The Karakalpakstan protests are both a history lesson and warning for the West
The recent protests in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region in Uzbekistan are another example of the delayed time-bombs left behind by fallen empires.
Long present under the surface, these time bombs can take a remarkably long time to explode. In the case of the Karakalpaks (fortunately so far a limited one), their protests erupted 31 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan became independent.
The Karakalpaks (“Black Hats”) are a formerly nomadic Turkic Muslim people who migrated into the area south of the Aral Sea from the 16th to the 18th Centuries. They were loosely subject to the Khans of Khiva, before being conquered by the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Their language forms part of the same Turkic linguistic family as the Kazakhs to the north and west.
Under Soviet rule, they were considered too few in number and too mixed with other ethnicities to be given their own “union republic,” like the Kazakhs and Uzbeks. Instead, like many small ethnicities of the Soviet Union, they received the status of an “autonomous republic,” first within Kazakhstan from 1925 to 1930, then in the Russian Federation, and since 1936 in Uzbekistan. The population of Karakalpakstan today is just over three million, roughly evenly divided between Karakalpaks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs, with smaller numbers of Russians and Tatars.
In 1990, as the Soviet Union headed for disintegration like several other autonomous Soviet regions, the parliament (supreme soviet) of Karakalpakstan declared “sovereignty” in a bid for independence. By 1993, however, this had been abandoned in return for a promise by Uzbekistan that in 20 years a referendum on independence would be held. This compromise, unique in post-Soviet disputes, resulted from a number of factors: the very small numbers of Karakalpaks; the fact that both in Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan as a whole, the Communist authorities remained seamlessly in power; and the fact that Moscow had no interest in backing the Karakalpaks (unlike in the cases of Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and Crimea).
However, no referendum on independence was ever held, and small movements emerged (based abroad) calling for independence and accusing Uzbekistan of seeking to gradually dilute and eliminate Karakalpak identity. Over the past three generations, the living standards of rural Karakalpaks have also deteriorated steeply as the result of the salination and degradation of their grazing lands. This stems from the drying up of the Aral Sea due to overuse of water from the rivers that feed it.
The latest protests, in which at least 18 people were killed and hundreds injured, erupted when Uzbekistan’s government and parliament abolished the constitutional right of Karakalpakstan to secede. The Uzbek government declared a state of emergency, but also withdrew the constitutional change. Observers have expressed fears that the protests could turn into ethnic clashes between Karakalpaks and Uzbeks, similar to the conflicts between ethnic Uzbeks and Kirghiz around the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan in 1990 and 2010, and the pogroms against Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan in 1989.
These disturbances may also usher in a new era of repression in Uzbekistan, which has experienced some tentative liberalization since the death of President Islam Karimov in 2016. They should also serve as a warning to those commentators who advocate greater U.S. involvement in Central Asia in an effort to push out Russian and Chinese influence. These Western voices have little idea of the kinds of situations in which America would become embroiled, or how it would or could deal with them.
Karakalpakstan, and the disputes surrounding it, are the result of the administrative and ethno-national arrangements created under successive Soviet constitutions. They can also in a way be called the product of modernity: the creation of national states in areas where such entities had never previously existed, where in some cases local nomadic people had never had settled states at all, and where multiple ethnicities are grouped under one state and overlap with other states.
As an example of the difficulty, until the later 19th Century the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, violently disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is supposed to have had an Armenian majority in winter and an Azeri majority in summer, when Azeri pastoral tribes drove their sheep up into the mountains.
This is a familiar pattern in Africa, where colonial borders (which later became those of the post-colonial independent states) were notoriously drawn with little regard for ethnic or historical identities, but where endlessly overlapping ethnicities also made the drawing of such borders exceptionally difficult. Many local conflicts have resulted and continue to occur since African states became independent some 60 years ago.
Let’s take two examples from the British Empire. A good many of Nigeria’s problems since independence can be traced to the fact that in 1915, Britain amalgamated its two separate protectorates of northern and southern Nigeria. This made for administrative convenience, but it also united ethnic and ethno-religious groups that not only had nothing in common but often had long histories of mutual animosity.
In the case of the equatorial region of southern Sudan, British imperial conquest led to the merger of this region with the Arab and Muslim regions of northern and central Sudan, from which it differed completely in religion and ethnicity. The result was a series of civil wars leading to the secession of South Sudan in 2011 — 65 years after Sudanese independence. However, it must be said that local realities meant that no modern state arrangement for this region was ever likely to work well. Its two main ethnicities, the Nuer and the Dinka, have an old history of violent rivalry that burst into new civil wars after independence.
The former Soviet Union has seen seven such post-colonial conflicts. The Abkhaz, rather like the Karakalpaks, asserted that their confusing constitutional record under Soviet rule meant that at independence they had the right to secede from Georgia. The southern Ossetes claimed the same on the basis of their desire to unite with the Northern Ossete autonomous republic of Russia, although South Ossetia had a large Georgian minority.
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh claimed the right to leave Azerbaijan and join Armenia, though Nagorno-Karabakh contained a large Azeri minority and an ancient Azeri city. The Russian-speaking populations, Transdniestria, Crimea, and parts of the Donbas claimed the right to leave Moldova and Ukraine respectively on the grounds that they had never historically been part of those states and had been incorporated in them by Soviet imperial fiat without any consultation.
In the last two cases, these disputes eventually fed into the disastrous and criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine, which will haunt the region for generations to come — just as the other conflicts that I have described haunt the Caucasus, and the underlying tensions of Central Asia endanger that region. These disputes are likely to remain when the Soviet Union that helped spawn them has become a faint historical memory.