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Protests in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan

By August 4, 2022May 22nd, 2023Current Affairs, GS 2, International Relations

Protests in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan


  • Rare protests in Uzbekistan’s autonomous Karakalpakstan region, which borders Kazakhstan in the Country’s Northwest, turned deadly.
  • According to the government, 18 people died and 243 others were wounded as a result of clashes between security forces and protesters.
  • The unrest had broken out in response to proposed constitutional reforms.
  • These reforms would make the vast region lose its autonomy and right to secede.




Who are the Karakalpaks?

  • The name Karakalpakstan is derived from the Karakalpak people.
  • It is an ethnic minority group of around 2 million.
  • Karakalpak translates to ‘black hat’, referring to their traditional headgear.
  • The Karakalpaks consider themselves to be a distinct cultural group in Uzbekistan.
  • Their Turkic language – Karakalpak – is closely related to Kazak and is one of the 7 languages of instruction in Uzbekistan’s public schools.
  • Their separate language is a crucial aspect of their cultural identity.
  • In their Genealogical narrative:
  • The Karakalpaks claim to share a common point of origin with the neighbouring Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Turkmen.
  • But believe that over time they diverged from the others.
  • This narrative marks the Karakalpaks as culturally separate from their neighbouring groups.


What is the Region’s history?

  • The Karakalpak people settled around the Amu Darya (a river that feeds into the Aral Sea) in the 18th century.
  • By 1873, they partly came under Russian rule and by 1920 were completely incorporated into the Soviet Union.
  • Their region, Karakalpakstan, was an autonomous area within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russia during 1917-1922).
  • But before that, it was made a part of Uzbekistan as the Karakalpak Autonomous Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1936.


Amu Darya & Syr Darya


What is the Region’s history?

  • When Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, Karakalpak ASSR was re-established as the Republic of Karakalpakstan in December of the same year
  • Karakalpakstan was formally recognized as an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan’s constitution of 1992.
  • It has the right to secede from on the basis of a nation-wide referendum.


What triggered the recent protests?

  • Violent protests broke out in the impoverished Karakalpakstan after President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who has been in power since 2016.
  • He published a draft amendment to the Uzbek constitution on June 27, 2022
  • That draft referendum removed the region’s right to secede Uzbekistan by a referendum.


Why do the Karakalpaks feel neglected?

  • An Environmental crisis, and the Health and Economic troubles it brought in its wake, has made Karakalpakstan an impoverished region.
  • It invoked a sense of neglect among the Karakalpak people.


Real Issues

  • At one point in time, Karakalpakstan was one of the most fertile provinces in Uzbekistan, due to its location next to the Aral Sea.
  • However, the once 4th largest saline lake in the world, has been steadily shrinking and reducing the arable land in the province.
  • In the 1960s, the Soviet government began to divert water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that feed into the sea.
  • The Govt used it to irrigate the nearby desert region for agriculture, mostly water-intensive cotton.
  • With the Aral Sea becoming increasingly drained of its water, the salt and mineral content began to drastically rise, making the water unfit to drink and killing off the fish in the lake.
  • As a result, Fishing industries and communities that relied on the sea collapsed.
  • It was accompanied by significant desertification of the region.
  • Karakalpakstan, which primarily relies on agriculture and animal husbandry, has subsequently become Uzbekistan’s most impoverished region.
  • The Region, with poor infrastructure and a high level of unemployment, has become economically dependent on Uzbekistan.
  • The per capita income of the people of this region lags behind the national average by 1.4 times.
  • Furthermore, the poverty level is highest amongst the people of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan.
  • The Increased salinity and toxic dust have led to widespread health hazards, including cancer, tuberculosis, and high levels of heart and kidney diseases among children.


Aral Sea

  • The Aral Sea is situated in Central Asia, between the Southern part of Kazakhstan and Northern Uzbekistan.
  • Up until the third quarter of the 20th century it was the world’s fourth largest saline lake, and contained 10grams of salt per liter.
  • The two rivers that feed it are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, respectively reaching the Sea through the South and the North.
  • The Soviet government decided in the 1960s to divert those rivers.
  • So that they could irrigate the desert region surrounding the Sea in order to favor agriculture rather than supply the Aral Sea basin.


Why is the Aral Sea shrinking?

The Main Cause—Soviet Canals

  • In the 1940s, USSR was going through a widespread drought and famine.
  • As a result, The Soviet Union ordered the construction of irrigation canals to provide water to the crops in the middle of the plateau of the region.
  • These hand-dug, irrigation canals moved water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.
  • The same rivers that fed the freshwater into the Aral Sea.
  • Even though the irrigation wasn’t very efficient and a lot of water leaked or evaporated in the process, the system of canals, rivers, and the Aral Sea were fairly stable until the 1960s.
  • However, in that same decade, the Soviet Union decided to expand the canal system and drain more water from the two rivers, suddenly draining the Aral Sea considerably.


The Destruction of the Aral Sea

  • Thus, in the 1960s, the Aral Sea began shrinking quite rapidly, with the lake’s level dropping 20-35 inches yearly.
  • By 1987, it dried up so much that instead of one lake, there were now two:
  1. The Large Aral (South)
  2. The Small Aral (North)
  • While up to 1960, the water level was about 174 ft above sea level, it suddenly dropped to 89 ft in the Large Lake and 141 in the Small Lake.
  • Yet, the world wasn’t aware of this tragedy up until 1985.
  • The Soviets kept the facts secret.
  • In the 1990s, after gaining independence, Uzbekistan changed their way of exploiting the land.
  • But their new cotton policy contributed to the further shrinkage of the Aral Sea.
  • At the same time, the top and bottom waters of the lake were not mixing well.
  • Which caused the salinity levels to be highly uneven, thus allowing the water to evaporate from the lake even faster.
  • As a result, in 2002, the Southern lake shrunk and dried up to become an eastern lake and a western lake.
  • In 2014, the Eastern lake completely evaporated and disappeared, leaving behind the desert called Aralkum, instead.

  • Increased evaporation, coupled with reduced groundwater inflow and precipitation.
  • This has led to the foaming of water.



Consider the following countries

  1. Armenia
  2. Azerbaijan
  3. Croatia
  4. Romania
  5. Uzbekistan

Which of the above are members of the Organization of Turkic States?

  1. 1,2 & 4
  2. 1 & 3
  3. 2 & 5
  4. 3,4 & 5