Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karakalpakstan: Thousands Escape Poverty

Tashkent wants to keep control of Karakalpakstan - yet seems unconcerned that its people are flooding into Kazakstan.
By Olga Borisova

Officials in Uzbekistan appear to be turning a blind eye to a mass migration of people from its autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan to neighbouring Kazakstan.


An increasing number of Karakalpaks are doing anything they can - including bribing officials - to cross the border into Kazakstan, where living standards are seen to be higher and work more readily available.


The problem was highlighted by the recent arrest of a provincial passport officer who was discovered to have been accepting money to alter Karakalpak travel documents - effectively turning the bearer into a Kazak citizen.


It's not known how many have changed their identities in this way, but law enforcement officials say it is becoming increasingly common.


The Uzbek government appears to be completely unconcerned by this. While its demography and migration agency claims only around 63,000 people moved from Karakalpakstan to Kazakstan between 1991 and 2001, independent analysts put the figure much higher.


Specialists from the Karakalpak branch of the International Foundation to Save the Aral Sea say that almost a quarter of a million people have emigrated to Kazakstan in the last seven years alone - practically a sixth of the population.


Karakalpakiya, formerly part of Kazakstan, became an autonomous Soviet republic in 1932, and should have become a separate independent state.


But four years later, Tashkent convinced Moscow to turn it over to Uzbekistan, and any talk of Karakalpak-Kazak reunification has been suppressed since that time.


As well as sharing a very similar language, Karakalpaks are ethnically close to Kazaks, and the culture and customs of both people are very similar.


While Tashkent seems unconcerned about the Karakalpak people, it has a very keen interest in the territory itself, which comprises almost a third of Uzbekistan and is of significant strategic importance.


As the railways and motorways of one of the country's two northern trunk routes go through Karakalpakstan, Tashkent is especially keen to keep control of the autonomous republic - and this can be better achieved if the majority of its population are Uzbeks, rather than Karakalpaks and Kazaks.


Karakalpak local authority sources told IWPR that there are plans for an "Uzbekisation" of the region - and that the departure of non-Uzbeks is in Tashkent's interests.


The political machinations of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan are of little interest to the Karakalpak people, however, who care only for the prospect of decent work and a life without poverty.


Ertai Jumanov, a villager in the Takhtakupyr region, is slowly dismantling his house in preparation for a move to Kazakstan. Selling the roof, bricks and doors to building contractors is the only way he can recoup the money invested in his home. Nobody is interested in buying property in Karakalpakstan.


Jumanov says he is leaving because of "the terrible poverty and lack of work prospects, and because I can't support my wife and three children if I stay here".


Almost every family in this small village has a relative now living - and working - in Kazakstan. Dozens of partially dismantled houses and outbuildings, stripped of everything that could be sold on to building companies, are dotted along its dusty streets.


The flow of migrants speeded up in the year 2000-2001, when the republic's agriculture-based economy was devastated by a severe drought. Harvests were destroyed and desperate farmers were forced to kill their livestock, as they could no longer feed them.


Farmers in the northern regions of the autonomous republic were hardest hit, and emergency water tanks had to be delivered to stop thousands dying of thirst. The standard of living, which in these places was already very low, became unbearable for many.


While water has returned to Karakalpakstan, its farmers have neither the energy nor the will to rebuild their lives there. And although Kazakstan has its own problems with poverty, it is still seen as a far more attractive prospect.


Another Takhtakupyr villager, who didn't want to be named, told IWPR that the people have lost faith in the Uzbek state, claiming it did not provide enough assistance to save the farmers from ruin during the drought, and has "never wanted to pay honestly" for their efforts.


"In Kazakstan, our lives will be incomparably better. Workers are well paid and migrants are treated with special attention. The state will help us out with work and housing," he said.


Olga Borisova is a correspondent for IWPR in Karakalpakstan.


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