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Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies - Uzbekistan

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 7 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Uzbekistan is a nation in Central Asia that shares land borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. It is a middle-sized country in area (56th in the world at 477,000 square kilometers) and population (42nd in the world with 27.8 million people). Uzbekistan's oil, gas, and mineral deposits are not as substantial as those of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but it is one of the world's top cotton producers. Uzbekistan's nominal GDP in 2006 ranked 89th in the world ($17 billion), or 72nd ($60 billion) by PPP. But this belies enormous income disparity and poverty. By per capita GNI measurements, Uzbekistan is among the poorest countries in the world, with a nominal ranking of 174th ($610) and a PPP ranking of 169th ($2,240).


Nomadic peoples inhabited what is now Uzbekistan for much of its history, but it is also home to ancient trading centers including the famous cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, key stopping points on the Silk Road. The country fell under the cultural and political influence of successive Persian, Chinese, Greek, Arab, Turkic, and Mongol empires, with its wealthy cities often enjoying a certain degree of independence as the centers of small states. The conqueror Timur (known in Europe as Tamerlane) made Samarkand the capital of his vast empire in the 14th century. Uzbek tribes invaded from the north in the 16th century, but the khanates they established were absorbed by Russia in the late 1800s, and Uzbekistan was created as part of the Soviet Union. Since its independence in December 1991, the country has been ruled by a single, increasingly authoritarian dictator. Uzbekistan ranks among the worst violators of political rights and civil liberties in Freedom House's annual survey Freedom in the World.


Uzbekistan, originally inhabited by people speaking a Persian dialect, was for much of its early history part of the Persian Empire. The territory was conquered by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand, and Tashkent later grew prosperous as central links on the Silk Road, a network of trade routes running from China to the Middle East and Europe. Muslim Arabs conquered the region in the eighth century, and it thereafter fell under the Muslim, ethnic Persian Samanid dynasty, which revived Persian culture. Turkic tribes were moving into the area from the north in increasing numbers, however, and they established new states in the 11th and 12th centuries.

From Genghis Khan to Timur

The territory of modern Uzbekistan was conquered by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in the early 13th century, adding to the influx of Turkic peoples, many of whom served in the Mongol armies. Timur (1336–1405), a Turkic Muslim who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, rose to power as the Mongol successor states fragmented and built an empire of his own that extended from the Middle East to the border regions of India and China. It was at this time that Samarkand, Timur's capital, was reborn as a famous center for architecture, Islamic scholarship, and trade. His heirs, the Timurids, oversaw a Persian cultural revival as well as the rise of the local Turkic dialect as a literary language. Within a century of Timur's death, however, his empire had broken up amid fighting among rival princes and tribal leaders.

Decline and Russian Domination

In the early 16th century, the Turkic-speaking Uzbeks invaded from the north and captured most of what is now Uzbekistan, in addition to several surrounding territories. They established a number of small Muslim states, again based in great trading cities like Bukhara and Khiva. However, overland trade routes began to decline in importance as European oceanic shipping expanded, and although the area continued to enjoy prosperity into the 19th century, Uzbek rulers were hampered by raids from nomadic tribes, fighting with neighboring Persia, and warfare among themselves. Russia began its expansion into Central Asia in the mid–19th century. It occupied Tashkent in 1865, and then all of the Uzbek emirates and khanates, placing them under colonial administration or leaving them nominally intact as protectorates. The imperial government encouraged Russian immigration and large-scale cotton growing, despite the crop's use of scarce water resources. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, attempts by some Uzbeks to assert independence were quashed by the Red Army. Anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters, dubbed Basmachi by the Russians, continued their struggle as late as the 1930s.

...although the area continued to enjoy prosperity into the 19th century, Uzbek rulers were hampered by raids from nomadic tribes, fighting with neighboring Persia, and warfare among

Consequences of Soviet Rule

Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the borders of Uzbekistan and the four other Central Asian republics were drawn so as to create homelands for what were regarded as the main ethnic groups, but the implicit intention was to prevent regional unity and perpetuate dependence on Russia. Soviet authorities also oversaw the immigration of ethnic Russians and other outsiders, and purged Uzbek leaders who were suspected of nationalism. The policy of encouraging cotton cultivation was greatly expanded, resulting in the diversion of river water for irrigation on a massive scale. The natural recipient of that water, the Aral Sea, has since shrunk to about a quarter of its former size in what is considered one of the world's worst environmental disasters. In addition to imposing harsh rule that denied virtually all political rights and civil liberties, the Soviet system transformed the population and social structures of the country and suppressed traditional customs and cultural heritage.

Constitutional Limits

From Soviet to Personal Dictatorship

Uzbekistan declared its independence in August 1991, but the existing Soviet-era power structure was left largely intact. As the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991, Islam Karimov, the incumbent president and head of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, was elected president with 88 percent of the vote. Leading opposition parties were prevented from participating, however, and they were soon banned by the authorities.

Islam Karimov
Under a new constitution adopted in 1992, the president's powers remained formidable. Although the charter provides for a separate parliament and judiciary, Karimov holds nearly total control over the legislature, the government administration, the security forces, the judiciary, and the state-run economy. The prime minister and cabinet are his appointed subordinates. The president's term was initially limited to five years, with the possibility of a second term, but referendums in 1995 and 2002 extended Karimov's first term to 2000 and lengthened the second term by two years, to 2007.

Uses of Power

After independence, the government promoted Uzbek national identity, prompting large numbers of ethnic Russians and other non-Uzbeks to leave the country. The authorities also impose strict limits on freedom of speech and the press, exercising control over all major media outlets and newspaper printing facilities. Access to the internet is severely restricted. Civil society groups arose to promote human rights, a revival of small business, and education, but the regime—particularly in recent years—has cracked down on this sector and worked to drive out foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that offer their support. The practice of Islam outside government-controlled mosques and organizations is treated as extremism and associated with terrorism. Thousands of people have been imprisoned under this policy, including those who were simply involved in independent economic activity. Extremist organizations have taken advantage of the government's repression to recruit followers. Some, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, officially disavow violent tactics, but militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have carried out terrorist attacks.

The practice of Islam outside government-controlled mosques and organizations is treated as extremism and associated with

The Andijon Massacre

In May 2005, a small group of gunmen in the city of Andijon organized a prison break to free local businessmen accused of extremism, taking several government employees hostage. Civilians then gathered in a public square to air grievances with the government. Security forces arriving at the scene opened fire on the largely unarmed crowd. Independent observers and human rights organizations claim that as many as 1,000 people were killed indiscriminately, including women and children attempting to flee. After the attack, the government tightened its controls even further and held a series of show trials for the supposed terrorists behind the uprising. The massacre and crackdown led to a deterioration in Uzbekistan's relations with the United States and the European Union, which demanded an independent inquiry. As a result, Karimov strengthened his ties with Russia and China, and evicted U.S. forces from an air base they had been using for operations in Afghanistan.


Karimov's unchecked power over all state institutions, as well as the media and civil society, has fed corruption and stifled independent political and economic activity. Lacking peaceful outlets, dissent sometimes turns violent, prompting renewed oppression by the authorities and setting the stage for further instability.