Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies — Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World: 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 7; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 7.



Uzbekistan, a nation in Central Asia, borders five countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan). For much of its history, Uzbekistan was inhabited by nomadic peoples, but it was also home to ancient trading centers. These included famous cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, which were key stopping points on the historic Silk Road. While the territory of Uzbekistan has been under the cultural and political control or influence of successive Persian, Greek, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, and Ottoman empires, its wealthy cities often enjoyed a certain degree of independence as the centers of small states. The conqueror Timur (known in Europe as Tamerlane) made Samarkand the capital of a vast empire in the 14th century. Uzbek tribes invaded from the north in the 16th century and established separate khanates or kingdoms. These were eventually absorbed by Russia in the late 1800s during its imperial push south and east. After a brief period of independence following the Russian Revolution, Uzbekistan was seized by the Bolshevik Red Army in 1920 and it was formally incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Soviet Union in 1924. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan declared independence in December 1991.

Since independence, the country has been ruled by a single, increasingly authoritarian dictator, Islam Karimov, who quickly repressed democratic movements that arose in the late 1980s. Uzbekistan has no real constitutional limits and President Karimov now acts without any constraints on his power. In Freedom House's annual survey Freedom in the World, the country repeatedly ranks among the “worst of the worst” violators of political rights and civil liberties.

Uzbekistan is a middle-sized country in area (57th largest in the world) with a population of approximately 30 million people (41st highest). Uzbekistan, which does not have substantial mineral deposits like its neighbors Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, is one of the world's top cotton producers. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Uzbekistan's state-heavy economy was ranked 73rd largest in the world in 2014 in nominal GDP ($62.5 billion in total output). By per capita measurements, however, Uzbekistan is among the world’s poorer countries in nominal GDP per capita, ranked 132nd in 2015 ($2,130 per annum) out of 194 countries and territories. Uzbekistan is among the most corrupt nations in the world . Transparency International places it 153rd out of 167 countries in its 2015 report.


Uzbekistan, originally inhabited by people speaking a Persian dialect, was for much of its early history part of the Persian Empire before 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 thereafter it fell under the Persian Samanid dynasty, which revived Persian culture. Turkic tribes moving into the area from the north established new states in the 11th and 12th centuries.

From Genghis Khan to Timur

Uzbekistan was conquered by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. During the fragmentation of the Mongol successor states Timur, a Turkic Muslim who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, rose to power. Known as Tamerlane in Europe, he built an empire over 70 years (1336–1405) that extended from the Middle East to border regions of India and China. It was then that Samarkand, Timur's capital, was reborn as a famous center for architecture, Islamic scholarship, and trade. Within a century of Timur's death, however, his empire had broken up amid fighting among rival princes and tribal leaders. Soviet rule, all political rights and civil liberties were denied, the social structures of the country were uprooted, and traditional customs and cultural heritage were suppressed.

Decline and Russian Domination

In the early 16th century, Turkic-speaking Uzbeks invaded from the north and captured most of what is now Uzbekistan, as well as several surrounding territories. They established several small Muslim states based in the great trading cities of Bukhara and Khiva. But overland trade routes began to decline in importance as European oceanic shipping expanded. Although the area continued to enjoy prosperity into the 19th century, Uzbek rulers were hampered by raids from nomadic tribes, conflict with neighboring Persia, and internecine warfare. Russia expanded into Central Asia in the mid–19th century. It occupied Tashkent in 1865 and then proceeded to occupy 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 heavy dependence on scarce water resources.

Consequences of Soviet Rule

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Uzbeks asserted independence but by 1920 the Bolshevik Red Army had instituted a Soviet government. Anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters, dubbed Basmachi by the Soviets, continued their struggle as late as the 1930s but were ultimately subdued. Uzbekistan was formally incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Soviet Union in 1924. Under Soviet rule, all political rights and civil liberties were denied, the social structures of the country were uprooted, and traditional customs and cultural heritage were suppressed. In addition, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin redrew the borders of Uzbekistan and the four other Central Asian republics in order to prevent regional unity and perpetuate dependence on centralized authority. Large-scale immigration of ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups was encouraged. Uzbek leaders suspected of nationalism were purged. Cotton cultivation was greatly expanded resulting in the massive diversion of river water for irrigation. 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 man-made environmental disasters. Under a constitution dopted in 1992, the president . . . holds nearly total control over the legislature, the government administration, the security forces, the judiciary, and the state-run economy.

Constitutional Limits

Uzbekistan declared its independence after the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev aimed at preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union was put down in August 1991. The Soviet-era power structure, however, was left largely intact. When the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991, Islam Karimov, the incumbent president and head of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, held an election in which he claimed 88 percent of the vote in a patently rigged ballot. Leading candidates of opposition parties that had emerged during the period of perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s were prevented from participating; afterwards pro-democracy parties such as the secular Birlik and the more religious Erk were banned.

Under a constitution adopted in 1992, the president's powers remain unchecked. Although the charter provides for a separate parliament and judiciary, as president 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 a staged referendum in 1995 extended Karimov's first term to 2000. Another so-called referendum in 2002 lengthened the second term to seven years. Simply ignoring the stated constitutional two-term limit for the presidency, Karimov “won” a third term in 2007, claiming 88 percent support. New amendments to the constitution extended Karimov’s third term, approved retroactively, to 2015 and allowed a fourth term to last until 2021. Karimov declared himself the victor in a rigged 2015 election with 91 percent of the vote. No real opponents have ever been allowed in presidential (or parliamentary) “elections.”

Independent political parties are banned and function only on a limited basis in exile. When an opposition leader in exile announced his intention to run in the 2015 presidential elections, his aged father, living in Uzbekistan, was arrested. After two weeks of being held incommunicado, the father was falsely charged with rape.

Abuses of Power

After independence, the government promoted Uzbek national identity and encouraged large numbers of ethnic Russians and other non-Uzbeks to leave the country. The authorities also have imposed strict limits on freedom of speech and the press and exercise control over all major domestic media outlets and newspaper printing facilities (most Uzbeks watch Russian television that is broadcast on state television). Access to the internet and independent foreign news sources is severely restricted. In the 1990s, civil society groups arose to promote human rights, small businesses, and education, but the regime cracked down harshly on this sector. New laws made many NGOs illegal and forced foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch, to close their offices. Nearly all human rights activity and all human rights organizations have been quashed and at least 13 human rights defenders languish in prison, according to Freedom House. Torture, according to Human Rights Watch, is “endemic.” International travel is restricted for any critics of the regime and even more generally for those employed in professions deemed “sensitive” (including the medical profession, journalism, and the law).

Freedom of religion also is restricted, and, 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. In the context of these policies, extremist organizations use people’s disaffection with government repression to recruit followers. Some, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, officially disavow violent tactics, but militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have carried out terrorist attacks.

Bomb Blasts and The Andijon Massacre

Several bomb blasts in 2004 and 2005 targeting police in Tashkent were officially attributed to the IMU (although several analysts believe the blasts were staged by government agents). In response, the government launched a campaign of widespread arrests aimed at  civic and religious activists and small businessmen. Soon afterwards, in May 2005, a small group of gunmen in the city of Andijon organized a prison break to free local businessmen accused of religious extremism, taking several government employees hostage. Civilians 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, including women and children attempting to flee. After the attack, the government continued its crackdown with a series of show trials for the supposed terrorists behind the uprising. The massacre and crackdown led to 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 US forces from an air base they had been using for operations in Afghanistan. In June 2010, Uzbekistan accepted 10,000 Uzbek refugees fleeing Kyrgyzstan in the wake of ethnic attacks in the region of Osh.

Current Issues

In March 2013, Karimov, at 75 years of age, disappeared from public view for eight days around the time of the annual Nawruz (Zoroastrian) celebrations. It was the first time that he had not participated in the usual holiday dances. Speculation about Karimov’s health — he reportedly suffered a heart attack — has spurred rumors about succession. His eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, 40 years old, had been the leading candidate until she fell from favor after being accused by authorities in Sweden and Switzerland of successfully soliciting a $300 million payment from the Swedish telecommunications company Teliasonera for Karimov’s Swiss bank family accounts (those accounts were frozen temporarily pending legal proceedings). The Karimov government placed Karimova under house arrest, although this was not a recognized procedure in Uzbek law. In an example of the lack of constitutional limits on power, the legislature recently provided ex post facto authority for indefinite house arrest by amending the constitution. Karimov’s perpetuation of his presidency in a staged 2015 election has ended for the time being speculation about his successor.

The Uzbek economy is among the worst performing in the world. Its cotton industry continues to rely on child labor. An international campaign aimed at ending this practice led the government to announce limits on forced labor and to allow an inspection by a team from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The most recent harvest, however, still relied on obligatory labor by students. The government remains very sensitive about this issue: a journalist reporting on forced and child labor practices, Sergei Naumov, was arrested and also falsely charged with sexual misconduct. Kept incommunicado, he was released after serving a twelve-day sentence.

There continues to be ongoing harassment and repression of civic and human rights activists. In September 2013, for example, Bobomorod Rizzakov, a regional leader of the only registered human rights organization permitted to operate in Uzbekistan, Ezgulik, was sentenced to four years imprisonment on human trafficking charges after criticizing local government officials for corruption. At least one individual active in the political organization Birdamlik was subjected to forced psychiatric imprisonment, a common practice during Soviet rule. The government did release one prominent opposition activist in 2015, Murad Juraev, after his sentence was completed (he served 21 years and was considered the longest-serving political prisoner in the world until his release). But another example of wanton human rights abuse was the government’s announcement in January 2016 that another political prisoner, Akram Yuldashev, who had advocated for Islamic principles to be used in the transition from communism and who was scheduled for release in early 2016, had in fact died in incarceration in 2010. International human rights organizations had campaigned for years for his release. Not even family members had been notified of the death until the government announcement.