"Open conflict with Russia": Why Putin is profiting from Uzbekistan unrest

The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine worries other post-Soviet states.

"Open conflict with Russia": Why Putin is profiting from Uzbekistan unrest

The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine worries other post-Soviet states. They fear the Kremlin and Putin's Greater Russia ambitions. The Russians' relationship with Uzbekistan is particularly strained, where protests in an autonomous region are destabilizing the country.

At least 18 people died in protests in Uzbekistan in early July. In Nukus, the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in the west of the Central Asian country, thousands of people are demonstrating against Uzbek President Shavkat Mirsiyoyev, who wants to abolish Karakalpakstan's autonomy rights.

The constitution actually guarantees Karakalpakstan these rights, as well as the right to secede after a referendum. "The region, like the whole of Central Asia, is ethnically mixed. 36 percent are Uzbeks, 33 percent Karakalpaks, 25 percent Kazakhs, six percent of the rest, including Russians. The borders in Central Asia were set in the 19th and 20th centuries by the Russian colonizers in the north and arbitrarily pulled the British in the south," explains Hannes Meissner in the ntv podcast "Learned something again". The Viennese political scientist is an expert on Central Asia and maintains good contacts in the region.

Uzbekistan has 35 million inhabitants. 1.8 million of them live in Karakalpakstan - a region that is twice the size of Austria and accounts for 40 percent of Uzbekistan's territory.

Above all, Karakalpakstan consists of almost endless salt deserts. Especially since the once huge Aral Sea has dried up. It used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. It is about half in Karakalpakstan and half in Kazakhstan, its northern neighbor. For centuries, the Aral Sea was the lifeline of the region. Today it is the result of one of the greatest environmental disasters in the world.

Most people in the autonomous republic are desperately poor. Economically, Karakalpakstan is dependent on the Uzbek core state. The rest of Uzbekistan is better positioned, still benefiting greatly from the industrialization of the Soviet era. In Karakalpakstan not much of the economic upswing arrives. In recent years, many people have left the autonomous region. Most have migrated to neighboring Kazakhstan or further to Russia.

Those who stayed stand up for their autonomy rights, hardliners even want to set up a completely independent state.

When Uzbekistan's president announced earlier this month that he intends to revoke autonomy from Karakalpakstan, a storm of protest erupted on social media. This is prevented by the Uzbek authorities: they close groups and throttle internet connections. At least two journalists calling for secession from Uzbekistan are arrested.

But the protests don't end, the Uzbek leadership underestimated how angry the people of Karalpakstan are. They storm the streets of the capital, Nukus, even though unannounced demonstrations are banned in authoritarian Uzbekistan. The central government then has thousands of people brutally clubbed down. President Mirsiyoyev travels to the crisis area and announces that he will reverse the constitutional reform. For the time being, nothing will change in the status of the autonomous republic.

"In Uzbekistan, as in other Central Asian states, we see a tension between the territorial sovereignty of the state as a whole and then again and again secessions and attempts at autonomy in individual regions," analyzes Meissner. The ethnic mixtures in the respective regions are often not decisive for this. "It's partly more due to clan loyalty or regional loyalty to individual leaders, there are socio-economic reasons, neglect, political repression," explains the political scientist.

At the end of the bloody protests in Nukus, 18 people are dead and almost 250 injured. This is the official record. Almost no information from the country penetrates the rest of the world. In the "Reporters Without Borders" press freedom index, Uzbekistan is far behind at place 133 - between Uganda and Algeria. Still ahead of Russia.

After the unrest at the beginning of the month, the situation has calmed down again. This is not only due to the fact that President Mirsijoyev reversed the constitutional amendment, but also to a wave of arrests: the police arrested more than 500 people in Karakalpakstan, the government imposed a 30-day night curfew.

In addition, President Mirsiyoyev has identified four confidants as "culprits" for the constitutional chaos. "They had the wrong idea, so to speak, to revoke Karakalpakstan's autonomy status. They were publicly demoted. It is unclear whether the same thing actually happened behind the scenes or whether they actually only resigned symbolically," reports Meissner. There is a lot to be said for the fact that these "close confidants of Mirsiyoyev were not permanently demoted".

The heated situation in Karakalpakstan does not only have a domestic political background. Hannes Meissner is convinced that the protests are definitely related to the war in Ukraine. Just like in other Central Asian regions and former Soviet states, people are nervous about Russian aggression and Putin's Greater Russia fantasies. "There is a strong rumor that the Russian foreign intelligence service played a role in starting these unrests. To show President Mirsiyoyev that Uzbekistan is dependent on Russia for security policy."

Does Russia really have a finger in the pie? That's not unlikely, after all, Putin is trying to expand his influence in the post-Soviet states. When things get uncomfortable, Moscow flexes its muscles and turns off the oil and gas taps. And the relationship between Russia and Uzbekistan is anything but good. Hannes Meissner speaks of an "open and clear conflict" that is evident on different levels.

Uzbekistan has been out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for ten years. The military alliance is led by Russia, five other Eastern European and Central Asian countries are members, Uzbekistan left for the second time in 2012. "So people are withdrawing from this security alliance. Despite pressure from Putin, they have not yet joined the Eurasian Economic Union, which is dominated by Russia," says Meissner.

And with a view to the Ukraine war, Uzbekistan has turned its back on Russia. The Central Asian state was not present at the first UN resolution condemning the Russian attack, and abstained on the second vote. In mid-March, the country finally distanced itself clearly from Moscow: Uzbekistan recognized the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, said Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov. Uzbekistan has not recognized Crimea as part of Russia and Lugansk and Donetsk as independent people's republics. "Of course, these are factors that are likely to irritate Putin. Above all, because there are dependencies on Russia," says Meissner in the podcast.

Alongside China, Russia is Uzbekistan's most important trading partner. But the economic importance of Russia for Uzbekistan is falling, and drastically: in 2008 Uzbekistan still got almost a third of its goods from the big Soviet brother and exported a quarter of its goods there. 14 years later, Russia is only responsible for 22 percent of imports and Uzbekistan only exports 12 percent of its goods to Russia. China, not Russia, is now the most important export partner.

Vladimir Putin certainly doesn't like that. It is quite possible that this is why he is interfering in Uzbekistan's internal affairs. "In an emergency, military options are used. But of course Russia also prefers covert strategies, soft-power methods by installing elites and presidents who are willing to submit," Meissner analyzes. The expert is convinced that Putin may have pursued this goal in Uzbekistan or is still pursuing it. But Mirsijoyev and his government members are much less pro-Russia than Moscow had hoped. In such cases, Russia often resorts to other means. "These are territorial conflicts that are served, that are allowed to break out in order to weaken governments."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is a warning to all former Soviet states. Belarus is now a de facto Russian satellite state. There are breakaway, pro-Russian separatist regions in Moldova and Georgia. Vladimir Putin is also trying to realize his fantasies of omnipotence in Kazakhstan. And apparently that includes Uzbekistan.

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