Moscow’s control over Uzbekistan weakened in the 1970s as Uzbek party leader Sharaf Rashidov brought many cronies and relatives into positions of power. During the decade following the death of Rashidov, Moscow attempted to regain the central control over Uzbekistan that had weakened in the previous decade. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1986 it was announced that almost the entire party and government leadership of the republic had conspired in falsifying cotton production figures. Eventually, Rashidov himself was also implicated (posthumously) together with Yuriy Churbanov, Brezhnev's son-in-law. A massive purge of the Uzbek leadership was carried out, and corruption trials were conducted by prosecutors brought in from Moscow. In the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan became synonymous with corruption. *

The Uzbeks themselves felt that the central government had singled them out unfairly; in the 1980s, this resentment led to a strengthening of Uzbek nationalism. Moscow's policies in Uzbekistan, such as the strong emphasis on cotton and attempts to uproot Islamic tradition, then came under increasing criticism in Tashkent.

Billions Lost in Uzbekistan Cotton Scam in the 1970s and 80s

In the 1980s, the regional Soviet leader in the Uzbek Republic pulled off one of the biggest scams of the 20th century by falsifying data on cotton production and earning more than $2 billion for himself and his coconspirators before the fraud was revealed when satellite pictures showed that areas that were supposed to be planted with cotton actually were not. The scam involved the son-in-law of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982, and probably Brezhnev himself.

Corrupt officials over-reported cotton production, sold cotton on the black market and swindled the government out of billions of rubles. After spy satellites discovered that many cotton fields were empty and the scheme came unraveled, some 2,600 officials were arrested and 50,000 were fired. The scandal uncovered a state farm boss who kept concubines, used slave labor and cruelly tortured anyone who opposed him. According to a frequently told joke at the time, a farmer is asked by a Communist official how much cotton there is, The official says, "Enough to pile up to Allah's feet." The Communist says, "You idiot, you now know there is no god." The farmer said, "That's okay because their no cotton either."

Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “The Uzbek affair has been described as the Soviet Union's Watergate, a scandal that reached into the top levels of power and exposed a pervasive moral lassitude at the heart of the political system. It revolved around the industry that dominates life in Uzbekistan: growing cotton. National investigators said cotton magnates and politicians had stolen billions of rubles over the years through padding cotton harvest figures. The corruption included protection rackets, bribery and sale of government offices. The press has carried extensive, sometimes lurid accounts of the flamboyant corruption that flourished...including local officials who lived like feudal lords, bribing top officials with diamonds and cognac, and sending hired killers after investigators.” [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times, December 31, 1988 +/+]

Between 1976 and 1983, Soviet leaders defrauded the Soviet central bank by falsely inflating Uzbek cotton harvest yields. The "cotton scandal" was at iss peak during the tenure of Sharof Rashidov and resulted in discrediting the political elite of Uzbekistan. Rashidov (1917 – 1983) was a Communist Party leader in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and a Communist Party Central Committee Politburo candidate member between 1961 and 1983. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Under Rashidov, Uzbek government responded to from Moscow to grow increasing quantities of cotton by reporting miraculous growth in land irrigated and harvested, and record improvements in production and efficiency in falsified records. The Uzbek leadership used these exaggerated figures to transfer substantial amounts of wealth from central Soviet funds into Uzbekistan. When the scam was discovered, Rashidov committed suicide. +

After Uzbekistan's independence, Rashidov re-emerged as a national hero. He is seen in Uzbekistan as having been a strong leader who found a way to cleverly defy Moscow and "beat the system” while managing to create a situation where Uzbekistan became quite autonomous of central control. +

Brezhnev Son-Law Involved in Uzbekistan Cotton Scam

Yuri Churbanov, the son-in-law of Leonid Brezhnev, was implicated in the Uzbekistan cotton scandal. Associated Press reported: “A five-year investigation has uncovered bribery and corruption that cost the Uzbekistan Soviet Republic at least $6.5 billion and involved high-ranking officials including the son-in-law of the late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, Pravda said. The official Communist Party newspaper said the corruption was institutionalized, and that involved officials and millionaire entrepreneurs in the Central Asian republic hired bodyguards and bought police protection... The story appeared to convey the message that Mikhail S. Gorbachev's leadership will not tolerate the corruption, stagnation and bureaucracy of Brezhnev's era. [Source: Associated Press, January 24, 1988]

“Pravda said the corruption in Uzbekistan involved the Soviet Union's first deputy interior minister, a post held from 1980-1985 by Yuri M. Churbanov, Brezhnev's son-in-law. Churbanov was married to Brezhnev's daughter, Galina. Pravda did not identify Churbanov by name, but the reference was clear because there had been no other first deputy interior minister during the period. Soviet officials announced” earlier “that Churbanov had been arrested and accused of corruption and accepting bribes, but they did not tie him to the investigation in Uzbekistan.

The paper said officials arrested included the premier and a deputy president of Uzbekistan, and top Communist party officials at the republic and local levels. At least $6.5 billion of state money disappeared from the republic's cotton industry, but authorities have found only a small percentage of it, the report said. "Not one question was decided without bribes. He who gave bribes got everything. The question stood this way: either leave your post or live according to the law of criminals," investigators were quoted as saying. The investigation swept up many minor officials who had little option but to participate in the corruption, Pravda said. In addition, blackmail and extortion groups in Uzbekistan pressured those who made illegal millions, and the underground millionaires responded by hiring gunmen for personal bodyguards, the newspaper said.

“The Pravda article was printed several days after the weekly Literary Gazette revealed that Akhmadzhan Adylov, the head of an agricultural complex in Uzbekistan, had built a fiefdom with a private court system and an underground jail that was built by up to 1,000 workers. The two articles, striking for their detail even in the atmosphere of openness fostered by Gorbachev, apparently were a signal that those found guilty of corruption would be treated harshly.

“At least two officials already have been sentenced to death. Pravda revealed that investigators sent from Moscow to Uzbekistan arrested Abduvakhid Karimov, the head of the Bukhara Communist Party, after an all-night party at his country house.Soviet media reported that Karimov had been sentenced to be shot for corruption. In August, 1986, Vakhbozhan Usmanov, the former cotton minister of the republic, also was sentenced to death.”

Brezhnev Son-in-Law Gets 12-Year Term

In December 1988, Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law was sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for accepting bribes, Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “Yuri M. Churbanov, who was the second-ranking Soviet police official from 1980 to 1984, was sentenced for taking bribes equivalent to more than $150,000 to protect widespread fraud in the Central Asian cotton industry. Six co-defendants, former high-ranking police officials from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, were given sentences ranging from 8 to 10 years. The property of all those convicted will be confiscated as part of the sentence. [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times, December 31, 1988 +/+]

“Under Soviet law, Mr. Churbanov could have been sentenced to death because of the magnitude of the theft, but the prosecution had indicated that it would not seek the maximum penalty because he had cooperated with investigators. Mr. Churbanov, who is 52 years old, is the highest-ranking official charged in the cotton corruption scandal. But the press has reported that other powerful figures profited grandly from the network of patronage and payoffs, including Brezhnev himself, and Sharaf R. Rashidov, who led the Uzbek Communist Party for 25 years until his death in 1983. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov's lawyer, Andrei Makarov, asserted before the four-month trial that his defendant was being made a scapegoat for the discredited former party leader, and that the torrent of melodramatic press coverage surrounding the so-called Uzbek affair had made a fair trial impossible. The six co-defendants convicted of corruption with Mr. Churbanov were Pyotr Begelman, a former Uzbek deputy interior minister, and Nuin Nurov, a former regional police chief of Tashkent, each sentenced to 9 years; Azhamal Dzhamalov, Yakub Makhamadzhanov and Salim Sabirov, Uzbek regional police chiefs, each given 8 years, and Khushvakt Norbutayev, another regional chief, 10 years. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov, who was arrested in January 1987, has been portrayed as a man of little talent and vast ambition who married his way to power. He was a junior official in the Interior Ministry until he was assigned as a personal security guard to Galina L. Brezhnev, the daughter of Mr. Brezhnev. After he divorced his wife and married the party leader's daughter in 1971, Mr. Churbanov rose quickly through the ranks of the ministry and became a nonvoting member of the party's ruling Central Committee. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov was originally charged with taking bribes worth 650,000 rubles, the equivalent of about $1.1 million, from June 1976 to October 1982. But after a trial that heard nearly 200 witnesses, the military tribunal threw out some of the charges. Mr. Churbanov had pleaded guilty to abuse of his office, but said he was innocent of bribe-taking. He was also convicted of taking more than 10,000 rubles, or $16,500, of Interior Ministry funds to build a cellar in his summer home and of approving the gift of an antigue gold watch to his boss, Interior Minister Nikolai A. Shchelokov. +/+

“Mr. Shchelokov is said to have committed suicide during the investigation of the case. Two Uzbek officials who had been scheduled to stand trial with Mr. Churbanov committed suicide in prison. Several other Uzbek officials have been arrested in connection with the cotton scandal, and additional trials are expected.” +/+

Gorbachev Period in Uzbekistan

During the perestroika years under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in power 1985–91), Uzbekistan opened up considerably. Uzbeks could openly practice their religion and express themselves and their cultural identity. The period was also marked by ethnic and anti Russian violence.

In the mid-1980s, Moscow attempted to regain control by again purging the entire Uzbek party leadership. However, this move increased Uzbek nationalism, which had long resented Soviet policies such as the imposition of cotton monoculture and the suppression of Islamic traditions. In the late 1980s, the liberalized atmosphere of the Soviet Union under Mikhail S. Gorbachev fostered political opposition groups and open (albeit limited) opposition to Soviet policy in Uzbekistan. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

Moscow's response to the violence in the Feragana Valley in 1989 was a reduction of the purges and the appointment of Islam Karimov as first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. The appointment of Karimov, who was not a member of the local party elite, signified that Moscow wanted to lessen tensions by appointing an outsider who had not been involved in the purges.

Meskhetian Turks and the Fergana Valley Ethnic Conflict in 1989

In 1989 and 1990 ethnic animosities came to a head in the Fergana Valley, where local Meskhetian Turks were assaulted by Uzbeks, and in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, where Uzbek and Kyrgyz youth clashed. In Andijan, Uzbekistan, Jews and Armenians were chased out of neighborhoods and their houses were burned down. In Tashkent and mostly in the the Fergana Valley around the same time the Meskhetian Turks, a small minority, were attacked by Uzbeks. When the dust cleared hundreds of Meskhetian Turks were dead or injured (150 deaths were reported) , nearly 1,000 properties were destroyed and tens of thousands of Meskhetians become refugees. Disputes over land in the crowded Fergana Valley and high unemployment, particularly among young men were blamed for the ethnic violence.

Uzbekistan, specifically the fertile and populous Fergana Valley, had been the principal destination for Meskhetian Turk deportees in the1940s. Despite the hardships associated with their internal exile, many Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan had attained a relative measure of prosperity, proving themselves industrious agricultural producers. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic and political liberalization policies contributed greatly to the anti-Meskhetian Turk outburst, lifting the lid on simmering nationalist sentiment among Uzbeks. Overcrowded conditions in the Fergana Valley, combined with widespread poverty, also fueled interethnic hostility. [Source: Open Society Foundation ***]

By May 1989, the tension was such that a supposed misunderstanding between an Uzbek and a Meskhetian Turk in a Fergana market led to a fight, which sparked countrywide rioting. The loss of life and property might have been much greater if the Soviet army had not been dispatched to protect and then oversee the enforced evacuation of many Meskhetian Turks. ***

Saifadin Tamaradze, a 54-year old farmer who now lives in the Sabirabad region of Azerbaijan, recalled: “As late as May 1, we had no reason to expect that there would be any problems. Then we began hearing rumors that something bad might happen.… After the incident [in the farmer’s market], Uzbek crowds appeared on the streets and they were throwing stones and threatening people. We tried as best we could to defend ourselves.… We became very afraid when we heard that in other places they [Uzbeks] were burning houses and killing people, so we fled to a collection point, where the Soviet military was protecting us.… We left in such a hurry that we had no time to collect any possessions. We didn’t even take our documents.… It was devastating to leave. With hard work people had built a nice life, and we had to leave with nothing.” ***

Many of the estimated 70,000-plus Meskhetian Turk evacuees from Uzbekistan settled in Azerbaijan. Others went to various regions of Russia, especially Krasnodar Krai. Still more resettled in neighboring Central Asian states, primarily Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The physical separation of what had been a relatively compact Meskhetian Turk community in Uzbekistan, compounded by the demoralization of sudden loss, dealt the repatriation efforts a blow from which it has yet to fully recover, according to some Meskhetian Turk leaders. They are quick to proffer conspiracy theories, asserting that Soviet authorities feared the Meskhetian Turk leadership in 1989 was on the verge of achieving repatriation goals, therefore the Kremlin intentionally stirred events that would keep Meskhetian Turks divided, and hence pliant. “The Fergana events of 1989 were specifically manipulated by the KGB and other power structures in order to weaken our movement,” said Yusuf Sarvarov, the leader of Vatan, a Meskhetian Turk advocacy organization that spearheads the repatriation effort. Whatever the source of the Fergana events, Meskhetian Turks are still struggling to find the cohesiveness that would facilitate repatriation. The legacy of the riots also has an ongoing impact on the search for human security. ***

Since the Fergana tragedy, many Meskhetian Turks have managed to recover from the trauma. But not all. In particular, Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar are grappling with ongoing insecurity. Chauvinistic leaders in the southern Russian region are carrying out policies designed to make Meskhetian Turks feel unwelcome. The level of discrimination is such that Meskhetian Turk leaders, as well as international observers, warn about the possibility of interethnic disturbances that, for the third time since the 1940s, could culminate in the forced displacement of thousands of Meskhetian Turks. ***

Clashes Between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Kyrgyz Republic in 1990

In the Osh region of the Fergana Valley Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed. In June and July 1990, in Ozgen, 55 kilometers from Osh in the Fergana Valley, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed for about a month after the Kyrgyzstan government tried to take land from an Uzbek state farm in a primarily Uzbek area within Kyrgyzstan and give it homeless Kyrgyz. At least 200 and maybe more than a thousand were killed. Thousands of homes were destroyed.

During some of the most intense fighting, local police and Soviet security forces were no where to be seen. Some people have argued that authorities did little to stop the ethnic violence and may have even inflamed it because the violence gave authorities an excuse to clamp down on opposition groups and religious groups.

In the general atmosphere of glasnost , an Uzbek-rights group called Adalat began airing old grievances in 1989, demanding that Moscow grant local Uzbek autonomy in Osh and consider its annexation by nearby Uzbekistan. The real issue behind Adalat's demand was land, which is in extremely short supply in the southernmost province of Osh. To protect their claims, some Osh Kyrgyz also had formed an opposing ethnic association, called Osh-aimagy (Osh-land). In early June 1990, the Kyrgyz-dominated Osh City Council announced plans to build a cotton processing plant on a parcel of land under the control of an Uzbek-dominated collective farm in Osh Province. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The confrontation that erupted over control of that land brought several days of bloody riots between crowds led by the respective associations, killing at least 320 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh. The precise cause and sequence of events in early June 1990 is disputed between Uzbek and Kyrgyz accounts. Scores of families were left homeless when their houses were burned out. The government finally stopped the rioting by imposing a military curfew. *

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.

Last updated April 2016

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