Central Asia After 1991 Essay

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The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia consist of the present-day states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All five of the so-called stans received their independence during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Often the five former Soviet republics are considered collectively because they share many of the same challenges and problems.

One challenge commonly faced by the states of Central Asia is the rise of radical Islam. The geographic center of the movement is the Fergana Valley. The valley is shared by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and has hosted a centuries-long tradition of independent Islamic thinking. Namangan, a key city in the valley, is also the home of a key founding member of the radical terrorist group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU): Juma Namangani.

Another typical problem in the region is one of effective governance. Recent World Bank ratings attest to the regional governance dilemma. Quantitative scores for variables such as voice and accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption rank near the bottom third for each state.

Another significant problem in Central Asia is the environment. Cities in the region face water shortages and contaminated water, pollution, and radioactive and toxic waste issues. Radon and uranium levels are notably high in the region. Many have suggested that the chronic environmental problems have been inherited from the Soviet regime. During the 1930s Joseph Stalin attempted to increase Soviet cotton production by constructing new canals in order to irrigate Central Asian lands. Water from the Aral continues to be diverted to the existing irrigation systems. As a result, a contemporary ecological problem is the constant shrinking of the Aral Sea. In addition, land surrounding the Aral Sea faces desertification, which jeopardizes homes and businesses near the water. Airborne pollutants have resulted in high levels of tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, and cardiovascular and liver diseases.

Although each of the former Soviet Central Asian republics face similar challenges, each state also offers a different narrative, and generalizations do not tell the entire story. Indeed, each of the five former Soviet republics has embarked on different paths since independence.


The formal name for Kazakhstan and the successor to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic is the Republic of Kazakhstan. The capital is Astana. Kazakhstan is 1,049,155 square miles (about twice the size of Alaska). Figures from 2004 show a population of 15,143,704. Approximately 47 percent of all Kazakhs are Muslim. The predominant languages are Kazak and Russian. Kazakhstan neighbors Russia to the west and north, China to the east, and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the south. President Nursultan-Nazarbayev has served as the chief of state since before the December 16, 1991, day of independence.

A sense of identity in Kazakhstan developed during the Soviet era. Ethnic Kazakh Dinmukhamed Kunaev served as the first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party from 1956 to December 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Kunaev with a Slav named Gennady Kolbin. The violence and rioting that followed forced Gorbachev to turn to another Kazakh in order to placate Kazakh opinion. During the August 1991 putsch against Gorbachev, Nazarbayev supported Gorbachev. Shortly afterward Nazarbayev banned all political activity in the government as well as in the courts and police. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Kazakh president was one of the last to push for independence from the Soviet Union.

Economically, Kazakhstan enjoys a prosperous grain agribusiness in the north and raises stock in the south. Many extractive minerals can be found in the northeast: coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, copper, chromite, nickel, molybdenum, and tin. In addition, Kazakhstan enjoys large deposits of oil and gas. The rich natural resources have, in addition, made Kazakhstan an attractive destination for foreign direct investment. In fact, from 1991 to 2002, direct foreign investment in Kazakhstan was over $13 billion. Kazakhstan boasts 4 billion tons of provable and recoverable oil reserves and 2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Estimates suggest that Kazakhstan may be able to produce about 3 million barrels of oil a day by the year 2015.

Kazakhstan’s constitution dates to 1993. The system is a presidential-parliamentary model similar to that in Russia. The executive was to be popularly elected. In March 1994 the Constitutional Court found that the method previously used to elect representatives to the lower house of parliament was illegal. A change was made so that the lower house, the Majlis, would be elected and the upper house, the Senate, would be appointed. The president controlled seven appointments to the Senate, and indirect elections of a joint session of all representative bodies of all local government units filled the other 32. By December 1995 new parliamentary elections were held. Nazarbayev constructed his own political party, Otan, in 1999. That same year, 44 of 67 members in the lower house of parliament joined the Otan Party. The process for filling seats in the lower house was again changed. This time, 10 of the 67 possible seats were reserved for proportional representation for parties meeting a 7 percent threshold.

Under pressure from Nazarbayev during October 1998, the parliament moved elections scheduled for December 2000 to January 1999. Ultimately Nazarbayev won the elections and received more than 79 percent of the vote. However, many questions existed about the fairness of the 1999 elections. Former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a significant opponent of the regime, was not allowed to run. Nazarbayev was re-elected in 2005 by more than 90 percent of the vote. Outsiders again criticized the election as unfair.

Overall, Kazakhstan operates in the tradition of strong presidential governments in the region, with a great deal of control in the hands of Nazarbayev and his family.


The formal name of the independent successor to the Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic is the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. The capital is Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan is 76,640 square miles in total area (a bit smaller than Nebraska). Figures from 2004 indicate a population of 5,081,429. Approximately 75 percent of the Kyrgyzstan population is Muslim. The prominent languages are Kyrgyz and Russian. Kyrgzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan in the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the west and southwest, and China to the east. Until the Soviet years, many in Kyrgyzstan were primarily nomadic. Life under the Soviet Union led to more modern life and movement to cities. Like many republics in the former Soviet Union, the late 1980s and early 1990s brought questions of identity to Kyrgyzstan.

Gorbachev’s program of perestroika led to ethnic riots in 1990. In an area bordering Uzbekistan, riots led to the deaths of some 200 civilians. The leader of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, Absamat Masaliev, called for the Supreme Soviet to elect him as president. The movement called Democratic Kyrgyzstan emerged in opposition to Masaliev, and Askar Akayev was chosen as president.

Early in its history, Kygyzstan was seen by many as the most progressive of all Central Asian governments. In fact, the United States symbolically opened its first Central Asian embassy in Bishkek on February 1, 1992. By 1993 Kyrgyzstan was receiving the highest per-capita aid from the United States of any of the Central Asian states. In 1988 Kyrgyzstan was the first of the new Central Asian states to be invited to join the World Trade Organization. Bishkek has had fairly warm relations with Russia, which include the presence of Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan. The Central Asian state also offered bases to U.S. forces and allowed military flights into the Manas International Airport in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has distributed free land to approximately 700,000 citizens. Much of the industry is devoted to extractive ventures. Mining of antimony and mercury ores are a source of revenue, and lead, zinc, and coal are all mined as well. Most of the economy, however, still relies on agriculture.

Akayev led Kyrgyzstan on a path of political liberalization. Eventually, opposition to market reforms from the legislature led to Akayev’s calling for a referendum for February 1994. In that referendum, 96 percent of respondents favored Akayev and his economic program. He responded by dissolving a leftover from the Soviet era, the 350-seat Supreme Soviet. In its place Akayev created a bicameral legislature called the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan. Elections were set for February 5, 1995. In those elections, more than 1,000 candidates ran for the 105 seats in the assembly. Approximately 80 percent of the candidates ran as independents and, ultimately, created an assembly very receptive to Akayev’s policies.

After the 1995 elections, Akayev began to increase his own power through a number of constitutional amendments. A policy of privatization resulted in about 61 percent of all state-owned enterprises being privatized by May 1997. At that time Akayev became convinced that state assets were being sold too quickly, and a one year ban on privatization resulted. In April 1998 the legislature approved further privatization. Many within the political opposition, however, claim that members of the legislature personally profited from the privatization process. As the parliamentary elections of February– March 2000 grew nearer, the Kyrgyz government made a concerted effort to minimize the turnout of opposition parties. In fact, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the elections as being unfair. Scheduled presidential elections in October 2000 created another challenge for Akayev. Akayev’s most significant opposition was widely believed to be Feliks Kulov, a former vice president. Kulov, however, was arrested, acquitted, and rearrested on what many felt were fabricated charges, and eventually he pulled out of the race. Akayev was reelected with 74.47 percent of the vote.

After the election Feliks Kulov called for cooperation with Akayev’s government. In spite of this, Kulov was arrested once again in 2001. In November that year, the opposition parties formed a “People’s Congress” and, in what was mainly a symbolic move, elected Kulov chair. Opposition continued to grow when, in January 2002, a parliament deputy from southern Kyrgyzstan, Azimbek Beknazarov, was arrested. Clashes between protesters and government authorities in March resulted in the deaths of six individuals. In April Kyrgyz authorities launched an investigation into the deaths. In May, as the commission released its report, protests calling for the resignation of Akayev spread throughout Kyrgyzstan. Akayev ordered the release of Beknazarov and even replaced the prime minister. Participation exceeded 86 percent. The referendum found that 75.5 percent supported the notion that Akayev serve until the completion of his term—in 2005. But 12 opposition parties refused to participate in the referendum. The most significant change in the constitution was the movement from a bicameral to unicameral legislature, to be effective at the end of the legislative term.

On March 24, 2005, Akayev bowed to widespread protests and the will of the people and resigned. The “Tulip Revolution” was seen by many as the result of Akayev’s inability to address growing levels of crime and corruption as well as questions concerning his reelection. In the political shakeup that ensued, Kurmanbek Bakiev became president, and Omurbek Tekebaev became speaker of the Jogorku Kenesh, the parliament of Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev and Tekebaev engaged in a power struggle of their own.


The formal name for Tajikistan is the Republic of Tajikistan, which is the independent successor state to the former Tadzhik Soviet Socialist Republic. Tajikistan’s 2004 figures placed the population at 7,011,556. The predominant language is Tajik. Tajikistan is neighbored by China to the east, Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west and north, and Kyrgyzstan to the north. Approximately 85 percent of Tajiks are Muslim. A large number of Tajikistan’s Muslims are Sunni from the Hanafi School. Mountain Tajiks boast a number of Shi’ite communities. During the Soviet period, very few mosques were allowed. In addition, 80 percent of the population is Tajik, with the next-largest group being Uzbek at about 15 percent. The capital city of Tajikistan is Dushanbe.

During the Soviet period, Tajikistan was typically ruled by leaders sent by Moscow. As late as 1990 Tajiks were a minority in the Tajik Communist Party. The programs of perestroika and glasnost introduced by Gorbachev changed the dynamics of Tajik politics. In August 1990 the Tajik Supreme Soviet claimed sovereignty. The Tajik Communist Party leader and chair of the Supreme Soviet, Kakhar Makhkamov, resigned in August 1991 because of his support for the hard-liner coup against Gorbachev. Makhkamov was replaced by Kadriddin Aslonov. Upon his appointment, Aslonov immediately resigned from the Politburo of the Tajik Communist Party and used a decree to ban the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from Tajik territory. The Tajik Supreme Soviet responded by ousting Aslonov as chair and electing Rakhmon Nabiyev. Nabiyev resigned as the chair of the Supreme Soviet on October 6. Elections set by the Supreme Soviet on November 24 initially featured 10 candidates—ultimately 7 would vie for the position. Rakhmon Nabiyev won of the November 1991 election with 56.9 percent of the vote.

By the spring of 1992 opposition to Nabiyev came in the form of the Islamic-led Union of Popular Forces. The union pushed for multiparty elections, greater freedom of religion, and the removal of Nabiyev. The Tajik parliament gave Nabiyev the use of decree in order to strengthen the hand of the executive. Political protests continued, and Nabiyev resorted to the use of a state of emergency. In May opposition forces seized the capital and created a revolutionary council. Nabiyev lifted the state of emergency and promised to form a government of reconciliation. Eight seats in the new government were reserved for a coalition of democrats and moderate Islamists and the Islamic Revival Party.

The compromise government only brought a brief period of peace. Nabiyev now not only faced criticism from Islamic opponents but also found himself under attack from ex-communists who insisted that he had ceded too much to the opposition. The central government quickly lost control of the countryside. Former communists began to seize local governments in the north, and the Islamists seized local governments in the south and the east. Nabiyev requested international peacekeepers from the Commonwealth of Independent States, while opposition forces declared an open rebellion. Nabiyev was captured as he attempted to flee Dushanbe and was forced to resign. A new Islamic democratic coalition government, led by Akbarsho Iskandarov, claimed control. The end result, at least for a time, was that the most developed regions of Tajikistan—the north—fell under the power of excommunists aligned with Nabiyev. Forces loyal to Nabiyev took over Dushanbe on December 10 and installed Emomali Rakhmonov as acting president. The Islamic forces fled to the mountainous regions of Tajikistan and to areas over the border in Afghanistan. The Tajik civil war was in full swing.

As the war continued, the Tajik government received a great deal of financial and military support from Russia. By the fall of 1993 there were some 20,000 Russian troops in Tajikistan. Russian finances were providing an estimated 50 percent of the Tajik budget as well. The nearby government of Uzbekistan also provided a significant amount of support. In the summer of 1994 talks between the rebels and the Tajik government, held in Islamabad, led to a cessation of hostilities. In November 1994 presidential elections were held between Rakhmonov and former prime minister Abdumalik Abdulajanov. The new constitution was approved, and Rakhmonov won reelection with 60 percent of the vote.

By early 1996 President Rakhmonov faced accusations of corruption. Russia informed Rakhmonov that they would not intervene again to save the regime. Rakhmonov began negotiations with the rebels and dismissed several high-ranking government officials. Under a great deal of pressure from the Russians, Rakhmonov traveled to Moscow in December 1996 to meet with the Islamic Renaissance Party, the largest party within the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). A peace agreement was reached, and a Reconciliation Council was formed. Once Rakhmonov returned to Dushanbe, however, he was unable to convince political allies to sign off on the agreement. Again, after tremendous pressure from Russia, Rakhmonov returned to Moscow in the spring of 1997 to negotiate with the UTO. Rakhmonov agreed to allow opposition troops into the Tajik armed forces. Meetings followed in Tehran in April 1997 and in Moscow in June 1997. The two political parties that supported the government—the People’s Party and the Political and Economic Renewal Party—combined to form the National Unity Movement. Tajik politics were set to be a contest between two different parties: one in support of President Rakhmonov and one opposition party. The movement to a two-party system, it was hoped, would have the effect of limiting the violence inherent heretofore in Tajik politics.

The late 1990s were characterized by a number of political assassinations. In 1998 opposition politician Otakhon Latifi was killed, and a former prosecutor general, Tolib Boboyev, was killed in early 1999. The 1997 agreement called for parliamentary elections by 1998, but the ban on Islamic political parties retarded rapid reconciliation. The Tajik people, by 1999, faced three crucial amendments: the establishment of Islamic political parties, the creation of an upper chamber of parliament, and a single seven-year presidential term. All three amendments were approved on September 26. Presidential elections were scheduled for November 6, 1999, and lower-house parliamentary elections for February 27, 2000.

Three potential presidential candidates were not allowed on the ballot based on the claim that they had not achieved the required number of signatures. The Islamic Renaissance Party—a key member of the UTO—called for a boycott of the presidential elections. The end result was that Rakhmonov only faced nominal resistance and was reelected with 96 percent of the vote. Parliamentary elections were just as complicated. In fact, the Supreme Court used various legal machinations to suppress opposition. The only parties to meet the 5 percent parliamentary threshold were the People’s Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the Islamic Renaissance Party. Elections for the newly created upper house, the Majlisi Milliy, were held on March 23, 2000. In the Tajik system of governance, the Majlisi Milliy theoretically serves as a stabilizing factor in domestic politics.

As in other states in the region, one of the primary concerns of the Tajik government is the specter of radical Islam. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was headquartered in Afghanistan, launched incursions into Kyrgyzstan via Tajikistan in 1999 and 2000. The Hizb ut-Tahrir later became a concern as well. Hizb ut-Tahrir called for an Islamic state in Central Asia. In 2002 President Rakhmonov stepped up attacks and surveillance of Islamic groups. Another significant modern problem facing Tajikistan is the transit of illegal drugs and associated problems.

As a result of the 1992 to 1997 Tajik civil war, Tajikistan’s relations with Russia have been close. Even after the civil war ended, Russian troops remained in order to protect the Tajik border with Afghanistan. During the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tajikistan offered sanctuary to a Tajik commander and his troops. Ultimately, Tajikistan feared the potential spread of radical Islam from Afghanistan. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States, Tajikistan was among the first to offer cooperation with the United States—despite the relatively warm relationship between Tajikistan and Russia. Tajikistan permitted the use of the Dushanbe Airport and allowed the basing of a small contingent of U.S. troops within its sovereign borders.

Tajikistan boasts a presidential-parliamentary government. The president is popularly elected within a multiparty system and fills both the ceremonial role of head of state and the policy-creating role of a chief executive officer. The prime minister is appointed by the president and is confirmed by the lower chamber of parliament. The prime minister and the cabinet control the day-to-day operations of the government. President Rakhmonov and many of his political allies are former members of the Tajik Communist Party. The power-sharing arrangement of 1997 guaranteed 30 percent of government and local posts to opposition parties. Key to this arrangement is the reality that all geographic areas are represented. The power-sharing agreement was renewed in 1999 and then again, indefinitely, in 2002.

Most of the Tajik economy is agricultural, and cotton is the most dominant agricultural product. Industrially, Tajikistan is mostly involved in the light manufacturing segments of cotton and silk processing. But Tajikistan is rich in nonferrous metals. Mining of coal, iron, lead, zinc, antimony, mercury, gold, tin, and tungsten are the most common extractive industries. Some deposits of oil and natural gas have also been discovered. Over three-quarters of Tajiks live at or near the poverty line. Politically, the uneasy peace that lasted since the end of the Tajik civil war offered some optimism for the future of that state.


The formal name for Turkmenistan is the Republic of Turkmenistan, which is the successor to the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. Figures from 2004 indicated a population in Turkmenistan of 7,011,556. Muslims account for 85 percent of the population in Turkmenistan, which is 186,400 square miles in area. The capital city is Ashgabat, and Turkmenistan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the north and east, and Iran and Afghanistan to the south. The Caspian Sea lies to the west. The Turkmen landmass is dominated by the Kara Kum Desert, also referred to as the Black Sand Desert. The Kara Kum Canal is the largest irrigation and shipping canal in the world. Approximately three-fourths of all citizens of Turkmenistan are Turkmen, with the next-largest ethnic groups being Uzbek, at about 9 percent, and Russian, at 6.7 percent. Since independence, a significant problem has been the flight of Russians.

Although loyal to the Soviet Union, the Turkmen Supreme Soviet declared sovereignty in August 1990. Saparmurat Niyazov, first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party, was elected to the office of president in October 1990. After the coup attempt on Gorbachev, in 1991, Niyazov declared Turkmen independence and scheduled a referendum for October 26. In the referendum 94 percent favored independence. The next day Niyazov made independence official and seized all assets of the Soviet Communist Party. The Turkmen Communist Party was renamed the Turkmen Democratic Party and elected Niyazov as chair.

Niyazov served as president until late December 2006. Turkmen foreign policy is based upon a number of bilateral agreements and does not allow multilateral agreements. In terms of domestic policy, Niyazov engaged in a strategy to enhance the Turkmen culture. He adopted the name the Great Turkmenbashi and claimed a “monopoly on wisdom.” Attempts to isolate Turkmenistan included the banning of opera, the closing of concert halls and the circus, ending the Academy of Sciences, and institution of Turkmen-only language laws. In addition, Turkmenistan had no recognized opposition parties. A referendum held in January 1994 on whether Niyazov’s term should be extended to 2002 resulted in a reported 1,959,408 for, 212 against, and 13 spoiled ballots. In November 2002, however, Niyazov survived an assassination attempt. In 2003 Niyazov constructed penal colonies in the Karakum desert in an effort to, according to Niyazov, make society healthier by cleansing society. Niyazov died in late December 2006 and was succeeded by Deputy Prime Minister Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov.

Initial elections were held in December 1994. During the legislative elections, no opposition party was able to meet the standards required for registration. Hence the vast majority of the 1994 victors were all members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan—and ran unopposed. In December 1999 parliamentary elections were held once again. This time 102 candidates competed for 50 seats. Again—other than a few scattered independents—the candidates were almost exclusively members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

In 2002 the former chair of the Turkmen Central Bank, Hudaiberdi Orazov, joined the anti-Niyazov forces. Orazov was fired as deputy prime minister in 2000. Characterizing himself as a reformer, Orazov lost some credibility when he was charged with embezzling money from the Turkmen government. Orazov later admitted partially to the charges and even returned $100,000 in funds. All three major political opponents ended up living in Moscow. Niyazov followed with a purge of the National Security Committee in March 2002. Defense Minister Kurbandurdy Begendjev was also fired, as were a number of other high-ranking officials on the National Security Committee. A month later, in May 2002, the former head of the National Security Committee and 21 of his subordinates were accused of a number of crimes that included murder, hiring prostitutes, accepting bribes, and corruption. Also charged with corruption was ex-defense minister Begendjev. The trials proceeded very rapidly and led to long prison sentences. Purges also led to the dismissals of the chair of the National Bank, the head of the country’s main television outlet, the chair of the Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, and the rector of the Institute of Culture.

Perhaps one of the most mysterious developments in Turkmenistan’s politics was the attempted assassination of Niyazov on November 25, 2002. A number of conflicting accounts emerged, but what they all shared was that an armed attempt was made on Niyavoz and that his car escaped untouched. Some political opponents accused Niyazov of masterminding the attack himself in some sort of effort to enhance his political position both domestically and internationally. Niyazov used the attack as an excuse to crack down on the opposition again. The assassination attempt was followed by the arrests of hundreds—including a number of foreign citizens. Niyazov raided the Uzbek embassy and accused them of harboring assassination conspirators, and then expelled the Uzbek ambassador. Somewhat ironically, regime opponent and former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov was arrested several days before the assassination attempt while attempting to secretly enter Turkmenistan from Uzbekistan. Shikhmuradov was sentenced to life in prison. In early 2003 Niyazov was pursuing law enforcement and security officials because of the assassination attempt.

Turkmenistan utilized the Soviet-era government system until December 1994. At that point Turkmenistan created a new system in which the president is the head of state and head of government. The legislative arm of Turkmenistan is the Majlis and consists of 50 members elected for a five-year term. Niyazov dominated the legislative branch.

The Turkmen system also includes constitutional and supreme courts. The constitution of Turkmenistan also calls for a body called the Khalk Maslakhaty (People’s Supreme Council). The People’s Supreme Council is the country’s supreme consultation body. Theoretically, the People’s Supreme Council is to meet annually, but it met for the first time in three years in August 2002. The council includes cabinet members, local executive bodies, judges, and members of some nongovernmental organizations. At the 2003 annual meeting the Khalk Maslakhaty took over many of the functions previously entrusted to the Majlis.

Economically, Niyazov spoke in favor of private property. In December 1996 Niyazov began a program of leasing that allowed farmers to receive land from state farms free of rent for a period of 15 years. Cotton is a leading agricultural product, but grain is also produced. Industry in Turkmenistan is limited mainly to extractive ventures and, specifically, oil and gas. Turkmenistan has the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world, and its Caspian Sea oil deposits are topped only by those in Kazakhstan. Foreign investment, in large part due to the nature of Niyazov’s regime, has been very slow. Major markets for Turkmen gas now include western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and Iran.

The growth of Turkmenistan has been slow and painful. Energy sales provided needed funds, but these funds were almost all spent by Niyazov in efforts to enhance his own cult of personality. Ultimately, Turkmenistan’s future was clouded by the possibilities of political instability, made even more cogent with the death of Niyazov on December 21, 2006. In February 2007 Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov was elected president.


Officially the Republic of Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan is the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and is the most populated of all the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan celebrated its independence on September 1, 1991. Tashkent is the capital city of Uzbekistan. Figures from 2004 showed an Uzbek population of 26,410,416. Approximately 88 percent of all Uzbeks are Muslim. In terms of area, Uzbekistan is 186,400 square miles, which makes it about the size of California. Uzbekistan is bordered by Kazakhstan on the west and south, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, Afghanistan to the south, and Turkmenistan to the south and west. Principal languages are both Uzbek and Russian. Uzbeks make up about 80 percent of the total population and are followed by Russians (5.5 percent) and Tajik (5 percent). Geographically, Uzbekistan boasts parts of the Amu Dar’ya River Valley and the Kysyl-Kum Desert. In eastern Uzbekistan the landscape includes the Tien Shan Mountain Range and the politically significant Fergana Valley. Uzbekistan also borders the environmentally troubled Aral Sea. Since 1936 Uzbekistan has also included the Kara-Kalpakia Autonomous Republic. Approximately 1.2 million people live in the Kara-Kalpakia Region.

Uzbekistan’s Soviet era was most notable for its impact on regional agriculture. During the 1950s the Soviets completed large irrigation projects that transformed present-day Uzbekistan into a large cotton producer. During the Soviet era, the Communist Party controlled the politics of Uzbekistan. However, with Gorbachev’s perestroika came a nascent nationalist movement. In June 1990 the Uzbek Supreme Soviet passed a resolution of sovereignty. After the failed coup of 1991 against Gorbachev, the leader of the Uzbek Communist Party, Islam Karimov, remained silent until it was clear the putsch would be defeated. Then Karimov condemned the coup and quickly acted to ban the Communist Party in the police and the armed forces. In August of that same year, Uzbekistan declared independence. By September, Karimov had changed the Uzbek Communist Party to the People’s Democratic Party.

Upon independence Karimov began to utilize a strategy of nationalism. Under Karimov’s direction, the Uzbek Supreme Soviet called for elections for December 29, 1991. Although opposition political parties were allowed, they were not permitted to act freely. In fact, Birlik, a popular opposition party, was not permitted to field a candidate for the December elections. Uzbek authorities banned the Islamic Renaissance Movement, which called for the formation of an Islamic state. Only the Erk Democratic Party provided an opposition candidate to Karimov. In the December elections, Karimov won 86 percent of the vote and the Erk candidate 12.4 percent. Soon after the election, the Erk Democratic Party was banned, and leadership in the party fled to Turkey.

December 1994 brought parliamentary elections to Uzbekistan. The recently amended constitution called for 250 deputies—in place of the 500 formerly seated. Political opposition was not permitted. The two main political parties were the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which won 205 seats, and the government created National Progress Party, which won six seats. Presidential elections scheduled for 1996 were postponed until 2000 with a 1995 referendum. Karimov won another five-year term in January 2000 with 91.9 percent of the popular vote. The only other option for voters was Karimov’s hand-selected opposition, Abdulhafiz Dzhalalov. Dzhalalov headed the People’s Democratic Party—the party Karimov ran until 1996. Another referendum followed in January 2002 and delayed the scheduled 2005 elections until 2007.

A critical issue facing Uzbekistan is militant Islam. In his first few years in office, Karimov encouraged Islam. However, a 1997 attack on four policemen in the city of Namangan placed the Karimov regime on notice that radical Islam might be a potential problem. The Islamic threat became even more pronounced following a February 1999 assassination attempt on Karimov. On the way to a cabinet meeting, Karimov’s motorcade was attacked. Although the president was uninjured, 16 were killed and 80 others wounded. The government immediately placed blame on Islamic extremism. Observers of the Uzbek government claimed that the Islamic threat was one that was exaggerated by Karimov in order to rationalize further crackdowns on Islam.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Islam Karimov was one of the first to offer his country’s support. Uzbekistan ultimately offered use of its airspace and modern air bases and allowed the United States limited basing privileges. For its part, the United States served Uzbek interests with its attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Islamic militants launched a number of suicide bombings in Tashkent from March 28, 2004, to April 1, 2004. Security officials claim that the attackers were trained in Pakistan and had links to al-Qaeda. In addition, wider attacks were most certainly planned, as law enforcement seized 50 suicide belts from one Uzbek woman. Government figures claim that the attacks resulted in the death of 47, including 10 policemen and 33 militants. Initially the government blamed the Hizbut-Tahrir. Soon after, a theory emerged that the attacks were the result of a resurgent IMU. Law enforcement officials finally settled on the arrest of members of Jamoat, which translates into “community.” Jamoat is believed to be the remnants of IMU cadres. In July 2004 further attacks commenced against the Israeli and U.S. embassies and the Uzbek General Prosecutor’s Office.

The relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States certainly was strained in May 2005. During that month Uzbekistan is said to have massacred demonstrators in the Fergana town of Andijhan. Karimov claimed that the uprising was a result of the United States’s and nongovernmental organizations’ attempts to replicate the successful revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. By July 2005 Karimov served notice that the United States should cease operations at the Uzbek air base at Karshi-Khanabad within 180 days.

The government of Uzbekistan is a presidential-parliamentary system, but the president has been dominant since independence. Karimov ruled initially through the Uzbek Communist Party and then changed its name to the People’s Democratic Party. Karimov resigned party leadership in 1996 in order to show a semblance of pluralism. However, all five political parties represented in the Oliy Majlis—the parliament—are from parties created by Karimov. In addition, of the 250 seats in the Oliy Majlis, the largest bloc is reserved for local government representatives.

Uzbekistan is heavily reliant on agriculture and, in particular, on the growth of cotton. The majority of its cotton ends up being exported. Uzbek cotton also accounts for two-thirds of all Central Asian cotton, and Uzbekistan is the second-largest exporter of cotton in the world. Most of the food consumed by Uzbeks is produced in the many small farms throughout the country. All Uzbek agriculture is heavily dependent upon the irrigation system, a remnant from the Soviet era.

Uzbekistan also boasts large reserves of coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Russia is a large consumer of Uzbek gas. Mining of gold is also a source of income for Uzbekistan. In 2001 gold exports made up 9.6 percent of the Uzbek GDP. Copper, zinc, and lead ores are mined, and uranium is also produced in Uzbekistan. The partnership between Uzbekistan and the United States in the war on terror brought economic relief to Uzbekistan. In November 2001 the United States offered Karimov a $100 million grant in order to make Uzbek currency fully convertible. James Wolfensohn of the World Bank visited Tashkent in April 2002 and offered $350 million to fund infrastructure projects over two years and $40 million to aid in improving water supplies. Yet the economy of Uzbekistan, like those of others in Central Asia, is troubled and operates at levels considerably lower than it did during the Soviet era.


  1. Anderson, John. The International Politics of Central Asia. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997;
  2. Garnett, Sherman W., Alexander Rahr and Koji Watanabe. The New Central Asia: In Search of Stability. New York: Trilateral Commission, 2000;
  3. Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan: Country Studies. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1997;
  4. Olcott, Martha Brill. Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002;
  5. Shoemaker, M. Wesley. Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. 35th ed. Harpers Ferry, WV: Stryker-Post Publications, 2004.

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