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No Celebration For Karakalpakstan's Independence Day

Most of Karakalpakstan is desert and areas of the northwestern part are an environmental disaster area due to salinization caused by the desiccation of the Aral Sea. (file photo)
Most of Karakalpakstan is desert and areas of the northwestern part are an environmental disaster area due to salinization caused by the desiccation of the Aral Sea. (file photo)

In a refugee camp in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a small group of people remembered a day few in the world know about.

December 14 marked 25 years since the parliament in Karakalpakstan adopted a declaration of state sovereignty -- effectively independence. It never came to be.

Karakalpakstan today is an autonomous region in the western part of Uzbekistan and there are no signs that that will change anytime soon, despite the wishes of some ethnic Karakalpaks, such as Aman Sagidullaev.

Sagidullaev is one of the Karakalpaks living in the refugee camp in Bishkek. His dreams of an independent Karakalpakstan ultimately led to him having to flee his homeland. Now he lives in constant fear that he will either be deported or simply abducted by agents of Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB).

Karakalpakstan accounts for more than one-third of Uzbekistan's total territory, though most of Karakalpakstan is desert and areas of the northwestern part are an environmental disaster area due to salinization caused by the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Only some 1.7 million people live there, and of that number only about half a million are ethnic Karakalpaks, a people more closely related to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks.

However, there are large deposits of oil and gas in Karakalpakstan. And while in some places that might be a boon to the local population, in Karakalpakstan people see few benefits from this wealth, while at the same time these hydrocarbon deposits ensure the territory will remain part of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan's government officially reincorporated Karakalpakstan into Uzbekistan proper in 1993, but made it an autonomous region and offered a concession that after 20 years the region could vote to remain with Uzbekistan or secede. When 2013 came, that promise was apparently forgotten.

Sagidullaev has been the leader of the Alga Karakalpakstan (Forward Karakalpakstan) movement since 2008. Uzbek authorities largely ignored the group initially but finally went after Sagidullaev in 2011, accusing him of embezzling some $1 million while he was head of an agricultural-equipment manufacturer in Karakalpakstan.

Sagidullaev fled Uzbekistan with his family that same year, eventually winding up in the refugee camp in Bishkek. Uzbek authorities did not show much interest in Sagidullaev or the $1 million he allegedly stole until 2014, when Alga Karakalpakstan started using social networks to appeal to the World Bank to withhold a $411 million loan intended for projects in Karakalpakstan.

Alga Karakalpakstan also used the messages to the World Bank to chronicle the plight of the Karakalpaks -- the illnesses attributed to alkaline soils, the closure of industries in the region, the inability to promote the Karakalpak language and culture and, most disturbing, allegations that Karakalpak women were being sterilized as part of a campaign to reduce their numbers.

Uzbekistan issued a warrant for Sagidullaev's arrest and extradition shortly after the Alga Karakalpakstan messages started appearing on social networks, and Uzbek authorities started referring to Sagidullaev as a separatist.

For now, Sagidullaev enjoys some protection while the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees considers his case. But the situation does not look promising and there is a possibility that Sagidullaev will not receive refugee status, in which case he will be essentially out on the streets in Bishkek.

More than one year ago, Qishloq wrote about Sagidullaev when he said he suspected SNB agents were watching the camp he was in and making inquiries about him and his family.

More recently, Qishloq has noted that there is reason to believe that Uzbek authorities will pursue perceived enemies of the state far beyond the borders of Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan, right next door to Uzbekistan, has not proven to be a safe haven for some Uzbeks wanted back home. They have been snatched off the street and taken back across the border to face charges in Uzbekistan.

I met with Sagidullaev when I was in Kyrgyzstan covering the parliamentary elections. He seemed resigned to the fact that an independent Karakalpakstan would remain a dream for a long time to come. What he really wanted was to be granted refugee status so he could relocate somewhere farther away from Uzbekistan, somewhere in Europe hopefully.

His future in Uzbekistan would be a prison cell and Karakalpakstan's future seems, for the foreseeable future, for it to remain a needed but neglected part of Uzbekistan.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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