Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Uzbeks speak an eastern Turkic language which is closest to Uyghur. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school and descended from Turkic-Mongol invaders with strong Iranian influences. The proportion of ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan has decreased since independence from 23.5 per cent (according to the National Census of 1989) to 15.3 per cent in 2000 (2000 national census) and 12.2 per cent in 2010. They are concentrated in Sough province in the eastern Ferghana Valley, with other concentrations in Hissar (west of Dushanbe) and in the Khatlon region in the southwest.
Large groups of Turkic tribes started to move in this part of Central Asia following the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century. 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.
Until 1924, most settled Turkic populations were known as Sarts by Russian authorities, and only those speaking Kipchak dialects were called ‘Uzbeks’. The current existence of an Uzbek minority in Tajikistan is directly linked to the creation in 1929 of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic after detaching the previously autonomous province from the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic which would become independent states after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. 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.
Before the civil war ethnic Tajiks in the areas occupied by Uzbeks were heavily Turkicized, and bilingualism and intermarriage were widespread. Uzbeks were allied to the ruling groups in Tajikistan and were therefore suspected by the opposition to be supporters of Nabiyev. Tajiks who supported the opposition believed Uzbeks of Kulob to be guilty of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Because of Tajik emigration in some areas bordering Uzbekistan, there were virtually no Tajiks left. However, Uzbeks perceived the share of power they obtained as a result of the post-war settlement as small compared to their expected reward for supporting the current regime and were increasingly dissatisfied with Kulobi domination.
Relations were especially strained in the Vakhsh valley, where Uzbeks and Tajiks from different areas were resettled because of the hydroelectric power project development. Tensions arose when Uzbeks intimidated Tajik returnees and were themselves intimidated by ruling Kulobis. A disarmament campaign launched by the government in 1994 officially related to all citizens but in reality was directed mainly against Uzbeks.
Relations between Presidents Rahmon and Karimov of Uzbekistan, who originally backed the authorities in Dushanbe, have deteriorated over the issue of ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan and Rahmon’s unwillingness to negotiate a compromise with the political opposition. These tensions resulted in an attempted coup led by two former pro-regime warlords, ethnic Uzbeks, in January 1996. Ibodullo Boimatov, the former mayor of Tursunzade, and Major-General Mahmud Hudoberdiev from Qurghonteppa demanded changes in central and local government, rebelling against the predominance of Rahmon’s clan.
Tensions between Uzbeks and the government reached crisis point after an unsuccessful insurrection in the Leninabad region by Major-General Hudoberdiev in 1998 raised the spectre of secessionist tendencies in the region linked to ethnicity. Uzbeks suffered reprisals including killings, and many fled Dushanbe for Leninabad or Uzbekistan.
Tensions between Uzbeks and Tajiks increased further in November 2006 after a Tajik border guard shot and killed an Uzbek counterpart. In the recriminations that followed, a Tajik military court began the trial of two Uzbeks accused of killing the head of the Ministry of Defence’s Military Institute who were alleged to have killed the Tajik general because of his refusal to continue collaborating with the fugitive Major-General Hudoberdiev, an ethnic Uzbek, who is said to have attempted an insurrection in 1998.
It also appeared that the government started at the end of 2006 a ‘transmigration’ programme to bring Tajiks into strategic areas traditionally inhabited by members of the Uzbek minority. Tajik authorities started resettling some 1,000 Tajik families in November to a western region mainly populated by Uzbeks. Observers and members of the Uzbek minority claim that central authorities are trying to dilute the Uzbek percentage in a key industrial area.
The lack of educational materials in Uzbek, the increasing obstacles to Uzbek-medium education and even moves by authorities to convert schools which use Uzbek as medium of instruction into Tajik medium schools continue to be issues that concern this minority, as does their near exclusion from the higher echelons of political life and public administration. Though there are legal provisions for the use of Uzbek election materials and to some degree in education – not always effectively applied – there is no provision for the use of Uzbek or other minority languages between state authorities and the public.
Ethnic Uzbeks remain politically marginalized and government measures against unregistered religious groups, such as the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir, sometimes contain anti-Uzbek overtones. This may be a reflection of widespread prejudice at an official level. Uzbek representatives who criticize the government’s policies towards ethnic minorities have also been targeted. One notable example is Salim Shamsiddinov, head of the Uzbek minority society in Khatlon, who disappeared in March 2013 after he appealed to the Uzbek minority to support an opposition candidate in the then-upcoming presidential election. Shamsiddinov had also criticised the government’s nationalist policies in media interviews. A few months later, authorities claimed that a drowned body they had recovered was Shamsiddinov’s, and that it bore no signs of violence. His family have denied that the body is his.
Tajikistan’s plans to build a major hydroelectric dam at Rogun have aggravated relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan and have reportedly led to the Uzbek minority facing increasing pressure inside the country. Tajikistan’s authoritarian nationalism has affected the ability of Uzbek speakers to participate meaningfully in the political process, as the state’s lack of pluralistic language policies have essentially excluded Uzbek minorities from the political sphere. In addition to language barriers and low political representation, ethnicity directly affects employment prospects for Uzbeks who face discrimination while applying for jobs. There are reports of private employers rejecting applicants simply because they are ethnic Uzbeks. On the other hand, government officials have flatly rejected claims that discrimination occurs during consideration of applicants for civil service positions even though they must provide information on their ethnic origin during recruitment. Amid these restrictive policies, some ethnic Uzbeks have attempted to assimilate into the heavily exclusive society by requesting that their children be registered as Tajik rather than Uzbek in order to increase their prospects of a better future in Tajikistan.
Though the Constitution guarantees linguistic plurality, media reports reveal that in practice the use of anything besides Tajik in public discourse is discouraged, and few radio or television broadcasts are in Uzbek. In addition, civil servants are required to speak Tajik. Language policy also inhibits upward mobility for Uzbeks. University applicants must be fluent in Tajik. Although schoolchildren study the Tajik language for two hours a day, for many rural Uzbeks this is not enough to master reading and writing.
Updated April 2018