Protesters Killed In Unrest In Uzbekistan

Anti-government protests in Uzbekistan have led to at least 18 deaths and almost 250 injured in the largest outbreak of violence in the country in nearly 20 years. The unrest saw over 500 people detained as protesters attempted to storm local government buildings in the province of Karakalpakstan in Northwestern Uzbekistan. Protests erupted after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced plans to change the constitution, removing the sections that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to hold an independence referendum. The subsequent uproar has since led President Mirziyoyev to back down on such plans, while also declaring a state of emergency, restricting movement and access to the Internet and phone services in the province.

UN Human Rights Chief and former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet released a statement saying that “the reports we have received about serious violence, including killings, during the protests are very concerning” and called for an investigation “into any allegations of criminal acts committed in that context, including violations by agents of the state”.

Journalist Bruce Pannier, speaking to Al Jazeera, remarked on the uniqueness of these protests, commenting that “in Uzbekistan in general, protests are very rare because security forces have a very strong grip over the country… something this size is unusual by the standards of Uzbekistan”.

This protest movement represents an interesting development in a country that has traditionally rarely seen action of this sort. On the one hand, the mobilization of people and their success in maintaining their constitutional rights is an example of the way protests can work, particularly at the local level, as well as the limits in governmental power in Uzbekistan. On the other hand, the violent reaction by government forces illustrates the danger of such action, and shows how restraint is needed to avoid further casualties, or even an escalation into ethnic conflict between Karakalpaks and Uzbeks.

Uzbekistan, much like several other former Soviet republics, is tightly controlled, retains close relations with Russia, and is ethnically diverse. The ethnic minority group, Karakalpaks, constitute a large portion of the overall Karakalpakstan population, and, together with a substantial population of ethnic Kazakhs in the province, often have closer cultural links to Kazakhstan than to Uzbeks. Karakalpakstan retained relative autonomy from Uzbekistan throughout the Soviet era, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Karakalpakstan retained some autonomy, including the right to secede. While there has never been a major push for independence, these protests show that the idea of Karakalpakstan autonomy still holds significant support.

These events in Uzbekistan contribute to the overall impression of instability in the post-Soviet world, after violence this year in countries such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In the past, Uzbekistan has often been able to rely on Russian support. As Russia and its allies increasingly find themselves isolated on the international stage, the politics in this region look to be in a state of transition, and it remains to be seen whether or not Russia can continue to assert its historic role as the dominant power. In this context, the protests in Karakalpakstan may signal a shift in the traditional power dynamics that have been in place for the last century.