Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Tajiks are an Iranian people who speak a variety of Persian, an Indo-Aryan language. Most of them are Sunni Muslims and according to 2017 government estimates, ethnic Tajiks total 1,544,700 people (4.8 per cent of the population).
Previous official figures for the community have been regarded by many as underestimates as some Tajiks have started to claim Uzbek ethnicity after independence in order to avoid being discriminated against in access to jobs and government benefits. There are some claims that there may be between 4 and 6 million Tajiks in the country.
Unlike most other minorities in Uzbekistan, Tajiks are indigenous to the region and have nowhere else to go, given the instability and economic situation in Tajikistan. Some Tajiks in Uzbekistan are rural-dwellers; but most are concentrated in the regions around the cities of Bukhara, closer to the border with Turkmenistan, and Samarkand, adjacent to Tajikistan.
The area of Uzbekistan which Tajiks currently occupy was for much of its more recent history within the sphere of the Persian empire. The region fell to the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century, but unlike the situation in other parts of Central Asia, the Tajiks continued to speak Persian languages. The minority fell to Russian control after the Tsar’s conquest of Tashkent in 1865. The creation of a Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924 from the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and its status of a constituent republic of the USSR in 1929 had the result of leaving a substantial Tajik minority in the entity which would become Uzbekistan with independence in 1991.
The Tajiks have long been present in the eastern parts of Uzbekistan, and they also tend to be concentrated in two large cities which are also seen as important cultural and historical Tajik centres, Samarkand and Bukhara. The artificial boundaries between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan which were imposed during the Soviet era left these important Tajik cultural centres outside of Tajikistan, and the existence of territorial disputes between the two republics during Soviet rule led to serious inter-ethnic conflicts in the period immediately following the establishment of independent Central Asian republics. While at independence the Tajiks were possibly the country’s second largest minority, they are now clearly the largest following the exodus of large numbers of Russians and other Slavs.
While there was an active separatist Tajik movement soon after 1991, this seems to have largely faded away as nationalist groups were suppressed by President Karimov in the decade following independence, although ethnic Tajiks continue to demand greater rights in the areas of language use, education and access to employment. Many of these claims remain barely audible or visible, as the events of Andijan show that open and direct challenges to the government tend not to be possible. A number of Tajik schools were closed when the relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were at a low point in 1992.
Tajiks have tended since at least 2000 to be perceived by the authorities as overly sympathetic or amenable to what the government perceives as radical Islamic groups, in particular the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Hizb ut-Tahrir. This has resulted in increased government repression of the Tajiks, including it appears, the forceful evacuation and resettlement of large numbers of Tajiks in 2000 living along the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border, as well as the arrest of large numbers of them suspected of complicity with the militants.
As part of a campaign – based at least partially on a 13 May 1998 Cabinet of Ministers resolution and a 2000 instruction from the Ministry of Education – to purge schools of pre-1993 books that did not adhere to the national ideology, reports in 2000 surfaced of large numbers of books and textbooks in Tajik being destroyed in the towns of Samarkand and Bukhara. 90 percent of a reported 2,000 books destroyed in one Samarkand school were in Tajik. Even works of foreign literature in school libraries, such as Shakespeare and Pushkin, which were in Tajik were reportedly destroyed.
Some Tajik cultural centres continued to have their registration rejected by authorities. For example, the Tajik Cultural Centre in Samarkand lost its registration status in 1993 but continued to operate without it. There were complaints that books and other publications from Tajikistan were not allowed into the country.
The status of Tajiks is generally considered precarious, due in part to longstanding tensions between the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Some observers link this hostility to the dramatic reduction over the past decade of Tajik-language schooling in and around the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, where Uzbekistan’s Tajik population remains concentrated. Overall, the number of Tajik-language schools in Uzbekistan has fallen from about 318 in 2001 to 256 in the 2012–13 school year.
The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) touched upon the issue of provision of education in a minority language in Mavlonov and Sa’di vs. Uzbekistan (2009). In this case, public media authorities refused to register a newspaper written in the Tajik language, containing materials for Tajik students to supplement existing textbooks. The HRC acknowledged the use of minority language press as ‘an essential element of the Tajik minority’s culture’ and held that there had been a violation of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in respect of Uzbekistan.
For Tajiks, the continuing low level of recognition of the Tajik language – despite their now constituting the country’s largest minority – means that many parents opt not to enter their children in Tajik-language schools, as they know that access to higher education and public employment will more likely be denied to them because of their non-Uzbek associations. It is partially for this reason, and the belief that the government and other employers actively seek to hire ethnic Uzbeks as part of the country’s Uzbekisation efforts, that many Tajiks register themselves as Uzbeks in the hope of hiding their ethnicity and thus not be excluded from employment and educational opportunities.
The spring 2018 visit by President Shavkhat Mirziyoyev to his Tajikistan counterpart, President Emomali Rahmon, has brought some hope of progress for the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan. The two leaders promised to put past disputes aside and signed numerous agreements including on trade and cross-border electricity supply. Perhaps most promisingly for the Uzbekistan’s Tajik minority (as well as the Uzbek minority in Tajikistan) is an agreement to allow short-term visa-free travel between the two countries. Given that the border between the two countries is a Soviet-era construct, such an arrangement would allow members of minority communities on both sides of the border to visit relatives. The agreement remains pending parliamentary approval in both countries, although there were early reports that border region residents could already begin to visit immediately adjacent districts for a few days – resuming an arrangement that had existed previously.
Updated March 2018
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