In July of this year, the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan was shaken by violent protests sparked by Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s proposition of a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would withdraw Karakalpakstan’s right to secede from Uzbekistan.
According to official Uzbek sources, at least 21 people were killed, 243 more were injured and 516 people were detained; however, numbers given by several independent journalists and international human rights organizations estimate much higher casualties. The violence comes in the wake of claims by the Uzbek government that it is leaving its authoritarian past behind, placing the burden on the international community to hold Uzbekistan accountable for its promises and not allow its human rights abuses to continue unchecked.
Though technically a part of Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan and its residents have a distinct history, ethnicity and language. During the Soviet era, Karakalpakstan was officially a part of Kyrgyzstan and then Kazakhstan before eventually joining Uzbekistan. In 1990, it declared its independence before the other Central Asian regions, but became a part of independent Uzbekistan in 1993 — an arrangement intended to last 20 years before Karakalpakstan would have the right to hold a referendum on the possibility of seceding from Uzbekistan.
However, Karakalpakstan has the highest poverty rate in all of Uzbekistan and struggles with severe water issues, a high maternal mortality rate and a high rate of respiratory diseases. These problems shifted the region’s focus away from independence to the goal of first improving its citizens’ quality of life.
Despite this shift in the public discussion, separatist sentiment remains strong in Karakalpakstan. When media outlets shed light on Mirziyoyev’s proposal to amend the constitution and withdraw the Karakalpak right to secede, an uproar began on social media. Mobile connectivity in Karakalpakstan suddenly began failing toward the end of June, around the same time that residents in the region reported seeing an increased number of Uzbek police officers in the area. The violent arrest of journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, one of the most prominent voices of dissent against the president’s proposition, finally inspired people to take to the streets.
Though widespread, the protests were peaceful and police did not initially use force. When demonstrations began on July 1, the Karakalpak Ministry of Internal Affairs sent units to the site and released Tazhimuratov. As it became clear that the crowds were not going to disperse, police began using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Internet in the region was also completely shut down. Eventually, protesters returned home, but the arrest of Tazhimuratov for a second time on July 2 caused crowds to gather again. Rapid reaction units began to make arrests and employ increasingly violent methods of crowd control, including batons and stun grenades. The situation finally began to calm down with the arrival of the Uzbek president and prime minister in Nukus, though due to the lack of internet it took until the next day for the news to fully spread and bring an end to the protests. Tazhimuratov was ultimately charged, though the Uzbek government has not yet made those charges public.
On July 21, after strong pressure from the Karakalpak legislature, President Mirziyoyev finally lifted the curfew and state of emergency that he had previously imposed in the region, and promised that Karakalpakstan would be allowed to retain its constitutional right to secede. The Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan also admitted that it intentionally worsened internet access in Karakalpakstan due to fears of alleged “fake news.” Using footage obtained by drones, the Karakalpak internal affairs ministry continued to detain people and faced accusations of abuse of said detainees.
Since the dissolution of the protests, disagreements arose regarding the cause of the unrest. The government of Uzbekistan insists that the protest participants were drug addicts fueled by separatist sentiment and influenced by “forces from abroad.” However, researchers and journalists, including Uzbek political scientist Rafael Sattarov, say that any calls for secession resulted from feelings of neglect on behalf of the Karakalpak residents. Water issues, health problems and high unemployment continue to plague the region and remain obstacles that the Uzbek government has done relatively little to address.
Despite its promises of moving on from its authoritarian past, many recent actions by the government of Uzbekistan — most notably its handling of the unrest in Karakalpakstan — suggest Uzbek leaders have something different in mind.
Uzbekistan is extremely hesitant to allow foreign intervention of any kind in its internal affairs. The administration even published an official decree in June 2022 stating that any NGO wishing to operate in Uzbekistan must first partner with a government body. As NGOs are, by definition, non-governmental, forcing them to cooperate with the government essentially defeats their entire purpose.
Though Mirziyoyev did accept some governmental responsibility for the events in Karakalpakstan, his public statements and actions have been largely deflective in nature. In claiming there was alleged influence by foreign powers and alleging the involvement of drug use in protests, he attempts to shift the blame away from the government of Uzbekistan rather than using the opportunity to address the consistent neglect and oppression that not only Karakalpaks but all ethnic minorities in Uzbekistan experience. Even Mirziyoyev’s creation of a parliamentary commission tasked with investigating the events in Karakalpakstan, supposedly a positive demonstration of concern from the president, is, upon closer examination, mostly performative.
No Karakalpak independent journalists or human rights defenders were allowed to participate, though Alisher Quodirov, leader of the Milliy Tiklanish party and known Uzbek nationalist, was included on the commission and consistently published rebuttals to media reports published on the events throughout the course of the supposedly impartial investigation.
Regardless of whatever claims of a more democratic shift in its policies the government of Uzbekistan made, without some intervention, President Mirziyoyev and his aides are unlikely to take legitimate steps to combat continued human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
Demonizing and alienating foreign powers, underreporting casualties, deflection of blame in atrocities and restriction of internet access for citizens are all textbook moves by an authoritarian government attempting to control the masses.
Next year, Uzbekistan is due to conduct its first census in over 30 years, and the burden lies on the international community to continue to apply pressure on the country to protect its minorities and report accurately. If Uzbekistan feels as though it is held accountable on the global stage, the government will likely behave more justly to avoid increased attention concerning its internal affairs, just as it did in the case of Karakalpakstan. Eventually, one can hope that attempts by the Uzbek government to protect the human rights of its citizens will become more genuine and thorough.
However, the responsibility rests with the international community to continue to apply pressure until this hope becomes a reality.