Staunton, June 23 – Inspired by “the Crimean precedent” according to one Kazakhstan commentator, the Karakalpak national movement has announced that it wants its republic, now an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, to be transferred either to Kazakhstan or to the Russian Federation.
Writing for Kursiv.kz, Askar Muminov says that the Karakalpakistan separatist movement which he suggests arose in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is becoming more active and has now appealed to the World Bank not to give money to Tashkent because the Uzbek government will steal it rather than spending it for the needs of the population (kursiv.kz/news/details/obshestvo/karakalpakskie_separatisty_khotyat_v_kazakhstan/).
He suggests that the efforts of the Karakalpaks to re-unite with Kazakhstan are “partially explicable” by the fact that from the 15th century to 1924, their territory lay within the boundaries of historically Kazakh areas. Only in 1925 was their land put within the Kyrgyz ASSR; and only in 1936 did it become part of the Uzbek SSR.
In Soviet times, Muminov continues, the standard of living in Uzbekistan and consequently of Karakalpakia was higher than that in Kazakhstan and so the Karakalpaks were happy to live under Tashkent. There was almost no interest in separatism, but the disappearance of the Aral Sea and the collapse of the standard of living in Karakalpakia at the end of Soviet times changed that.
In 1992, Karakalpakia became “independent within Uzbekistan” but that “independence,” Muminov says, was “extremely conditional.” It did give the Karakalpaks the constitutional right of secession, something that the union republics had had in Soviet times from the USSR, but few other rights and powers.
Over the last two decades, the Kazakh writer says, the standard of living in Kazakhstan rose while that in Karakalpakia fell; and consequently, some Karakalpaks began to talk about having their republic return to Kazakhstan. But Uzbek President Islam Karimov used force to crack down on any expressions of such desires.
But apparently, Muminov continues, “the experience of Russia in Crimea has now inspired the newly declared separatists” among the Karakalpaks. At least, that is suggested by the fact that they became more active precisely when Russia moved to annex Crimea in the spring of last year.
The rise of Karakalpak separatism at that time helps to explain why Tashkent reacted so angrily to Moscow’s Anschluss of Crimea and demanded that Moscow respect “the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Muminov suggests. And that interpretation is strengthened by the fact that on April 28, 2014, Karimov visited Karakalpakia and talked about the need for stability.
Since that time, Uzbek security forces have come down hard on any manifestation of Karakalpak separatism, even though Tashkent’s official position is that it doesn’t exist, a position that is untenable given the amount of activity reported and the fact that social and economic conditions there are so appalling.
Some analysts suggest, Muminov continues, that Moscow may be behind the separatist movement in order to put pressure on Tashkent to join the Eurasian Economic Union or alter its relations with the West. Others suggest that other countries may have a hand in it because of an interest in oil pipeline routes.
Alisher Khamidov, a specialist at the Institute for Economic Research on Central Asia, says that separatism in Karakalpakia has been around for a long time but that Kazakhstan is not interested in acquiring it. Unlike Moscow, he says, Astana “does not suffer from a desire ‘to assemble Kazakh lands.’” Moreover, unlike Crimea, Karakalpakia is very poor.
Another reason for the rise of separatist activity, of course, may be the approaching elections in Uzbekistan. According to Khamidov, some in Tashkent may hope to use the Karakalpak separatist card to put pressure on one or another contenders for power, even though Karimov seems certain to remain in office.
Emil Razzakov, another political analyst, says that Kazakhstan has no interest in promoting Karakalpak separatism because any instability there would threaten the entire region. He urges Astana to ignore any statements coming out of Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakia. But he and others, like Aleksey Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow, link what is happening to Crimea.
In Malashenko’s words, by getting involved in the Ukrainian peninsula, “Russia has opened a Pandora’s box and set in train mechanisms for both domestic and foreign separatism.” What is happening in Karakalpakia could easily spread to other regions within the borders of the Russian Federation and elsewhere.