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Karakalpakstan is a nominally autonomous region that occupies approximately one third of the territory of Uzbekistan, but only 5% of the country's population lives there. A good part of the inhabitants of the area used to make their living out of fishing in the Aral Sea, which Uzbekistan shares with neighboring Kazakhstan, but during the Soviet period the water was diverted to irrigate cotton plantations and the lake, as the main source of local resources, practically dried up. That means that this region is a huge desert, without major resources, a peripheral area that even in Soviet times received minimal attention. And yet, Karakalpakstan was recently the focus of a strange outburst, rare in Central Asia, a region more used to repressive stability by leaders stuck in power than to social mobilizations.
The origin of the protests was the project of constitutional reforms proposed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has governed since 2016. In 1993 Karakalpakstan officially joined Uzbekistan with the promise that an independence referendum would take place 20 years later, which never occurred. Even so, the Uzbek Constitution establishes that this region is sovereign and has the right to secede, as well as its own flag, anthem, autonomous parliament and Constitution. But the reforms proposed by the president aim to eliminate these rights, reduce local autonomy, suppress the right to secede and, in addition, extend the duration of the presidential administration from five to seven years and eliminate the two-term limit.
Protests in early July in Karakalpakstan were harshly repressed, leaving 18 dead and more than 500 detained, according to the government, which also said protesters had attempted to occupy public buildings. Mirziyoyev went even further and, although he did not accuse anyone in particular, declared that the riots were planned for years by foreign forces, as if the civil society of his country could not question him. For a few days, internet access was blocked and a state of emergency and curfew were established.
Local journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova remains in detention and isolated after covering the protests and publishing content critical of the central government. On the other hand, the journalist and human rights activist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who led the demonstrations, was arrested on charges of "violation of the constitutional order" and may receive a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. There are allegations that he has been subjected to physical abuse in custody, while the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) claims that Tazhimuratov has been kidnapped along with his wife, his 8-year-old daughter, two brothers and a nephew. The whereabouts of all of them is still unknown.
Finally, Mirziyoyev agreed to withdraw the amendments related to regional autonomy and the tension in Karakalpakstan decreased, which could be considered a victory for civil society, although the extension of the presidential period and the elimination of the two-term limit are maintained. And yet the Uzbeks do not have much to celebrate, even less after 18 deaths.
Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency after the death of Islam Karimov, the country's sole leader since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 25 years, Karimov amended the Constitution to perpetuate himself in power and ran for four elections in which his worst result was 87%. To the repression and censorship, should be added the reduction to slavery of 1.2 million people, around 4% of the population, according to 2016 data from the Walk Free Foundation. It was then the second highest percentage in the world, only surpassed by North Korea.
Karimov's end seemed like the beginning of a change, in fact Mirziyoyev was quick to promote a process aimed to modernization and opening. For the first time an environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) report was published, child labor was banned, levels of slavery were reduced, thousands of political prisoners were released and Uzbekistan was opened to international markets, which derived in a 266% increase in foreign direct investment in 2019.
But the 2021 elections were the end of this process, or perhaps they were the proof that Mirziyoyev, Karimov's Prime Minister from 2003 to 2016, was not so different from his predecessor. Last October he was re-elected with 80% of the votes in elections characterized, according to the report by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), by the lack of real competition, important differences in the possibility of access to the media between the ruling party and its four rivals, allegedly opposition candidates who never questioned or challenged the president, impossibility of registering new parties and various irregularities at the time of voting. And finally, the July repression in Karakalpakstan and the constitutional reforms that are still upheld mark the collapse of a reformist facade.
According to the latest press freedom index elaborated by Reporters Without Borders, Uzbekistan ranks 133rd out of 180 countries analyzed; while in the Democracy Index elaborated by the British weekly The Economist, it ranks 150th out of 167, just above Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and in a worse situation than China, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Cuba or Nicaragua.
But society clearly demands a real transformation of the political system, not only in Uzbekistan but in all of Central Asia. So much so that, in a region characterized by authoritarianism, this year alone there have been major protests also in Kazakhstan, in January, and in Tajikistan, in May. To this must be added the 2020 demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan, which led to the fall of the government, early elections and a constitutional reform.
The professor and researcher Paulo Botta explains that the main reason for this series of social outbreaks is biological: “there has been enormous continuity of the communist party in the region, so they are countries with incomplete democratic transitions. The ruling elite of the Soviet era was the only one that could take charge in the 1990s, it seized power in those years and has not left it until today. But a huge difference arises with a very young population that did not live through the Soviet era, that today is very connected to the rest of the world through social networks, that demands social goods and changes, and that contrasts with an elite that has enormous inertia in terms of practices of the Soviet period.”
In this scenario, the influence of Russia cannot be ignored, but neither can that of China because Central Asia is politically and geographically in the middle of these two countries: the first, a historical regional power; the second, a rising power. Nothing that happens in the region is foreign to Moscow, which has multiple tools to maintain cultural links, but also in political and military terms. Beijing, for its part, is the main trading partner of the five former Soviet republics in the region. This does not necessarily mean that everything that happens in Uzbekistan is orchestrated from the Kremlin, but it is likely that the protests have been emphasized from Russia, which intends to maintain its role of eminence in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan therefore finds itself in a dilemma between Russia, China and a West that seems disconnected from the region beyond a few specific investments. In the middle, a young, dynamic civil society that demands real changes against a government that rejects all kinds of claims. And a president who began his mandate talking about transformations and ended up reusing the same strategies as his predecessor.