OpinionExplaining the security incident in Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan

Explaining the security incident in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan

Following the publication of draft constitutional reforms a week prior, some suggested that the Karakalpak region's autonomy would be removed.

The doubly landlocked Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan unexpectedly experienced a security challenge in its western autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, a geographically large but sparsely populated part of the country mostly comprised of various deserts. Its titular people are an ethnic minority whose language is distinct from the national Uzbek tongue. They’ve enjoyed a special administrative status within Uzbekistan since the Soviet era that continued into independence. 

A large-scale unauthorized rally was held in the Karakalpak capital of Nukus on Friday following the publication of draft constitutional reforms a week prior. Some suggested that the region’s autonomy would be removed upon those reforms entering into law after a nationwide referendum that hasn’t yet been held but is expected to be sometime in the coming future. Regrettably, criminal elements exploited the rally, and they unsuccessfully tried to seize government buildings. 

The local authorities protected their state sovereignty from this illegal regional coup attempt, but the US-led Western Mainstream Media spun their justified reaction in the name of law and order as having been “unprovoked violence against peaceful, unarmed protesters”. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev swiftly visited the city within 24 hours of the order being fully restored, where he met with local civil society and political representatives to promise them that their region’s autonomy wasn’t at risk of removal. 

The Interior Ministry earlier clarified that Friday’s security incident was the “result of a misunderstanding” arising from the “constitutional reforms” which are conducted in the republic. This was followed by a joint statement from the region’s parliament, local government, and Interior Ministry branch confirming that criminal elements connected to vague foreign forces manipulated the public into functioning as de facto human shields for covering their unsuccessful seizure of power in the autonomous republic. 

The officials also noted that the attempts of certain “unhealthy external forces” from overseas to influence the buildup of the situation in Karakalpakstan, including through “targeted information releases and distortion of current events”, cause concern. By Saturday evening, Karakalpakstan was placed under a one-month state of emergency and associated nighttime curfew with ensuring the maintenance of public order and bringing justice to all who organized the failed regional coup attempt. 

The present peace has since prompted questions about why the unrest transpired and what might have been behind it. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko was reported by his state’s media to have implied that it was part of the US proxy war on China in Central Asia. He says Central Asia, like Belarus, is caught between two fires: “Americans and Europeans” and “China”. China is helping Central Asia to survive and to hold out. The “fight will be in Central Asia in the near future,” he said.

His theory has a certain logic since Uzbekistan is literally at the centre of Eurasia’s integration processes. It’s a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and just participated in the BRICS+ virtual conference hosted by China late last month. Furthermore, Uzbekistan is astride the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, Turkey’s largely parallel Middle Corridor, and the eastern branch of India’s North-South Transport Corridor. A gas pipeline to China transits through it too. 

It, therefore, isn’t inconceivable that American intelligence at the very least waged information warfare ahead of Friday’s incident to encourage a critical mass of people to participate in the illegal rally. Yet, it is also important to note that the Uzbek authorities haven’t implied anything of the sort, at least not yet. For this reason, the vague “foreign forces” mentioned in the joint statement could be either a hostile spy agency, drug gangs, and/or terrorists (sometimes one and the same). 

It can’t be known for sure at this point, but what’s undeniable is that President Mirziyoyev felt the need to directly meet with the Karakalpak people right after the security incident to clarify the previously reported misunderstanding about the draft reforms and promise them that their regional autonomy won’t be removed. The leader of this fiercely sovereign country wouldn’t have done this under foreign pressure, implying that he sympathizes with the locals who were regrettably misled. 

From the perspective of average Karakalpaks, whose language is such an inextricable element of their distinct identity as part of the larger cosmopolitan Uzbek whole, the possible removal of their region’s autonomy might have eventually led to eroding its role in the republic’s daily life. Since this is an intimate part of their culture that they’ve preserved for generations and hope to pass down to their descendants perpetually, it’s somewhat understandable why those rumours upset them so much. 

That said, they still broke the law by participating in their illegal rally, though the state seemingly chose not to go after anyone except those who were responsible for acts of violence. This pragmatic approach, coupled with President Mirziyoyev’s meetings with local civil society and political representatives, suggests that the government doesn’t believe that the unrest was a full-fledged foreign-backed ‘Color Revolution’ attempt, even if similar tactics were employed and there were some vague external links. 

To summarize, weaponized rumours about Uzbekistan’s draft constitutional reforms were manufactured by foreign media to sow dissent in Karakalpakstan, which was in turn exploited by criminal elements with shadowy foreign connections. Their seizure of power failed, and the conspirators were being brought to justice. Meanwhile, President Mirziyoyev visited the region and promised the republic wouldn’t lose its autonomy. The situation in this geostrategic state has since stabilized, stabilizing Eurasia.  

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