Authorities in Uzbekistan have maintained a total information blackout on developments in the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan amid claims that police used heavy-handed measures to disperse a protest rally on July 1.
Karakalpakstan, which occupies a large but sparsely populated part of western Uzbekistan, has been in ferment for several days following reports that a proposed constitutional reform will deprive it of autonomy.
Uzbekistan has not seen such large shows of public discontent since the bloody unrest that unfolded in the city of Andijan in May 2005, when security forces crushed a large protest, leaving large numbers of people dead.
A Eurasianet correspondent who was present in Nukus, the Karakalpak capital, on July 1 reported that entire sections of the city were cordoned off by police because of the demonstrations. Shops, restaurants and malls had shuttered in an apparent measure of precaution.
Getting information in and out of Karakalpakstan has been severely complicated by the government’s decision to sever mobile internet connections on June 27. It was around that date that reports on the possible suspension of autonomy began to circulate and that new pro-Karakalpak autonomy groups started appearing on social media. Fixed-lined internet also became unavailable after that.
In another panicked measure to contain a possible escalation of discontent, Uzbek security services on July 1 reportedly detained local journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, allegedly after she uploaded a video appeal calling for Karakalpakstan to secede.
The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern over Kallykhanova’s fate and urged the Uzbek authorities to provide information about why she had been detained.
Developments in Nukus began heating up at around 3 p.m. on July 1, when a large group of protestors comprised of many thousands of people mustered around an underground passage at the Nukus farmers’ bazaar as they awaited a prominent local lawyer and citizen journalist, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov. It had earlier been reported that Tazhimuratov too had been detained.
At around 7 p.m., Tazhimuratov arrived on the scene together with Murat Kamalov, the chairman of the Karakalpak legislative council, known as the Jokargy Kenes. The pair climbed onto the roof of Kamalov’s car and tried unsuccessfully, as they had no microphones or sound amplifiers, to deliver a speech to the crowd.
Local eyewitnesses have said the crowd showed no signs of aggression and that there was no indication of imminent trouble at this stage. Interior Ministry special forces troops were present, but they did not intervene.
After some time had elapsed, Tazhimuratov and Kamalov got inside the car and the crowd began moving with them toward the premises of the Jokargy Kenes. The men entered the building and the protestors waited outside.
The first trouble occurred after this as law enforcement officers threw smoke bombs into the crowd for reasons that are not yet clear.
As the situation escalated, more tools were used to quell the turmoil. An Interior Ministry special purpose mobile unit deployed stun grenades, rubber bullets and a water cannon. There have been scattered reports of demonstrators sustaining serious and possibly even fatal injuries, but Eurasianet was unable to confirm these claims as of July 2.
The Interior Ministry issued a statement late on July 1 to talk in vague terms about a mass demonstration in Nukus involving tens of thousands of people provoked by "a misinterpretation of constitutional reforms.”
“In order to prevent violations of public order and keep citizens from committing criminal offenses on the territory of the farmers’ market, law enforcement agencies were involved,” the statement said.
The Interior Ministry concluded by saying public order had been restored.
The statement, which is to date the only official recognition of events or any discontent in Karakalpakstan, did not allude to the underlying motivations for the demonstration.
The proposed amendments to the constitution presented to the public last month are being sold as an effort to make the state more compassionate and democratic. Some suspect, however, that the true intent is to pave the way for President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to extend his time in power beyond the two five-year terms to which he is currently entitled.
The change that has angered people in Karakalpakstan, meanwhile, is that the semi-autonomous republic stands to lose its constitutional right to hold a referendum on secession.
Karakalpakstan is also recognized in Uzbekistan’s present constitution as “sovereign,” a word that has disappeared in the new draft. A sentence that read that “the Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan cannot contradict the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan” now includes the words “and laws” in the new draft, pointing to tighter alignment with Tashkent.
The history of Karakalpak sovereignty is a convoluted one. In 1936, after much territorial rejigging in the early Soviet era, the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was subordinated to the Uzbek SSR.
In 1993, amid the uncertainty of that period, Karakalpakstan reached an agreement with the central Uzbek government to remain as part of the country for at least 20 years. This deal stipulated that the autonomous republic would then reserve the right to hold a referendum on withdrawal from Uzbekistan, but this arrangement was quietly forgotten. The new-look constitution would take the entire issue off the table.