The Socio-Political (Soft Security) Dynamics of Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Crisis

Uzbekistan’s ”Democratic Security” challenge now is to manage local and national perceptions about what transpired so as to avoid having well-intended but naïve folks misled by foreign narratives falsely alleging “unprovoked state killings of unarmed protesters” into replicating Karakalpakstan’s critical mass of protesters all throughout the country ahead of the unscheduled referendum for approving the constitutional reforms.

The State Of Affairs

The unrest in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan, a sparsely populated and geographically desolate autonomous republic that covers around 40% of that doubly landlocked former Soviet Republic’s territory, has the potential to become Central Asia’s latest crisis. Violence broke out on Friday after a criminal group hijacked genuinely grassroots protests prompted by the publication of draft constitutional reforms that would have stripped the region of its special status. Dramatic images have since circulated suggesting that a fierce battle broke out in its capital of Nukus as the security services defended the government buildings that some fighters sought to seize, after which they immediately impose a month-long state of emergency upon restoring order.

Background Briefings

Readers who aren’t yet familiar with the author’s analyses about this should review these three pieces:

* “It’s Too Early To Call The Protests In Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan A Color Revolution

* “Applying Putin’s Advice Against Wishful Thinking To Alt-Media’s Color Revolution Speculation

* “Deconstructing What Just Transpired In Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan On Friday

The above will now be summarized before analyzing the crisis’ socio-political (soft security) dynamics.

Contextual Summary

The reported removal of Karakalpakstan’s constitutional autonomy provoked anger among the populace, which deviant elements expected and subsequently sought to unsuccessfully exploit through the employment of Color Revolution technology. Their efforts to assemble a critical mass of people to participate in the spontaneous but unauthorized protest were indirectly aided by external forces’ information warfare narratives aimed at encouraging folks to spill out into the streets where they then functioned as de facto human shields for protecting the regional coup plotters. This failed operation to seize power wasn’t coordinated with groups elsewhere in the country like during January’s Hybrid War of Terror on Kazakhstan, which suggests that it wasn’t a full-fledged foreign-backed Color Revolution.

Furthermore, President Mirziyoyev visited Nukus less than 24 hours later, where he promised that the constitutional reform process won’t result in removing the region’s autonomy. He wouldn’t have done this had his country’s powerful military-intelligence services thought that the incident was the opening salvo of a larger terrorist insurgency in that capital city, nor would this fiercely sovereign state have backtracked on its planned legal changes if it felt that it was doing so under foreign pressure. This political development adds credence to the conclusion that it was a clumsily preplanned but isolated incident that’s incomparable to the bonafide Color Revolutions that came before it in the former Soviet space over the past two decades contrary to the narrative pushed by the Alt-Media Community (AMC).

“The New Uzbekistan”

Having explained the immediate run-up to this unrest and the fast-moving sequence of events over the weekend, it’s now time to dive into a detailed discussion of its socio-political (soft security) dynamics. The first thing for everyone to be aware of is that the incident was sparked by the state’s so-called “trigger event” of reportedly planning to remove Karakalpakstan’s constitutional autonomy per the draft reforms. Had this not happened, then locals wouldn’t have considered breaking the law en masse to rally against that in Nukus and thus inadvertently function as the human shields behind which the criminal group sought to unsuccessfully seize power. This leads to a question of why the central government even contemplated this move in the first when the consequences were predictable.

The constitutional reform process is intended to form the basis of President Mirziyoyev’s “New Uzbekistan” vision, which is generally considered by observers to be a modernized form of the centralized state that his predecessor built. The Uzbek Embassy in Seoul revealed that it’ll apply the “person-society-state” approach in order to “create a solid legal basis for reliable long-term development strategies for Uzbekistan to achieve people-centric future prosperity.” The most significant change apart from the previously scrapped Karakalpak one would extend presidential terms from five years to seven, thus almost certainly enabling the incumbent to run again upon the completion of what’s supposed to be his second and final term in office.

The Fatal Procedural Flaw

Even though this desolate region’s autonomy is largely superficial and mostly concerns socio-cultural and linguistic issues in practice, the central government might have thought that it was still worth removing as part of its geo-economic drive to attract foreign investment as it strives to become a Eurasian connectivity hub. The authors of these particular reforms were also presumably politicians and not members of the powerful military-intelligence services since they seemingly didn’t expect the popular blowback of this proposed change after having likely underestimated the emotional importance of the region’s mostly symbolic status for its titular ethnicity. Representatives of the military-intelligence structures, however, would certainly have had a better feeling of the local pulse.

This educated conjecture presupposes that the country’s military-intelligence structures have remained ubiquitous and omnipotent between the administrations of “founding father” Islam Karimov and his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev despite the cosmetic socio-political changes that accompanied Uzbekistan’s “phased leadership transition”. There’s no credible evidence to contradict this. To the contrary, critics have complained that nothing has changed in this respect and that the aforementioned reforms were partially implemented in order to cleverly mask this enduring reality behind the scenes. That almost certainly being the case as has been argued, it would mean that the constitutional reform process is truly a political project that didn’t involve input from the military-intelligence services.

In hindsight, that was a fatal procedural flaw given the country’s socio-political (soft security) context, albeit one that occurred for “innocent reasons” due to the gradual evolution of Uzbekistan’s model of national democracy towards a newer system that erodes the traditional political influence of those aforesaid services. Basically, by genuinely attempting to implement procedural reforms that are more aligned with the Western model of democracy separating political and security functions, Uzbekistan set itself up for this crisis by not getting crucial feedback on its planned Karakalpak changes from its military-intelligence services before publishing the draft. The crisis was thus completely avoidable had this unofficial procedural change not been implemented and the traditional order of business respected.  

The Speculative Week-Long Crackdown

Going deeper, there’s no doubt that the military-intelligence services would have had a much better expectation of the local reaction to the planned removal of Karakalpakstan’s autonomy due to their ubiquity and omnipotence in all levels of society. This further suggests the vague foreign connections to the unrest mentioned in the local political and security institutions’ joint statement aren’t as solid as they made it seem since these threats would certainly been neutralized by those same services in the week between the draft reforms’ publication and the Nukus Incident, if not well before then, if there was any serious link to hostile intelligence services like some interpret that statement as implying. Even if they were caught off guard by these changes, they would still have had time to secure the region.

After all, it was reported that Karakalpakstan’s internet was mostly severed on the same day that the draft was made public, which was probably an immediate reaction by the military-intelligence services to the planned removal of its autonomy after they wisely realized that it risked provoking grassroots-driven unrest during the planned 10-day nationwide discussion over the constitutional reforms. The lack of reliable communication within the region during this time would have made it extremely difficult for hostile foreign forces – whether intelligence and/or media – to propagate incendiary narratives for provoking unauthorized protests. It would also have given the military-intelligence services the “cover of darkness” to round up any previously identified individuals connected with these same forces.

This quite clearly didn’t happen, however, or at least not at the level that was required to preemptively neutralized such Color Revolution threats during the 10-day nationwide discussion. Considering these services’ professionalism, it should be presumed that they rooted out all previously identified individuals, yet this obviously wasn’t enough to prevent the Nukus Incident. That in turn bolsters the argument that the demonstrations were almost purely grassroots and organic, notwithstanding the partial preconditioning that some of the population was presumably exposed to long before the internet being mostly severed and the prior organizational role of foreign-connected elements, which is precisely why the military-intelligence services themselves hadn’t truly expected what ultimately transpired.

Karakalpak Concerns

It’s at this moment where some words about the local psyche must be shared in order to help the reader better understand why folks broke the law en masse to protest against the reported removal of their region’s mostly symbolic constitutional autonomy. The Color Revolution “Trinity” concerns the manipulation of a targeted population’s security, development, and identity concerns for the most part, with perceptions of justice sometimes being regarded as a separate concept and other times considered as part of identity. Each of these factors is regarded differently at the individual, local, regional, ethnic, and religious levels in escalating order of the number of people influenced by each category (which can also be fluid depending on the particular context that’s unique to each case).

Karakalpakstan, like most of Uzbekistan, is generally secure but this region remains among the country’s least developed owing to its very difficult environment and far-flung geography. Nevertheless, the titular ethnicity’s very strong sense of identity prevented any serious outbreak of unrest over the population’s poor economic prospects since they were largely content with the right to autonomously manage their socio-cultural (especially linguistic) affairs. The prospect of this potentially changing as a result of their region’s autonomy being constitutionally removed deeply affected many of them who feared that they might eventually not be able to pass along their way of life to their descendants, which is what differentiates their people from the rest of their compatriots, if Karakalpakstan is gradually “Uzbekified”.

There’d be no legal guarantee that a so-called “cultural genocide” wouldn’t slowly unfold for removing their uniqueness as part of the state’s post-modern centralization plan carried out through the constitutional reforms’ “New Uzbekistan” vision that the proud locals might have predicted would ultimately transform them into token Karakalpaks who lose their precious language that’s an inextricable part of their identity after some time while cosmetically retaining their culture. With security being taken for granted and in the absence of promising economic prospects, it was pretty much only the constitutional certainty that the central linguistic element of their identity wouldn’t ever be taken away from them that large-scale unrest didn’t break out in this autonomous region sooner.

The Significance Of Real-Life Social Networks

Identity is a potent mobilizing force anywhere in the world and especially in the cosmopolitan Global South, with this factor being all the more emotive in those countries like Uzbekistan where a minority ethnicity has been afforded constitutional autonomy that was promulgated in part to protect their distinctiveness from being gradually eroded by the majority and ultimately subsumed within it. There should be little wonder then why so many Karakalpaks broke the law illegally protesting the planned removal of their regional autonomy on Friday, but that doesn’t explain how they were able to organize a critical mass in the absence of functioning communications. It’s here where the analysis will now transition to explaining cultural workings at the local level.

Minority groups in constitutionally autonomous substate entities tend to be more closely knit than members of the titular majority or minorities with much larger pluralities in society. They often intermarry, work together, and do one another favors, including among their diaspora who usually travel abroad since some countries’ specially designated minority regions like Karakalpakstan don’t always have the most promising economic prospects. Simply put, they trust each quite a lot, and much more than they tend to trust the central authorities who generally aren’t comprised of many members of their titular ethnicity, if any at all. That’s why they immediately mobilized their real-life social networks upon the internet being largely severed once the draft reforms were published last week.

This socio-cultural context has pros and cons, the first-mentioned having already been explained in the preceding paragraph while the second relates to members of these networks being disproportionately susceptible to certain narratives – including illegal and dangerous ones like participating in unauthorized protests or even taking up arms against the state for separatist purposes – shared by trusted local sources. Those vaguely foreign-connected criminal elements, who sought to exploit the “political opportunity” that suddenly fell into the laps after accurately expecting that the planned removal of Karakalpakstan’s autonomy would organically provoke protests, quickly got to work leveraging their real-life social networks in order to organize the critical mass they needed to function as human shields.

The overwhelming vast majority of Karakalpaks who peacefully but nevertheless illegally protested the draft constitutional reforms that directly affected their region and which they feared would ultimately result in the inevitable removal of their unique identity through gradual “Uzbekization” (especially in the linguistic sense) came out in droves for subnational patriotic reasons without any ill-intent, aiming solely to raise maximum awareness among the authorities of their anger at the planned changes. Their demonstrations were just as organic as those that would have occurred anywhere in the world among a minority people whose autonomous entity and associated rights were at risk of being removed by the central authorities with all that could entail for the long-term future of their distinct identity.

Analytical Review

With this in mind, it’s obvious why absolutely no foreign meddling was required to prompt Karakalpaks to take to the streets, though that also doesn’t mean that there weren’t any foreign-connected troublemakers among them who did their utmost to maximize turnout for the earlier mentioned reason related to producing as many human shields as possible to protect them during their attempted seizure of power. Returning back to the insight that was previously shared in this analysis, the military-intelligence services would have presumably rooted out those locals who they already identified as having connections with foreign spy agencies, whether far ahead of time or at the very least during the one-week “cover of darkness” that accompanied the shutdown of most of the region’s internet.

This sequence of strategic logic strongly suggests that even these same services were caught off guard by the attempted seize of power by earlier unidentified criminal elements during Friday’s Nukus Incident, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that this wouldn’t have even taken place had the central government shared its plans for removing Karakalpakstan’s mostly symbolic autonomy with them. The authorities would have learned from their ubiquitous and omnipotent military-intelligence services that the locals were highly unlikely to take these changes lying down, even in the most perfect security situation where all previously identified criminal and/or foreign-connected elements were neutralized, which thus risked needlessly provoking a regional crisis in the worst-case scenario.

Alas, that wasn’t to be, which is why the Nukus Incident ultimately transpired as it did. The authorities, however, clearly learned their lesson as evidenced by President Mirziyoyev visiting the regional capital within 24 hours after the violence unfolded in order to promise Karakalpaks that the constitutional reforms won’t remove their autonomy like was previously planned. The damage was already done, though, since the military-intelligence services’ justified use of force for protecting government buildings resulted in bloodshed and thus dangerously put the region on the path of a self-sustaining cycle of destabilization exactly of the sort that Color Revolutions plot to catalyze even though the Nukus Incident wasn’t a full-fledged foreign-backed one as the author explained in his earlier hyperlinked analysis.

Uzbekistan’s “Democratic Security” Challenge

This explains why a month-long state of emergency was immediately imposed in order to manage the socio-political (soft security) dynamics that now run the chance of becoming military (hard security) ones via the phased transition of a (in this case, quasi-)Color Revolution into Unconventional Warfare through Hybrid War along the ominous lines of what similarly unfolded during January’s Hybrid War of Terror on Kazakhstan. That second-mentioned event from a little more than half a year ago was indeed a full-fledged foreign-backed nationwide regime change attempt unlike the regionally isolated and clumsily preplanned Nukus Incident, which it should be noted was only plotted a week in advance since that’s the period of time between the draft reforms’ publication and the outbreak of violence.

Uzbekistan’s premier “Democratic Security” challenge right now, which refers to its capability to creatively employ counter-Hybrid Warfare tactics and strategies for safeguarding the sovereignty of its national democratic model from a bevy of domestic and external threats (that are sometimes connected), is to contain the phased transition of soft to hard security threats emanating from Karakalpakstan to the rest of the country. This is especially crucial in the runup to the planned nationwide referendum for approving the draft constitutional reforms, which is expected to be exploited by a combination of domestic dissidents, genuinely foreign-connected elements, and hostile intelligence agencies.

Under no circumstances can the Uzbek state show weakness at this ultra-sensitive moment, yet it also can’t allow twisted interpretations of events to circulate throughout society alleging that the military-intelligence services “killed unarmed peaceful protesters without provocation” lest this catalyzes the self-sustaining cycle of destabilization that was touched upon earlier in this analysis with respect to prompting genuinely grassroots protests driven by the population’s sincere (but nevertheless externally manipulated) desire for security and justice. That scenario could plunge Uzbekistan into the throes of a serious Color Revolution that could easily escalate into an all-out anti-state terrorist campaign involving infamous elements like ISIS-K and its similarly evil “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” (IMU) allies.

Scenario Forecasting

“Regime reinforcement” is therefore the state’s top priority in order to counteract these incipient regime change threats that risk being unleashed in the event that the Karakalpakstan Crisis spirals out of control. To that end, it might inevitably be necessary to curtail the broadcast of certain foreign media outlets and their sites’ availability within the country in order to prevent them from manipulating well-intended but naïve members of the population into inadvertently functioning as human shields for what might be the forthcoming nationwide attempt to seize power by those abovementioned terrorist groups and their “useful idiots” (domestic dissidents) operating under the influence (whether conscious or not) of hostile intelligence agencies and managed by truly foreign-connected elements at home.

To be clear, the author isn’t predicting that Uzbekistan will soon collapse along the lines of similarly diverse Syria (especially since its military-intelligence services remain ubiquitous and omnipotent), but just that observers should nonetheless be aware of this scenario since it’s comparatively (key word) more likely but still very far-flung after the Nukus Incident. Even the most powerful security forces anywhere in the world would end up in a “Democratic Security” dilemma over whether to resort to force (including lethal) to quell a critical mass of mostly civilian rioters at the expense of “discrediting” themselves and provoking more protests if decontextualized footage ends up circulating throughout society afterwards or standing back and letting events unfold at the expense of state sovereignty.

The Uzbek military-intelligence services would be expected to opt for the first-mentioned option that would accompany or immediately follow the predictable restriction of hostile foreign media operations in the country (including online) and possible nationwide shutdown of the internet per the precedent established during 2005’s attempted full-fledged foreign-backed Color Revolution in Andijan. This scenario would enable them to simultaneously control the soft (perception) and hard (terrorist) dimensions of the crisis if it nears its climax while still preserving state sovereignty, though at the expense of its reputation in the eyes of the US-led West’s Golden Billion. The last-mentioned wouldn’t matter in a practice sense though since Uzbekistan’s top trade partners are in the Global South.

So as not to be misunderstood or have his words manipulated, it deserves repeating that the author is not at all predicting at this point that events will inevitably reach that level but simply forecasting the most dynamic Hybrid War scenario that should be on the minds of all responsible members of the Uzbek state, especially its policymakers and military-intelligence leaders. It’s much more likely that the Karakalpak Crisis remains contained to its titular autonomous republic and is resolved during the month-long state of emergency that was just imposed and which could in theory also be extended. The unlikely variables that could offset that trajectory are corruption/inefficiency in the military-intelligence services and renewed clan rivalry within/between them as well as within/between the government.

Concluding Thoughts

To summarize, the Karakalpakstan Crisis was totally avoidable and the direct result of the government failing to seek the powerful military-intelligence services’ advice about its planned constitutional reform for removing that region’s autonomy. The security forces would have informed them that this would needlessly provoke the proud locals since they’d fear ultimately losing their (largely linguistic-centric) identity as a result after some time, which would be potent enough of a mobilizing force to create a critical mass of protesters that could easily produce a political crisis. Even though they presumably neutralized all earlier identified foreign-connected troublemakers there, these services were still caught off guard by the Nukus Incident since earlier unidentified criminal elements exploited it.

The ”Democratic Security” challenge now is to manage local and national perceptions about what transpired so as to avoid having well-intended but naïve folks misled by foreign narratives falsely alleging “unprovoked state killings of unarmed protesters” into replicating Karakalpakstan’s critical mass of protesters all throughout the country ahead of the unscheduled referendum for approving the constitutional reforms. This might necessitate restricting access to certain foreign media outlets and websites, but if that either comes too late or is insufficient to avert the aforementioned scenario, then a forceful (and possibly even lethal) crackdown against potential rioters is to be expected as a last resort in order to safeguard state sovereignty, though at the expense of “ruining” its reputation with the West.

By Andrew Korybko
Source: OneWorld

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