Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
While nominally autonomous Karakalpakstan occupies 37 per cent of the country’s territory, ethnic Karakalpaks represent about a third of Karakalpakstan’s population, and a very small proportion – around 2.2 per cent, according to 2017 government estimates – of the country’s total population. Because of a special autonomy arrangement granted to the Republic of Karakalpakstan, the Turkic-speaking Karakalpaks have in legal and practical terms much greater protection of their rights and in the use of their language,
The Karakalpaks’ language belongs to the Kipchak family of Turkic languages, and they are closely related linguistically and culturally to the Kazakhs. They are mainly Sunni Muslims, with hundreds of thousands concentrated on the southern shore of the Aral Sea in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. There are also Karakalpak villages in the Ferghana Valley.
Karakalpaks appear to be one of the Turkic ethnic groups which emerged after the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century. The small size of their community throughout their history made them vulnerable to the domination of other ethnic groups, and this has been the case in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Kalmyks, followed by the Kazakhs, Turkmen and Uzbeks up until the 20th century. They entered into the Russian sphere of control after 1873. An autonomous oblast was created for them in 1925 when the lands of Karakalpak were separated from the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic. The oblast became the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1932, and it was joined to the Uzbek SSR in 1936. It is because of that transfer that Karakalpaks entered into the sphere of Uzbekistan at the latter’s independence in 1991, instead of their more closely related Kazakhs.
In 1993 the Supreme Soviet of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakia approved a new Constitution, according to which it was transformed into a sovereign parliamentary republic renamed Karakalpakstan, within the Uzbekistan state. Constitutionally, Karakalpakstan can function apart from the national Uzbek government, as long as it complies with Uzbekistan laws. In practice, the autonomy appears to be more nominal than real in most areas.
More nationalistic Karakalpaks demanded that the republic be given full independence, but such demands have been curbed by the fact that Uzbekistan control the flow of water to Karakalpakstan. The local population has been gravely affected by the Aral Sea disaster, the virtual disappearance of what was once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world due to dam construction and industrial pollution of its water reserves: this has resulted in the contamination of water, soil and air and the loss of 2 million hectares of land for farming. The Aral Sea crisis has brought about unemployment, a deterioration of public health and emigration from the region. This environmental and economic catastrophe has led to a huge outflow of Karakalpaks out of their traditional lands in Karakalpakstan to other parts of Uzbekistan, but mainly to Kazakhstan. One consequence of this emigration has been that the Karakalpak proportion of the population in its autonomous republic has been steadily diminishing in recent years.
Karakalpakstan is one of the two poorest regions of Uzbekistan, and the Karakalpak population suffers higher levels of poverty, unemployment and poor health than their Uzbek neighbours. With the retreat of the Aral Sea, thousands of Karakalpaks have lost their livelihoods and are being forced off their land. The shrinking of the Aral Sea by 90 per cent and desertification of most of its territory is one of the most visible environmental disasters in the world over the last fifty years. While improved water management has led to modest growth in the volume of Kazakhstan’s northern portion of the sea in recent years, there is little prospect of similar changes in the southern section, which is surrounded by the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, a part of Uzbekistan. This environmental disaster has had serious economic, social and health consequences for the ethnic Karakalpak population, which is native to the region immediately around the sea. Karakalpaks have lost their traditional livelihoods and are being forced to move away from the sea to find work and healthier environmental conditions.
In the face of the loss of livelihood opportunities and health concerns, the Karakalpak population is faced with difficult decisions. While the mainstay of the region’s economy remains agriculture, many have moved south to the region’s capital Nukus, where there are few work opportunities. Less than 9 per cent of the workforce is involved in industrial production, and there is limited access to credit to develop new businesses. Others have moved to Uzbekistan proper or migrated to work in the stronger economy of Kazakhstan, where they often face discrimination. Unofficial estimates suggest that 50,000–200,000 Karakalpaks have made the move to Kazakhstan. Their position will not improve without significant external intervention to tackle the problems of the southern Aral Sea.
Karakalpaks remain one of the most threatened minorities in the country because of the ecological catastrophe. Yet it appears that as their demographic weight diminishes in the autonomous republic, so does their control over the institutions of the local government. While Karakalpak and Uzbek are both official languages in the autonomous republic, the government of Uzbekistan has been replacing the Karakalpak names of populated places, geographical features and administrative divisions with Uzbek language names only. In addition, while there does not obviously seem to be any state-sponsored policies of transmigration to bring in Uzbeks to further dilute the presence of Karakalpaks, there has been a noticeable in-flow of Uzbeks into the agricultural lands of the republic’s south in recent years.
In Karakalpakstan – with a mainly Karakalpak population – only Muslim and Russian Orthodox religious communities have been registered, making the activity of more than 20 Protestant and Jehovah’s Witness congregations illegal. Most churches are now closed and there have been reports of Hare Krishna and Protestant students being expelled from university. Members of the South Korean-based Unification Church have been told that they cannot contact members in other countries. This repression of religious minority communities continues; in April 2017, for example, four Protestant men living in Karakalpakstan were sentenced to short terms in prison for worshipping at home.
Updated September 2018
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