The president of Uzbekistan has flown to a restive semi-autonomous republic in the country’s west and ordered the scrapping of proposed constitutional amendments that would have spelled the end to any form of local self-governance.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, during a July 2 meeting with regional lawmakers and community representatives that he was taking the views of the local population into consideration in making the decision.
“Considering that the process of discussing changes and additions to the constitution are still ongoing, and after having considered the views of people in Karakalpakstan, the president has decreed it necessary to leave unchanged the Articles 70, 71, 72, 74, 75 of the current constitution,” Mirziyoyev’s office said in a statement.
While Mirziyoyev has adopted a conciliatory line, other officials have described the events of July 1, when thousands of demonstrators clashed with police in Nukus, as the work of criminals.
Getting a clear picture about this week’s events in Nukus has been rendered all but impossible following a government decision to suspend mobile and fixed-line internet connections.
Residents have nevertheless managed to share some scant information about the violence that unfolded on July 1. What began as an apparently peaceful demonstration that saw many thousands come out onto a square near a central Nukus market eventually degenerated into clashes.
Security officials insist that the crowd sought to storm government buildings, although the government’s information blackout has made it impossible to establish if this is true. Witnesses have said an Interior Ministry special purpose mobile unit deployed smoke and stun grenades, rubber bullets and a water cannon against protestors.
There have been scattered reports of demonstrators sustaining serious and possibly even fatal injuries. Images widely shared across social media have shown at least two members of the public bearing what appear to be catastrophic injuries. Eurasianet was unable to confirm claims about fatalities as of July 2 and officials had yet to issue a comment on this point.
While demonstrators have not been able to convey their positions to the world because of the internet blockages, the authorities have been working to cast the protests – the same ones whose message Mirziyoyev has pledged to acknowledge – as the work of a “criminal gang” attempting to seize government buildings.
“The organizers of the riot are hiding behind populist slogans, manipulating the consciousness and trust of citizens, and refusing to obey the legitimate demands of the authorities,” read a statement signed collectively by the Karakalpakstan branch of the Interior Ministry, the republican government and the regional lawmaking chamber, known as the Jokargy Kenes.
An unspecified number of people has been detained, according to the statement.
In an echo of a common post-Soviet practice, the Uzbek authorities are trying to suggest the unrest may have been instigated by shadowy foreign forces, rather than having been triggered by internal developments.
“In this situation, the attempts of certain harmful external forces abroad to influence the course of events in Karakalpakstan, including through the targeted release of information and the distortion of events, is a cause for concern,” the statement read.
The proposed amendments to the constitution presented to the public last month were sold as an effort to make the state more compassionate and democratic.
But the one piece of tinkering that angered people in Karakalpakstan was one that would have seen the semi-autonomous republic lose its constitutional right to hold a referendum on secession.
This privilege is a legacy of the convoluted history around Karakalpak sovereignty. 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 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. This arrangement was quietly forgotten, even if Karakalpak leaders in theory retain the right to invoke a vote.
Even as Mirziyoyev signals his determination to de-escalate tensions in Karakalpakstan, questions will remain over his government’s quick reliance on censorship and apparent use of violent measures to suppress the voice of pro-autonomy demonstrators.
Hours before the standoff between crowds and security forces turned violent, security services detained local journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, allegedly after she uploaded a video appeal calling for Karakalpakstan to secede. On July 2, Kallykhanova’s sister told Eurasianet that she had been unable to get in contact with her.
Security service agents in Karakalpakstan have form for reacting this repressively and quickly toward journalists and Kallykhanova in particular.
In July 2020, Kallykhanova was detained at her home in Nukus by agents with the security services and had her laptop and mobile phone confiscated after she posted a link to a news story about the chairman of the legislature of Karakalpakstan dying of COVID-19 to her Telegram account. The news item turned out to be incorrect, although the link was to a real article published by a generally respected current affairs website, Repost.uz.