Resentment among Uzbeks continued to smolder after the 1989 Fergana Valley violence in the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost . With the emergence of new opportunities to express dissent, Uzbeks expressed their grievances over the cotton scandal, the purges, and other long-unspoken resentments. These included the environmental situation in the republic, recently exposed as a catastrophe as a result of the long emphasis on heavy industry and a relentless pursuit of cotton. Other grievances included discrimination and persecution experienced by Uzbek recruits in the Soviet army and the lack of investment in industrial development in the republic to provide jobs for the ever-increasing population. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

By the late 1980s, some dissenting intellectuals had formed political organizations to express their grievances. The most important of these, Birlik (Unity), initially advocated the diversification of agriculture, a program to salvage the desiccated Aral Sea, and the declaration of the Uzbek language as the state language of the republic. Those issues were chosen partly because they were real concerns and partly because they were a safe way of expressing broader disaffection with the Uzbek government. In their public debate with Birlik, the government and party never lost the upper hand. As became especially clear after the accession of Karimov as party chief, most Uzbeks, especially those outside the cities, still supported the communist party and the government. Birlik's intellectual leaders never were able to make their appeal to a broad segment of the population.

The pivotal even that spurred the movement towards independence was the August 1991 Soviet coup attempt against Gorbachev. Most of the Central Asian leaders actively or passively supported the coup.

Uzbekistan Becomes Independent

By the spring of 1991, the parliament of all five republic declared their sovereignty. Uzbekistan became like other four Central Asian states achieved independence on December 26, 1991 when the Soviet Union formally was broken up.

The attempted coup against the Gorbachev government by disaffected hard-liners in Moscow, which occurred in August 1991, was a catalyst for independence movements throughout the Soviet Union. Despite Uzbekistan's initial hesitancy to oppose the coup, the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan declared the republic independent on August 31, 1991. In December 1991, an independence referendum was passed with 98.2 percent of the popular vote. The same month, a parliament was elected and Karimov was chosen the new nation's first president. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although Uzbekistan had not sought independence, when events brought them to that point, Karimov and his government moved quickly to adapt themselves to the new realities. They realized that under the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose federation proposed to replace the Soviet Union, no central government would provide the subsidies to which Uzbek governments had become accustomed for the previous seventy years. Old economic ties would have to be reexamined and new markets and economic mechanisms established. Although Uzbekistan as defined by the Soviets had never had independent foreign relations, diplomatic relations had to be established with foreign countries quickly.

Not everyone was happy about independence. Some people — especially the Russians living in Uzbekistan — regarded themselves as Soviet citizens who were abandoned by Moscow.

Recalling the Soviet era one worker told the Independent, "Then you knew where you stood. At least we got paid and had proper accommodation and didn’t have to worry all the time." Young people generally don’t have such nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Independent Uzbekistan

The Uzbeks resisted Russification and emerged at independence with a stronger sense of identity and nationalism than some of the other Central Asian ethnic groups. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan was the third largest Soviet republic by population and the fourth largest in territory. Because it has a population that is more than 40 percent of the combined population of the five Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, and because it has rich natural resources, many experts believed that Uzbekistan was likely to emerge as the dominant new state in Central Asia. But Uzbekistan's history also had given rise to serious problems: deeply rooted ethnic tensions; serious economic, political, and environmental challenges; and an uncertain security and foreign policy environment. Like its neighbors in Central Asia, Uzbekistan emerged suddenly from more than sixty years within a highly structured, and in many ways protective, political and economic system. In the years following that emergence, survival has depended on the development of new international relationships as well as on solutions to the dilemmas of the Soviet era. By 1996 Uzbekistan showed signs of progress in both directions.

Uzbekistan is the third-largest of the Central Asian republics in area and the first in population It is completely landlocked between Kazakhstan to the north, Turkmenistan to the south, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east. It shares the Aral Sea, and hence the environmental problems of that area, with Kazakhstan. The territory of modern Uzbekistan was at the center of the rich cultural and commercial developments that occurred in Central Asia over a period of two millennia, especially along the axis defined by the Silk Route between Europe and China. Included in Uzbekistan are the three chief Silk Route outposts of Bukhara (Bukhara), Khiva, and Samarkand (Samarkand). [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1992 Uzbekistan adopted a new constitution, but the main opposition party, Birlik, was banned, and a pattern of media suppression began. In 1995 a national referendum extended Karimov’s term of office from 1997 to 2000. A series of violent incidents in eastern Uzbekistan in 1998 and 1999 intensified government activity against Islamic extremist groups, other forms of opposition, and minorities. In 2000 Karimov was reelected overwhelmingly in an election whose procedures received international criticism. Later that year, Uzbekistan began laying mines along the Tajikistan border, creating a serious new regional issue and intensifying Uzbekistan’s image as a regional hegemon. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

Uzbekistan’s Economy After Independence

Besides the agricultural base that yields cotton, vegetables, and grain, Uzbekistan's economy is blessed with gold, several other valuable minerals, and substantial reserves of energy resources, especially natural gas.In the mid-1990s, the economy still is based primarily on agriculture, following substantial increases in irrigation-dependent output in the 1970s and 1980s. Cotton remains the most valuable crop, and Uzbekistan is the fourth-largest cotton producer in the world. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Uzbekistan suffered from high inflation, mainly because the state has continued Soviet-era social protection programs, bank credits for unprofitable enterprises, budget deficits, and price supports that required expanding the supply of money. As inflation redistributed wealth, many Uzbekistanis suffered substantial losses of real income. By 1994 annual inflation reached 1,300 percent, but government restrictions in 1995 lowered the year-end figure to 77 percent. *

In the early years after independence, investment and foreign credits had to be attracted, a formidable challenge in light of Western restrictions on financial aid to nations restricting expression of political dissent. For example, the suppression of internal dissent in 1992 and 1993 had an unexpectedly chilling effect on foreign investment. Uzbekistan's image in the West alternated in the ensuing years between an attractive, stable experimental zone for investment and a post-Soviet dictatorship whose human rights record made financial aid inadvisable. Such alternation exerted strong influence on the political and economic fortunes of the new republic in its first five years. *

In the early 1990s, Uzbekistan's economy was one of the most stable in the Central Asian region, and foreign investment activity there was the highest in the region. In December 1995, the United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation agreed to provide US$500 million to convert the Soviet-era military industry, and United States oil companies committed US$1.3 billion of long-term investments in the oil and gas industry. Uzbekistan is the regional distribution center for electronic and domestic appliances from Dubai, based on a favorable tariff system that places no tax on most imports (a 15 percent tariff was levied on electronics in 1996). A large Daewoo (South Korean) television and videocassette plant in Tashkent is the most visible foreign electronics enterprise. The British Massey-Ferguson firm plans an agricultural machinery plant at some future date, and the British Quickstop supermarket chain opened outlets in Tashkent in 1996. Although some improvement has been made in Uzbekistan's tax and legal system, the dominance of the state bureaucracy continues to complicate foreign investment. *

Uzbekistan Economic Reforms

Throughout the post-Soviet period, a primary goal of Uzbekistan's economic reform policy has been to avoid the disruptions associated with rapid transition. While proclaiming the eventual goal of a market economy, economic planners have moved very slowly in privatization and in the creation of a Western-style financial sector that would offer economic incentives and encourage private entrepreneurial initiative. This strategy has succeeded in reducing the transition shocks experienced by other post-Soviet societies. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the first five years after independence, Uzbekistan's GDP fell about 20 percent, compared with the Central Asian average of 50 percent. Part of that moderation results from Uzbekistan's initially more favorable situation in 1992. Because the cotton monoculture gave Uzbekistan a commodity with sales value worldwide (in 1995 some 75 percent of cotton exports went outside the CIS) and because Uzbekistan was less dependent on foreign trade and imported energy supplies than the other Central Asian countries, the end of the Soviet Union imposed fewer economic hardships. The 1995 cotton crop, expected to set a record, was significantly below forecast levels, however. Meanwhile, in 1996 the republics of the region continued nominal efforts to improve the Aral Sea environmental disaster, amid significant doubts that Uzbekistan would sacrifice cotton irrigation water from Aral tributaries to achieve that goal. *

In late 1995, the IMF lent the regime US$260 million for economic reform, the first money accepted by Karimov from the IMF. In its evaluation at that time, the IMF noted that Uzbekistan's structural reform had been slow, notably in the banking sector, but that its tight monetary policy had slowed the economy's previous runaway inflation and liberalization of foreign exchange had been effective. Inflation for 1995 was 77 percent; the IMF year-end inflation target for 1996 was 21 to 25 percent; the exchange rate of the Uzbekistani som fell from thirty to the United States dollar in 1995 to thirty-five to the dollar in 1996. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecast a 1996 drop in GDP of 1 percent, followed by growth of 1 percent in 1997. The projected budget deficit for 1996 was 3.5 percent of GDP, which conforms with IMF loan guidelines. An IMF credit of US$124 million was granted in December 1995. *

In 1996 the Karimov regime became noticeably less cautious in its approach to economic reform. Karimov criticized some bureaucrats for hindering execution of reform decrees, and the president began advocating private enterprise as the surest path to individual and national prosperity. Overall foreign trade goals still included expanded commercial agreements with East Asia and the West, but by 1996 Uzbekistan had expressed willingness to join a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which already had reached a series of commercial accommodations early in 1996. Self-sufficiency in oil, gained for the first time in 1996, freed Uzbekistan from dependence on Russia in a key area. *

Uzbekistan’s Political and Military Situation After Independence

After independence, much of Uzbekistan's political structure remained essentially unchanged. Although some impetus had existed toward more democratic governance prior to independence, Karimov set the tone for political activity by winning a rigged presidential election in 1991. The new constitution approved in December 1992 prescribed a secular, multiparty democracy with full observance of human rights. However, the trial and harassment of opposition political figures and the restriction of the media began immediately; international protests in the next few years achieved scant results. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Only two parties, Karimov's and a token opposition group, were permitted to participate in the parliamentary election of 1994. In March 1995, a rigged referendum extended the presidency of Karimov until 2000. Shortly thereafter, Karimov sentenced seven leaders of the political opposition to prison terms. Although the stable atmosphere fostered by Karimov's regime had tended to soften international criticism, Uzbekistan's human rights record still left much to be desired. In 1995 and 1996, however, a general improvement in government observation of human rights was noted; the government apparently has attempted to attract Western investors by responding to criticism of its handling of human rights cases. Two new political parties were formed and registered officially in mid-1995. *

The armed forces, which had inherited a substantial infrastructure from the Soviet period, were the best-equipped force in the region by 1996, after developing steadily in the interim years. In 1996, Uzbekistan's armed forces numbered 30,000 persons, including 25,000 ground and 4,000 air force troops. At that time, the government announced that ethnic Uzbeks constituted 80 percent of the country's armed forces, compared with 6 percent in the former Soviet force of 1992.

Uzbekistan’s Foreign Relations After Independence

Uzbekistan's position as the only Central Asian state bordering all the other four has combined with other advantages (the largest population in the region and significant natural resources) to advance its claim as the leader and potential unifying force of the Central Asians. That putative role also has gained Uzbekistan considerable distrust among the other four republics, each of which has a significant Uzbek minority population and each of which has felt the impact of Uzbekistan's drive for supremacy in different ways. In 1992 Uzbekistani troops--the best-equipped in Central Asia--were instrumental in the triumph of Imomali Rahmonov's communist forces in Tajikistan, and since that time Uzbekistan has participated in the CIS force attempting to keep the peace in that country. In tandem with its drive for Western economic ties and privatization, in 1996 Uzbekistan intensified its promotion of regional economic and security agreements. Partly as a counterweight to Russia's influence in the region, Uzbekistan has encouraged broader activities by the Central Asian Economic Union, which it shares with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In 1996 the most notable departure from dependency on Russia was establishment of the Central Asian peacekeeping battalion, which held an initial exercise in the United States under the auspices of the NATO Partnership for Peace program. In January 1997, the economic union's members signed a treaty of "eternal friendship" that included mutual security guarantees. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Uzbekistan's relations with Russia have been characterized by a combination of resentment and dependence, representing one of the few areas where the Karimov regime does not exercise full control. Although Karimov has strongly encouraged business activities by Western countries, especially Germany, he has been careful not to alienate Russia's commercial interests. In 1994 and 1995, Uzbekistan signed commercial treaties with a variety of CIS countries, but Russia always was the primary partner in such deals. *

The issue of dual citizenship for the Russian minority in Uzbekistan, strongly pressed by Russia in the early 1990s, has caused serious irritation, as did Russia's unsuccessful pressure for Uzbekistan to remain in the ruble zone in 1993. Like the other Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan has suffered a rapid loss of its Russian technocrat population. Since independence, an estimated 500,000 Russians (out of the 1.65 million in 1989) have left, and the emigration of Germans, Jews, and Koreans further depleted the republic's base of technical know-how. *

Just beyond the borders of Central Asia, Uzbekistan has established new relationships with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, based chiefly on economic exchanges. Stimulated by the economic stability of Uzbekistan, international lenders such as the EBRD and the IMF have offered fairly generous loans. The United States, conscious of human rights violations, has offered less generous assistance to Uzbekistan than to other Central Asian countries. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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