Monday, June 9, 2014

Karakalpak Autonomy Rumblings in Uzbekistan Raise Fears Putin Eyeing Central Asia for Next Crimea

Last week I reported here on possibly ethnically-tinged conflicts stirring again in eastern Tajikistan—a country whose destabilization could be in Russia’s interest—between Sunni Tajiks and Shiite Pamiris.  Since then, another separatist region in a former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan’s Republic of Karakalpakstan, has renewed its demands for autonomy as well.  Does this mean covertly Russian-backed Crimea and Donbas type scenarios will be playing out in Central Asia? or is this merely a reaction to the divisiveness and unease in Moscow’s former empire?

The flag of Karakalpakstan
A group called Alga Karakalpakstan (“Forward Karakalpakstan!”), which represents the indigenous people of the vast western half of Uzbekistan, has gone over the heads of the Uzbek government to directly petition the World Bank to halt development aid unless Uzbeks crack down on the use of slave labor in Karakalpak cotton fields.  Referring to well-documented practices which have caused many in the international community to look askance at Uzbekistan, the Alga Karakalpakstan letter tells the bank, “The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence.  Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton.”  Even within this already harsh system, according to the group, Karakalpakstan is a “captive” nation under “political and economic blockade.”

The incredible shrinking Aral Sea paid the cost of the Soviet mania to
make arid Uzbekistan a cotton producer.  So did Karakalpaks.
Like Crimea, Karakalpakstan is a victim of redrawn internal borders during the Soviet period which are now international borders.  Karakalpaks are ethnically and culturally closer to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks; some even classify them as Kazakh.  Thus, Stalin moved the region out of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.) into the Uzbek S.S.R. to dilute Kazakh influence.  But then Karakalpaks caught the brunt of Soviet eco-pillage and central-planning lunacy.  A cotton industry in this desert region required the draining and near-disappearance of the Aral Sea, which decimated the Karakalpakstan’s more traditional fishing economy.  And after the Soviets located a chemical-weapons facility on an Aral Sea island (which soon ceased to be an island as the sea vanished) and then abandoned it to rot and leach poisons after Communism fell, Karakalpakstan has become the world’s worst toxic-waste dump.

Stranded rotting ships in what used to be the Aral Sea
Though Uzbekistan’s 1993 constitution guarantees Karakalpakstan the right of secession, it is generally understood that the brutal regime in Tashkent would never actually permit this.  One United States diplomat has referred to Karakalpakstan as a “time bomb.”  Or perhaps it is only a fuse that needs to be lit, and that the Crimea crisis could do that.  Because Uzbekistan is so closed, it is hard to evaluate how strong Karakalpak separatism is; after all, they are a minority in their own republic, with the nearly 2 million people being about equally divided among three ethnic groups: Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks.

But Karakalpakstan has most of Uzbekistan’s oil, plus it is just to the west of the Transcaspia region of Kazakhstan, a strategic area with a huge Russian minority, many of whom would like to join Russia.  Russia’s expansionist president, Vladimir Putin, surely would not mind encircling more of the Caspian Sea the way he has done in the Black Sea—especially if it meant seizing more energy resources.

How many ethnic Russians, like those in Crimea, will Putin decide need “protecting”?
Kazakhstan itself has long been a likely site of Russian irredentism.  In addition to Mangystau oblast (province) in Transcaspia (ethnically, about half Kazakh and about a third Russian), the oblasts of East Kazakhstan (55% Kazakh and 41% Russian) and North Kazakhstan (almost half Russian and less than a third Kazakh) have seen Russian separatism as well since Communism fell.  Cossacks are a presence in all three areas and have been at the forefront of intermittent drives to secede and join Russia.  As the Ukrainian analyst Anatoly Baronin has noted, Vladimir Shtygashev, the speaker of parliament in Russia’s nearby Republic of Khakassia (which is less than an eighth Khakass and 81% ethnic-Russian) has said that mineral-rich East Kazakhstan, “the so-called Mining Altai, is historically a part of Russia.”  Kazakhstan’s long-serving authoritarian ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is ever mindful of all this and put Kazakh border patrols on high alert when Putin moved into Crimea earlier this year (as reported at the time in this blog (also discussed here)).  At a hastily arranged presidential summit, Putin “convinced” Nazarbayev that his territory would be more secure if he didn’t make trouble and dutifully signed the agreement to create the “Eurasian Union” (Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) trading bloc, which indeed was inaugurated in late May.  (This is the group which Ukraine’s refusal to join sparked the current conflict there.)

Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev, Belarus’s Lukashenko, and Russia’s Putin are the core of the new “Eurasian Union.”
As Putin tries to rebuild the Soviet Union, his eyes may next be turning eastward.

Special note: This version of the article corrects an original version which misidentifed the nationality of Anatoly Baronin.  Thank you for the reader that wrote me to offer this correction.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

1 comment:

  1. No part of Kazakhstan will ever try and break itself off and join Russia; Russian people in Kazakhstan aren't like in Donetsk or Sevastopol. Kazakhstan is their home, not Russia.


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