Conflicts in high profile geopolitical hot spots such as Gaza, Hong Kong, and Eastern Ukraine have continued to dominate media headlines and cable television news cycles. As such, many other burgeoning insurrections have begun to languish far below the public’s radar.
Separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia of Georgia, Catalan of Spain, and Scotland of the United Kingdom have alternatively garnered temporary media focus only to recede back into relative anonymity as the public remains focused on the violent war in Syria and the ongoing civil strife in Ukraine. Among the more interesting regions beginning to reflect the possibility of breaking away from its national government is the Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
Located in the northwestern region of the country, Karakalpakstan’s population is majority Uzbek and is estimated to be between 1.7 and 1.8 million per the latest census (conducted in 2013). Ethnic Karakalpaks comprise roughly one quarter of Karakalpakstan’s population with another 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks and 300,000 Kazakhs. The capital, Nukus, is home to the majority of the Karakalpaks and represents the highest concentration of the ethnic minority in all of Uzbekistan. Religiously, the majority of Karakalpaks are affiliated with Sunni Islam. Dervishes are especially notable in Karakalpakstan and are one of the more recognizable elements of the order in the world.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan’s national leaders established what would prove to be a firmly entrenched authoritarian regime for the next two decades. The current president of the country, Islam Karimov, has been the leader of the country since 1990 and has been notable first and foremost for his intolerance of political dissent, his heavy-handed response to insurrection, and his anti-Islamist policies. Delving into Karimov’s tyrannical control over Uzbekistan is an article unto itself. I will examine his rule as a single thesis in an article to come. Suffice it to say, Karimov’s policies have inspired a backlash of popular support for a more democratic governing authority. The illegitimacy of rule by ethnic Uzbek majority in Karakalpakstan’s government is a sensitive topic for many Karakalpaks.
Earlier this month, reports out of Karakalpakstan signaled an intensified effort by the government to control the content of anti-government personalities, especially on the internet:
Bloggers are now banned from using online platforms for a long list of activities, the Anhor website reported: from calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order to questioning Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity; and from promoting pornography and narcotics to disseminating information inciting ethnic or religious enmity.
Promoting war, violence, terrorism, extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism is also a no-no, under amendments to the law governing IT affairs which came into force on September 5. So is divulging state secrets, and publishing information that may harm someone’s reputation and violate their right to privacy (a provision likely to act as a deterrent to whistleblowers).
The ban on calling for the overthrow of the state and questioning territorial integrity come as Uzbekistan, like other states in the region, appears rattled by the conflict in Ukraine and by Russia’s aggressive expansionist rhetoric. This year has witnessed a spate of online calls for independence for Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, and – while the credibility and motives of those posting them under pseudonyms is in question – the material has no doubt raised eyebrows in Tashkent. (Eurasianet.org, September 8)
A week later, media reports out of Karakalpakstan have focused on the conscripted nature of labor and the unhappiness of some citizens with the requirement. In an action akin to and reminiscent of Soviet-style forced labor, college students were compelled by government officials to participate in working cotton fields. Public officials, able to “buy out” of the annual service, were seen by many as enjoying special favor. Students served nonetheless:
The Karakalpakstan government has adopted a regulation to send second-year college students who are older than 16 years of age to work in the cotton fields from September 18.
The previous day saw meetings at colleges and other learning institutions where it was announced that the minimum age of cotton pickers was to lowered from 18 to 16 years of age.
Second-year college students will be harvesting cotton in Hodzhajlinsky, Kunkakulsky, Karausyaksky, and Tahtakupyrsky districts of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.
Rumors have been circulating that even first-year students may be forced to pick cotton; with September 22 being given as a possible date of departure to the fields. (UZNews.cnet, September 14)
Much of the drive for independence in Karakalpakstan revolves around the uneven distribution of public funding garnered from natural resource extraction and the abysmal record of human rights abuses by the national government, particularly in Karakalpakstan. The Karimov regime has increasingly relied on the the harvesting of cotton for export in order to ensure revenue. Human rights campaigners have condemned the government headed by Karimov specifically on the issue of cotton production. These activists cite first person accounts and raw data as evidence that the Karimov regime exploits young children as ostensible slave labor in cultivating cotton for export. Additionally, human rights groups have also claimed that Karimov’s forced labor campaign further compels citizens to harvest the cotton at little to no financial benefit for the individual. The economics and human rights issues in Karakalpakstan in particular conflate to make the situation a tense one as talk of independence emerged in Warsaw last week.
Russian aggressiveness has also impacted the Karimov regime’s focus with regard to security strategy and economic interests. While Uzbekistan has bristled at Russian influence in the affairs of Uzbekistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conflict in Ukraine and the codification of treaties such as the Eurasian Economic Union have inspired further distrust of Moscow by the Tashkent regime. The national government has apparently begun a pivot eastward in an effort to shake the yoke of Moscow’s influence and ensure long-term economic viability of the regime. Joanna Lillis, writing for Eurasianet, observes:
Tilting east is more promising for Tashkent than attempting to turn westward: partly since Uzbekistan’s geopolitical importance to the West is waning as NATO withdraws from Afghanistan; and partly since many Western states consider doing business with Karimov toxicdue to Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record.
Western states, especially the United States and United Kingdom, “remain constrained from increasing their engagement by political and human rights concerns, as well as the negative blowback they received from forging close security ties with Tashkent in the 2000s,” Cooley pointed out.
After 9/11, Washington wooed Uzbekistan (which sits on Afghanistan’s northern border) to open a military base – from which it was summarily ejected after criticizing the killing of protesters by Uzbek security forces in Andijan in 2005.
“Uzbekistan has tended to ‘turn West’ when it finds that Russia is becoming too assertive, and then back again to Russia when pressed too strongly by the West on its poor human rights record,” said Dalton. “This could happen again this time – although with most of its gas pipelines connecting with China, and Western forces pulling out from Afghanistan this year, it is not clear what Uzbekistan could offer the West in return.”
Ultimately, China – now a major purchaser of Uzbek gas – stands to benefit from Uzbekistan’s present dilemma. Karimov’s visit to Beijing in August was “an important signal,” said Dalton, “that Uzbekistan wishes to maintain good ties with strong foreign partners, to counterbalance Russian influence.” (Lillis, Eurasianet.org, September 8)
On September 14, reports out of Europe signaled an escalation in the call for Karakalpakstan’s independence from Uzbekistan:
Over the past year the separatist movement of Karakalpakstanis has been active primarily online. The movement looks to laws which allow Karakalpakstan to separate from Uzbekistan via referendum and complains that the Tashkent’s repressions do not allow Karakalpakstanis to even broach the idea of holding such a referendum
In Warsaw, Nuratdinov spoke of both laws and an agreement between Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan which allow for the possibility of Karakalpakstan separating from Uzbekistan.
The current constitutions of both Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan define the former as a sovereign republic and allow it the right to become independent via a referendum.
However, in the words of the Karakalpakstani speaker, “any attempts to discuss the right of the people of Karakalpakstan to become independent are severely repressed by the Uzbekistani special services.”
According to activists, authorities in Karakalpakstan are conducting politically-motivated arrests of suspected dissenters and separatists. Those arrested are tortured and sentenced to long terms of incarceration.
At the end of his speech Nasiratdin Nuratdinov called on the OSCE and other international organizations to begin monitoring the human rights situation in Karakalpakstan. (UZNews, September 14)
As time passed following the fall of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet republics concurrently gained increased autonomy from Russian policymakers and increased attention from the Kremlin. With vast deposits of natural resources in countries such as Uzbekistan, Russian strategists have pursued increased influence over the governments of the post-Soviet republics, most specifically Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. This has often facilitated hardened regime postures towards human rights, democratic governance, and transparency.
The future of Central Asia is likely to be highlighted by the region’s geopolitical value in energy resource extraction. Both China and Russia sustain incredible interest in ensuring access to the natural resources beneath territory ruled by despotic regimes in the post-Soviet space.
Authoritarian regimes in places such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will likely continue to react to democracy movements within their borders with an iron fist, concerned that any fissure in the population’s acquiescence to the rule of despots such as Karimov represents a weakening of the regime’s control over its territory.
Karakalpakstan is an interesting case study in the pushback of ethnic minorities bristling against what they perceive is tyrannical rule of the national government. Given Karimov’s history of suppressing movements pursuing greater human rights standards in government policy, Karakalpakstan will likely emerge as an intriguing reminder of the possibility for strife and violent conflict in Central Asia.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Reuters)