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The curious case of the Republic of Karakalpakstan

Article by Francisco Olmos

May 28, 2020

The curious case of the Republic of Karakalpakstan

The fall of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They all had been Socialist Soviet Republics (SSR) established as territories for the nominal nationalities reflected in their names. The diversity of their populations varied among them, but ethnic minorities were present in all of them. In general terms, these minorities could be divided into two groups: those with nominal states elsewhere (such as Russians Ukrainians, Azeris and Armenians) and those with no state where they represented a majority (such as Uyghurs and Dungans). There was however an exception to these. The Karakalpaks and their own republic within Uzbekistan’s borders.

 

The Karakalpaks are the Central Asian minority, present in the region prior to the Russian conquest, with the greatest political representation and autonomy, at least de jure. They are a Turkic ethnic group that after roaming on the Central Asian steppe seem to have finally settled around the 18th century south of the Aral Sea. This took place at a time when national identities had not developed and were alien to the region. Linguistically, they are closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks, given the Karakalpak language belongs to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic family, as Kazakh does, while Uzbek belongs to the Karluk branch.

 

The number of Karakalpaks is uncertain. In Uzbekistan, home to the Republic of Karakalpakstan, figures range from 708,800 to 1.2 million, while in neighbouring Kazakhstan, a destination for Karakalpak migrants, the official figure from the Kazakh authorities is 2,800 although estimates put the figure close to 300,000.[1] However, what it is clearer is the demographic weight of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan. Although the Karakalpak republic accounts for roughly a third of Uzbekistan’s territory, its inhabitants represent around 5% of the country’s population. Despite its size, Karakalpakstan is mostly desert, surrounded by the dried-up Aral Sea to the north and the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts to the south and east respectively.

 

A sovereign state in name only

Contrary to other ethnic minorities, Karakalpaks play a role as a political entity. Karakalpakstan as it is known presently emerged in the early Soviet years when the Karakalpaks were considered a nationality and therefore the Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast was established in 1925 within the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR). In 1932 itself Karakalpakstan was promoted to ASSR and in 1936 became part of the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR). While other ASSRs like the Kyrgyz and Tajik would eventually evolve to full SSRs, in 1936 and 1929 respectively, Karakalpakstan remained in the lower echelon and ended up being the only autonomous republic in Soviet Central Asia.

 

The fall of the USSR, which led to a number of breakaway movements throughout its former territory, did also bring independence, de jure but not de facto, to Karakalpakstan as in 1990 its parliament adopted a declaration of state sovereignty. However, this was short-lived and in 1993 it was officially reincorporated to Uzbekistan. In return, the Uzbek authorities allowed for a referendum on independence to take place 20 years later. The right for independence is recognised in Article 1 of Karakalpakstan’s Constitution that reads: “Karakalpakstan is a sovereign democratic republic that is part of the Republic of Uzbekistan. […] The Republic of Karakalpakstan has the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a nation-wide referendum held by the people of Karakalpakstan.”[2] However, such a referendum has not taken place.

 

The Republic of Karakalpakstan, as it is currently known, has the national symbols of a sovereign state. This includes a flag (that is very similar to its Uzbek counterpart), a state emblem and an anthem. In terms of political administration, the city of Nukus is its capital, a role it has had since the 1930s when it took over from Turtkul. Like any other nation, Karakalpakstan’s legal framework is regulated by a constitution, mentioned above, with legislative, executive and judicial powers. Karakalpakstan’s Constitution was adopted in 1993 and it acts, at least theoretically, as its legal basis. Through 120 articles divided up in 26 chapters, the Constitution states the basic principles of the Republic, the rights, freedoms and duties of its citizens as well as its administrative, political and judicial organisation.[3] However, as it is common in authoritarian states, laws can be flexible, not always enforced and they can play a mere decorative role.

 

The Republic of Karakalpakstan’s legislative power is represented by the Jokargi Kenes, a 65-seat chamber whose representatives are elected every five years, at the same time as Uzbekistan’s lower chamber. Consequently, elections for the Jokargi Kenes last took place in December 2019. In Karakalpakstan, as in the rest of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek President’s party won the elections but the other four performed differently.[4] The same five parties are represented both in Tashkent and Nukus. Karakalpakstan does not have unique political organisations.

 

The responsibilities of Karakalpakstan’s legislative chamber are outlined in 19 sections within Article 70 of the Constitution and they include the passing of laws, the appointment of judges and the exercise parliamentary control. One of their duties is to elect the Chairman of the Jokargi Kenes, who is the republic’s leader and highest official.

 

The executive power is exercised by 12 ministries (Economy, Finance, Preschool Education, Public Education, Internal Affairs, Labour, Health, Justice, Agriculture, Culture, Physical Culture and Housing), all lead by the Chairman of the Council of Ministers.[5] The latter, effectively acting like a Prime Minister, who also forms part of the cabinet of ministers of Uzbekistan, is chosen by the Chairman of the Jokargi Kenes, an appointment that has to be approved by the President of Uzbekistan.

 

In regards to the judicial power, Karakalpakstan has two supreme courts, for civil and criminal cases respectively, as well as a dedicated economic court. Its Prosecutor General is elected by the Jokargi Kenes “in agreement with the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”[6] As it happens with the executive power, Tashkent has the last word over the appointments of senior judicial members.  In appearance, Karakalpakstan has the making of a true autonomous political body with its own laws, parliament, government and judges, but in reality it can be considered as a state in name only. Its Jokargi Kenes is a rubber-stamping body that approves the proposals and laws adopted by the Uzbek legislators back in Tashkent, while its Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Prosecutor General are effectively appointed by the Uzbek President. Besides cultural policies related to the Karakalpak language or localised issues, there is no room for manoeuvring. Despite the political, legislative and legal façade of autonomy, the Republic of Karakalpakstan acts in reality like another region within Uzbekistan.

 

Even though their political role is very limited in Uzbekistan, culturally the Karakalpaks have their rights mostly respected. As per Karakalpakstan’s Constitution, the Karakalpak language has equal status to Uzbek and it is taught in schools and higher education institutions. The local government is mostly bilingual as well as the media.[7] Despite this, Uzbek and, to a lesser extent, Russian play an important role in the region as they are languages that have a stronger presence in Uzbekistan as a whole. Karakalpak cultural distinctiveness is acknowledged by the Uzbek authorities and there is no forced imposition of Uzbek.

 

The Karakalpak language itself has gone through the same cycles as other Turkic languages in Soviet Central Asia, switching its alphabet from Arabic to Latin (1928), from Latin to Cyrillic (1940) and back to Latin after independence. Karakalpak is going through similar issues as Uzbek in regards to revisions of the Latin alphabet and the shortage of the latest learning and reading materials.

 

An independent Karakalpakstan?

What sets Karakalpaks aside in the region as an ethnic minority is the existence of fringe independence movements calling for a true sovereign Karakalpak nation. The “Free Karakalpakstan National Revival Party” and Alga Karakalpakstan emerged in the last two decades to voice the desire for independence from Uzbekistan.

 

The “Free Karakalpakstan National Revival Party” appeared in 2008, mostly present online, asking for an independence referendum and accusing “the Uzbek authorities of genocide against Karakalpaks as an ethnicity.” However, little has been heard from the group since and its origins remain shrouded in obscurity.[8]

 

Alga Karakalpakstan does have a real face and name behind it, Aman Sagidullayev. Former head of an agricultural equipment manufacturer, Sagidullayev fled to Kyrgyzstan escaping from the Uzbek authorities. Officially, he was wanted in Uzbekistan for allegedly embezzling around $1 million, although he claimed that the real reason behind the accusations was his role as head of Alga Karakalpakstan. In 2014 Sagidullayev went as far as to urge the IMF to reconsider $411 million in aid to Uzbekistan for their treatment of minorities, namely the Karakalpaks.[9] In 2019, with Sagidullayev already in Norway, he and his sympathizers established a self-proclaimed “government in exile of the sovereign independent Republic of Karakalpakstan.”[10] This organisation continues to denounce repressive practices by the Uzbek authorities but some of their claims, like that saying that “the government of Uzbekistan kills the people of Karakalpakstan with the coronavirus and uses this epidemic for genocide,”[11] seem far-fetched and hard to believe.

 

The impact of such movements seems minimal. There are no indications that prove they enjoy wide support in Karakalpakstan and their actions have been limited to announcements that are hard to verify and that have not led to further actions in the ground. The Uzbek authorities will not hesitate to stop any such initiatives if they are perceived as a minimal threat as they would do with any movement that opposes the regime, and Karakalpak separatism is no exception.

 

The Republic of Karakalpakstan is a unique case in Central Asia and is mostly unknown outside the region. An autonomous republic for an ethnic minority with the symbols, institutions and legal frameworks of an independent state within another country. Similar states, also inherited from Soviet times, currently exist in the Russian Federation (the 22 republics) but they do so within the framework of a federal state, which is not the Uzbek case, and they do not have the territorial weight that Karakalpakstan has in Uzbekistan.

 

There are no changes envisioned for the Republic of Karakalpakstan. For the foreseeable future it will remain an oddity, a state in name only within Uzbekistan and yet another vestige of the Soviet Union’s delimitation and nationality policies in Central Asia.

 

Picture by Aleksandr Zykov, The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, Nukus (under Creative Commons, no alterations)

[1] Karakalpakstan: a little-known autonomy in the post-Soviet Central Asia, International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies, May 2018, https://www.icelds.org/2018/05/10/karakalpakstan-a-little-known-autonomy-in-the-post-soviet-central-asia/

[2] Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, State Government Portal of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, http://sovminrk.gov.uz/uz/pages/show/4

[3] Ibid

[4] History of the Jokargi Kenes, Jokargi Kenes of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, August 2019, http://joqargikenes.uz/jo-ar-i-ke-es-tarijxi

[5] Ministries, State Government Portal of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, http://sovminrk.gov.uz/qr/pages/show/6211

[6] Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, State Government Portal of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, http://sovminrk.gov.uz/uz/pages/show/4

[7] Uzbekistan: Keeping the Karakalpak Language Alive, IWR – Institute for War and Peace Reporting, May 2019, https://www.ecoi.net/en/document/2008893.html

[8] Gulnoza Saidazimova, Uzbekistan: Shadowy Group Agitates For ‘Free Karakalpakstan’, RFE/RL, April 2008, https://www.rferl.org/a/1079744.html

[9] Bruce Pannier, The Saga Of Aman Sagidullaev And Alga Karakalpakstan, RFE/RL, November 2014, https://www.rferl.org/a/alga-karakalpakstan/26704104.html

[10] Decision on the creation of a government in exile of the sovereign independent Republic of Karakalpakstan, Alga Karakalpakstan, October 2019, https://www.algakarakalpakstan.com/karakalpakstan

[11] New Government of Karakalpakstan in exile, The government of Uzbekistan kills the people of Karakalpakstan with the Coronavirus and uses this epidemic for the Genocide!, Alga Karakalpakstan, April 2020, https://www.algakarakalpakstan.com/single-post/2020/04/05/%D0%9F%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BB%D1%8C%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%BE-%D0%A3%D0%B7%D0%B1%D0%B5%D0%BA%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D1%83%D0%B1%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D0%B5%D1%82-%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%B4-%D0%9A%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%BF%D0%B0%D0%BA%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D0%9A%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%80%D1%83%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%BC-%D0%B8-%D0%B8%D1%81%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%B7%D1%83%D0%B5%D1%82-%D1%8D%D1%82%D1%83-%D1%8D%D0%BF%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%8E-%D0%B4%D0%BB%D1%8F-%D0%93%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BE%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B0

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