Uzbekistan is in the process of amending its constitution. The zeroing of presidential terms, allowing incumbent Shavkat Mirziyoyev to remain in power, was expected to be the most contentious change. However, the Uzbek authorities are now having to face an unexpected problem of their own making: the Republic of Karakalpakstan and its sovereignty.
Karakalpakstan, officially the Republic of Karakalpakstan, occupies the western third of Uzbekistan but barely accounts for 5% of the country’s population. It owes its existence to the Soviet national delimitation policy of the 1920s, when the Karakalpaks, a Turkic ethnic group, were assigned an autonomous region that eventually became part of Uzbekistan.
In appearance, Karakalpakstan has all the paraphernalia of a state: flag, anthem, constitution, parliament, ministries… In both the Uzbek and Karakalpak charters, it is defined as a sovereign state with the right to secede from Uzbekistan. However, in practical terms, Karakalpakstan can be considered to be little more than another province (viloyat) controlled by Tashkent. Major appointments have to be authorised, if not in practise named by, the authorities in the capital and there is no real political autonomy.
Away with sovereignty and secession
Since independence from the Soviet Union, Karakalpakstan’s status has been largely overlooked. Despite what was written in both constitutions, little thought was given in Tashkent or Nukus, the Karakalpak capital, to its status within Uzbekistan. Its citizens had more important issues to focus on and, notwithstanding the existence of fringe separatist movements in exile, there were no movements within Karakalpakstan that would trouble the Uzbek authorities. However, the recent constitutional changes have brought the Republic of Karakalpakstan to the forefront of Uzbek politics.
As part of the constitutional review in Uzbekistan, a number of articles related to Karakalpakstan were proposed to be amended. In its current form, the Uzbek constitution covers its relationship with Karakalpakstan in articles 70 to 75. The most contentious amendments refer to articles 70 and 74, which mention Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty and right to secede.
Article 70 states that: “The sovereign Republic of Karakalpakstan is a part of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The sovereignty of the Republic of Karakalpakstan shall be protected by the Republic of Uzbekistan.” The word sovereign will now disappear.
In its current form, according to Article 74: “The Republic of Karakalpakstan shall have the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a nation-wide referendum held by the people of Karakalpakstan.” That article has been erased completely and substituted by one that defines the powers of the Karakalpak republic (“[to exercise] legislative, executive and judicial power in its territory in accordance with the Constitution and laws of […] Uzbekistan, the Constitution and laws of […] Karakalpakstan.”
There are other minor changes to articles 72 and 74 that reinforce Uzbekistan’s role in Karakalpakstan. For instance, adding to article 72 that “The legislation of the Republic of Karakalpakstan is part of a single legal system of the Republic of Uzbekistan and is an integral part legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”
It is the deleting of the term sovereign and any reference to the right to secede what has caused indignation among Karakalpaks. According to RFE/RL’s Ozodlik, they took to social networks to protests these changes.
A Telegram channel called “Constitution of Karakalpakstan” managed to get over 100,000 subscribers in just one day. No mean feat if we consider that the republic’s population is just under 2 million. The Uzbek authorities reacted by closing critical Telegram channels, limiting internet access in Nukus and warning bloggers not to write about the new charter.
On July 1, at least several hundred Karakalpaks took to the streets of Nukus to protest against the changes. A rare sign of dissent that shows how the mood is changing across segments of the local population.
It is hard to size the discontent in Karakalpakstan with these changes, especially given the situation is still evolving. But what was a dormant topic, attracting little attention, has now become an issue much more widely discussed. Political scientist Rafael Sattarov goes as far as to suggest that this situation can lead in the future to mistrust between Uzbeks and Karakalpaks.
A miscalculation by Tashkent
Why did the Uzbek authorities decide to change Karakalpakstan’s status? It is certainly an oddity to have a republic inside Uzbekistan that has the right to secede. But not even Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, tampered with those articles when he amended the constitution in 2002. Perhaps avoiding separatist problems in Uzbekistan in the future, as we have seen in other former Soviet countries recently like Ukraine and Georgia, was behind this. If that was the case, it was poorly executed.
It would seem as those pushing for such amendments thought they would go unnoticed. Afterall, Karakalpakstan was a sovereign state in name only and, even though it is acknowledged in the constitutions, it would never be allowed to secede. But the authors were wrong. The changes did not go unnoticed, and they had underestimated the reaction in Karakalpakstan.
The issue of Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty is far from over. According to Article 71 of the Uzbek constitution: “The Republic of Karakalpakstan shall have its own Constitution. The Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan must be in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”
This article will remain unchanged. This means that Karakalpakstan’s own constitution will also have to be amended in due course to delete references to sovereignty and secession. Its all-important Article 1, which covers these matters, will have to be altered significantly. Otherwise, it would contradict Uzbekistan’s own charter. Therefore, we can expect further discontent in the near future when these changes are made.
The Uzbek authorities are now facing a problem of their own making. The most sensible approach would have been to not alter the articles referring to Karakalpakstan. Recognising the republic’s sovereignty and right to secede was an odd thing to do, but in reality it had no effect. Uzbekistan would never allow such thing to happen. In practical terms, keeping Karakalpakstan as a de facto Potemkin state within Uzbekistan would have avoided opening Pandora’s box on Karakalpakstan’s status in Uzbekistan.
President Mirziyoyev is aware that the constitutional amendments have not gone down well in his westernmost region. During his speech on June 30 as part of the Youth Day celebrations, he had kind words for the republic:
“I say every time that with all my heart I respect and honor the generous people of Karakalpakstan, who bravely overcome difficulties. I say with love and pride that I am the son of not only Uzbekistan, but also Karakalpakstan, and I want to repeat this again.”
But they seem too little too late. The box, however small, has now been opened. The Uzbek authorities will have no problems in dealing with it, but they have inadvertently put Karakalpakstan on the map. Expect to read more about the Republic of Karakalpakstan in the near future.