Why the world should pay attention to unrest in Karakalpakstan

The Uzbek government’s violent clampdown on protests in Karakalpakstan can have significant consequences for Central Asia – and the power balance between Russia, China and the West.

An Uzbek law enforcement officer guards a street in Nukus
An Uzbek law enforcement officer guards a street in Nukus, capital of the northwestern Karakalpakstan region, Uzbekistan July 3, 2022. [KUN.UZ/Handout via Reuters]

Last week, rare protests in Uzbekistan’s autonomous Karakalpakstan region, which borders Kazakhstan in the country’s northwest, turned deadly. According to the government, 18 people died and 243 others were wounded as a result of clashes between security forces and protesters. More than 500 were detained. The authorities did not reveal the identities of those who were killed, but said there were both civilians and law enforcement personnel among the dead.

The unrest had broken out in response to proposed constitutional reforms which would see the vast region lose its autonomy and right to secede.

In the aftermath of the deadly crackdown, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited the region and announced “order had been restored”. In a U-turn, he also revealed that he dropped plans to curtail the region’s sovereignty.

Amid multiple major crises, from an ongoing pandemic to a war in Europe, the news coming from the former Soviet Republic did not attract much global attention. For many, the events in Karakalpakstan represented nothing but a minor, if bloody, disturbance in a remote and seemingly inconsequential corner of the world.

Even the Soviet Union considered Karakalpakstan a peripheral area that deserved minimal attention. During Stalin’s reign, people took artworks considered “degenerate” by the government to the remote region knowing that the authorities would not bother chasing them there. Today, the State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Karakalpakstan still houses the world’s second-largest collection of the Russian avant garde, but its remoteness means that it is rarely visited.

The perceived remoteness of Karakalpakstan – and perhaps Uzbekistan – however, should not trick us into thinking what happens there would not have important consequences for the world.

Last week’s violent crackdown on protesters in Karakalpakstan represents a watershed moment for Mirziyoyev’s political, economic, and geopolitical agenda. Its aftermath may therefore shape not only Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan’s future but that of the strategically important wider region.

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s breadbasket and home to some 35 million people – nearly as many as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan combined. It is also where Russia, the West and China’s visions of Eurasia collide.

Mirziyoyev has staked his reputation on modernising Uzbekistan. The state has an English-language website, complete with an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) report, propagandising his reforms. Uzbekistan won The Economist’s “country of the year” award in 2019 as a result of Mirziyoyev’s ambitious reforms, including ending forced child labour in the cotton fields and opening up the country to international capital markets. Foreign direct investment rose by 266 percent that year.

Mirziyoyev started working towards changing Uzbekistan’s economic and political trajectory immediately after taking over the presidency from Islam Karimov – the first president of independent Uzbekistan who led the country with an iron fist from 1989 until his death in 2016.

Mirziyoyev had served Karimov as prime minister for 13 years, and despite not being his constitutionally-designated successor, he was placed in the presidency after Karimov’s death. Despite the new president’s claims of seeking structural reforms, at the time Uzbekistan had a second power centre in Rustam Inoyatov, head of the feared State Security Service (MXX) and expectations for major change were low.

However, Mirziyoyev started making drastic changes to the way the country was governed early on in his tenure as president. In 2017, he began lifting crippling currency restrictions and reforming the economy. In 2018, he humiliatingly demoted Inoyatov to fisheries minister and further expanded his power. Just weeks after the shocking demotion, he overhauled the MXX, raising the promise of progress. He then went on to shutter the notorious Jaslyk Prison, known as “the house of torture”, released thousands of political prisoners, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with Tajikistan and de-mined the border between the two nations. Around this time, Mirziyoyev also started speaking of introducing local elections for hokims – local authorities equivalent to mayors currently appointed by the executive branch.

But the “reformist” president started to change his tune in 2021. He rescinded his suggested changes to the hokim system in March 2021. And all reforms ground to a halt before elections that October. He was eventually re-elected handily, against token opposition.

Mirziyoyev claimed that he was returning to his reform agenda after his re-election and said he would overhaul the constitution. But rather than renewing the prospect of progress, his proposals appeared aimed at effectively extending his term limits and allowing him to further consolidate his power. And his regime’s violent crackdown on protests in Karakalpakstan now left little doubt that his renewed reform agenda is nothing but a facade.

The violent episode we just witnessed in Karakalpakstan was eerily reminiscent of the beginning of one of the darkest chapters in recent Uzbek history – the 2005 Andijan massacre when Karimov’s security forces killed hundreds of civilians following unrest in the Fergana Valley. The precise number of victims has never been revealed and the massacre was followed by a period of unprecedented repression. Karimov expelled international media and NGOs from the country, doubled down on kleptocratic autarky and isolated the country further from the international community.

This period of isolation ended only after Mirzoyoyev took over the presidency. His reforms included inviting foreign press back into Uzbekistan. He also sought meetings with a host of international governments that shunned his predecessor. But he did not seek any new alignment, balancing between the major powers in the region – Russia and China – and the West, seeking credit and investment from all.

By swiftly abandoning the constitutional reform proposals that spurred the unrest, Mirzoyoyev signalled that he may eventually return to his initial progressive trajectory. Nevertheless, there remains a serious risk that he will imitate Karimov’s post-Andijan strategy and focus solely on protecting his own power at the cost of isolating the nation, once again transforming it into a full autarky and clamping down on the rights and freedoms of Uzbek citizens. A prominent Karakalpak journalist, Lolagul Kallykhanova, is currently missing and believed to be in detention after covering the protests in Karakalpakstan and publishing content critical of the central government.

A key factor that will determine which path the Uzbek leader will take in the coming days will be how the international community responds.

Uzbekistan is wary of increasing Russian influence. It became an observer of the Eurasian Economic Union in 2020, resisting Kremlin pressure to become a full member. But Uzbek concerns over Russia’s role in the region are likely to grow rapidly. Claims Russia was involved in promoting Karakalpakstan’s unrest – adapting its separatist playbook from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – have already proliferated in the country, as suspicious alleged appeals for Russian intervention started to emerge online.

The spectre of Russian hostility could see Uzbekistan with little choice but to fall into what Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at RUSI, has dubbed “China’s inadvertent empire”. Beijing became Uzbekistan’s largest trade partner in 2016 and is by far its largest foreign investor. But its political influence has yet to match it.

The West has long been disengaged from the country, despite Uzbekistan’s open call for investment and collaboration under Mirzoyoyev’s rule. Declarations of an intent to re-engage with Central Asia, including with Uzbekistan, emerge sporadically but offer little new. Officials on a June US delegation to Central Asia spoke of using counterterrorism and security cooperation to counterbalance Russia though all previous efforts over the last 20 years have focused on these vectors, and failed.

In the case of Uzbekistan, that is in part explained by the government’s continued paranoia regarding external influence. In 2020, former senior diplomat Kadyr Yusupov was convicted of treason despite evidence of torture, resulting in international condemnation and demonstrating the government’s willingness to spurn its reformist reputation to ward off – at times imagined – enemies.

Mirziyoyev may not be a democrat, but he has – at least until very recently – proven to be someone the world, including the West, can do business with. His reaction to Karakalpakstan’s unrest will determine whether this came from conviction or convenience. How the world responds in turn will shape the balance of power at the heart of Eurasia. To maintain at least some influence over a seemingly remote but crucially important country, and to ensure the wellbeing of the people of Uzbekistan, the West should do everything it can to help bring Mirziyoyev back on the path of reform and progress.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.