Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Kazakh, Tatar
Main religions: Sunni Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism
Minority groups: Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country. The last census was conducted in 1989, but according to official estimates updated in 2017, out of a total of 32.1 million people, the ethnic Uzbek majority totaled just over 26.9 million (83.8 per cent of the population) while ethnic Tajiks made up 1,544,700 (4.8 per cent). Other sizable minorities include Kazakhs 803,400 (2.5 per cent), Russians 750,000 (2.3 per cent), Karakalpaks 708,800 (2.2 per cent), Kyrgyz 274,400 (0.9 per cent), Tatars 195,000 (0.6 per cent), Turkmens 192,000 (0.6 per cent), Koreans 176,900 (0.6 per cent) and Ukrainians 70,700 (0.2 per cent).
Other minorities include Meskhetian Turks and Jews.
The bulk of citizens are at least nominally Sunni Muslim while most of the Russian minority is nominally Orthodox Christian; in practice many citizens of all ethnicities identify with smaller movements like Sufism, Ahmadiyya and various forms of evangelical Christianity.
While the nominally autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan occupies 37 per cent of the country’s territory, ethnic Karakalpaks represent about a third of the Karakalpakstan’s population, and a very slight proportion of the country’s total population.
The ethnic Tajik population is widely thought to be much greater than official statistics indicate, given that many Tajiks and Tajik speakers may classify themselves as Uzbeks to improve their career opportunities.
Uzbekistan is made up of a number of traditional populations of Turkic (Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Karakalpaks), Semitic (Bukhara Jews), and Iranian origins (Tajiks), as well as more recent minorities which arrived in the country during the Russian and Soviet domination (Russians, Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, Koreans and some Jews).
Since 1991 however, there has been a two-way flow of population which is continuing the dramatic change to the country’s demographics. While there are thousands of ethnic Uzbeks who had been working outside of the country have been returning to Uzbekistan from Russia and other neighbouring countries, other minorities which are of more recent origin such as the Russians, Crimean Tatars and others have also been emigrating in large numbers.
As President of Uzbekistan from 1989 until his death in 2016, Islam Karimov presided over widespread and systematic human rights violations and earned a reputation as one of the world’s most brutal rulers. Karimov’s authoritarian leadership, while purporting to protect minorities by ensuring peace and order, has produced a largely inhospitable environment for members of ethnic and religious minority groups. It is not yet certain how his death may alter the country’s human rights landscape, but early indicators suggest that his successor, Shavkhat Mirziyoyev, will continue many of his repressive practices, including the large-scale jailing of members of smaller religious groups.
A few positive steps have been taken recently, however. The Uzbek authorities announced during the autumn of 2017 that they had removed some 15,000 names from a ‘black list’ of 18,000 people suspected of belonging to banned or unregistered religious groups. Moreover, the government invited the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit in October 2017. The Special Rapporteur was the first representative of the UN Special Procedures to be granted access to Uzbekistan since 2002. He noted in his preliminary findings that religious observance is ‘subject to excessive regulations that prioritize security over freedom’, but the trip itself was nevertheless significant. Two other important steps were taken at the end of 2017: the time a person can be detained before being brought before a judge was lowered from 72 to 48 hours, and Mirziyoyev signed a decree in November 2017 explicitly banning the use of torture to extract confessions. These developments should however be viewed against Uzbekistan’s longstanding record of repression, and it remains to be seen to what extent real change for the country’s minorities will actually take place.
While the law provides for non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and national origin, officials reportedly reserve key positions in government and business for ethnic Uzbeks. Opportunities for ethnic minorities to study in their native languages have shrunk steadily since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the same time, methods for remedial Uzbek-language instruction remain underdeveloped, leading to narrowed academic opportunities for non-native speakers of Uzbek, particularly ethnic Tajiks, to study in their native languages. Minority Tajik language and culture have also increasingly become casualties to the tensions between the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The use of the Karakalpak language in Karakalpakstan is also reportedly decreasing, with concerns that Karakalpaks face increasing barriers to the practice of their traditional culture, livelihood and way of life. The Aral Sea ecological crisis, along with state concerns about separatism – the region has produced several independence movements – both contribute to this. As a result of poorly conceived Soviet-era agricultural practices, some of which persist to this day, Uzbekistan’s portion of the sea has gone from being a drainage basin for the region’s largest rivers to a toxic desert. Fishing and cattle ranching, traditional sources of income for Karakalpaks as well as for members of other ethnic groups living alongside them, now range from unsafe or unprofitable to impossible. Meanwhile, the region sees few of the profits from the newly thriving oil and gas industries. Karakalpaks claim that key government posts in the province are dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, many of whom are from the national capital, Tashkent.
The Uzbek state restricts the public and private conduct of its citizens in ways that observers frequently say violate basic human rights. Many of these restrictions govern traditional practices which the state sees as threatening tradition. Restrictions on religious practice are widely seen to be particularly intrusive and far-reaching. Along with requiring religious bodies to register according to a stringent procedure that is particularly onerous for smaller groups, authorities are known to regularly harass, fine and mistreat members of non-Muslim minorities such as evangelical Christians and interfere with their religious practice.
While Baptists, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses are regularly among the believers subject to fines and jail time for their religious activity, the harshest punishments fall to Muslims whose practices fall outside of state-mandated Sunni Hanafi teachings. Restrictions take many forms, from police ordering women wearing the hijab to remove their scarves or re-tie them at the back of their neck in keeping with more widespread Uzbek custom, to arrest and imprisonment.
According to a 2016 estimate by the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders, a prominent national NGO, over 12,000 people were currently in jail on dubious charges related to non-violent religious activities, with hundreds arrested in the previous 12 months.
Large groups of Turkic tribes started to move into this part of Central Asia following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century which saw the disappearance or absorption of many of the native Iranian peoples. Their language derived from Chagatai, an extinct Turkic language which acted for a time as a lingua franca in Central Asia. Other tribes arriving in the 15th and 16th centuries were to coalesce into what would become known as ‘Uzbeks’, forming for a while their own state (‘Uzbekistan’) which would break up into three parts and eventually be absorbed into the Russian empire during the mid to late 19th century when the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva became Russian protectorates in the period after the Tsar’s conquest of Tashkent in 1865. Few Russians settled in Uzbekistan during the Tsarist period, but many of the millions of Russians and Ukrainians who settled throughout Central Asia under the Soviet regime ended up in this country.
Until 1924, most settled Turkic populations were known as Sarts by Russian authorities, and only those speaking Kipchak dialects were called ‘Uzbeks’. What are today the borders of modern Uzbekistan are for the most part the result of the creation in 1924 of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic which would become independent after the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was also in 1924 that the Soviets abolished the term ‘Sart’ and that all of the settled Turkic speakers would be known as Uzbeks.
Some of Uzbekistan’s minorities are from ethnic groups such as Koreans, Meskhetian Turks, and Crimean Tatars which were exiled here en masse under the directive of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II.
During perestroika, Uzbekistan was a scene of serious inter-ethnic violence. In 1989 bloody clashes occurred between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in the Ferghana valley, and further interethnic tensions arose when fighting broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations of the Osh Oblast (Kyrgyzstan) in 1990. Border crossings were sealed to prevent up to 15,000 armed Uzbeks joining their co-nationals in Kyrgyzstan to retaliate. A state of emergency was declared in the Andijan oblast, bordering Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan declared independence on 31 August 1991. Islam Karimov, a former first secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party, was elected President. Russian-speaking minorities supported Karimov, seeing him as capable of restraining the nationalist opposition. However, Karimov’s rule became increasingly authoritarian. Minorities left Uzbekistan in very large numbers, partly as a consequence of the repressive regime of President Islam Karimov, but also because of the limited opportunities for minorities often linked to discriminatory practices by authorities in favour of the Uzbek majority. It is thought that throughout the 1990s between 85,000 and 150,000 people left Uzbekistan every year, almost entirely minorities: as a result, out of perhaps 600,000 Germans living in Uzbekistan, perhaps more than 95 per cent have emigrated. By some estimates, almost a million of the Russian-speaking minority had left the country by 2006. Part of these migratory trends are also connected to Russia’s relative economic prosperity and accessibility continuing to be a powerful magnet for many workers from Uzbekistan.
The repressive regime took a particularly bloody turn in 2005 during and following the Andijan massacre. Hundreds of unarmed people protesting in the eastern city of Andijan, perhaps as many as 750, were killed on 13 May 2005 by Uzbek government forces. The protest started when a group of armed people freed a group of 23 local businessmen accused of Islamic extremism and took officials hostage in the local government building. The protest then grew into a rally of thousands of mostly unarmed people who voiced their anger against government corruption, repression and growing poverty in the region. The massacre led to widespread condemnations – including European Union sanctions in 2005 – though these still seem surprisingly muted given the massive numbers of unarmed civilians, including women and children, who were killed by security forces.
The aftermath of the massacre saw further crackdowns on civil freedoms and in particular a tightening of the country’s repressive religion policy. In addition to members of the Tajik minority, many of whom were tagged as ‘fundamentalists’, religious minorities such as Hare Krishna, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants in Karakalpakstan (where all activities of this latter minority have been banned) faced an increase in restrictions and prohibitions.
Karimov’s rule continued until his death in 2016, characterized by severe human rights abuses, repression and limited civil freedoms, with particular implications for the country’s minorities. There has been little sign of improvement since his successor, Shavkhat Mirziyoyev, took power.
The Republic of Uzbekistan borders Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the south-east, Turkmenistan to the south-west and Afghanistan to the south. North-western Uzbekistan consists of the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic (165,600 square kilometres), which includes part of the Aral Sea. Uzbekistan borders Kazakhstan to the north and west.
The government of Uzbekistan is an authoritarian regime with one of the world’s worst human rights records. While there are in theory a series of provisions in the Constitution and other legislation guaranteeing a series of human rights, the practice has been generally repressive towards opposition figures, the independent media and non-governmental organisations.
Torture and other abuses appear widespread, and the government deals particularly severely with those whom it suspects are linked with the banned Party of Islamic Liberation (Hizb ut-Tahrir). It is in this context of control and oppression that minorities are also tightly controlled, with the state-directed Assembly of Peoples of Uzbekistan created at least partially for this purpose.
Sokh is a small pocket of Uzbek territory almost completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province in the Ferghana Valley. It is home to an estimated 60,000 people, with the vast majority belonging to ethnic Tajik and other minorities. Ethnic tensions have simmered in the small region amid border disputes since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have a strong security presence and strict border checks. Territorial disputes have hampered local development and the region remains one of the poorest areas in Kyrgyzstan. The Sokh enclave has been targeted by the Uzbek authorities as a suspected breeding ground for Islamic extremism. As a result, large numbers of residents have emigrated, particularly to Russia.
Uzbekistan introduced laws placing strict limitations on mosque activity and public displays of faith in 1998, and has been using the global war on terror as an alibi for wide-ranging religious repression since then.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Center for Studies on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law
Ezgulik Human Rights Society
Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan
Association of Korean Cultural Centres
‘Vatan’ International Society of the Meskhetian Turks, Russian Federation
National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry
Jewish Community Center and Jewish Community of Uzbekistan
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in