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'Uzbekistan separatist movement threatens ancient culture' The war in eastern Ukraine has spurred calls for independence for Karakalpakstan, a depressed semi-autonomous region of Uzbekistan. But some say the campaign risks a backlash that could endanger the whole community
Grounded fishing ships were abandoned after the Aral Sea dried up. Photograph: flickr Omirbek
‘Omirbek’ is an ethnic Karakalpak now living in Russia, who wants to remain anonymous
Yet those living in Karakalpakstan say conditions are not improving, and Nasa photographs show that a large area of the sea is now “completely dried”.
'> Karakalpak is roughly translated as black hat, and was the name given to a collection of tribes. In 1925, the Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast was formed within the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, under the Soviet Union. It was later passed to Russia and then Uzbekistan. After the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, divisions within the Karakalpak political elite allowed Tashkent to preserve Karakalpakstan as a semi-autonomous part of Uzbekistan.
Much of the vast semi-autonomous region is a toxic salt desert that was left behind as the Aral Sea dried up
The years since have been hard for the Karakalpak people. From the late 1990s, women in Uzbekistan have been sterilised as a way of controlling population growth. For Karakalpaks, whose number could be anywhere between 620,000 and 1.5 million worldwide, this inhumane project has been especially costly.
Along with inaction on environmental and health issues, Karakalpakstan’s natural resources have been tapped. Oil and gas extraction facilities and pipelines have been developed in partnership with the state-owned Uzbekneftegaz and international firms, but income goes through Tashkent, not Nukus, the Karakalpak capital.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Nukus, Karakalpakstan Photograph: Gary Calton Faced with unemployment, many Karakalpaks have moved to neighbouring Kazakhstan, Russia and even South Korea to find work. Those who have moved to Kazakhstan often claim to be ethnic Kazakh in their documents; it makes obtaining citizenship and social assistance from the state easier. Some of those who have stayed change their nationality to Uzbek to make job-hunting easier at home.
All of these factors threaten the future of the Karakalpak ethnic group. To me, the most critical threat to Karakalpaks, however, is a separatist movement that claims to fight for them.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine made a Crimean scenario in Karakalpakstan seem possible
Two online activists with the names Marip Kungradskyi and Roman Mamytov appeared on social networks in spring 2013 calling for a referendum on Karakalpak independence. Their posts, written in everyday Karakalpak, demanded the government in Nukus be overthrown and ended with “Alga Karakalpakstan!” (Go Karakalpakstan!) After a while, the phrase became the name of this small, unknown movement.
The internet separatists pointed out that the agreement between Tashkent and Nukus signed in 1993 had stipulated that a referendum on Karakalpak independence be held 20 years later.
I believe all of these factors threaten the future of the Karakalpak ethnic group
It was clear that Kungradskyi and Mamytov, whoever they were, were operating outside Uzbekistan, and their everyday Karakalpak language and often terrible Russian suggested this was not a serious political movement. Maybe that’s why Uzbekistan’s National Security Service, which is infamous for its cruelty to dissidents whether inside or outside the country, did not pursue it.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Children in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan. Residents in the area around the Aral Sea suffer with a higher incidence of tuberculosis. Photograph: Gary Calton/Gary Calton Karakalpak separatist sentiment could have been lost in the vastness of the internet then, if not for the Ukraine crisis. After Crimea joined Russia in March 2014, Alga Karakalpakstan! returned with greater determination, claiming Karakalpakstan would also join Russia if separatists “hear a good signal from Kremlin”. Though the group had mentioned such aspirations before, Russia’s actions in Ukraine made a Crimean scenario in Karakalpakstan seem possible.
Russia did not respond to the separatists’ plan, but Uzbek authorities have issued an international arrest warrant for Sagidullaev. Despite this, the movement’s social network page still publishes demands for independence. Now there is also “Shiraq News” press service and an official website.
An area once covered by the Aral Sea. Photograph: flickr As an ethnic Karakalpak, however, I believe that Sagidullaev and his supporters have harmed Karakalpaks, especially those living outside Karakalpakstan.