The similarities between the Balkan and Central Asian regions are greater than it seems at first glance. Despite the geographical distance. The explanation for this phenomenon should be sought in geopolitical synchronicities and the concept of ethnogenesis of Lev Gumiljov, based on the deep roots of the historical in the nation-building processes of different collectivities.
After all, in the Central Asian region there is also the Balkans, more precisely the Balkan Vilayet, a Turkmen district on the Caspian coast. We are Balkans, and they are Balkans. There is also Caracal, on both sides. It is a Balkan city in the Romanian Oltenia, and it is a Central Asian region in western Uzbekistan.
One interpretation is that the term comes from the Cuman language and means “black fortress” or “black land”, in a broader connotation it could also be interpreted as “black mountain” in the context of inaccessibility for invaders, impassability for trade caravans.
The toponym is comprehensible in Turkish, the term “kara” for black took root everywhere where the Ottoman rule lasted, and “kal” is the same as “kale”. What would a Serbian politician say in a legendary explanation to a French colleague: “It means kale, it means hill!”
Another interpretation of the Central Asian name, far more widespread and more often used in journalism, is almost taken as an undeniable fact, and comes from the translation of the coinage of the words “kara” and “kalpak”, a name for people who wore “black caps”, more precisely a type of black sheep’s wool.
Separatism in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan occupies an area twice the size of Serbia, but has less than two million inhabitants. Harsh climatic conditions, deserts on eight-tenths of the territory (in the southwest, parts of the impressive Karakum or “black sand” desert, and in the northeast, parts of the Kizilkum or “red sand” desert, slightly smaller in area but even more impressive in terms of relief) and the barren steppe, influenced the that, and the rapid drying up of the Aral Sea, otherwise among the biggest ecological disasters of the modern world, also made its “contribution”.
The once fertile plains around which agricultural complexes and industrial capacities were developed are now empty spaces where a new desert is forming – Aralkum.
Due to the lack of precise census data on the ethnic structure of the population, estimates are used, and it is very difficult to conclude “in whose hands” is the relative majority, who is more – Karakalpaks (live in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya) or Uzbeks (dominantly inhabit the “oasis area” Elik – Kala).
Most likely, both are a little over a third of the total number. Between a fifth and a quarter of the population are Kazakhs (they live in the steppes in the border zone towards Kazakhstan), mostly from the younger generation.
This is why any discussion about actual or potential separatism in this region is a very complex matter. Undoubtedly, separatist tendencies exist, they became noticeable even during the dissolution of the Soviet superstate. In the complex system of an apparently large communist creation, Karakalpakstan functioned as an autonomous socialist republic within the Uzbek Socialist Republic. With the dissolution of the union, both administrative units declared themselves republics.
Based on the “Badinter rules”, Uzbekistan automatically gained international recognition, and how to regulate the status of the “western province”, which covers as much as 37 percent of the country’s territory, remained open.
Collapse and compromise
“Troublesome time” during the first half of the nineties brought a total economic collapse, numerous challenges of a social nature, it was marked by the absence of institutions and considerable chaos within the political system, which is why some had neither the strength nor the means to complete and implement the secessionist idea, while others they had neither the will nor the instruments to impose a “centralist solution” that would establish a different arrangement and suppress any thought of separatism in the long term.
Thus, a compromise was reached: the newly created Republic of Karakalpakstan became a “sovereign republic” of the internationally recognized Republic of Uzbekistan, with the right to organize a referendum on disunification. Interestingly, the mutual agreement “On the entry of the Republic of Karakalpakstan into the Republic of Uzbekistan” was signed in April 1993, in the period after the declaration of independence of the Soviet republics, which is an additional argument when legitimizing the position of the regional authorities, which do not base their positions on “communist heritage” but on contractual obligations of the central administration.
Uzbekistan, that incredible country of Samarkand, Bukhara and Ferghana, a country of hardworking people with significant resources and great opportunities, from the declaration of independence to the present day has been determined to a certain extent by two pronounced processes: exponential demographic growth (in three decades the population has doubled, today it is probably around 35 million) and searching for identity verticals.
The first effect was that the share of the population of Karakalpakstan in the total population continuously decreased to today’s five percent, with a tendency to further decline. Another factor was that the idea of suppressing separatism was maintained within the political elite in Tashkent. There are even those who claim that the uniqueness of the Karakalpaks is not expressed, they are more a part of the Uzbek ethnos.
Changes as a trigger
Encouraged by major constitutional changes in neighboring Kazakhstan, the Uzbek head of state proposed a reform of the highest legal act which, among other things, deletes the provisions on the sovereignty of Karakalpakstan and the right to a status referendum.
As a result, violent demonstrations broke out in Nukus, the capital of the western republic. There were attempts to break into the buildings of state and local institutions, there were reactions from law enforcement agencies, there were dozens of dead and hundreds of injured. There was also the fact that marauders and extremists of various factions joined the demonstrations, using them for their own goals. Worst of all, this was reflected in increasing inter-ethnic tensions between Karakalpaks and Uzbeks, with incalculable consequences.
President Shavkat Mirziyojev introduced a curfew in Karakalpakstan and quickly announced that he was abandoning constitutional amendments, trying to calm passions. He managed to control the crisis, but not to close it. Because the tensions remained, it will take time and initiative to reduce them, and in Tashkent itself, a bitter taste remained due to the failed attempt. The sovereignty of Karakalpakstan remains a constitutional category, the right to self-determination hangs like the sword of Damocles over the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan, although due to a number of things it does not seem realistic that it can be used in the near future.
In any case, the situation that could have escalated and threatened regional security once again shows that there are no quick solutions in politics. Especially, there can’t be any when talking about very complex things.
Just as it shows that the similarities between Balkan and Central Asian are greater than it seems at first glance. Among other things, they manifest themselves in complex interstate and interethnic relations, as well as eternal territorial disputes. And in tensions that are constant, that cause crises, that can be somewhat controlled, but not closed.
Cover photo: Sputnik / Valery Mel’nikov