstan remained a backward and remote area which was needed mostly during the cotton season. Cotton production also caused the catastrophic drying out of Aral Sea with fatal consequences for Karakalpakstan.
The “parade of sovereignty” among the Soviet republics was also reflected in Karakalpakstan and the region proclaimed its sovereignty in December 1990. However, its separation from the Uzbek SSR was vaguely defined and did not envision the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet, Uzbekistan’s declaration of independence also gave rise to some discussion on Karakalpakstan’s status, mostly in intellectual circles. Several initiative groups such as Halk mapi (The People’s Interest) emerged in the country. The idea of full independence for Karakalpakstan or transferring the territory to Kazakh administration resonated also in neighboring and newly independent Kazakhstan.
However, President Karimov’s solutions to Uzbekistan’s internal problems immediately after the country’s independence rapidly pacified any separatist inclinations. Karakalpakstan was declared an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan’s constitution of 1992, and Karakalpakstan’s constitution adopted in April 1993 confirmed the status with the provision that an all-Karakalpakstan referendum could lead to the region’s independence. The groups and people advocating increased autonomy for Karakalpakstan have been systematically silenced since the 1990s. The loyal heads of the autonomous territory’s government were appointed and removed according to the republic’s economic performance. Since 2002, Karakalpakstan is ruled by Supreme Soviet Head Musa Yerniyazov who has been able to distribute the most profitable key positions in the republic among his family and kin.
Although politics in the region have seemed relatively quiet and stable to external observers, several attempts to call for separation have occurred. Groups such as Erkin Karakalpakstan (Free Karakalpakstan) and others have appeared in the news without detailed information about their leaders and members. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 also gave rise to debates over a similar step for Karakalpakstan.
IMPLICATIONS: Uzbekistan’s authorities fiercely deny any rumors about separatism in Karakalpakstan and juxtapose such news with facts pointing to improved living conditions and rapid development in the republic. At the same time, the economic, health and social disaster of the region due to ecological catastrophe as well as Uzbekistan’s overall poor economic performance have forced tens of thousands of Karakalpakstan’s inhabitants out of their homeland to Russia and Kazakhstan. Uzbek authorities allow migration from Karakalpakstan to Tashkent and the Tashkent region, which remains blocked for the inhabitants of Uzbekistan’s other welayats (provinces). It thus implicitly acknowledges Karakalpakstan’s problem and the risk of social tension in the region.
Starting from March and April this year, Karakalpakstan is seeing increasing activism. Several activists were detained for alleged or real distribution of leaflets calling for a referendum on Karakalpakstan’s independence. The leaflets were signed in the name of Alga Karakalpakstan Azatlyk hareketi (Cheer up Karakalpakstan Freedom Movement), which has not yet been detected in the region. The activity is assumed to have emerged from below and is connected with the developments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Uzbekistan’s president apparently judged the developments to be serious enough to award the region an urgent visit.
Although no information is available on potential support from outside, foreign powers could make use of growing separatist moods in the region. While rumors circulate of Western, particularly U.S. intentions to overthrow the Uzbek regime and gain access to the country’s natural resources, the potential gains would hardly be worth the destabilization of Central Asia that would ensue. By contrast, apart from short-term and situational motives for encouraging separatist movements, the Russian government has several long-term reasons for at least threatening to destabilize Uzbekistan. Russia’s ability to access and defend its investments in Uzbekistan, the U.S.-Uzbekistan rapprochement, the perspective of an approaching but unpredictable change of leadership in Uzbekistan, as well as Uzbekistan’s relationship to Russia-backed integration organizations could all present sufficient arguments for Russia to use the Karakalpakstan issue to its own advantage. Uzbekistan left the Collective Security Treaty in 2013 (See February 20, 2013 CACI Analyst) and has refused any discussion of membership in the Eurasian Customs Union.
Looking at the problem from inside Karakalpakstan, interviews with the local population as well as discussions on internet forums demonstrate that a fertile ground for such agitation exists at least among parts of Karakalpakstan’s population. In case support is provided from the outside and the voices favoring separation from Uzbekistan become louder, the quantity of independence supporters could increase.
CONCLUSIONS: The Karakalpakstan issue could be utilized in order to force Uzbekistan’s leadership to comply with the interests of any international actor, Russia in particular. The outside interest is focused mostly on the rich resources of the region, which are hardly accessible as long as Karakalpakstan remains under Tashkent’s administration. Internal and unsolved social and economic problems, on the other hand, feed growing dissatisfaction among the region’s population and is a key source of rekindled Karakalpak nationalism. In this situation, any internal and external incentives could effectively complement each other to produce a multiplication effect and lead to demands for using the right of secession envisioned in Karakalpakstan’s constitution. In this situation, a highly negative reaction from Tashkent could be expected, and the situation could quickly spiral out of control as we are currently seeing in Ukraine.
In any case, opening this Pandora’s Box could have unpredictable consequences not only for Uzbekistan. The current tendency towards redrawing post-Soviet borders in Georgia and Ukraine as well as, hypothetically, in Uzbekistan could have ramifications for many other problematic regions in the post-Soviet space.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Slavomír Horák is a researcher with The Department of Russian and East European Studies, The Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague. He was a Fulbright Fellow at CACI in 2012-2013.