Today I’m pleased to publish the fifth and final entry in Zack Kramer’s look at the Central Asian republics. You can find Zack’s previous essays on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan , and Turkmenistan here at FX. Today Zack takes us through developments in Uzbekistan since the fall of the Soviet Union.
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by Zack Kramer
Home to the region’s oldest cities, much of its cultural heritage, and about half of its population, Uzbekistan is in many ways the heart of Central Asia. Though it has stagnated during its post-Soviet independence, reforms made since the 2016 death of longtime dictator Islam Karimov have raised cautious hopes that Uzbekistan might be genuinely turning a new page in its history. This series’ final article provides an overview of the political economy of Uzbekistan, with a focus on contextualizing the political and economic reforms made by new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev since 2016.
Mirziyoyev (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)
The earliest inhabitants of Uzbekistan were Iranian tribes migrating from the west, with the Sogdian civilization establishing the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara centuries prior to the arrival of the Uzbeks’ Turkic forebears from the east. By the 5th century BCE, Sogdia, including much of modern Uzbekistan, had been incorporated into the Persian Achaemenid Empire. The province’s cities grew into wealthy Silk Road sites and important Persian cultural centers. Arabs conquered the region in the 8th century, spreading Islam but leaving the local Persian language and culture largely intact. Nomadic Turkic tribes moved into the region in the 9th century and battled the Persian Samanids for control of Bukhara and other cities, intermingling with locals and giving rise to a mix of sedentary, Sunni Islamic populations mostly speaking a Turkic language in rural areas and Persian in cities, without unified political rule. Much of Central Asia was briefly united under the Timurid Empire by the conqueror Tamerlane, who appears to have been of mixed Turkic and Mongol origin and was born near Samarkand.
The first records of tribes called “Uzbek” appear in the early 16th century. These tribes reportedly moved east from the shores of the Caspian Sea to displace the failing Timurid Empire, conquering Samarkand in 1505 and much of Central Asia by 1510. The Uzbeks established the Khanate of Bukhara, centered around the fertile valleys of what is today southeastern Uzbekistan and including the major cities Samarkand, Tashkent, and Andijan, as well as parts of modern Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. They also established the Khanate of Khiva to the east, encompassing much of modern-day Turkmenistan. Both entities existed as independent states until the late 19th century, but never achieved great wealth or power because of the declining volume of Silk Road trade during the early modern period, as well as their frequent wars with one another and with other Central Asian peoples and Persia.
This lack of substantial wealth or military strength left the Uzbeks ill-prepared for defending themselves from invasion by the expanding Russian Empire, which captured Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva between 1865 and 1873. The Khanates agreed to become Russian protectorates, and all Uzbek territory had come under effective Russian control by 1876. In addition to strategic concerns about British expansion into Central Asia, the Russian conquest of Uzbek territory was partly motivated by an interest in securing a reliable source of cotton, as the crop grew poorly in Russia and imports from the southern United States had been halted by the American Civil War. The empire invested in cotton production and then later in railroad infrastructure for the transportation of cotton and other goods from the Uzbek region to the imperial center. Few Russians settled in the Uzbek region in the imperial era, instead relying on local labor for cotton production and the construction of railroads.
Soviet authorities defined the modern boundaries of Uzbekistan when they merged parts of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic with the Bukharan People’s Republic and the Khorezm (i.e. Khivan) People’s Republic to form the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924, with Tashkent as its capital. The Uzbek SSR was the Soviet Union’s third most-populous constituent republic after Russia and Ukraine, and Tashkent grew to become its fourth-largest city. The Soviet government continued to devote much of Uzbekistan’s labor and scarce water to cotton production, as well as extractive industries, especially gold mining. Uzbek industrialization remained limited until World War II, during which a substantial portion of Soviet industrial capacity was evacuated from the western part of the country to Tashkent to protect it from advancing Axis forces. This industrial boost led to a sustained increase in Tashkent’s economic output and an influx of ethnic Russians and other non-Uzbeks.
Moscow made new investments in cotton production and processing during the Virgin Lands campaign of the 1960s, and cotton remained Uzbekistan’s dominant industry through the end of the Soviet period. Under Soviet rule, Uzbekistan became largely secular and literate, and partially urbanized, but remained economically underdeveloped and dependent on imports of food and industrial goods from the other Soviet republics to sustain its cotton- and mining-oriented economy.
Like the rest of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan became an independent state in late 1991. Islam Karimov, who had led the country since 1989 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, won the country’s first presidential election in a landslide. The initial years of independence were marked by signs of a shift toward political pluralism and economic liberalization after decades of one-party communist rule, but by 1995 Karimov had virtually eliminated all political opposition within the country and consolidated a stable autocratic regime. Karimov’s long presidency was generally characterized by continuity with the Soviet period: political elites retained power, the practice of Islam continued to be suppressed, and the country’s economy remained state-managed, sluggish, and trade-dependent.
Karimov sought to establish Uzbekistan as a regional power independent from Russia and to build influence of its own in Central Asia, an agenda that caused tension with Uzbekistan’s neighbors. These tensions were made worse as the other Central Asian republics pursued nation-building policies, promoting their national languages and cultures at the expense of ethnic Uzbek minorities—Uzbeks became the second-largest ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as ethnic Russians left the region. At the same time, Uzbek-Tajik relations soured over disputes about the political recognition and language rights of Uzbekistan’s Tajik minority. The Uzbek government claims that Tajiks make up only about 4% of Uzbekistan’s population, but some claim that figure may actually be as high as 30%. Colloquial reports suggest that Samarkand and Bukhara remain predominantly Tajik Persian-speaking cities, but Uzbek remains the sole official language throughout the country.
Karimov pursued a rather erratic foreign policy outside of Central Asia, joining and then leaving post-Soviet regional integration organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the GUAM (formerly GUUAM) Organization for Democracy and Economic Development in an apparent attempt to play Russian and Western interests against each other. The country did attract attention from the United States after the September 11th attacks, as Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan and support for US counterterrorism efforts made it a point of strategic interest in the region. The US offered increased civilian and military aid to Uzbekistan and was subsequently permitted to open the Karshi-Khanabad US Air Force Base near Samarkand in 2001. But US-Uzbek relations deteriorated after the Uzbek government’s violent suppression of protests in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005, killing as many as 1,500 civilians. The Uzbek government has blamed Islamic extremists for the unrest, but this connection has never been definitively established. The Uzbek government ordered the airbase closed later that year after US government criticism of its actions.
Already one of the one of the poorest Soviet republics during the communist era, the Uzbek economy continued to stagnate upon independence rather than adapting to new conditions. With the breakup of the USSR, Uzbekistan became a nominal market economy overnight, but the state continued to play a central role in economic planning, production, and trade. The cotton industry, which had been established as a result of Russia’s desire for resource self-reliance rather than local comparative advantage or any other compelling interest from Uzbekistan’s standpoint, continued to produce as much as a third of Uzbekistan’s total exports. However, annual cotton yields went into decline as the country’s major source of water for irrigation, the Aral Sea and its freshwater tributaries, began to rapidly disappear after decades of overuse. The near-total disappearance of the Aral Sea has been described as one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes by the United Nations, and has had disastrous consequences for Uzbek agriculture and national water security in general.
The Uzbek government retained a Soviet-era monopoly on the sale of cotton (and other commodities) abroad, offering all farmers the same fixed, subsidized price for their crops. Because of the scale of the industry and its periodic demand for a massive labor force, the government has regularly employed forced, unpaid labor during its cotton harvests. University students, urban workers, and often children have been periodically rounded up by state authorities and forced to spend weeks picking cotton, with over a million people forcibly mobilized annually. Several human rights activists have been jailed over criticism of the practice.
Uzbekistan’s two other major sources of export revenue have been gold mining and natural gas, both of which account for around 15% of total exports. Uranium and copper mining are also significant export industries. Remittances from the roughly three million Uzbek migrants working abroad, mostly in Russia, are another important source of income for Uzbekistan. Despite its resource wealth, Uzbekistan remains a poor country, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of only $1,200 per capita, placing it slightly ahead of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but well behind Kazakhstan in terms of income. Uzbekistan has consistently been ranked one of the world’s most corrupt countries, and rent-seeking oligarchs continue to siphon off a large share of the profits from its many state-owned enterprises. Different “clans” (oligarchic patronage networks) compete for political power and access to export revenues, with the Samarkand clan dominating Uzbekistan’s top political positions since the late Soviet period and as a result controlling much of the country’s limited wealth.
Islam Karimov died in 2016 after 27 years in power, leaving Uzbekistan with no clear alternative to his legacy of authoritarianism and rampant corruption. The country’s long-serving prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was appointed interim president and then elected to the office later that year. The elections were described as “devoid of genuine competition” by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Like Karimov, Mirziyoyev is a member of the Samarkand clan, and had been seen as a probable choice to succeed Karimov. There seemed to be little chance that Uzbekistan might finally start dismantling its Soviet-era political and economic structures, as Mirziyoyev’s role as an established political insider and his loyalty to the country’s dominant oligarchic clan made him an unlikely reformer. Three years into Mirziyoyev’s presidency, however, his initiatives have taken many by surprise, with the political status quo mostly unchanged but a clear effort made to modernize the economy and improve foreign relations.
Mirziyoyev’s reforms have focused on liberalizing the Uzbek economy and encouraging the diversification of production and trade. The single most significant change has been the reduction of subsidies for cotton production. The government still holds a monopoly on cotton exports, but farmers are now paid something closer to market rates for their produce. Mirziyoyev has also introduced a special tax on raw cotton exports to encourage domestic production of textiles. The decline in cotton subsidies has encouraged many farmers to focus on less water-intensive fruit and vegetable crops, and they have found a ready export market in Russia, which has lost access to western agricultural imports due to sanctions. The International Labor Organization found that forced labor in the cotton industry declined significantly in 2018, and child labor had been nearly eliminated. Citing the report, the US government lifted a prior ban on imports of Uzbek cotton.
The Uzbek government has also been in talks about the privatization of one of its two main gold-mining complexes, a sale that could generate billions of dollars in government revenue while possibly increasing gold output by attracting foreign capital and technology. The country’s main natural gas and oil company (and largest state-owned enterprise), Uzbekneftgaz, also recently reorganized itself as a corporate business entity nominally independent of the government. The move is expected to improve the firm’s global competitiveness and increase foreign investment. Uzbekistan has undergone many of these steps on the recommendation of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which have praised its progress. There are signs that global markets are reacting positively to Uzbekistan’s new economic direction—foreign direct investment roughly quadrupled between 2017 and 2018.
Mirziyoyev has also succeeded in improving Uzbekistan’s often-strained relations with the other Central Asian states. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have clashed about the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority and water rights issues, but agreed to reopen the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border in 2017 and are beginning to cooperate on water and transport infrastructure and bilateral energy trade. Uzbekistan has also recently shown interest in increasing imports of Kazakh oil and opening a visa-free travel regime with Kazakhstan. Finally, after decades of disputes about water rights, Tajikistan’s internal security situation, and minority issues, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have reopened their border and reinitiated security cooperation.
Despite this record of economic liberalization and improved regional diplomacy, many remain critical of Mirziyoyev and doubtful about his commitment to political liberalization. Edward Lemon of the Foreign Policy Research Institute describes political reform under Mirziyoyev as a process of “authoritarian upgrading,” a softening of the government’s most repressive practices and selective implementation of popular demands for political reform, implemented without the state accepting real checks on its power, or elites giving up their commanding share of the financial benefits from marketizing reforms (e.g. privatizations). Most observers expect another tightly-managed outcome during the upcoming parliamentary elections in late 2019 or early 2020, for which no new parties have been permitted to register. Others have noted the continued practice of arbitrary arrest on baseless “treason charges” by state security forces. Transparency International finds that Mirziyoyev has made little progress on reining in corruption, and Human Rights Watch reported that while the use of forced labor in the cotton industry has declined significantly from previous years, it remained widespread in the 2018 harvest. Other reports of the use of forced labor in construction, street cleaning, and wheat harvesting serve as a reminder that the problem is not exclusive to the cotton industry.
Uzbekistan’s next parliamentary elections, scheduled for December, will be the first of Mirziyoyev’s presidency, but are exceedingly unlikely to produce any kind of democratic breakthrough. The most interesting news from Uzbekistan in the months ahead may instead be the reports from Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Organization on the use of forced labor in the 2019 cotton harvest. Whether Uzbekistan continues to build on the improvements made last year or slackens the pace after 2018’s chorus of international praise will say much about the government’s commitment to vesting its ordinary citizens with even a bare minimum of political and human rights as their economy evolves. All signs indicate that Mirziyoyev believes Uzbekistan’s path to prosperity lies in a marketization-without-democratization development model, allowing it to integrate into the global economy without giving up its centralized, authoritarian form of government. Central Asia’s wealthiest country, Kazakhstan, has followed the same agenda. So have a variety of other rising economies around the world, most prominently China. Whether or not the prospect of untapped resources and profitable investment opportunities will be enough to entice liberal Western democracies like the US and EU to simply paper over Uzbekistan’s continued political repression and poor human rights record is yet to be seen. But from Singapore to the United Arab Emirates, circumstances like Uzbekistan’s have consistently proven quite sufficient.