Central Asia was once a thriving hub of global trade and courtly culture. While the region began to decline due to the Mongol invasions, then the rise of oceanic sea routes, and then the Russian conquest, there was hope that independence would lead to a renaissance for the region. Instead, this has not been the case, especially in Uzbekistan, which has remained politically stagnant for 25 years; even the death of longstanding dictator Islam Karimov is unlikely to change things.
Uzbekistan, like the rest of Central Asia, faces, in addition to political repression, the burden of being birthed as the result of arbitrary Soviet ethnic engineering and borders. (I explained in an earlier article how the Soviet Union created the modern Uzbek identity.) The ethnically mixed Fergana Valley, the most fertile part of Central Asia, was also divided by the Soviet Union into three units, each part of the Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik Soviet republics respectively. Each republic’s sections of the valley, which used to be one unit, can only be reached from the rest of their republic by traversing over mountains.
One of the most unfortunate features of Central Asian demographics is the bad hand dealt out to the Persian speakers of Central Asia, formerly the region’s dominant and elite cultural group. Today, the Persians of Central Asia are known as Tajiks and inhabit the backwater country of Tajikistan; the core Tajik cultural centers of Samarkand and Bukhara, which are also the region’s main cultural centers, are in modern Uzbekistan. Most independent observers believe Tajiks still form the majority of people in Bukhara, Samarkand, and most of southern Uzbekistan, based on censuses from the late Russian Empire and that they only identified as Uzbek on their national identity cards in order to stay in Uzbekistan. Up to 30 percent of Uzbekistan’s population may be Tajik, or about 9 million people–more than in Tajikistan. Karimov, born in Samarkand, may in fact have been half Tajik.
The original inhabitants of most of Central Asia were Iranian peoples who spoke languages closely related to modern Pashto and somewhat closely related to Persian. These people included the Sogdians, Bactrians, Khwarezmians and others, all of whom were very active with overland trade across Asia. In medieval times, around the region’s conversion to Islam after the Arab conquests, these various Iranian groups coalesced and switched over to speaking the related Persian, the lingua franca of the eastern Islamic world. The Samanid Empire, based in Samarkand and Bukhara, arose in 819 C.E. and was the first independent Persian state after the Arab conquest, reviving Persian literature and culture. Tajiks today claim the Samanid Empire as the first Tajik state.
Increasing migration by Turkic tribes eventually altered the demographics of Central Asia, and the Mongol conquest lead to millions of Tajik deaths. Millions more fled south of the Hindu Kush and Kopet Dag mountains to modern Iran and Afghanistan. Although Tajiks remained the majority in some parts of Central Asia and Persian culture remained the culture of belles-lettres, the region came under Uzbek political dominance by the 16th century and Turkic speakers the majority. The Tajiks of Central Asia were increasingly isolated from Persians in Iran and Afghanistan and unlike many Persians in Iran, did not become Shia.
Such was the situation by the time of the Russian conquest in the 1860s and 1870s. The Russian Empire ruled the region mostly through Uzbek intermediaries, so the Tajiks of Central Asia were unable to regain any political power or status. They had ceased to be the majority in Merv, though they remained dominant in Samarkand and Bukhara. Things began to look up a bit for the Tajiks once the Soviet Union was established, because the Soviet Union had a policy of creating territorial divisions based on ethnic demographics. This job was given by Lenin to Stalin.
Initially Tajikistan was founded as an autonomous region: the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1924. In 1929, it was upgraded to a full republic and the region of Sughd, the northern extension of Tajikistan in the Fergana Valley was added. However, as per the Stalinist policy of preventing any republic from becoming too homogeneous, boundaries were drawn to include other ethnic groups. Thus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine included Russians, Russia contained countless minorities, Azerbaijan contained Armenians, and so on. The Sughd region of Tajikistan contains an Uzbek minority.
While Tajik culture did develop to an extent now that it has its own republic, the Soviets seemed to favor Uzbeks over Tajiks in Central Asia, perhaps because Tajiks from the cities had traditionally been the intellectuals of the region. At least Tajiks in the Uzbek SSR had access to Tajik culture and materials from the Tajik SSR and movement was free. The situation worsened for the Tajiks of Uzbekistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, as national boundaries often became very impermeable. Karimov himself was notoriously uncooperative in regards to cross-border projects with neighboring countries.
In modern Uzbekistan, Uzbek is promoted. Signs and official communication are all in Uzbek, and sometimes in Russian. Another ethnic minority in Uzbekistan, the Turkic Karakalpak people have their own autonomous (in theory) region in northwest Uzbekistan but no such courtesy is accorded the Tajiks. Thus the situation for Tajiks remains dire in Uzbekistan and there is concern about their heritage, especially as the entire system, including schooling, in that country is geared toward Uzbeks.
While the change of a regime is usually cause for optimism for an opening of a country, this is hardly to be expected in Uzbekistan, and definitely not for its Tajik population. The entire apparatus of Uzbekistan, including its security services and business interests are committed to a similar course of action. There is little to suggest that the condition of Tajiks in Uzbekistan will improve anytime soon. So much more a pity, since another flowering of culture in the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara would do the region much good.