Following a day of angry protests that left 18 dead and hundreds wounded, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on July 2 announced that he will not proceed with a planned constitutional change to revoke the right of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, in the country’s remote northeast, to secede via referendum. The announcement came as Mirziyoyev made an emergency visit to Nukus, the riot-stricken regional capital of Karakalpakstan. He also imposed a month-long state of emergency in the region.
The proposed constitutional change sparked outrage among ethnic Karakalpaks, who constitute the majority in the region. Karakalpaks in neighboring Kazakhstan held a round-table discussion on the proposed change. One speaker, Rustem Matekov, stated that the day of the referendum on the revision of the constitution would be “the day of the funeral of the people of the Republic of Karakalpakstan.”
The Karakalpaks are linguistically closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks; their tongue belongs to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic family, as Kazakh does, while Uzbek belongs to the Karluk branch, which is shared with the Uyghurs in western China. Under Soviet rule, the Karakalpaks were considered a “nationality,” and in 1925 a Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast was established within the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR), which was in turn part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. In 1932, Karakalpakstan itself was promoted to an ASSR and in 1936 became part of the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR). While other ASSRs, such as the Kyrgyz (1936) and Tajik (1929), would eventually become full SSRs, Karakalpakstan remained in the lower status and ended up as the only “autonomous republic” in Soviet Central Asia.
In 1990, the Karakalpak ASSR adopted a declaration of state sovereignty, and with the fall of the Soviet Union the following year declared full independence. In 1993, it agreed to reincorporate with Uzbekistan as an autonomous republic. In return, the Uzbek authorities gave constitutional guarantees allowing Karakalpakstan to hold a referendum on independence within 20 years. The referendum never took place, as local authorities have struggled with water shortages and ecological devastation in the region, related to the dramatic shrinking of the Aral Sea.
The proposed amendments were part of a package of constitutional changes that Mirziyoyev has promoted that would also increase presidential terms to seven years from the current five—and reset the term count for Mirziyoyev, who was first elected in 2016 and then again in 2021. The referendum would permit him to serve 14 more years; Mirziyoyev will otherwise be termed out in 2026. (Jurist, DW, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy Centre)