Uzbekistan: protests further show need for democracy
Protests in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region in July ended in lethal violence and heavy state repression. The protests came after a proposal to end the neglected region’s constitutional special status, as part of a broader package that includes changes to presidential term limits to enable the incumbent to stay in power. The events point to a government so used to getting its way that it’s unable to spot the warning signs of public discontent. There should be a vital role for civil society in alerting the government to unpopular policies – but tight control of civil society in Uzbekistan leaves people largely unable to express dissent.
Protests are rare in Uzbekistan’s closed civic space. But a proposed constitutional change brought an unexpected reaction in the north-western region of Karakalpakstan in early July. Violent clashes left several dead. But although order has been restored, the government doesn’t seem willing to learn the bigger democratic lessons.
A neglected region further snubbed
Karakalpakstan is an area that rarely makes international headlines. Far distant from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, it has a distinct culture and language. While Karakalpakstan constitutes around 37 per cent of the country’s land mass, it’s home to just over five per cent of its population, or around two million people.
Its neglect is historic, dating back to the Soviet era, when it was the testing ground of the Soviet Union’s chemical and biological weapons. It’s where the infamous Novichok nerve agent, a signature weapon used by Vladmir Putin against his critics, was developed.
It suffered acute environmental degradation during these times, and little changed when Uzbekistan gained independence. In some places the soil is so contaminated that nothing grows anymore. It has significantly higher rates of cancer and childhood mortality than the rest of the country.
Karakalpakstan is best known for being home to the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-biggest lake but now largely vanished. While recent efforts have revived it a little, the lake was drained by irrigation for cotton production, in what’s widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters. This tragedy remains emblematic in the region, symbolising its neglect and abuse at the hands of central government.
But there’s regional pride in Karakalpakstan’s special status. It’s no mere province of Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic, formally sovereign and with a constitutional right to secede.
It was the shock announcement of the removal of this special status that sparked protests. When the news broke, it prompted initially peaceful protests in Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, and other cities. After sympathetic local law enforcement officers refused to intervene, central government imported repression, sending riot police to Nukus.
This is what happens when autocratic states are used to making top-down decisions without consultation, in the expectation of no opposition.
This escalated tensions, resulting in violent clashes on 1 July. Protesters were reported to be trying to occupy government buildings and setting fire to vehicles. Videos showed riot police using smoke and stun grenades and beating protesters with clubs. Police are also reported to have fired at protesters, with videos showing bodies with apparent gunshot wounds.
During the protests the internet was shut down and entry to the region restricted. A month-long state of emergency was imposed, with a heavy military presence on the streets. Local journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova is among those detained.
Constitutional change on the cards
On 2 July the government dropped its plans to end Karakalpakstan’s special status. But by then, according to official reports, 18 people were dead, 243 had been wounded and 516 were detained. Due to the government’s strict media control, any figures are hard to verify, but it seems clear a heavy price was paid for the government’s failure to anticipate how its proposals would be received.
The plan has been reversed, but President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, visiting Karakalpakstan after the violence subsided, hardly struck a conciliatory note. He pledged that mass riots and calls for separatism would be ‘firmly crushed’. The government accused ‘provocateurs’ of acting on foreign orders to try to ‘seize state institutions’ and ‘destabilise’ Uzbekistan. This is troubling rhetoric of the kind that often presages further repression.
When Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 it was tempting to see him as a reformer. He took over from Islam Karimov, ruler since Soviet times, who had a deserved reputation as a ruthless autocrat. Mirziyoyev moved to open up the economy and develop better relations with western countries.
Some positive changes came. A major landmark was reached this year when it was announced that forced labour, once a systemic problem, has been eliminated from the country’s cotton production, following years of international civil society campaigning. Some central government investment in Karakalpakstan has come, and the region has begun to develop tourism and cultural industries.
But when it comes to civil and political rights, reforms have been largely cosmetic and seem to have come to an end. Media restrictions have increased under the pandemic.
Uzbekistan is still nothing like a democracy. The last presidential election with a genuine opposition candidate was the first post-independence vote in 1991. Since then the incumbent has faced only token opponents, enjoying all the advantages of state resources to win massive majorities.
That hasn’t changed under Mirziyoyev. When he won his second term in 2021 he faced four pro-government opponents, with critical candidates excluded.
The proposed end of Karakalpakstan’s status came as part of a broader package of constitutional changes, to be put to a referendum that is hardly likely to be free or fair. The protests may have diverted attention from what should have been the headline: presidential terms will expand from five to seven years and Mirziyoyev’s two terms won’t count, enabling him to stand for two more.
It’s a pattern seen time and again in countries run by autocrats. When it comes to the fundamentals, Mirziyoyev is little different from his predecessor.
Missing the warning signs of discontent
Karakalpakstan appears to have been an afterthought in this self-serving package of changes. Clearly, its symbolic status is important to its people, but there’s no serious independence movement. The discovery of gas reserves in the region in 2018, which might make an independent economy more plausible, may have prompted some central government anxiety. But in attempting to fix a problem that didn’t exist, it has potentially created one.
This is what happens when autocratic states are used to making top-down decisions without consultation, in the expectation of no opposition. If the government had acted on the discontent expressed in June, before the night of violence, it could have avoided the confrontation. On his visit to the region, Mirziyoyev blamed parliament for not warning him of local objections. But a parliament of loyalists is unlikely to tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear.
Civil society could play a vital role, warning the government when a policy is unpopular, proposing alternatives and brokering dialogue between the state and communities. But there’s virtually no independent civil society allowed in Uzbekistan; most organisations that appear to be part of civil society are in fact government entities. Independent organisations struggle to register, particularly when they have a human rights focus.
To avoid a repeat of the violence in Nukus, the change Mirziyoyev should make, instead of altering the constitution to suit himself, is to enable civil society, so that next time the government can see the warning signs.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Uzbekistan should launch an independent inquiry into all rights violations committed during the Karakalpakstan protests and hold state forces that committed violations accountable.
The government should open up civic space, including by enabling the registration of independent human rights organisations.
Democratic states with friendly relations with Uzbekistan should push for the government to introduce reforms to advance democratic and civic freedoms.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov via Gallo Images