What is Karakalpakstan and what is going on there?

Thousands protest in nominally autonomous Central Asian republic against Uzbekistan’s plans to withdraw its right to secede

Protesters in Nukus, 1 July 2022, with Karakalpak flags.
Protesters in Nukus, 1 July 2022, with Karakalpak flags. Author: @ Telegram
Protests in the republic of Karakalpakstan have taken most Central Asia analysts by surprise. 18 fatalities and more than 1,000 injured have been reported after days of clashes between protesters and security forces in that territory in north-western Uzbekistan. At the centre of the unrest lies the Uzbek authorities’ proposal to eliminate Karakalpakstan’s constitutional right to secede.

What is Karakalpakstan?

Karakalpakstan is a nominally autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. It occupies 166,000 square kilometres —the entire north-western third of that Central Asian state. Its 2-million population is made up roughly equally of Karakalpaks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs. Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim people who are mainly concentrated in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya river and on the former southern shore of the Aral Sea, before it almost completely dried up.

For how long has it been a republic?

Karakalpakstan was established a Soviet Union autonomous oblast in 1925. It was elevated to autonomous soviet socialist republic status —a rank in Soviet order second only to that of union republics— in 1932. It was integrated into Uzbekistan in 1936 while preserving its autonomy. When Uzbekistan declared independence from the USSR in 1991, Karakalpakstan remained within Uzbek borders.

What are its powers?

Karakalpakstan has its own government, courts, and parliament, the Joqargy Ken’es, which passes laws for the republic autonomously. According to Uzbekistan’s 1992 Constitution, Karakalpakstan is a “sovereign republic” with its own constitution and, more strikingly, with “the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a nation-wide referendum held by the people of Karakalpakstan.” Most Central Asian analysts agree that right is currently inapplicable, given the Uzbek state’s degree of authoritarianism.

Why are people protesting now?

Popular protests —attended by thousands, as seen in this video— erupted four days after Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirziyoyev announced amendments to the country’s Constitution, with the aim of perpetuating himself in power. The planned changes also included the annulment of Karakalpakstan’s status as a sovereign republic and of its right to secede. The scale of the protest is also reportedly connected to the arrest of Karakalpak lawyer Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who is said to have publicly denounced Mirziyoyev’s intentions. The protests may be —but it is hard to assert, given the limited flow of information out of the republic— both a genuine expression of rejection of Karakalpakstan’s loss of autonomy and an outpouring of anger at the difficult living conditions there. For decades, Karakalpakstan has been suffering from the economic, social, and sanitary consequences of the desiccation of the Aral Sea.

What has been the reaction of the Uzbek government?

The first reaction was to send security forces to Karakalpakstan’s capital Nukus in order to quell protests. Then violent clashes broke out. Protesters and security forces have blamed each other for violence, amid a news blackout and restrictions on internet and telephone use. Seeing that the situation could get out of hand, Mirziyoyev announced 2 July that he was taking the protesters’ message into consideration and would not change the articles of the Constitution relating to Karakalpakstan. However, the Uzbek leader has also decreed a state of emergency in Karakalpakstan for a period of one month, while Uzbek authorities have circulated the narrative of an alleged foreign attempt to destabilise the country.

Are there victims?

Yes. Uzbekistan’s prosecutor-general speaks of 18 killed. Mirziyoyev himself has admitted fatalities, according to him both among protesters and members of the security forces. Karakalpakstan’s autonomous authorities claim that hospitals are full of injured people, possibly more than one thousand. The National Guard —an Uzbek military body— has reported the arrest of 516 people.