Karakalpakstan: a little-known autonomy in the post-Soviet Central Asia

Karakalpakstan: a little-known autonomy in the post-Soviet Central Asia

Following the series of publications on territorial autonomy, ICELDS asked Dr. Igor Savin, a prominent expert on Central Asia, a Senior Research Fellow at the Central Eurasia Research Centre, Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow) to answer a few questions about the Republic of Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan is an autonomous poly-ethnic region located in the northern part of Uzbekistan. Currently, the information about its legal status and political features is scarce.

ICELDS: What is the constitutional and legal basic of the Republic of Karakalpakstan?

Igor Savin: The first state entity where the Karakalpaks were named as the titular ethnicity was the Kara-Kalpak Autonomous Province formed in 1924 as a part of the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic. The Khorezm Republic was established in 1920 after the invasion of the Red Army in the Central Asia and in 1924 abolished and in most part merged into newly established Uzbekistan. The Karakalpak province was incorporated into the Soviet Kyrgyz Republic (later it was renamed to Kazakhstan), at that time an autonomous part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Then it was directly subordinated to the RSFSR and in 1932 upgraded to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). In 1936, it became a part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic also as the Karakalpak ASSR.

On 14 December 1990, the Supreme Council of the Karakalpak ASSR adopted the Declaration on State Sovereignty. The way how easily the concept of “sovereignty” was used reflected a general trend of Soviet autonomous entities’ behavior during the perestroika period. Nevertheless, the Declaration explicitly allowed for gaining the full independence of the ASSR through a nation-wide referendum.

The current Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan was adopted on 9 April 1993 and several times amended before 2003. Article 1 states that “Karakalpakstan is a sovereign democratic republic that is part of the Republic of Uzbekistan. <…> The Republic of Karakalpakstan has the right to secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a nation-wide referendum held by the people of Karakalpakstan.” This case is unique for the post-Soviet countries which are generally lacking constitutional norms on autonomous entities’ right to secession. According to some rumors, this provision was a result of lengthy secret negotiations between former Uzbek President Islom Karimov and the then leaders of the Republic of Karakalpakstan. The Karakalpak Constitution provides that relations between Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan are regulated by bilateral treaties and agreements. These treaties and agreements have never been published, and some experts believe that they never existed. Instead, there were verbal agreements about the loyalty of Karakalpakstan in exchange to concessions from the center. Apparently, this explains the existence of the constitutional provision on secession. Some oppositional experts suggest that on 9 April 1993 the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Karakalpakstan might have signed a secret agreement which allegedly expired in 2013 [1].

The constitutional provisions of Karakalpakstan define the principles of interaction between the public bodies of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan. Article 3 declares that “The Republic of Karakalpakstan shall independently determine its administrative and territorial structure, its system of state authority and administration, and shall pursue policies coordinated with the policies of the Republic of Uzbekistan.” [emphasis added – ICELDS] Art. 15 further stipulates that “The Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Karakalpakstan shall have absolute supremacy in the Republic of Karakalpakstan.” It is clear that the laws and authorities of Uzbekistan have priority over those of Karakalpakstan. Thus, Article 17 establishes that “International scientific, cultural, and foreign economic relations of the Republic of Karakalpakstan shall be pursued in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Karakalpakstan.” Other articles stipulate that every citizen of Karakalpakstan shall also be a citizen of Uzbekistan, and that the Prime Minister and the Procurator-General shall be appointed on the proposal of the Jokargi Kenes (Parliament) of Karakalpakstan following consultations with the President and the Public Prosecutor General of Uzbekistan [2].

The Constitution of Uzbekistan refers to Karakalpakstan in 15 articles of 119. Chapter XVII (Articles 70 – 75) establish the same principles of the Karakalpak autonomous statehood as the Karakalpak Constitution.

Generally, the state bodies of Karakalpakstan seem to be fully integrated in the general administration structure of Uzbekistan and controlled by the central authorities. The Chair of the Jokargi Kenes is a deputy Chair of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) of Uzbekistan, while the Prime Minister of Karakalpakstan is a Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan. This distinguishes Karakalpakstan from other territorial units of the country. However, it is unclear whether it provides the autonomous republic with any real preferences.

The official statistical tables and enumerations of Uzbekistan put Karakalpakstan on the first place followed by other first-level administrative regions listed in alphabetical order. Besides, the Karakalpak language enjoys certain privileges. Uzbekistan’s Law on the State Language of 21 October 1989 (with amendments of 3 December 2004) establishes that “The legal basis to use Uzbek as an official language in the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall be determined by the present Law and other legislative documents. The issues related to the use of the language in the Republic of Karakalpakstan also shall be determined by the legislation of the Republic of Karakalpakstan” (Article 3) [3]. There is no separate law on languages in Karakalpakstan.

ICELDS: What is the ethnic composition and language situation in Karakalpakstan? What data or estimations are available, and what are their sources?

IS: No census has been conducted in Uzbekistan since 1989. Therefore, there are only estimations. According to the website of the State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics, there are 708,800 Karakalpaks living throughout the entire country, while the whole population of Karakalpakstan is 1,818,000 people [4]. Aman Sagidullaev, the leader of the unregistered pro-independence movement Alga Karakalpakstan, argues that there are 2.2 million people living in Karakalpakstan, of whom 1.2 million (60 percent) are ethnic Karakalpaks. According to some experts from Tashkent, it is the Uzbek ethnic group that constitutes 60 percent of the Karakalpakstan’s population by 2018. Another common source of estimations is the Lonely Planet guidebook [5]. It provides the following figures: Uzbeks – 32.8 percent, Kazaks – 32.6 percent, Karakalpaks – 32.1 percent, and other ethnic groups (Russians, Ukrainians, Turkmens, Koreans, and Tatars) – 2.5 percent.

There are also estimates that approximately 300,000 Karakalpaks live in Kazakhstan, while another 100,000 reside in Russia. However, the results of the 2009 National Census in Kazakhstan show that only 2,800 Karakalpaks lived in this country [6]. Meanwhile, several tens or even hundreds of thousands of Karakalpaks might stay in Kazakhstan temporarily. They periodically leave the territory of Kazakhstan and subsequently entry anew. According to official statistics [7], in 2015 almost 800,000 citizens of Uzbekistan were temporary registered in Kazakhstan, and the authorities of Kazakhstan issued more than 150,000 work permits to citizens of Uzbekistan. Indeed, there is a certain number of Karakalpaks among them, but it is difficult to identify their share. In 2016, I had personal talks with some Karakalpak labor migrants in the city of Aktau (Mangystau region, Kazakhstan), which is the large city of Kazakhstan nearest to Karakalpakstan. One could observe that at least several thousand Karakalpaks are based in Aktau. They constantly move to Karakalpakstan and then return back to Kazakhstan.

Referring to the Ministry of Education of Uzbekistan, one unofficial website [8] provides the number of schools in 2012 in Uzbekistan disaggregated according to the language of instruction. There were 8,825 schools with the Uzbek language of instruction, 363 – with Karakalpak, 836 – with Russian, 380 – with Kazakh, 247 – with Tajik, 57 – with Kyrgyz, and 56 – with Turkmen. The numbers of pupils by language of study were the following: the Uzbek language – 85.61 percent, Karakalpak – 1.97 percent, Russian – 9.94 percent, Kazakh – 1.00 percent, Tajik – 1.14 percent, Kyrgyz – 0.13 percent, and Turkmen – 0.18 percent.

This data can be compared with the available official data for 2014/2015. There were 9,698 schools in Uzbekistan which provided education for 4,520,826 pupils. The breakdown of schools according to the language of instruction was the following: 8,808 schools with the Uzbek language, 359 – with Karakalpak, 799 – with Russian, 396 – with Kazakh, 251 – with Tajik, 56 – with Kyrgyz, and 45 – with Turkmen [9].

It can be observed that the number of schools with the Karakalpak language of instruction has reduced, albeit insignificantly. The decreasing trend is also typical for almost all other minority language schools. Meanwhile, one can also assume that some of the Karakalpak schoolchildren study in other languages.

The expert data confirm that the Karakalpak language plays an important role in the daily communication of the Karakalpaks, and it is a powerful symbol of their consolidation. The language and the distinctiveness of the Karakalpak culture are not publicly questioned. However, imperceptible and gradual endeavors to reduce their influence are under way. Several years ago, Islom Karimov, the then President of Uzbekistan, announced the Year of Mahalla (a special type of local community common for many Muslim nations). However, this type of settlement is not typical for Karakalpaks. Nevertheless, the authorities began to introduce similar forms of local self-government in Karakalpakstan. The same is true for the so-called mahalla mosques. Being usual for the rest of Uzbekistan, they are not common within the Karakalpak tradition. In general, Islam plays a lesser important role in the everyday life of the Karakalpaks, as it does for the Uzbeks.

In 1995, Uzbekistan’s Law on the State Language was amended, and the changes resulted in the approximation of the Karakalpak language to the Uzbek standard. According to Aman Sagidullaev, the Uzbek language is taught in schools of Karakalpakstan today at the expense of the Karakalpak and the Russian languages. Perhaps, that is why the number of schools with the Karakalpak (and also the Russian) language of instruction has decreased. These schools were mainly transformed to schools with several languages of instruction.

All official websites related to Karakalpakstan have their versions in the Karakalpak language. It is a language of instruction in the institutions of higher education. There are also newspapers and TV programs in the Karakalpak language. Nevertheless, some oppositional experts insist, the content provided by these media outlets is controlled from Tashkent. The Karakalpak Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan also has a Karakalpak version of its website [11]. The website published among other things, Vestnik (The Bulletin) of the Karakalpak Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan [12] in the Uzbek and the Russian languages. Some articles are also published there in the Karakalpak language, but they appear only in the section of philology. In fact, the Karakalpak language develops within narrow professional niches, although the vernacular is still widely used in everyday life.

ICELDS: How do the central authorities and authorities of Karakalpakstan comment and justify the content of and the need for autonomy?

IS: These reasons rather exist by default and derive from the Soviet tradition of ethnic diversity institutionalization. The significant differences between languages and cultures are acknowledged in Tashkent and in Nukus (the capital of Karakalpakstan) by both the elites and common people. The distinctiveness of the Karakalpaks is not questioned, as it is definitely a different nation. However, officials in Tashkent still seem to be doing their best to unify administrative practices, and are gradually promoting a model of centralized control over the situation in the autonomous republic and over its natural resources, including oil and natural gas under the dried Aral Sea bottom. Meanwhile, the desire for the full independence of Karakalpakstan has not disappeared. It is not openly manifested, but some segments of the population are secretly sympathetic to this idea.

ICELDS: What does the autonomous status of Karakalpakstan mean from the point of view of administrative practices and domestic policies? Is it just a decoration, or are there some elements of power-sharing and autonomous decision-making?

IS: Apparently, the authorities of the autonomous republic have no independence. A possible exception is a narrow field pertinent to the development of the Karakalpak language. According to Aman Sagidullaev, all the important appointments (not limited to those mentioned in the Constitution) are coordinated and decided by the central authorities. Similarly, all incomes from all types of natural resources are accumulated in Tashkent. The estimations, that I heard during my personal communication with Sagidullaev, are so that the natural resources annually mined in Karakalpakstan cost around 4 billion USD, whereas budgetary subsidies allocated to the autonomous republic from the center constitute approximately 150 million USD. However, since all important decisions are made in closed mode, it is not possible either to confirm or to disprove these figures.

ICELDS: Why did the Republic of Karakalpakstan survive after the collapse of the USSR in spite of negative or suspicious attitude toward autonomous entities by the authorities of most post-Soviet states?

IS: Islom Karimov wanted to secure the loyalty of the elite and the people of Karakalpakstan by demonstrating his support for their desire for independence. He made a parallel between the independence of Uzbekistan from the USSR and of Karakalpakstan from Uzbekistan. In 1993, the banners “What a big one needs, a small one needs too” hung everywhere in Karakalpakstan and symbolized Karimov’s support for the aspirations of the Karakalpak elite. Apparenly, this was only a maneuver. Having strengthened his power, Karimov gradually began to remove those who supported the idea of independence from the political elite of Karakalpakstan. Later, common people began to be afraid to express these ideas.

ICELDS: What are the prospects for the future existence and development of Karakalpakstan?

IS: Apparently, the trend towards the Uzbekization of administrative bodies and the entire population of Karakalpakstan will continue. It will be in parallel with a decrease in the population’s interest to discuss the idea of independence. Nevertheless, members of Karakalpak opposition groups are confident that Karakalpakstan will soon gain its independence [13]. They are not numerous and live mostly abroad (in Bishkek, Almaty, Moscow, or Oslo). According to them, the support to the ideas of independence is very high in Karakalpakstan, especially among young people. However, it is actively suppressed by the authorities. There were no signs of support to the ideas of Karakalpakstan’s independence from Russia, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, although the contacts of these countries’ secret services with the Karakalpak opposition activists seem to have taken place.

Uzbekistan actively invests in the construction of new raw materials processing industries. Their managers are ethnic Uzbeks from other regions but not locals. According to some Karakalpak opposition activists, the heads of administations (khokims) in most districts of Karakalpakstan are no longer ethnic Karakalpaks. The most economically advanced areas of the autonomous republic are populated predominantly by ethnic Uzbeks. This circumstance significantly hampers even hypothetical secession of Karakalpakstan from Uzbekistan. In addition, Tashkent can always control is the only source of water – the Amudarya River which that flows through Karakalpakstan. The population of Uzbekistan generally believes that Karakalpaks already have reserved quotas in all administrative bodies and educational institutions. Therefore, it’s unlikely that the Uzbek society will be willing to even start any discussion about the independence of Karakalpakstan.


[1] 99 % pravitelstva Karakalpakstana – uzbeki, Ozodagon, 30.06.2014, http://catoday.org/centrasia/14988-99-pravitelstva-karakalpakstana-uzbeki.html.
[2] Constitution of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, Jokargi Kenes of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, http://parliamentrk.gov.uz/ru/dokumenti/konstitucija-respubliki-karakalpakstan/.
[3] Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan on the State Language adopted on 21 October 1989 (as amended on 3 December 2004), http://medialaw.asia/document/-1990.
[4] Demographic Situation in the Republic of Uzbekistan, State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics, 20.06.2017, https://stat.uz/en/435-analiticheskie-materialy-en1/2075-demographic-situation-in-the-republic-of-uzbekistan.
[5] Mayhew, Bradley (2007). Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, p.258.
[6] 2009 Population Census in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Committee on Statistics, Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, http://stat.gov.kz/faces/wcnav_externalId/p_perepis?_afrLoop=9324001520689588#%40%3F _afrLoop%3D9324001520689588%26_adf.ctrl-state%3D10ael1xseq_21.
[7] Uyazvimost migrantov i potrebnosti integratsii v Tsentralnoy Azii: Osnovnye prinichiny i sotsialno-ekonomicheskie posledstviya vozvratnoy migratsii. Regionalnaya polevaya otsenkav v Tsentralnoy Azii 2016. Astana: International Organization for Migration, pp. 200-204, http://www.iom.kz/images/books/FullReportRUS2016.pdf.
[8] Karakalpakstan (Respublika Uzbekistan), http://docplayer.ru/70747279-Karakalpakstan-respublika-uzbekistan.html.
[9] Ministerstvo narodnogo obrazovaniya Uzbekistana obnovilo svoy sayt, infoCOM.uz, 17.05.2015, http://infocom.uz/2015/05/17/ministerstvo-narodnogo-obrazovaniya-uzbekistana-obnovilo-svoj-sajt/.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Karakalpak Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan, http://www.aknuk.uz.
[12] Vestnik, scientific journal published by the Karakalpak Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan, http://aknuk.uz/vestnik.html.
[13] Noveyshaya istoriya Karakalpakstana, Free Karakalpak – Erkin Karakalpak, 11.11.2007, http://freekarakalpak.blogspot.ru/2007/11/blog-post_11.html; 99 % pravitelstva Karakalpakstana – uzbeki, op. cit., note 1 above.

* Image: Jokargi Kenes building in Nukus, Credit: Bakhadirkaramatdinov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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