MINORITIES IN UZBEKISTAN

ETHNIC GROUPS IN UZBEKISTAN

By some counts there are 120 different ethnic groups in Uzbekistan. Many ethnic groups identify themselves by their headgear and are divided by anthropologists into the Turkic and Persian language speakers, Muslims and non-Muslims and nomads and settled people. The main groups in Central Asia have generally been divided into the nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen) and the settled peoples (Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uighurs). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Ethnic groups: Uzbek 80 percent, Russian 5.5 percent, Tajik 5 percent, Kazakh 3 percent, Karakalpak 2.5 percent, Tatar 1.5 percent, other 2.5 percent (1996 est.). According to another estimate: ethnic Groups in 1995: Uzbek 71 percent, Russian 8 percent, Tajik 5 percent, Kazakh 4 percent, Tatar 2 percent, and Karakalpak 2 percent. According to the 1998 census, 76 percent of the population was Uzbek, 6 percent Russian, 4.8 percent Tajik, 4 percent Kazakh, 1.6 percent Tatar, and 1 percent Kyrgyz. Languages: Uzbek (official) 74.3 percent, Russian 14.2 percent, Tajik 4.4 percent, other 7.1 percent. Religions: Muslim 88 percent (mostly Sunni), Eastern Orthodox 9 percent, other 3 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook =, Library of Congress]

Despite their different languages, official differentiation of Tajiks and Uzbeks occurred only when the Republic of Tajikistan was established in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. However, a substantial portion of the officially Uzbek population, estimated as high as 40 percent, is of Tajik ancestry, and Tajiks predominate in the urban centers of Bukhara and Samarkand. Substantial numbers of Germans and Ukrainians left in a mass emigration during the 1990s. The Karakalpaks, about 475,000 of whom inhabit western Uzbekistan, are a Turkic people of unclear ethnic origin who now are included with the Uzbeks in official ethnic statistics. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

Many other minority groups refuse to be identified as Uzbek, even under political terms; this is in part because the Uzbeks have tied the culture, language, and ethnicity to the Uzbek identity, implying the identity requires more than just citizenship, hence excluding these ethnic minorities. Because of this, most ethnic minorities generally identify by their ethnicity, which tends to be tied to a distinct language and culture. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]

Ethnic Relations in Uzbekistan in the Soviet Era

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, there was little sense of an Uzbek nationhood as such; instead, life was organized around the tribe or clan. Until the twentieth century, the population of what is today Uzbekistan was ruled by the various khans who had conquered the region in the sixteenth century.

But Soviet rule, and the creation of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1924, ultimately created and solidified a new kind of Uzbek identity. At the same time, the Soviet policy of cutting across existing ethnic and linguistic lines in the region to create Uzbekistan and the other new republics also sowed tension and strife among the Central Asian groups that inhabited the region. In particular, the territory of Uzbekistan was drawn to include the two main Tajik cultural centers, Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as parts of the Fergana Valley to which other ethnic groups could lay claim. This readjustment of ethnic politics caused animosity and territorial claims among Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and others through much of the Soviet era, but conflicts grew especially sharp after the collapse of central Soviet rule.

The stresses of the Soviet period were present among Uzbekistan's ethnic groups in economic, political, and social spheres. An outbreak of violence in the Fergana Valley between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in June 1989 claimed about 100 lives. That conflict was followed by similar outbreaks of violence in other parts of the Fergana Valley and elsewhere. The civil conflict in neighboring Tajikistan, which also involves ethnic hostilities, has been perceived in Uzbekistan (and presented by the Uzbekistani government) as an external threat that could provoke further ethnic conflict within Uzbekistan. Thousands of Uzbeks living in Tajikistan have fled the civil war there and migrated back to Uzbekistan, for example, just as tens of thousands of Russians and other Slavs have left Uzbekistan for northern Kazakhstan or Russia. Crimean Tatars, deported to Uzbekistan at the end of World War II, are migrating out of Uzbekistan to return to the Crimea.

Uzbek Numbers Increase and Russian and Minority Numbers Decrease In Post-Soviet Era

Population pressures have exacerbated ethnic tensions. In 1995, the chief minority groups were Russians (slightly more than 8 percent), Tajiks (officially almost 5 percent, but believed to be much higher), Kazakhs (about 4 percent), Tatars (about 2.5 percent), and Karakalpaks (slightly more than 2 percent). In the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan was becoming increasingly homogeneous, as the outflow of Russians and other minorities continued to increase and as Uzbeks returned from other parts of the former Soviet Union. According to unofficial data, between 1985 and 1991 the number of nonindigenous individuals in Uzbekistan declined from 2.4 to 1.6 million. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The increase in the indigenous population and the emigration of Europeans have increased the self-confidence and often the self-assertiveness of indigenous Uzbeks, as well as the sense of vulnerability among the Russians in Uzbekistan. The Russian population, as former "colonizers," was reluctant to learn the local language or to adapt to local control in the post-Soviet era. In early 1992, public opinion surveys suggested that most Russians in Uzbekistan felt more insecure and fearful than they had before Uzbek independence. The irony of this ethnic situation is that many of these Central Asian ethnic groups in Uzbekistan were artificially created and delineated by Soviet fiat in the first place. *

Two ethnic schisms may play an important role in the future of Uzbekistan. The first is the potential interaction of the remaining Russians with the Uzbek majority. Historically, this relationship has been based on fear, colonial dominance, and a vast difference in values and norms between the two populations. The second schism is among the Central Asians themselves. The results of a 1993 public opinion survey suggest that even at a personal level, the various Central Asian and Muslim communities often display as much wariness and animosity toward each other as they do toward the Russians in their midst. When asked, for example, whom they would not like to have as a son- or daughter-in-law, the proportion of Uzbek respondents naming Kyrgyz and Kazakhs as undesirable was about the same as the proportion that named Russians. (About 10 percent of the Uzbeks said they would like to have a Russian son- or daughter-in-law.) And the same patterns were evident when respondents were asked about preferred nationalities among their neighbors and colleagues at work. Reports described an official Uzbekistani government policy of discrimination against the Tajik minority. *

Soviets Carve up Central Asia

Although the peoples of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations that traditionally had been Tajik cultural and business centers.

Stalin, serving as people's commissar of nationalities, divided up Central Asia into the current republics in 1924 as part of a divide and rule strategy to thwart any attempt at a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic revolt against the Soviet Union. Borders were not established along ethnic or geographical lines but along lines mostly likely to suppress dissent. Ethnic groups were divided and placed in neighboring republics rather than into a single nation. Russians were pushed to move in the area.

Before that time there were no real borders in Central Asia. People were grouped together by religion, loyalty to a certain leaders, language in a way that was always changing and never clearly defined. There was no sense of nationhood and even ethnicity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity became defined as rigidly as the borders and many groups were provided with a history, culture and tradition that conformed to Soviet ideology.

Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics in the Soviet Union was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Soviet authorities attempted to shape ethnic identities throughout the USSR, and in Central Asia there were particular difficulties as most people here did not see their primary identities at the ethnic or national level. As part of the Soviet process, languages were standardised, traditions codified, pre-existing sub-ethnic identities (for example, tribe or city) were suppressed (for instance, by being removed as an option in the official census), privileges were granted or denied based on ethnic identity, and many people found that they were outside the borders of their titular republic (for example, ethnic Uzbeks inside Tajikistan). Despite the continuing rhetoric that the divisions between nationalities (that is, ethnic groups) would eventually disappear and give way to a unified people, ethnic identities continued to be strongly promoted in the Soviet republics... There were, however, also divisions within the ethnic groups.For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Volga Tartars, Germans and Cossacks, among others, have lobbied through history for the creation of ethnic states within the Russian empire. One American State Department official told the New York Times, “If you are Russian and you look at the map, what you see is that most of the country isn’t yours. The psychological consequences are enormous. It’s as if American had honored all the Indian treaties and everything from the Mississippi to the Pacific was an Indian reservation.”

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin rounded up all the ethnic Germans in 1941 and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 900,00 0 people were deported. They rounded up a transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

As for the Greeks, initially they prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory. Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan

The Tatars were settled in communities under tight supervision. They were prohibited from traveling or publishing in their language. One woman told the Washington Post, “In Uzbekistan, Tatars are being turned into Uzbeks and Russians. We're losing our languages, our culture and identity.”

The Tatars first lived in concrete huts set up on the steppes. Over time they built proper houses. After Stalin died, other groups were allowed to return to their homelands, but not the Tatars. Some historians believe this was because that Tatars might stir up anti-Soviet activity among other Muslim groups. Other historians have said the Soviet’s simply wanted the Tatars land and firmer grasp on the strategically important Crimean peninsula.

Back in the Crimea, Russians had moved into Tatars houses and farmed Tatar land and destroyed Tatar mosques and cemeteries. The Crimea was developed into an important military zone and a playground for the Soviet elite. In 1946, the Crimean Tatars ceased to officially exist as a distinct ethnic group, instead they were grouped in the broad Tatar category.

Treatment of Minorities in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The constitution states that all citizens are equal, regardless of ethnic background, and provides for equal protection of all residents by the courts, irrespective of national, racial, or ethnic origin. The country had significant Tajik (5 percent) and Russian (5.5 percent) minorities and smaller Kazakh and Kyrgyz minorities. There was also a small Romani population in Tashkent, estimated at fewer than 50,000 individuals. Complaints of societal violence or discrimination against members of these groups were rare. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Uzbekistan ,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

The constitution also provides for the right of citizens to work and to choose their occupations. Although the law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or national origin, ethnic Russians and other minorities occasionally expressed concern about limited job opportunities . Officials reportedly reserved senior positions in the government bureaucracy and business for ethnic Uzbeks, although there were numerous exceptions. \*\

The law does not require Uzbek language ability to obtain citizenship, but language often was a sensitive issue. Uzbek is the state language, and the constitution requires that the president speak it. The law also provides that Russian is “the language of interethnic communication.” \*\

Racism and Ethnic Violence in Uzbekistan

Uzbeks consider themselves the dominant people of Central Asia by virtue of their numbers and their historic links to Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Other ethnic groups in Central Asia dispute this claim.

Since independence, there has been great pressure to push the Russian and ethnic minorities aside and give special treatments to Uzbeks. Uzbeks usually get first dibs on jobs, opportunities and private property. Multiethnic assemblies, cabinets and parliaments have done little more than pay lip service to multiculturalism.

Ethnic tensions have kept from exploding due to strong arm tactics and compromises made on the part of Karimov. There are worries that racial tensions might explode when Karimov dies or is ousted as the majority tries to gain greater control.

Members of the Tajik minority have suffered discrimination, in some cases being forced to change official identity from Tajik to Uzbek.

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016


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