Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has backed down on some of the proposed changes to the country’s Constitution that led to massive street protests and violence in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, the country’s largest region and the home to two highly prospective gas plays.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Karakalpakstan’s capital Nukus last week in response to plans by Uzbek authorities to amend the region’s status in the Constitution.
The current Constitution grants the republic wide autonomy from Tashkent, including a right of succession and recognises the language and history of Karakalpakstan, which has long borders with oil and gas rich neighbours Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
Protests turned violent as additional law enforcement and military were sent to Nukus in response, but calmed down slightly following a visit by Mirziyoyev to Nukus at the weekend.
According to the Uzbek Prosecutor’s Office, the riots led to 18 deaths and 250 people were injured.
During his visit, Mirziyoyev claimed the amendments were introduced by a regional parliament without his knowledge and local discussions, and will be scrapped from the draft of the new Constitution.
Authorities have yet to announce the date for a nationwide referendum to obtain popular support for the new Constitution, though the deadline for public discussion has been extended to 15 July.
Residents in Karakalpakstan have reported receiving an SMS message informing them that the existing articles on the republic’s sovereign status will be copied to the new Constitution.
In an apparent precautionary measure, authorities blocked access to the internet and introduced a month-long emergency situation in Karakalpakstan, according to reports in Tashkent, which was unaffected by the tensions in Karakalpakstan.
According to opposition leaders, protests have effectively masked a major change in the Uzbekistan Constitution that will extend the country’s presidential term to seven years from five and give Mirziyoyev the right to stand again for re-election.
Mirziyoyev is currently serving his second term in office after winning presidential elections earlier this year.
Gas production in Karakalpakstan is currently limited to several small to medium-sized developments in the large dried area of the former Aral Sea operated by state owned Uzbekneftegaz and its Uz-Kor Gas joint venture with a group of South Korean investors.
However, authorities in Tashkent hope oil and gas companies from the West and Russia will become involved in exploration projects in Karakalpakstan and discover significant additional gas reserves, both in the former Aral Sea area and another prospective area, the Ustyurt plateau, following seismic and exploration drilling efforts.