A couple of seditious tweets and fliers usually do not merit a lot of analysis in conspiracy-prone Central Asia. But calls for independence in Uzbekistan's impoverished and "autonomous" west are likely getting ample attention from the country’s secret police following Russia’s recent annexation of another “autonomous” region in a former Soviet republic, Crimea.
Tashkent tightly controls Karakalpakistan and doesn't countenance any talk of independence, even though the region still has, on paper, “autonomous” status—a Soviet-era administrative device, essentially meaningless today in Central Asia, used to govern regions with large minority populations.
On May 5, Twitter user @amankar67 posted an announcement reminding followers that an obscure pro-independence movement that appeared this year, Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan"), would hold a "peaceful rally" against the regime of President Islam Karimov. "Forward Karakalpakstan people's movement!!! Karakalpak people are called to a [protest] action in Nukus," the announcement reads in typo-laden Karakalpak.
(For the record, if you’re just tuning in, “peaceful rallies” don’t happen in Uzbekistan.)
Last week Forward Karakalpakstan claimed credit for a mysterious leaflet found in the town of Kungrad calling for Karakalpak independence, according to an April 29 press release by the heretofore-unknown “Shyrak Information Center” (which claimed to be set up this year by "activists of the Karakalpak democratic movement" to cooperate with "various dissident groups in the country and abroad").
According to its constitution, Karakalpakstan, home to the eponymous ethnic minority, is a "sovereign democratic" republic within Uzbekistan. It has been an “autonomous” region of Uzbekistan since 1936, and before that of Kazakhstan. The designation means little more than some fancy legalese: "The Republic of Karakalpakstan has the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan based on a referendum by the people of Karakalpakstan," says Article 1 of the Karakalpak constitution and Article 74 of Uzbekistan’s constitution.
With just 1.7 million of Uzbekistan’s 30 million people, Karakalpakstan covers over a third of the country’s territory. Within the region, ethnic Karakalpaks account for about a third of the population and ethnic Uzbeks constitute another third, according to official statistics.
Forward Karakalpakstan seems to have appeared right around the time Russia was annexing Crimea. On March 15, Russia's Rosbalt news agency declared that Uzbek President Islam Karimov could not help but notice the parallels between Crimea and Karakalpakstan.
"The events in the Republic of Crimea have alarmed Karimov's regime. The people of Karakalpakstan do not agree with the foreign and domestic policies of Karimov's regime," Rosbalt wrote, quoting a Forward Karakalpakstan statement. The statement said Karakalpaks were eager to join Russia. “By culture and language Karakalpaks are closer to Kazakhs but will the [Kazakh] president support freedom and independence of the Republic of Karakalpakstan? If we hear a good signal from the Kremlin, then Karakalpakstan is ready to raise the Russian flag."
The Rosbalt story went on to taunt Karimov with the obvious: "Theoretically Moscow may start using hotspots of potential separatism in [Uzbekistan] as leverage against Tashkent.”
Tashkent hasn't responded to the subversive talk, but Shyrak speculated in an emailed press release on April 28 that Karimov's "urgent" visit to the region on April 25 was linked to "protest moods in Karakalpakstan which have grown against the backdrop of the dramatic events in Ukraine."
Karakalpakstan is not the only “autonomous” region in Central Asia to have its status questioned since Russia seized Crimea. In March, a prominent Tajik deputy said that Tajikistan’s Badakhshan region, home to minority Pamiri ethnic groups, should be stripped of its "autonomous" status because Russia could use it stir up rebellion and split the country.
It would certainly give the Kremlin leverage in Tashkent were Karakalpakstan to began agitating for independence. And it’s not hard to find a motive: Moscow has aggressively pushed former Soviet republics to join its Customs Union, which helped fuel the current chaos in Ukraine. Uzbekistan has, thus far, shown little interest.