The territory of
modern-day Uzbekistan and its close neighbours have seen many empires
rise and fall. The Sogdians, the Macedonians, the Huns, the
Mongolians, the Seljuks, the Timurids and the Khanates of Samarkand,
Bukhara Khiva and Khorezm all held sway here at one time or another.
Central Asia really came of age with the development of the Silk Road
from China to the West. Samarkand and Bukhara lay astride
this, the most valuable trading route of its day. The riches that it
brought were used to build fabulous mosques and madrassars, most of
which were destroyed by the Mongol hordes in the 13th century. Much of
the damage was repaired and new cities were built by Timur the Lame in
the 14th century. Timur conquered all before him and, at its height,
his empire stretched from Moscow and Baghdad and as far
west as Ankara in Turkey.
After his death, his empire crumbled - although his grandson, Babur,
went on to found the Moghul Dynasty in India - and
Central Asia was split into warring Khanates. The Russians had had
their eyes on the lands over their southern border since Peter the
Great sent his first military mission to Khiva in 1717. It was to be
another 150 years before they started to make any considerable
headway. In 1865, General Kaufmann took Tashkent and signed agreements
with the Khans. There were Russian client Khans in Khiva until 1920.
The Bolsheviks were resisted in Central Asia by bands known as
Basmachi until the 1930s; they were finally suppressed and Moscow took
The history of Central Asia under Soviet rule is one of exploitation.
Uzbekistan was used, as it had been under the tsars, as a place of
internal exile. Stalin, fearing the power of the minorities in the
Soviet Union, transported thousands of people in cattle cars into
Uzbekistan and the surrounding republics. These included Germans,
Koreans, Meshketi Turks, Chechens and Tatars. Part of the plan was to
dilute and weaken the indigenous population. Another element of this
plan was to create economies dependent on Russia: Uzbekistan was
turned into a cotton monoculture and most of the product was processed
north of the Urals, in Russia and Ukraine. A major consequence of this
policy has been an ecological catastrophe in the Aral Sea (see
Uzbekistan has been governed since 1989 by Islam Karimov when he took
over as head of the Uzbek Communist party (now the People’s Democratic
Party of Uzbekistan, PDPU). Uzbekistan assumed independence in 1991
upon the break up of the Soviet Union. The PRPU, with Karimov at its
head, has held power continuously ever since, occasionally in alliance
with allied parties such as the Progress of the Fatherland party. He
has been re-elected several times, most recently in 2000, with
overwhelming majorities and against nominal opposition. In April 2002,
Karimov won a referendum to extend the length of his current term from
5 to 8 years, guaranteeing that he will remain in power until at least
2008. Domestic opposition is divided between secular democratic forces
and Islamic parties. Erk (Freedom), Birlik (Democracy) and a third
organization, Adolat (Justice), comprising the secular opposition,
have combined in the Democratic Opposition Co-ordinating Council. All
three are currently banned although, a more relaxed attitude on the
part of the government recently has allowed them to organise openly.
The most powerful Islamic party in Uzbekistan is the Islamic
Renaissance Party (IRP), whose allies in other former Soviet
Central Asian republics have made substantial headway. There has been
some armed opposition to the government from militants belonging to
the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Karimov government has
taken an uncompromising line against any and all opposition. It has a
dreadful human rights record, with political prisoners running into
tens of thousands and the systematic use of torture of detainees.
The government points to the strife in neighbouring Tajikistan where a
civil war was fought throughout the 1990s and where Uzbek peacekeepers
have been engaged in support of the Tajik government. The Uzbek
government has received welcome support from the United States
- the latter has formally classified the IMU as a ‘terrorist’
organization. Uzbekistan has played a valuable role in recent American
military campaigns in Afghanistan (with whom it shares a border) and
Iraq: the American military now have a relatively small but permanent
and growing presence in the country. This has been of some concern to
the Russians, who have military bases in most of the former Soviet
republics but not Uzbekistan.
Under the 1992 constitution, the supreme legislative body is the
250-seat Oly Majlis. Executive power rests with the elected president.
The day-to-day running of the country is carried out by the Cabinet of
Ministers, which answers to the president, who is also Head of State.