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A large crowd waves flags and stands in the street for a demonstration in Karakalpakstan.
Uzbekistan – demonstrations in Karakalpakstan on July 1, 2022.

Welcome back to Central Asia in Focus, an RFE/RL newsletter that looks at the events shaping Central Asia’s future.

I’m Bruce Pannier. I’ve been studying Central Asia for more than 35 years, went to summer school at Tashkent State in 1990 when Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, and then lived in villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 1992-1993. And since 1995, I’ve been writing about the region I think of as my second homeland.

Thanks for joining us!

What’s Happening in the Region

The Right to Secede

Protests over proposed constitutional amendments in Uzbekistan’s autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic left 18 people dead and 243 injured on July 1.

Before violence erupted in Karakalpakstan, the most controversial of 170 proposed amendments would have allowed President Shavkat Mirziyoev to serve a third, and possibly fourth term in office.

But thousands of protesters opposed to proposed amendments that would have stripped Karakalpakstan of a constitutional right to secede by referendum — and security forces’ violent restoration of “order” — successfully caught international media attention as well as that of President Mirziyoev, potentially changing his political calculations.

I’m interested in the process leading up to and after the unrest started.

Karakalpakstan’s right to secede exists, on paper. The region is 37 percent of Uzbekistan’s territory and there are large deposits of natural gas there — some of which are already being developed.

There is no chance Uzbek authorities would let the region become independent.

If amendments formally stripping Karakalpakstan of the right to secede had not been proposed, there would not have been a problem.

After violence broke out, President Mirziyoev dodged responsibility, saying the idea of taking away the autonomous status from Karakalpakstan came from the region’s officials.

Mirziyoev went to Karakalpakstan on July 2 to announce the proposed amendments on Karakalpakstan would be excluded from the draft constitution.

And no Uzbek official has commented about the Uzbek National Guard’s use of force against protesters and the detentions of dozens of locals.

Why It’s Important: The protests in Karakalpakstan are the largest in Uzbekistan in many years and came in response to proposed constitutional changes that President Mirziyoev says are going to create a “New Uzbekistan.”

It should be a moment for those in government to consider what amendments they are trying to pass.

The Campaign Against GBAO Continues

In mid-June, Tajik government forces finished their security operation in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) that started in mid-May when protests aimed at changing the local leadership turned violent after security forces attempted to disperse the crowds.

But a campaign to arrest and imprison local opinion leaders continues. It involves the Tajik forces systematically removing the most influential Pamiris, the people of GBAO.

This other campaign started with the detention of GBAO activist and journalist Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva on May 18.

A week later, Mamadshoeva and her former husband Kholbash Kholbashev were shown on state television confessing that they organized the protests in GBAO.

Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, the head of the Pamiri Lawyers Association and member of Commission 44, was detained at the end of May along with three other Commission 44 members. Kholiknazarov was charged with involvement in a criminal organization for allegedly receiving money from the banned National Alliance of Tajikistan, a group of opposition figures who fled Tajikistan to Europe.

The organization Commission 44 was established by a group of GBAO activists to help oversee and lend credibility to the prosecutor’s investigation into the death of a 28-year-old local man who was shot dead by police in late November 2021, and the violence that broke out after that in Khorugh, the capital of GBAO, in which three more people were killed and dozens of people arrested.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reported on June 1 that seven detained members of Commission 44 were transferred away from Khorugh and their supporters to pretrial detention in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. They included Kholiknazarov, Mamadshoeva’s brother Khursand, and Faromuz Irgashov, a lawyer who tried to register as a presidential candidate in the 2020 election.

On June 29, Commission 44 members Khujamri Pirnazarov and Shaftoly Bekdavlatov were sentenced to 18 years in prison for “organizing unsanctioned meetings” at a closed-door trial.

Why It’s Important: Tajik authorities are acting with impunity towards leading GBAO figures by arresting them, making dubious accusations against them without providing evidence, and in the cases of Pirnazarov and Bekdavatov, handing down severe prison sentences with little public condemnation from the international community.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This most recent Majlis podcast examines the warming ties between Iran and Central Asia.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

More Proposed Rules for Kyrgyzstan’s Women

Women’s rights are a huge issue in Kyrgyzstan. Bride-kidnapping, or Ala-Kachuu, remains a problem, domestic violence against women is increasing, and International Women’s Day marches have been disrupted by men claiming to uphold traditional Kyrgyz values.

So, when Kudret Taychabarov, the head of the “Bishkek” Free Economic Zone, an area where companies are freed from paying taxes or pay very little tax with the aim of encouraging business activities, said on his Facebook page that women should be prohibited from smoking cigarettes, his comments received media attention.

Taychabarov said women who “scolded” him on Facebook smoke cigarettes. He previously said Kyrgyz women traveling abroad work as prostitutes and his comments echo parliamentary deputy Shailoobek Atazov’s proposal in June to ban young women from leaving Kyrgyzstan without either their parents’ or husbands’ permission.

Curiously, male Kyrgyz officials don’t seem to ever have advice or criticism for young men.

Fact of the Week

Karakalpakstan was an autonomous region, and then later an autonomous republic, of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic between 1924 and 1936, after which it became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

Thanks for Reading

Every week we like to ask our audience a question and hear your thoughts about issues we cover in the newsletter. This week: Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is not going to take the blame for the fiasco in Karakalpakstan, so who will be the scapegoat?

Everyone who answered last week’s question believed Iran and Russia would continue to block any efforts by Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to construct a trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

Please consider filling out this brief survey so that I can better understand how this newsletter can be useful for you.

See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.