Supporters of the group have been vocal on Internet chat boards. One person identifying himself as Yernazar Konyratov wrote on March 5 that "devastation, chaos, poverty, [and] environmental disaster" have gripped Karakalpakstan. He went on to call for a referendum on the autonomous republic's independence from Tashkent.
"We need to unite and not be afraid," Konyratov wrote.
Solijon Abdurahmanov, a human-rights activist in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, and an advocate of independence, tells RFE/RL that many young ethnic Karakalpaks are likely to support separatist sentiments.
"The young men and women born in the 1980s are now nearly 30 years old -- they have traveled abroad extensively," he says, adding that they understand the difficult realities in their homeland.
Abdurahmanov claims those Karakalpaks who have left their beleaguered republic to work in Russia and Kazakhstan have seen the higher living standards in neighboring countries and support independence as a result. They blame the Uzbek government for the lack of development in Karakalpakstan, he says.
But other Karakalpaks interviewed by RFE/RL say they are pro-Tashkent and do not share the views of "Free Karakalpakstan."
One of those with no desire for independence is Qubei Ortiqov, a farmer who lives near Nukus. He has harsh words for those who he says are seeking a scapegoat in Tashkent.
"This organization called the 'National Revival Party' is the work of the scum of our society," he says. "Karakalpaks do not suffer from being a part of Uzbekistan; Karakalpaks live freely everywhere in Uzbekistan. I think this is nothing but a movement aimed at dividing [Uzbekistan]."
Tashkent's Watchful Gaze
Soviet leader Josef Stalin -- who created the Soviet republics of Central Asia in the 1920s -- also drew up the map for Karakalpakstan. Founded as an autonomous region in 1925, its status was changed in 1932 to an autonomous republic. A few years later, in 1936, it became part of Uzbekistan, constituting 37 percent of its territory.
In December 1990, the Supreme Council of the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), which was a part of the Uzbek SSR, adopted a "Declaration on State Sovereignty." It included the prospect of independence from the Uzbek SSR and even the Soviet Union if such a move was approved by Karakalpak's citizens in a referendum.
The first constitution of Karakalpakstan was adopted in April 1993 and stipulated a similar possibility. But officials in Tashkent generally prevented Karakalpaks from organizing or holding a referendum.
Since then, Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government has been deliberate in its appointment of official leaders for Karakalpakstan, which is headed by a president. Karakalpakstan leaders have been carefully selected, with all of them either loyal friends or conspicuous supporters of Karimov.
The CIA "World Factbook" lists Karakalpaks as the fifth-largest ethnic group in the country, representing roughly 2.5 percent of Uzbekistan's 28 million people.
Within the autonomous republic itself, official Uzbek statistics indicate that ethnic Karakalpaks make up less than one-third of the total population of 1.2 million people. Ethnic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and some Turkmen compose the other two-thirds.
Karakalpaks are closer ethnically and linguistically to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks, and some claim that the Karakalpak ethnic group was a Soviet invention aimed at dividing up the Kazakh population.
In recent years, some Karakalpakstan residents have moved from Uzbekistan to neighboring Kazakhstan as part of Astana's "Oralman" policy -- which is meant to return people to their ethnic homeland. Kazakhstan is the eighth-largest country in the world but has a relatively small population of some 15 million, and officials there support the immigration of ethnic Kazakhs. Most "Oralmans" are ethnic Kazakhs from Mongolia, China, or Karakalpakstan.
Some sources suggest that 200,000 people have left Karakalpakstan in recent years.
Separatist sentiments were first voiced in Karakalpakstan in the mid-1980s, as calls for sovereignty and independence spread throughout the Soviet republics.
Sea Of Adversity
Human-rights activist Abdurahmanov says that a Nukus-based economist, Marat Aralbaev, is seen as the founding father of the first Karakalpak separatist movement.
"At the time, a nationalist movement called 'Halk Mapi,' or 'People's Interests,' led by Marat Aralbaev started this [separatist movement]," he says. "But environmental disaster -- caused by the Aral Sea problem in Karakalpakstan -- to a certain extent overshadowed talks about independence."
The problems are severe. The remote republic has high rates of tuberculosis and other diseases whose outbreaks are ascribed at least in part to environmental problems related to the disappearance of the Aral Sea -- which has shrunk by two-thirds in the last 60 years as agriculture and other projects divert the precious Amu Darya River. The sea was also used for biological-weapons testing during the Soviet era. A nearly fivefold increase in salinity has killed most of the region's natural flora and fauna.
As poverty and unemployment have risen across Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan's people have been badly affected.
But there have also been discoveries of fossil-fuel reserves. The independent website uznews.net reported on February 20 that recent estimates suggest Karakalpakstan has some 1.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 1.7 million tons of liquid hydrocarbon resources. The report also suggested that officials in Tashkent were unlikely to share the revenues from sales of Karakalpakstan's gas and oil.
Abdurahmanov says such developments are behind a recent revival of separatist sentiments among Karakalpaks. Abdurahmanov insists that Karakalpakstan could survive as a sovereign state on the strength of its natural-resources wealth.
Karakalpakstan's independence nevertheless appears unlikely, since the Uzbek parliament must consent to the holding of any referendum. The legislature, under the tight control of President Karimov, is unlikely to give a green light to any secessionist aspirations in Uzbekistan -- which is a patchwork of regions with separatist sentiments that cite deep historical roots.
Before the 1920s, Uzbekistan did not exist. Prior to Bolshevik/Communist rule, ethnic Uzbeks identified themselves as Muslims and with the khans (kings) who ruled them. Neither Uzbek ethnic identity nor the term "Uzbeks" was in wide use.
Even now, Uzbeks often identify themselves based on regional origin. Those from the Ferghana Valley in the east tend to distinguish themselves from those in the southern Surkhandaryo and Qashqadaryo regions or from those in the western Khorazm area.
Toshpulat Yuldoshev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, says officials in the capital are well aware of the risks that any separatist sentiments, if unleashed, may create.
He says separatists in Karakalpakstan are unlikely to succeed because they will always face strong opposition in Tashkent and lack full support inside Karakalpakstan.
"I don't think those [separatist] forces are strong enough, and they don't have the means to achieve their goal," Yuldoshev says. "But they are definitely able to contribute to the destabilization of the situation in the country."
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Sadriddin Ashurov contributed to this report
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