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Playing into their own hands: The events in Nukus as a deliberate provocation by the Uzbek authoritarian leader

Peaceful protests that began in Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan) as the legislators were considering amendments to the Constitution that would abolish the republic's sovereign status and its right to depart from Uzbekistan did not come as a shock to Tashkent officials. By contrast, the government's response leads us to believe the provocation was deliberate. The president of Uzbekistan hopes that, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, no one will pay attention to the unrest or its brutal suppression. Shavkat Mirziyoyev is an authoritarian leader who doesn't take kindly to any internal sovereignty.

  • Foreign enemies are to blame

  • The fear of «voluntary accession» to Russia

  • «Zeroing out», no matter the cost

  • Andijan is history; it won't happen again

Читать на русском языке

The first public authority to respond to the protests in the Republic of Karakalpakstan was the Uzbek parliament, back on July 2, a day after the people of Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic, took to the streets.

In their press release, the deputies of the Karakalpak parliament referred to the protesters as a “group of criminals”, “instigators”, “populists”, “manipulators of the public conscience”, and “organizers of illegal acts aiming to seize the bodies of public administration”.

At first, such harsh language may have sounded hasty and subject to further correction. However, subsequent developments demonstrated that the definitions, which paid no regard to the presumption of innocence, provided the foundation for the government's response to the local protest with an ethnic streak. This accusatory strategy appears to have been developed in advance, to have been carefully elaborated, and coordinated.

Foreign enemies are to blame

The amendments were presented for public consideration on June 25. On the following day, local protests sparked in multiple cities of Karakalpakstan. Meanwhile, the press released numerous articles on the “correct interpretation of the constitutional reform”, which resembled statements from the presidential administration.

Kun.Uz, a leading Uzbek web publication, distributed a post by a former political emigrant and current supporter of Mirziyoyev's reforms, political scientist Kamoliddin Rabbimov. Lamenting the fact that “the proposal to amend articles 70-75 of the Constitution has raised certain concerns among some of our Karakalpak friends and brothers”, he insisted that “the proposed changes aim to prevent a collusion of external hostile forces against a single nation, our brotherhood, and coexistence”. He goes on in Russian, even though he used to write his opinion pieces mostly in Uzbek.

“Considering the provocations that are at play across the post-Soviet space, we must stay vigilant amidst external forces that are opposed to our unity in the matter.”

His words inspire comparisons to Shavkat Mirziyoyev's statement released on July 6:

“Of course, these events took more than a day or ten days to orchestrate. Destructive external forces had been preparing them for years. Their main objective is to encroach upon Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity and to instigate an inter-ethnic conflict.”

Neither of the speakers put a name on these “external forces”. However, the lack of originality once again attests to the fact that the governmental response to the Karakalpak crisis had been prepared in advance and is being implemented according to the plan.

The fear of «voluntary accession» to Russia

A well-informed reader may deduce that “provocations in the post-Soviet space” is a reference to the events in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Crimea. However, the general public in Uzbekistan is more likely to interpret such a hint as an abstract bogeyman. Here, it's different from Kazakhstan with its large Russian diaspora and more acute attention to scandalous statements made by Moscow officials. However, what does the “Karakalpak issue” have to do with Russia?

Uzbek secret services still have fresh memories of how a representative of the non-registered Alga Karakalpakstan (“Go, Karakalpakstan”) party appealed to “increasingly popular discussions about Karakalpakstan acceding to Russia” back in 2014. He also made an explicit reference to the period from 1930 to 1936, when Karakalpakia was part of Soviet Russia.

The word about provocations began to spread after the annexation of Crimea, to the utmost annoyance of Tashkent. Although the Russian-Uzbek bilateral relations have been characterized by “a high level of trust” from both sides, no one in Uzbekistan will be too happy with a “fifth column” of Karakalpak nationalists toying with the idea of “voluntary accession” to Russia.

The word about provocations began to spread after the annexation of Crimea, to the utmost annoyance of Tashkent

On an equally important note, the twenty-year agreement between Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan about the voluntary accession of the former to the latter expired in 2013. It’s hard to pinpoint why the then president, Islam Karimov, tabled the question about its extension or termination. After Karimov’s demise three years later, the geopolitical framework continued spiraling out of control. However, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has had enough courage to do what the nation's first president failed to. He decided to deal with age-old problems that he inherited from the Soviet times and the early years of sovereignty.

«Zeroing out», no matter the cost

Announcing a constitutional reform in late 2021, Shavkat Mirziyoyev emphasized the social focus of the nation’s new basic law, its attention to human rights, and the development of education and science. Suggestions from the population are known to have been gathered and brought forward for discussion by a dedicated parliamentary commission; therefore, the president was seemingly doing the people's bidding. (To learn more, you may read the comment offered to The Insider by Tashkent-based political scientist Rustam Burnashev)

To no one’s surprise, the proposed amendments eventually featured such popular items as the secular nature of the Uzbek state and provisions about the irremovability of judges and the unacceptability of pressure on defense counsels. Surprises included proposals to eliminate the Karakalpak sovereignty and extend the presidential term from five to seven years.

Despite the president distancing himself from the procedure of gathering constitutional amendment proposals, it is hard to imagine this process taking place without the scrutiny of the presidential administration. While populist in appearance, Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reforms have had no impact on real-world policies and the key decision-making processes in the system of public governance.

While populist in appearance, Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reforms have had no impact on real-world policies and the key decision-making processes in the system of public governance

Uzbekistan still has no legal political opposition, and its Soviet-style judicial system is outdated and stale. Free press and civil control over the authorities only exist on paper. All decisions are made by an authoritarian leader who is no different from his Central Asian peers: Emomali Rahmon (Tajikistan), Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Kazakhstan), Serdar Berdimuhamedow (Turkmenistan), or Sadyr Japarov (Kyrgyzstan).

The expedience with which Mirziyoyev demanded that amendments regarding Karakalpak sovereignty be excluded from the draft constitution immediately after the protests invites the conclusion that some other debatable items, like the extension of the presidential term, will be demonstratively rejected as well. This is further confirmed by the parliament prolonging the consideration for another ten days.

Public gestures demonstrating the president's humility and concern for his citizens provide the opportunity for Mirziyoyev to avoid protests over his “zeroing out”, both from the Uzbek nation and, more importantly, from democratic European leaders. The latter are always quick to criticize yet another dictator for usurping power.

Andijan is history; it won't happen again

A brutal crackdown on the protests in Nukus may have been catastrophic for Mirziyoyev, especially for Uzbekistan’s international image, because the country relies on democratic nations for support of its economic reforms and business investments.

As early as on July 4, the European Union called on Tashkent to conduct “an open and independent investigation into the violent events in Karakalpakstan” and demanded that the authorities “guarantee human rights, including the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, in line with Uzbekistan’s international commitments”.

However, Europe is highly unlikely to react the way it did to the Andijan massacre in 2005 or impose serious sanctions against Uzbekistan. Firstly, the authorities are doing all they can to paint the protesters as violent instigators, “the majority of whom were under the influence of alcohol or drugs”, – instead of approaching them as political opponents. Consequently, on July 6, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry stated, in so many words: “The brutality of those complicit in the unrest was the result of provocative activities undertaken by a group of manipulators and cannot be interpreted as an act of peaceful public protest.”

Secondly, when all is said and done, the West is still a big fan of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s. He has eliminated forced labor on cotton fields, has freed two dozen political prisoners, and is advocating free-market capitalism. His most important qualities in the European eye are his reluctance to join the pro-Russian Eurasian Economic Union or recognize the quasi-republics of the Donbas, his support of Ukraine's territorial integrity, and his appeals to end the war

Thirdly, it is safe to assume that, looking back on Crimea and Ukraine, European leaders will happily overlook Mirziyoyev’s crackdown on Karakalpak separatists, for fear that criticism may encourage him to seek refuge in Putin’s arms. For Europe and the US, Ukraine is such a powerful distraction from other global problems that the Uzbek leader couldn't have chosen a better moment to do away with the “Karakalpak issue”.

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