Dead and wounded in Karakalpakstan revolt
Inhabitants of the autonomous region protest against constitutional reform. Government withdraws amendment annulling Karakalpakstans' right to secede. Little news arrives from the scene of the clashes. A crisis that threatens the stability of Uzbekistan.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - The President of Uzbekistan, Šavkat Mirziyoyev, has denounced casualties among demonstrators and law enforcement officers following the protests in Karakalpakstan. So far, there are officially 18 dead and 243 injured. The demonstrations started at the end of June, after the presentation of the draft constitutional reforms. The government proposed to remove the term 'sovereign' from the description of the status of the republic of Karakalpakstan, and to eliminate the right of its citizens to speak out in order to secede from Uzbekistan.
On 1 July, thousands of people took to the streets of Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, and other cities in the autonomous region. Mirziyoyev flew to Nukus twice in three days, announcing a state of emergency. Special units of the National Guard arrived, and the authorities imposed restrictions on the mobile phone network and internet.
It is difficult to get accurate information about the events, as the official Uzbek media do not disseminate news, and access to social networks is problematic. According to Ulusmedia.kz, the police and the Guard opened fire on the demonstrators, also using blinding grenades and tear gas. Arbat.media published some amateur videos of arrests on the streets of Nukus. Images of people with bloodied bodies and streets covered in blood are also circulating, but it is impossible to verify the credibility of these testimonies.
After the riots started, the Uzbek President proposed to keep the point about the sovereignty of Karakalpakstan in the new Constitution. The Uzbek Minister of the Interior declared the demonstrations illegal, adding that 'they arose from a misinterpretation of the constitutional reforms'.
Speaking on 2 July in Parliament, Žogarky Keneš, Mirziyoyev tried to reassure MPs: 'You took the initiative and signed the amendments, the articles concerned will not be changed if the Karakalpakst people are not satisfied'. He also added that 'uniting the destinies of the two states will bring prosperity to the entire population', hinting at solving the drought problems in the Aral Sea and other development projects. The president closed his speech emphatically: 'I am proud to be a son not only of Uzbekistan, but also of Karakalpakstan.
The Republic of Karakalpakstan is the largest region in Uzbekistan, occupying 40 per cent of the country's entire territory, but it is also the least densely populated, with two million residents out of a total of almost 35. Two official languages are recognised in Karakalpakstan, Karakalpakstani and Uzbek. The autonomous region had been created in the early Soviet years, first as part of Russia and then Kazakhstan, and was eventually annexed to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in 1936 as part of the nationality control policy imposed by Stalin.
In 1990, the council of the autonomous region had approved the declaration of statehood, which was also confirmed by Moscow, but in 1993 an interstate agreement was signed with Uzbekistan for 20 years, in which the right to leave the Uzbek state was guaranteed, a right confirmed in the Constitution in Article 70, despite the six constitutional amendments made since 1993. The agreement was to be re-discussed in 2012, but there were persecutions and repressions ordered by the historic president Islam Karimov, who remained in power from 1991 until his death in 2016, who feared Islamic fundamentalist drifts like those that had led to attacks and massacres in previous years.
Karakalpakstan lives off Tashkent's subsidies, and is strongly affected by ecological issues and the distribution of water resources, largely absorbed by neighbouring Turkmenistan, and partly dispersed across the uninhabited steppes. Attempts to curb the Karakalpakstans' independence drives also seem to be conditioned by the recent Gornyj Badakšan uprisings in Tajikistan, and the war in Ukraine over the Donbass itself, all local aspects of the never-ending post-Soviet nationality issue.