Karakalpakstan: Mirziyoyev the New “Saakashvili”? (Some Thoughts)

Widespread demonstrations in Uzbekistan’s large autonomous republic Karakalpakstan have reportedly left 18 people dead and triggered the declaration of a month-long state of emergency by the Uzbek regime. The demonstrations come after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed on 1 July 2022 a new Constitution of Uzbekistan—which has since been withdrawn—that would have ended Karakalpakstan’s autonomous status and its right of secession.

Karakalpakstan was established during the national-territorial delimitation of Soviet Central Asia, first as an Autonomous Oblast in 1925 before being upgraded to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1932. As Arne Haugen writes, the Karakalpak national identity remained limited if not entirely nonexistent until the national-territorial delimitation in the 1920s, and there is little credible evidence of a “centuries-old dream” of Karakalpak nationhood. This has led some scholars such as Alexandre Bennigsen and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay (1961) to argue that the Karakalpak nation is “artificial,” a creation of the Soviets’ Machiavellian agenda[1]. Haugen, and quite rightly so, rejects this argument. He argues that the establishment of the Karakalpak AO and the development of Karakalpak nationalism were due to the dynamism engendered by the process of national-territorial delimitation itself. The Soviets had intended the delimitation project to correspond with the three major national groups in Central Asia: the Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Kazakhs. “When the ultimate result diverged so much from the original plan,” Haugen writes, “it was not because the Soviet authorities preferred six nations to three, or wished to foster the fewest possible identities. Instead, it was due to the mobilization of various groups, such as Kyrgyz and Karakalpak. The division of Central Asia assumed its own dynamic, with less important decisions becoming accentuated and politicized.”[2]

Under Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet regimes, it is questionable how much genuine autonomy Karakalpakstan has. Until his death in 2016, Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist, like most other Central Asian dictators. Despite Karakalpakstan’s nominal legislative, political, and legal autonomy, Tashkent likely ruled Karakalpakstan like any other region in Uzbekistan. However, in cultural matters, Karakalpak’s have genuine autonomy, as even Francisco Olmos from the UK’s Foreign Policy Centre admits. The widespread demonstrations against President Mirziyoyev’s proposal to end Karakalpakstan’s autonomy indicate that Karakalpaks value what little autonomy they do enjoy, even if like the right to secession it exists only on paper.

What is most significant about these demonstrations in defense of Karakalpak’s self-determination, however, is that they reveal much about President Mirziyoyev’s regime and Uzbekistan’s future.

President Mirziyoyev has been hailed in the West for ushering in an “Uzbek Spring” with his economic and to a lesser extent political reforms. Despite his regime’s brutal authoritarianism, Karimov never adopted Western “free-markets” wholesale like what happened in Russia, Poland, and other former socialist countries. Instead, his cautious economic reforms were nearer to those adopted in Belarus by Alexander Lukashenko. As a result, Uzbekistan “was able to maintain social services better than other Central Asian countries,” Mamuka Tsereteli writes. “By some measures, Uzbekistan was the best-performing of all Soviet successor states in the 1990s, despite [sic – because of] its rejection of the rapid reforms recommended by International Financial Institutions: by the end of the decade it was the first Soviet successor state to regain its pre-1991 real GDP level.” Since Karimov’s death, however, Mirziyoyev has slowly begun to dismantle the state-oriented economy of Karimov’s Uzbekistan in favour of a liberalized “free market.” Under Mirziyoyev several special economic zones with substantial tax-breaks for foreign investors have been created, a moratorium on business inspections imposed, the Uzbek national currency is now fully convertible, and talks have resumed to join the World Trade Organization.

Naturally the capitalist press in the West, from the Washington Times to the New York Times, have been full of praise for Mirziyoyev’s reforms. On its own this wouldn’t be newsworthy; however, similar praise was once heaped on other so-called reformers of post-Soviet states, such as Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili and Armenia’s Nikol Pashinyan. All three leaders – Mirziyoyev, Saakashvili, and Pashinyan – came to power with an agenda of “modernization,” “liberalizing,” “opening up,” “human rights,” “fighting corruption and bureaucracy,” “a break with the past,” all the key Western buzzwords, and were welcomed with open arms by the West. But underneath this reformist facade there was greater imperialist economic and political penetration. Both Saakashvili and Pashinyan courted NATO, and Mirziyoyev was warmly received by Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

An important consequence of this “opening up” to Western imperialism was a marked deterioration in ethnic relations. As well as being praised for their reforms, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Armenia have all experienced the most ethnic violence since the overthrow of the USSR in 1991 under Mirziyoyev, Saakashvili, and Pashinyan, respectively. In 2008, Saakashvili attacked Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. In 2020, Armenia was militarily and politically crushed by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Now, in Karakalpakstan, a region where ethnic unrest was virtually unheard of since Soviet times, Uzbekistan is facing the largest ethnic mobilization in its entire post-Soviet existence.

Only time will tell what will happen to Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev’s reforms. But if the unrest in Karakalpakstan is any indication, it won’t be good.

[1] Page 173, “The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia,” Arne Haugen.

[2] Page 178, “The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia,” Arne Haugen.