President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Karakalpakstan after rare protests over constitutional reform proposals.
Proposals would have removed autonomous republic’s right to self-determination and brought it further under central control.
Uzbekistan’s neighbour Kazakhstan has barred the passage of “people, vehicles and goods” through its border with Uzbekistan.
The president of Uzbekistan arrived in a protest-rocked autonomous republic on Saturday and promised that proposed constitutional amendments that would have weakened the territory’s status would be scrapped.
Authorities earlier said on Saturday that they had arrested “mass riot organisers” who wanted to seize administrative buildings in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, which saw rare protests over constitutional reform proposals.
A Friday demonstration brought thousands onto the streets of the regional capital and followed the publication of draft amendments to the Uzbek constitution that would have removed the republic’s right to self-determination and brought it further under central control.
The tightly controlled government has made no mention of casualties, although Telegram accounts have circulated footage that suggests fatalities occurred during the police crackdown.
Internet access has been restricted in the territory during the last week and at least one private media outlet deleted an article about the changes to Karakalpakstan’s status shortly after publishing it.
Spontaneous demonstrations are illegal in the authoritarian ex-Soviet republic and police said Friday that “order had been restored” in the area taken over by the protest.
Nevertheless, the demonstration marked arguably the biggest challenge yet to the rule of authoritarian President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The Uzbek leader styles himself as a reformer but has seen the economic opening of his reign undermined by successive global crises — the coronavirus pandemic and key trade partner Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mirziyoyev’s press service on Saturday said he had held a meeting with lawmakers of Karakalpakstan’s parliament and that the articles of the constitution concerning the region would remain unchanged “on the basis of… the opinions stated by residents of Karakalpakstan”.
The proposed changes that had angered residents included one that removed the republic’s constitutional right to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum.
The article dates back to 1993 after the republic’s leadership made a push for greater separation from Uzbekistan on the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union.
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Impoverished Karakalpakstan takes its name from the Karakalpak people who are well represented in cities such as Nukus, where the protest took place, but now constitute a minority in the western region of two million people.
Karakalpakstan is closely associated with the drying of the Aral Sea — one of the world’s great man-made environmental catastrophes.
Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, the Aral shrank massively due to Soviet agricultural policies that saw rivers that fed into it diverted, largely to expand cotton production.
Uzbekistan’s neighbour Kazakhstan said Saturday that it was barring the passage of “people, vehicles and goods” through its border with the region at Uzbekistan’s request.
Residents told AFP on condition of anonymity that the airport in Nukus was not fully operational, and that police and the military had sealed off the entrance into the city centre.
A joint statement by Karakalpakstan’s police, parliament and cabinet said that “provocateurs” had attempted “to seize state institutions… split society and destabilise the socio-political situation in Uzbekistan” during the Friday protest.
“A group of organizers of mass riots and people who actively resisted law enforcement agencies have been detained. Investigative actions are underway against them,” the Saturday statement said, blaming unrest on a “criminal group”.
With a total population of 35 million people, Uzbekistan is Muslim-majority Central Asia’s most populous country.
Beyond changes to the region’s status, Uzbekistan’s new constitution is also expected to re-introduce seven-year terms for the presidency.
This amendment is likely to benefit incumbent Mirziyoyev, 64, who has boasted of a “New Uzbekistan” after pursuing reforms that reversed some of his hardline predecessor Islam Karimov’s policies.
Karimov, Mirziyoyev’s predecessor as Prime Minister, died in 2016.
He left a legacy of systematic forced labour in the cotton harvest, a bloody massacre of protesters in 2005, and accounts of systematic torture, including boiling and freezing inmates.
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