Staunton, December 5 – Karakalpakistan, which the Soviets repeatedly shifted between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and whose people are suffering as the result of the death of the Aral Sea, is increasingly a most unusual kind of separatism, with ever more of its people wanting their autonomous republic to be shifted from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan.
In an article posted on Centrasia.ru today, Ilkham Iskhakkhodzha, identified as an independent expert, traces the complex geopolitical history of Karakalpakia and the shifting identities of its residents as part of a detaqiled survey of the current “ethno-political problems” of that region (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1291498260).
The Karakalpaks, like many other minorities in Central Asian countries, attracted relatively little attention immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when their concerns were viewed as distinctly secondary to the issues of the definition of the national identities of the new states there.
But as these former Soviet union republics “more precisely” designated their national interests, “old ethno-territorial problems” have re-emerged, “blocking the integrative processes in the region and [even] becoming a potential threat to the security of Central Asia,” according to Ishakkhodzha.
One of the most important of these has to do with the borders that these states inherited from Soviet times, borders that not only were first defined by Moscow in the early 1920s but were “frequently changed” even in the 1950s and 1960s among the union republics, with pieces of territory and entire autonomies being shifted back and forth among them.
Consequently, Karakalpaks have some experience with moving en bloc from one republic to another, and the worsening ecological and epidemiological situation there as a result of the drying up of the Aral Sea is intensifying these feelings, all the more so because many in the autonomous republic feel Tashkent is doing little or nothing to help them.
Moreover, several recent studies, highlighting how prosperous and important their region was a millennium or more ago – some people there refer to its past as that of “a Central Asian Egypt” -- and a sense that Karakalpaks are more closely tied to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks linguistically and culturally have only added to these feelings.
Because desertification is increasing – and more than 80 percent of the territory of Karakalpakia is already desert, “more than 250,000” Karakalpaks have already migrated to Kazakhstan, more than a fifth of the population. And that trend appears likely to increase despite efforts by Tashkent, including a ban on the sale of property by those who leave, to stop it.
The relations between Karakalpaks, Kazakhs and Uzbeks have long been complex. After the Bolshevik revolution, Karakalpakistan was included in the Turkestan ASSR, which in turn was part of the RSFSR. Then in 1920, the two parts of Karakalpakistan were united, after the formation of the Khorezm Peoples Soviet Republic.
In 1925, Karakalpakistan became an autonomous republic inside the Kazakh ASSR and only in 1936 was it transferred to the Uzbek SSR. Since the end of Soviet times, it has remained part of Uzbekistan as the Republic of Karakalpakistan, even though 60 percent of its population consists of “ethnically related” Karakalpaks and Kazakhs.
“One of the consequences of the six years Karakalpakistan was part of Kazakhstan was the appearance of territorial problems,” Ishakkhodzha says, pointing both to 55,000 hectares transferred to Karakalpakistan and disputes over the island of Vozrozhdeniya located in the Aral Sea.
That island, the writer notes, has been the subject of dispute between Tashkent and Astana ever since it ceased to be a closed Soviet military base devoted to biological weapons in 1988. Moscow divided the island between eh two republics, with 79 percent of its area going to Kazakhstan and 21 percent to Uzbekistan. But n 1999, Astana asked Tashkent for all of it.
Tashkent refused as it has refused to do anything about Karakalpak demands. The autonomous republic forms a third of Uzbekistan and contains much of its reserves of oil, gas, titanium, and gold. Moreover, through the autonomy pass strategically important rail lines and highways.
But Tashkent’s refusal has not ended Karakalpak activism, Ishakkhodzha continues. In the 1990s, the Khalk Mapi [Interests of the People] movement emerged under the leadership of Marat Aralbayev sought greater autonomy from Tashkent. More recently, Karakalpaks have formed the Free Karakalpakistan Group and turned to the Internet to promote their goals.
Among this group’s slogans, the writer says, are calls for separating Karakalpakistan from Uzbekistan and uniting it instead with Kazakhstan or even declaring Karakalpakistan an independent country, through the use of the referendum procedure that the Uzbekistan Constitution itself allows.
In December 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Karakalpak ASSR adopted a sovereignty declaration, and only in January 1992 did it again become an autonomy within Uzbekistan. But it retains its own constitution, adopted in April 1993, and under the Uzbek constitution enjoys a status within Uzbekistan much like the union republics did in Soviet times.
Among these rights, at least on paper, is the right, contained in Article 72, to “leave the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a universal referendum of the people of Karakalpakistan.” Ishakkhodzha says “everyone understands” that Tashkent isn’t going to allow one, just like everyone understood that the Soviets wouldn’t allow the union republics to leave either.