Uzbekistan’s Unrest, Explained

Violent protests over proposed changes to its status have swept the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan.

People walk near a large white mosque with green domes in the evening.
People walk near a large white mosque with green domes in the evening.
People walk past a mosque in Nukus, in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan, on Sept. 24, 2018. SEBASTIEN BERGER/AFP via Getty Images

Late last week, violent unrest swept Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan—an autonomous republic inside Uzbekistan. The protests, which were initially peaceful, were triggered by proposed amendments to the Uzbek Constitution that sought to transform the status of Karakalpakstan from an ostensible autonomous republic with the right to secede to a province of the country.

Late last week, violent unrest swept Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan—an autonomous republic inside Uzbekistan. The protests, which were initially peaceful, were triggered by proposed amendments to the Uzbek Constitution that sought to transform the status of Karakalpakstan from an ostensible autonomous republic with the right to secede to a province of the country.

This was the largest political violence Uzbekistan has seen since the 2005 Andijan massacre, when police attempted to quell anti-government protests, killing 187 people, according to official estimates. The events of Andijan cast a heavy shadow over Uzbekistan for more than a decade, as the government of the now-deceased former president, Islam Karimov, isolated itself by cutting off most of its connections to the world as he blamed both the United States and the Europe for fomenting a so-called color revolution.

When news of the constitutional changes emerged, protests began in Nukus and other towns in Karakalpakstan. The Uzbek government in Tashkent had to call in soldiers from outside Nukus, as some local law enforcement officers sided with the protesters. Although the protests began peacefully, violence escalated on the night of July 1.

The details of how the violence escalated aren’t clear, but what is clear is that police fired on protesters and protesters beat soldiers they encountered. By the time the smoke cleared on July 2, Uzbek officials said 18 people had been killed and 243 people were injured, including 18 law enforcement officials.

On July 2, the day after the bloodiest violence, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in 2016, flew from Tashkent to Nukus and spoke before the local parliament. He promised that the proposed constitutional amendments would be thrown out and castigated parliamentarians for not telling him about citizen objections. He returned to Tashkent only to fly back to Nukus again the next day to issue a stern warning to the people that calls for separatism and riots would be crushed and those found responsible would be punished.

Almost immediately following the election of his second and final term in October 2021 in a vote that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described as noncompetitive, Mirziyoyev proposed drafting a new constitution. Although he described the need to protect civil liberties, it was clear the changes’ primary purpose would be to extend the president’s term in office.

According to the current constitution, the president is limited to two five-year terms. A new constitution would allow Mirziyoyev to reset his clock, allowing him to serve for two more terms. Even more, the proposed changes extend the president’s term in office from five to seven years.

This is a familiar playbook. Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Karimov, did the same thing for a decade. He introduced constitutional changes in 2011 that allowed him to reset his terms in office. Through these changes and other legal maneuvers, Karimov was able to remain in power from 1991 until his sudden death from a stroke in 2016. With these changes, Mirziyoyev seemed to be charting the same course.

After coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoyev emerged from his predecessor’s shadow and embarked on a series of economic and social reforms. He opened the country’s borders and allowed people to travel freely throughout the region, liberalized the currency so it could be traded freely, opened up the media, and encouraged citizens to criticize the government.

Together, these changes unleashed a more vibrant economy and civil society. Although other political reforms have been slow to come and it remains difficult for nongovernmental organizations to operate in the country, there is a vibrant informal civil society that is very active on social media and electronic platforms.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has pulled back some of the reforms it introduced just a few years ago. For example, the media has claimed increased government harassment and censorship, and just last week in Tashkent, academics and activists alike told FP that new regulations have created impossible obstacles to receiving foreign grants for their activities.

Despite this, Mirziyoyev remains a popular figure in Uzbekistan. His reforms have unleashed high levels of economic growth and brought new foreign investment into the country’s once autarkic economy, and he has worked to repair badly damaged relations with neighboring countries and the West.

When the country’s parliament shared the proposed changes in late June, there was little reaction to most of them. Society had already been prepared for the fact that the constitution would make way for an extension of Mirziyoyev’s term in office. But it was the changes to the status of Karakalpakstan that surprised everyone, even observers in faraway Tashkent.

The night of the worst violence in Nukus, Mirziyoyev was ironically giving a triumphant speech to the youth of the country in Tashkent, promising a “New Uzbekistan.” A cornerstone of his agenda is openness to the world. The violence in Karakalpakstan leaves many wondering whether that openness is in question as the constitutional reforms seem to be a throwback to earlier days.

In contrast to fast-growing Tashkent, Karakalpakstan is one of Uzbekistan’s poorest regions. It had been part of Uzbekistan as an autonomous republic since the Soviet days. This meant that the region had its own nominal parliament and cabinet. Most importantly, this allowed the region to give the Karakalpak language official status.

When Uzbekistan became independent, Karakalpakstan did not seek independence for itself. It did, however, retain its status as an autonomous republic with the same institutions the Soviets established—only now within the independent republic of Uzbekistan and still under Tashkent’s firm hand.

Although Karakalpakstan makes up about a third of Uzbekistan’s territory, it has only 2 million of the country’s roughly 35 million people. It is a sparsely populated desert area that is famously home to the now dried-up Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake. The Soviets irrigated so much water from the rivers that fed the sea to produce cotton—a water-intensive crop—that the sea dried up. Today, it is almost totally gone.

The dried-up Aral Sea left behind a terrible legacy of toxic dust that is a combination of salt and pesticides. It has led to widespread disease, such as cancer, tuberculosis, and anemia. It created an economic calamity. The region has infant mortality rates far higher than the rest of Uzbekistan, children have high levels of heart and kidney disease, and cancer rates have skyrocketed.

Yet Karakalpakstan had never seen widespread violence like the kind that erupted this past week. Some civil society activists clamored for greater cultural rights and dreamed of independence, but there was a tacit understanding that this poor region could never afford independence. Just one-third of the population of the autonomous region are ethnic Karakalpak. The rest of the region is split evenly between Kazakhs and Uzbeks. Karakalpaks have their own language, literary, and cultural traditions.

Since coming to power, Mirziyoyev has made serious investments in this impoverished region. These investments have gone beyond Nukus, reaching towns such as Moynaq, Kungrad, and Turtkul. The impoverished town of Moynaq on the shores of what used to be the Aral Sea now has clean drinking water and an airport.

Karakalpakstan also benefited from Uzbekistan’s greater regional openness under Mirziyoyev. There are regular trains to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, and many travel to Kazakhstan and Russia for work. Tashkent made it easier for residents to get out. In some ways, Karakalpakstan had seen a resurgence in recent years that few people had predicted. Things seemed to have been getting better.

While the country awaited proposed constitutional amendments, no one expected any change to the status of Karakalpakstan. Most of the reforms discussed widely in public focused on changes to the legal system as well as the extension of the president’s term in office.

On June 25, a constitutional commission appointed by the parliament shared the proposed amendments. Under the current constitution, Karakalpakstan, in addition to autonomy, enjoys the right to secede. The proposed changes would not only strip the region of its right to secede but also downgrade its status from an autonomous region inside Uzbekistan to that of a province.

In Tashkent, there was a sense of shock when the changes came out. The public had anticipated changes to the presidential terms, as one of the president’s closest advisers had spoken openly about them. But there was no forewarning about the changes to the status of Karakalpakstan.

Immediately after the changes became public, local journalists predicted there would be resistance.

The question many are asking is: Why did the government choose to make these changes now?

One explanation is that the government in Tashkent believed its own story: that through massive state investment, it had been able to buy quiescence in the region. Although there is some sentiment toward independence in Karakalpakstan, it is hardly enough to trigger a secessionist movement. With Karakalpakstan increasingly dependent on investments and financial transfers from Tashkent, it is unclear what economic benefit secession would have for this remote, impoverished region.

The status of Karakalpakstan had not been a hot political issue over the past several years. With greater attention and investment along with more open borders, it seemed that the Mirziyoyev policy toward this region had been successful.

We may never know why Tashkent made the decision to scrap Karakalpakstan’s de jure autonomy. The move echoes the blame Russian President Vladimir Putin placed on former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year. He critiqued Lenin’s nationality policy that gave small nations a right to self-determination in Soviet-era constitutions as a “time bomb.”

It may be that officials in Tashkent were worried about similar dynamics as they looked at Karakalpakstan, a region that had never witnessed large-scale nationalist movements. Yet, according to Putin, enshrining these rights were what generated demand from small nations for more self-determination. According to a pro-Uzbek government analyst, Karakalpakstan’s right to secede should be removed because it could generate a “conspiracy by outside forces.”

On top of this, major gas reserves were discovered in the region in 2018. This made the region more valuable than it had been in the past. Even a remote possibility of secession could make Tashkent very nervous as Karakalpakstan has natural resources that some local leaders believe could sustain it as an independent entity.

Trust between Karakalpakstan and the central government in Uzbekistan has been decimated. So much of the goodwill that the center has extended to Nukus evaporated with the issuance of the constitutional reforms.

The crisis also illustrates how out of touch the government is with its people and the failures of the president’s citizen engagement effort, which has been a cornerstone of his domestic policy. Without a more-open media, less-controlled elections, and the ability for civil society to freely organize, Uzbekistan will always be at risk for the unexpected.

How authorities react to this violence may define the future of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Rather than look within to find sources of conflict, most countries in the region look to cast blame on outsiders, blaming a panoply of actors from the Americans to the Russians to Islamist extremists.

Uzbekistan is at a vital crossroads, both in terms of its geography and its policy choices. If the country decides to confront what has happened head on and maintain openness that it has developed, it is well positioned to reap benefits. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that given the trajectory of economic reforms, the country is well placed to continue its rapid economic growth and halve poverty in the coming decade.

Geographically, Uzbekistan occupies an important position as it touches the other four countries in Central Asia as well as Afghanistan and has the largest population of any country in the region. If Uzbekistan decides to turn inward because of these events and close its open borders as well as limit exchanges with the outside world, it could put growth and stability in the entire region at risk. It also risks further instability in the long run.

The proposed constitutional amendments were an unforced error on the part of the Mirziyoyev government. It exposed the frailty of its efforts to engage citizens in the absence of genuine participatory governance. The fact that Mirziyoyev quickly rescinded proposed changes came as a welcome move for those in Nukus.

Tashkent claims that the violence was long planned by “foreign malicious forces … [whose] main goal is to attack the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan and create an interethnic conflict.” Yet it was a constitutional commission under the country’s parliament that approved these amendments that seemed so out of touch with public sentiment.

Karakalpaks will long remember how Tashkent’s actions triggered violence and a political conflict no one wanted. And although the international community will put pressure on Tashkent to hold an independent investigation into why this violence erupted, it is even more important that Mirziyoyev speak candidly with his people about the origins of the proposed amendments and be prepared to discuss potential excessive use of force by state security officials. This will be the first step in mending fractured relations. But earning trust back will take a long time.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is the director of the Center for Governance and Markets and an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also the president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society. Twitter: @jmurtazashvili

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