The Uzbeks speak an eastern Turkic language and, like the Turkmen, are mainly Sunni Muslims. They are mainly concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the country in the Lebap and Daşoguz provinces, on the border with Uzbekistan. They now constitute the largest minority in the country after the waves of emigrants left Turkmenistan after independence in 1991.
Their total numbers are uncertain: the only certainty is that recent figures from Turkmenistan authorities vastly underestimate their total. The 1995 census showed Uzbeks constituting 9.2 per cent of the country’s population: by 2003, they were ‘officially’ down to 5 per cent, or about 250,000. However, while the results of a 2012 census have yet to be officially released, leaked excerpts apparently revealed that ethnic Uzbeks made up 5.8 per cent of the national population. This is significantly different from recent estimates used by authorities, which present a significantly larger Uzbek population– a picture that may have been designed to attract investment from Uzbekistan in Turkmenistan’s mining sector.
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 by 1894.
Until 1924, most settled Turkic populations were known as Sarts by Russian authorities, and only those speaking Kipchak dialects were called ‘Uzbeks’. The Uzbek minority in Turkmenistan came about in 1924 with the creation of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic as one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union.
The presence of Uzbeks in their traditional areas along the borders with Uzbekistan has largely remained unchanged until independence in 1991. While there were during the Soviet period state schools providing instruction in the Uzbek language and Uzbeks were able to gain employment in state administration and occupy positions of influence at various levels of government in the Lebap and Daşoguz provinces, all this has quickly changed as a result of the country’s ‘Turkmenisation’ policies. These policies have since the mid-1990s resulted in Uzbeks being progressively removed from various categories of employment with the civil service, the police and other areas controlled by the government of President Niyazov, to be replaced by ethnic Turkmen.
From 2000, the government also stopped enrolment of new students in Uzbek-medium education. This also meant that most Uzbek teachers from these schools lost their jobs, as most of them did not have the language skills to teach in Turkmen.
The position of the Uzbek minority apparently become worse following a 2002 failed coup attempt against President Niyazov where it was alleged the government of Uzbekistan could have been involved. Soon after, the government began to forcibly relocate mainly Uzbek families from the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border areas to desert regions in north-western Turkmenistan, with Uzbeks specifically (though not exclusively) targeted. In many cases it appeared that ethnic Turkmen taking the places of the Uzbek families being relocated, thus showing signs of a small ‘transmigration’ programme.
The discriminatory policies of Turkmenisation had particularly adverse effects for Uzbeks in recent years. In addition to having effectively banned the use of Uzbek as medium of instruction in schools, the drive to have Turkmen as government employees had, by the mid-2000s, resulted in virtually all Uzbeks being removed or not employed in high and mid-level administrative positions in areas where they are concentrated, such as the province of Daşoguz.
This meant that Uzbeks no longer occupied any significant number of positions such as district governor, farm chairperson or school principal, even in areas where they are the majority. As a result, some Uzbek parents have started to bribe officials in order to register their children as ethnic Turkmen so that they may hide their minority background and avoid the more obvious forms of blatant government discrimination, thus permitting them to enter university or to get jobs. Some Uzbeks in Daşoguz are said to be encouraging their daughters to marry Turkmen in order to bear Turkmen last names, and therefore not be targeted for discrimination and exclusion. Uzbeks continue to resent having their children wear traditional Turkmen dress in school instead of their own.
In September 2014, a local human rights organization reported on the plight of several thousand ethnic Uzbeks, mainly in the eastern provinces, who for over 20 years had failed to obtain passports and become full citizens of their own country. Almost 10,000 people from Daşoguz and Lebap provinces have reportedly requested citizenship without success. Many had studied in Uzbekistan and graduated there after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, during the period when national passports were being issued in Turkmenistan. When they returned, their Soviet passports were no longer considered valid. The organization reported that their children and grandchildren had also not been able to obtain Turkmen passports. Meanwhile, several women from Uzbekistan who had married men from Turkmenistan and moved to the country had reportedly been deported, thus breaking up families. Those without internal passports have reportedly been deprived of opportunities to find official employment, leave the country or move to the capital to earn money.
Updated March 2018