Karakalpakstan has a constitutional right to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum, but calling for such a vote results in immense pressure and often prison terms.
“Karakalpakstan is not Uzbekistan,” Aman Sagidullayev, the leader of the Alga Karakalpakstan movement stressed to The Diplomat. Sagidullayev fled his homeland in 2012 for Kyrgyzstan and eventually even farther abroad. His movement’s demand for a referendum on independence in Karakalpakstan was viewed by Tashkent as nothing short of rank separatism.
“We Karakalpaks, apart from freedom, do not need anything,” he told The Diplomat recently. We spoke in the wake of his conviction and sentencing in absentia by an Uzbek court on May 10 for a litany of charges, including insulting the president of Uzbekistan, conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional order, organizing riots, and other charges derived, in part, from the unrest in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, last summer.
Another Karakalpak activist, Kazakhstan-based Neitbay Urazbayev, who heads the Karakalpak ethno-cultural center “Allayar Zholy” in Mangystau, was convicted on similar charges, also in absentia.
Sagidullayev and Urazbayev “are known for their energetic involvement in Karakalpak diaspora issues,” explained Steve Swerdlow, an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California. “While significant activists in the Karakalpak diaspora, [they] did not have the capacity nor the ability to organize such mass protests as witnessed in July 2022.”
Nevertheless, Sagidullayev was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but he lives in Norway, where he and his family have political asylum. Urazbayev was sentenced to 12 years.
Urazbayev, a Kazakh citizen, told The Diplomat, “I am worried I may be secretly sent to Uzbekistan. The Uzbekistan border is very close to where I live.”
Karakalpaks are a Turkic people native to the southern shores of what was once the Aral Sea. It’s now a dusty land, the shrunken sea an ecological disaster that stretches across the modern states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was incorporated into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936, while maintaining its autonomy.
As the Soviet Union faltered, in 1990 Karakalpakstan’s parliament adopted a declaration of state sovereignty. Uzbekistan’s 1992 Constitution referenced Karakalpakstan as an autonomous region with special rights, namely the ability to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum. And Karakalpakstan’s 1993 Constitution included similar language. At the time, an agreement was reached that cemented the republic’s place within Uzbekistan for a period of 20 years — after which a referendum on independence was expected.
“There were so many problems in Uzbekistan in 1993 that [Islam] Karimov just sort of said ‘fine for now, and let’s revisit this in 20 years,’” Bruce Pannier, a longtime journalist covering Central Asia, told The Diplomat. “I don’t think the Uzbek government ever intended to allow Karakalpakstan to leave Uzbekistan.”
As 2013 approached, Pannier explained, groups like Alga Karakalpakstan started reminding people that the promised date for a referendum on independence was approaching. But already by 2011, “Karimov’s government was cracking down on anyone who was talking about seceding.”
A referendum on independence has never been held in Karakalpakstan.
In late June 2022, when the Uzbek government introduced the first draft of proposed constitutional changes sought by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the draft dropped the provisions guaranteeing Karakalpakstan the right to secede — previously enshrined in Article 74, situated in a chapter dedicated to Karakalpakstan (In the new constitution, it is in Article 89, with articles 85-90 pertaining to Karakalpakstan). Karakalpak activists, many of them based abroad since the Karimov era crackdowns, were prominent in agitating against the draft soon after its public release.
In the recent trial, the Uzbek prosecutors shared images of Urazbayev stating his opposition to the draft constitution. One frame included him holding a sign that read in English “I’m against amendments to article 74 in the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan!”
Urazbayev wasn’t alone in opposing the draft constitution, or airing that opposition during what was supposed to be a 10-day period of public comment before the scheduling of a constitutional referendum. In Nukus, Karakalpak lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov urged people to vote “no” if a referendum on the draft constitution were held and called on people to attend a “peaceful and legal rally” planned for July 5. He was detained on July 1 and crowds swelled in Nukus demanding his release. He was released that same day, but the scales had been tipped.
“The Uzbek Constitution, in theory, absolutely supports the right of citizens of Uzbekistan to manifest peaceful criticism, protest, and discussions relating to constitutional questions including that of the political status of Karakalpakstan,” Swerdlow said, noting that even the new constitution enshrines the right to free speech in Article 33. But the Uzbek criminal code “still contains many provisions which directly contradict and violate the rights contained and guaranteed by the constitution, even the new constitution.”
“Articles from the criminal code that are used to persecute peaceful critics [such as Article 159, which refers to threats against the constitutional order] are vague, overbroad, and so generally worded that they have allowed the previous Karimov government and now unfortunately the Mirziyoyev government to continue a longstanding practice of essentially outlawing any peaceful political criticism or other criticism deemed to be sensitive or out of bounds by the authorities.”
Precisely what happened on July 1 remains a subject of debate, with a vast divide between government claims and those of activists.
“In the July events, a crime was committed against the Karakalpak people and the sovereignty of the Republic of Karakalpakstan,” Sagidullayev said, calling it a “tragedy.” According to Tashkent, 21 people were killed in the unrest; Sagidullayev said it was more than 250.
The Uzbek government cut off internet service to the region during the protests and their suppression by government forces on July 1, hampering real-time reporting. Tazhimuratov was detained again on July 2 and in the ensuing months he was framed by Tashkent as the mastermind of the violence.
A November 2022 report from Human Rights Watch argued that “Uzbek security forces unjustifiably used lethal force and other excessive responses to disperse mainly peaceful demonstrators on July 1 and 2, 2022 in Karakalpakstan.” Uzbek authorities have offered no updates on possible charges against law enforcement, instead focusing on the arrest and prosecution of a large numbers of activists. Earlier this year 22 defendants, including Tazhimuratov, were convicted of various crimes, including violations of Article 159; the trial and conviction of 39 more defendants soon followed.
Tazhimuratov received a 16-year sentence.
These trials, Swerdlow said, “sucked all the oxygen out of the room regarding the opportunity in Uzbekistan to have a meaningful conversation and a meaningful investigation into the use of lethal force.” There has also not been a full accounting of the deaths, including a list of names, and a report promised by a parliamentary investigation into the events has “been almost completely forgotten almost a year after the incidents.”
Tashkent urgently wanted to move past the flare-up of violence. Mirziyoyev flew to Nukus on July 2, 2022 and announced that the articles in Uzbekistan’s constitution pertaining to Karakalpakstan would remain unchanged. He hinted in speeches at the involvement of “certain forces” or “foreign forces” in the unrest, by which he perhaps meant Kazakhstan-based Karakalpaks and people like Sagidullayev in more distant lands.
“After the death of the first President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, the Karakalpak diasporas in Kazakhstan began to establish cultural ties with the government of Karakalpakstan,” Urazbayev explained. But, “unfortunately, after the accusation of representatives of the Karakalpak diasporas in Kazakhstan [over the July events], our compatriots in Karakalpakstan broke off all relations.”
Urazbayev said that his relatives in Karakalpakstan are subject to “constant pressure from the special services of Uzbekistan; they are being interrogated.”
In a May 18 letter Urazbayev appealed to Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, writing, “I am shocked and outraged by these illegal statements and actions of the Uzbek authorities against me as a law-abiding citizen of the Republic of Kazakhstan.” He wrote also that while he was summoned to the Police Department of the Mangystau Region, asked to write an “explanatory note,” and told that Uzbekistan had put him on a wanted list, he was never formally informed of the charges against him and not asked to come contest them. He asked the Kazakh government “to take the necessary steps to protect my rights as a citizen of Kazakhstan.”
“The trials of Aman Sagidullayev and Neitbay Urazbayev in absentia, as well as their sentences, are part of a campaign to intimidate ethnic Karakalpaks abroad,” said Aqylbek Muratbai, another Kazakhstan-based Karakalpak activist.
In September 2022, five Karakalpak activists, all Uzbek citizens, were detained in Kazakhstan. Muratbai said the Uzbek government “is seeking their extradition, but for now Kazakhstan is holding them under arrest in Almaty and Aktobe.”
“Such an action by the judicial and law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan caused fear among the Karakalpak diasporas permanently residing in Kazakhstan,” Urazbayev said.
Muratbai is an Uzbek citizen, too, and worries that he will be arrested and sent back to Uzbekistan. As Nukus roiled with frustration in early July 2022, Muratbai said he and other Karakalpaks were interrogated in Kazakhstan.
“Employees of the special services of Uzbekistan arrived in Kazakhstan, who, with the assistance of their Kazakh colleagues, conducted interrogations of members of the local Karakalpak diaspora,” he said. “I was not threatened, but they asked me to influence more active and more radical members of the diaspora. I informed them that it was beyond my power, because they would not listen to me anyway and I generally respect their position, to which they are entitled.”
Mirziyoyev’s ambition for constitutional change was delayed by the protests in Karakalpakstan, but not denied. Last month, a draft that included changes to 65 percent of the constitution — though not the articles regarding Karakalpakstan (those are now under Articles 85-90) — was passed via referendum. The OSCE called the vote “technically well-prepared” but noted that it “lack[ed] open debate on some contentious issues, and there was no organized opposition to the amendments.”
In one view of the recent constitutional reform process in Uzbekistan, there was opposition: To the first proposed draft, the one that set aside Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty. While those proposed changes were swiftly rescinded, the price was heavy for those who tried to organize opposition both inside Karakalpakstan and from abroad. The July 2022 events in Nukus stood as a warning to others considering mounting opposition to the constitutional referendum on other grounds.
According to the new Uzbek Constitution, the people of Karakalpakstan retain the right to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum. They also have a right to free speech, arguably extending to the discussion of such a constitutional matter in public.
But it’s clear that calling for such a vote is all but impossible, the constitution be damned.