It has become standard for rights advocates to use Uzbekistan’s controversial policies – forced labor in the cotton fields and the hounding of independent religious groups, for example – to demand Uzbekistan’s international partners push for reform. But a separatist group from within Uzbekistan taking its campaign to the World Bank is something new.
On June 1, a little-known freedom movement in Uzbekistan’s resources-rich, but impoverished northwestern region of Karakalpakstan urged the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, to postpone loans to the Uzbek government until Tashkent has taken "concrete steps to end the use of forced labor" in the cotton sector. Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan") said the $411 million for water management improvement and horticulture projects in cotton-growing Karakalpakstan will encourage the government to continue abusing the minority’s rights.
"The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence," said the English-language letter to Kim, describing a widely documented practice. "Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton."
Alga Karakalpakstan's letter – distributed by activists at the “Shyrak Information Center,” which appears to have been set up earlier this year – complains that Karakalpakstan is "under political and economic blockade" and is "held captive" by the Uzbek government which, it claims, will use the loans for "other purposes."
The letter also claimed over 2,000 minority Karakalpaks are languishing in Uzbek prisons for desiring "freedom and independence." That claim cannot be independently confirmed. Yet the letter also charged that Karakalpak women are forcibly sterilized by government doctors, a practice that has been documented throughout the country.
Karakalpakstan, home to promising oil and gas discoveries in the former bed of the dried-up Aral Sea, is a transit route for Uzbek and Turkmen natural gas shipped northwards to Russia.
"Karakalpakstan does not need to take the loan," the letter maintains, citing "sales of Karakalpak gas" to Gazprom and Lukoil, another Russian company involved in oil and gas prospecting in the region. "Its monetary income is enough to develop the economy of Karakalpakstan."
The movement calls for independence from Uzbekistan but doesn't rule out joining either Kazakhstan or Russia.
"The aim of our movement is the achievement of independence and democratic development of Karakalpakstan," the movement's leader, who calls himself "Marip of Kungrad," said in an emailed interview distributed by the Shyrak center on May 21. "The events of the past 20 years have clearly shown that living in Russia is better for our people than [living] in Uzbekistan. Many people see Russia as a guarantor of our stability and sovereignty."
Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March appears to have galvanized the small independence movement in Karakalpakstan. Tashkent has been mute on the issue. But the Uzmetronom website, believed to be linked to Uzbek intelligence services, dismissed the Alga Karakalpakstan movement as "some group" receiving foreign funding to destabilize a region with significant oil and gas reserves.